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You must be joking

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Earl Fowler

Practical jokes — especially the ones that unfold organically, without any intention or planning — are one of the key compensatory joys in this vale of tears.

The fact that there’s no money in them — think of them as pro bono publico — makes the pleasure we take in endlessly reliving them — in ever more elaborate, embellished anecdotes — all the more orgasmic.

Properly executed, they’re far more efficacious than therapy when it comes to dealing with trauma and defusing stressful situations.

When my dad died in Saskatchewan a quarter of a century ago, for example, my daughter and I were the lone members of our nuclear family to fly in from Montreal. We had just bought a house and couldn’t afford four tickets, so my wife and son stayed home. I had landed a week before and was holding his hand in hospital when he died.

Daughter Kelly, who’s half Indian, had just turned 15 and looked younger (she’s now 40 and was thrilled to be carded the other day at a liquor store). I had been with her mom since she was a baby.


And so it would never have occurred to either of us in a million years to imagine that my dad’s extended family would automatically assume she was my wife (on the well-established principle, of course, that all members of other ethnic groups look alike).

Once their misapprehension became apparent, I decided to go with the flow and let them think what they were thinking. A word to the wiseass: When the gods of absurdity offer an outlandish opportunity for some comic relief at a terrible time in your life, grab it firmly with both hands.

Cousins and aunts offered sincere condolences and kept their eyes riveted on her … then back to me, then back to her … except to exchange scandalized glances among the funeral home pews, buzzing with atypical electricity.

Given my father’s penchant for laughing at uncomfortable faux pas, he would have been in comedy heaven.

For all I know, my indecent cradle robbery remains a lively topic at family gatherings. What’s certain, though, is that on an occasion when I needed it most, my spirits were buoyed by the gratuitous and excruciating mortification of others.


I hadn’t set out to play a joke on anyone but found myself at the centre of a farce I could have ended with a simple explanation. Delicious.


It’s easy to think of uproarious funeral scenes in movies (three or four involving Will Ferrell spring to mind). The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode in which Mary is convulsed with laughter during the funeral of Chuckles the Clown after the recitation of his credo — “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants” — remains one of the golden moments in television history.


But I have long thought that the experience of an emotional acquaintance of mine belongs in a yet-to-be-made summer blockbuster, perhaps starring Kristen Wiig.


She had been sobbing at a funeral when she looked around and realized that she didn’t recognize any of the other bereaved parties. Moreover, the widow and grown children in the front row were peering over their shoulders, wondering about the identity of this attractive young woman whom the deceased had somehow neglected to mention.

Oops. Wrong church. Exit, nave left.


The embarrassed mystery mourner departed without a word, leaving the questions as to her relationship with the innocent deceased rattling in the November wind like a memorial wreath on a cenotaph. It was a fabulous accidental prank, proving yet again that two wrongs don’t make a rite.


Another unintended practical joke unfolded when I was marking university papers as a grad student.

Most of the dreck handed in was illiterate and appalling, but there was one student who regularly turned in impeccable papers in beautiful handwriting. As a thoughtless compliment, I once wrote “Will you marry me?” beside her usual grade of 100%. I knew nothing about her and thought she’d interpret my flippancy merely as an appreciation of her stellar work.

That’s not how it played out, of course.

Turned out not everyone knew that in the old days when universities were relatively flush, profs employed grad students for drudge work. Turned out the student was in her forties, married, and, reasonably enough, under the impression that her professor, a woman, was the one marking the papers.

Awkward.

After stewing over it for weeks, the student shyly sought an explanation from her inappropriately smitten teacher, who then, less timidly, demanded the same of me. I apologized and should have been sacked on the spot.


But if I’m honest, I still experience a congenial frisson every time I think of it. When I finally quit that mind-numbing gig, I drew a ballpoint line on the wall and wrote: “This is where I draw the line.”


A lot of the best practical jokes happen in high school and college, presumably because adolescent, frat boy/sorority sister creativity is at its peak just before the adult grind of making a living and raising a family starts wearing us down.

Fall pranks and stunts at institutes of higher learning across North America — often targeting rival colleges and programs — have themselves been an institution for more than a century.


Giant bras have been hung from the tops of buildings. Bubble bath and dyes released into fountains. Band uniforms grotesquely repurposed. Cars dangled from bridges. Mascots and trophies stolen. Mobs flashed. Streakers crowd-surfed.


Late novelist Kurt Vonnegut (I’ve been rereading him a lot lately) tells this story about his salad days at Cornell in 1991’s Fates Worse Than Death:

I went to the final examinations of several large courses in which I was not enrolled, stood up, tore the questions to pieces, threw them into the face of the instructor, and exited, slamming the door behind me. I evidently inspired many copycats, since this sort of behavior at finals became epidemic.

Success!

As you might expect, writers have been mightily inventive through the years in thinking up and executing escapades, leg-pulls, larks and capers.

The 1969 novel Naked Came the Stranger — a deliberately abysmal hodgepodge cataloguing the sexual misadventures of a married Long Island breakfast talk show hostess with a series of men, ranging from a mobster to a “progressive rabbi” — quickly sold 20,000 copies before the authors (24 journalists led by Newsday columnist Mike McGrady) confessed on The David Frost Show that it was a parody of the cynical, sexually explicit Harold Robbins/Jacqueline Susann school of bestsellers then flourishing.

