originally published April 1, 2014
My wife hates April Fools’ Day.
She has a legitimate reason, stemming from the scar-worthy childhood trauma of watching one of her friends get April-Fooled into a lengthy scavenger hunt for a brand new puppy by his parents, only to discover the final prize was nothing but a prank. Were she not the empathetic soul I know her to be, I might assume this to be an elaborate act of transference on her memory’s part, that this may have happened to her; thankfully my in-laws aren’t quite so cruel.
I have always maintained an appreciation for a meticulously blueprinted ruse, provided the only perpetrated harm is the gloppy egg of embarrassment upon the face of one’s target. Every few years some news outlet or public pulpit successfully melds a crafty sense of humor with their automatic public earpiece and delivers a delicious morsel of weirdness to justify April Fools’ Day’s presence on our calendars.
A quality media prank is a rickety bridge above the chasm of banality and/or outright stupidity. One needs to find the threshold of credulity and glide one’s words upon it without causing a rupture in believability. We see this every so often when an article from The Onion or The Daily Currant makes its way as gospel into people’s Facebook feeds. When executed poorly, it’s a bad joke. When done right, it’s art.
That Swiss lady plucking fresh pasta from her spaghetti tree was the talk of the British water coolers on the morning of April 2, 1957, after the BBC had run a story about the popular agricultural phenomenon the night before. The show was Panorama, a current-affairs, 60 Minutes-style show that’s still on the air today, and the gag was delivered without punchline. The segment focussed on a family in Ticino, northern Switzerland, as they reaped the bounty of a hearty winter spaghetti harvest, having defeated the nasty spaghetti weevil.
You might think this prank to be infantile and supercilious, but in the 1950’s pasta was still considered a rather exotic food by many Brits. Their spaghetti came mostly in tins, so the mysterious ingredients of wheat flour and water might not have been commonplace. I’m still skeptical as to how many were truly fooled, but the BBC claimed they received numerous calls the next day from people asking for tips on cultivating their own pasta crops. It was a simpler time, I suppose.
Believe it or not – and those are potentially the four most dangerous words one can imbibe on this day – the notion of Smell-O-Vision was not new when the BBC announced it as an upcoming feature of their television service. Samuel Roxy Rothafel, the man who would later open the infamous Roxy Theatre in Times Square and Radio City Music Hall, purportedly piped in the scent of rose oil during a theatrical newsreel about the Tournament of Roses Parade back in 1906. Since then, a number of movie theatres dabbled in efforts to invite the olfactory into the cinematic sensory experience.
But not on television. The BBC’s 1965 prank was to interview a professor who had invented a technological means by which viewers could experience on-screen smells without having to purchase any new device. A demonstration was performed, in which the man chopped some onions and brewed some coffee. Viewers – and again, I’m not sure how many – called the station to report they had successfully identified the intended smells. I’m sure many more were pressed up against their screens, inhaling deeply. That visual alone makes this a magnificent prank.
According to the BBC – who appears to be at the heart of all the best media pranks – on the morning of April 1, 1976, Pluto would pass directly behind Jupiter, creating a gravitational conjunction that would affect us here on Earth. Known as the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect, it meant that at precisely 9:47am GMT, our gravity would be temporarily decreased to the point where a person could leap into the air and experience a strange floating effect.
Patrick Moore, the wacky monocle-wearing astronomer whose presence on British television and radio was always entertaining and scientifically respected, made the announcement. Perhaps because the BBC had a habit of spacing out their brilliant pranks every nine years (and perhaps because this was a radio prank, not a television prank), people bought it. Many tried jumping at 9:47 and hundreds phoned in with stories of successful floating. One woman even claimed she and her friends had been sitting when suddenly they began to float around the room. Hopefully her home was immediately checked for a possible gas leak.
Many American newspapers on the morning of April 1, 1996 featured a full-page ad declaring that Taco Bell had offered to help reduce the US national debt by purchasing the Liberty Bell for an undisclosed amount. It was to be renamed the Taco Liberty Bell. This was a brilliant stroke of marketing genius, costing the company a mere $300,000 but generating more than $25 million in publicity as news outlets everywhere reported on the story. The hoax was revealed by noon that same day, but that didn’t stop a flood of outraged phone calls to the company’s headquarters and to the National Park Service.
Media analysts felt the gag was received as truth given the public’s jaded perception that everything appeared up for corporate grabs – a sentiment that could be employed today for a similar prank, with similar successful results. When asked about the sale that day, White House press secretary Mike McCurry remarked (with a comedic zing that could make C.J. Cregg blush with envy) that the government was also selling the Lincoln Memorial to Ford, renaming it the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial.
Some pranks fail to achieve such warranted hindsight applause, despite their success at propagation. When radio “shock jocks” (a term I will never stop hating) Opie and Anthony announced on April 1, 1998 that Boston mayor Thomas Menino had died in a car crash, the rumor spread across the city like a prickly rash. It didn’t help that Menino was on a lengthy flight at the time and couldn’t be reached. The pair got fired after that, and justifiably so. Not because they pulled a prank, but because the prank wasn’t the least bit funny or clever.
When RedFM in Cork, England broadcast that U2 would be playing a surprise rooftop gig atop a local shopping centre, it was another cruel hoax. There was a show on the roof, but it was a tribute band called U2opia performing. Actually no, this one is kind of funny.
I’ll be scanning the media with a critical eye today, as will most who remember what nefarious promises April Fools may hold. I recommend questioning everything you read or see on any day – but today especially. And don’t trust anyone who tells you anything.
Especially if your parents promise you a new puppy.