The success of the even more abysmally written Fifty Shades of Gray franchise in the 2010s, of course, reconfirmed — in the words of the great Tom Lehrer — that “novels that pander to (our) taste for candour give (us) a pleasure sublime.”

Let’s face it, we love slime.

1969 was also the year Rolling Stone magazine music critic Greil Marcus spoofed the trend among rock musicians of forming “supergroups” (the most famous being Cream and CSNY). He wrote a gushing review about a non-existent bootleg album by the non-existent “Masked Marauders” (allegedly featuring Bob Dylan, three Beatles and Mick Jagger).


Cue the brouhaha by fans desperate to acquire the LP (Warner Brothers actually released an album written and recorded by Marcus, with songs bearing the titles he’d made up). And funnily enough, Dylan and George Harrison would team up with Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty in the Traveling Wilburys 20 years later.

Well it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line.

I’m not sure whether the way Orson Welles scared the bejeezus out of CBS Radio Network listeners in 1938 with his adaptation of H.G. Well’s 1898 novel about a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, would qualify as a literary hoax. More of a mass panic and hysteria, really.


But the clever All Fools’ Day prank played by Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift on worldly astrologer John Partridge in 1708 surely fits the bill.


Fed up with Partridge’s bogus divinations in popular almanacs (including a warning that a fever would sweep London that year in early April), Swift published an almanac of his own under a fake name, predicting that Partridge would die of said fever at 11 p.m. on March 29.


An irate Partridge responded in a published rebuttal that he was being targeted by a fraudster, prompting Swift to release an elegy on the night of March 29 announcing the death of his adversary — a “Cobbler, Starmonger and Quack” — along with Partridge’s alleged deathbed confession that he had been scamming gullible believers all along.


An article on the History Channel website picks up the story, which presages the success of conspiracy theories and risible lies on social media today:

News of Partridge’s death spread over the next couple of days, so that when Partridge walked down the street on April 1, people stared at him in surprise and confusion. Partridge angrily published a pamphlet saying he was alive, and Swift again publicly asserted that Partridge was dead, and claimed Partridge’s pamphlet was written by someone else. The whole escapade helped to discredit Partridge, who eventually stopped publishing almanacs.

Makes me think that maybe the way to finally shut down Donald Trump and his Congressional Legion of Liars, Thieves and Looney Tunes would be to stop telling the truth about their crimes, avarice and bigotry and just make stuff up, the way they do. Nothing is real, and everything to get hung about.


Vonnegut (him again) ends his semi-autobiographical 1997 novel Timequake with an epilogue about a practical joke that almost got him fired from his job as a flack for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, when he was 25.

He got that job, at a time when he had yet to publish any fiction, because his older brother Bernie had become a minor celebrity thanks to his promising experiments with cloud seeding. Kurt assumed that their Uncle Alex, a pillar of the community, already knew that both he and Bernie were working for GE at the time. Alex didn’t have a clue.

After seeing a syndicated photo of Bernie credited to the Schenectady Gazette, the author tells us, Alex wrote to the paper, “saying he was ‘a wee bit proud’ of his nephew and would like a copy of the picture. He enclosed a dollar. The Gazette got the picture from GE, and so forwarded the request to my new employer. My new boss, logically enough, handed it on to me.”

Kurt replied to his uncle as follows on blue GE stationery:

Dear Mr. Vonnegut,

Mr. Edward Themak, city editor for the SCHENECTADY GAZETTE, has referred your letter of November 26th to me.

The photograph of General Electric’s Dr. Bernard Vonnegut originated from our office. However, we have no more prints in our files, and the negative is in the hands of the United States Signal Corps. Moreover, we have a lot more to do than piddle with penny-ante requests like yours.

We do have some photographs of the poor man’s Steinmetz, and I may send them to you in my own sweet time. But do not rush me. “Wee bit proud,” indeed! Ha! Vonnegut! Ha! This office made your nephew, and we can break him in a minute — like an egg shell. So don’t get in an uproar if you don’t get the pictures in a week or two.


Also — one dollar to the General Electric Company is as the proverbial fart in a wind storm. Here it is back. Don’t blow it all in one place.

Very truly yours,

Guy Fawkes,

Press Section

GENERAL NEWS BUREAU

Uncle Alex, who had apparently never heard of Guy Fawkes, “was so insulted that he flipped his wig. He took the letter to a lawyer to find out what legal steps he might take to compel an abject apology from someone high up in the company, and to make this cost the author his job.”

Alex was somewhat mollified when he found out that he’d been punked by a nephew, but “I don’t think he ever forgave me, although all I intended was that he be tickled pink.”

Tickling others pink — as well as oneself, naturally — should be the sole objective of any pure-hearted prankster. But, of course, practical jokes can be downright mean.


When we were in high school, a close childhood friend — who now thinks of himself as a Tucker Carlson-loving communist; I guess the joke is on him — amassed a collection of the caps worn by members of the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, then mostly veterans of the two world wars doing sleepy security work at malls, government offices and construction sites.

My buddy would sneak up from behind, snatch their caps and run like hell. It was a shitty thing to do to men who had sacrificed and fought for our freedom, but being callow youth with shit for brains, we found it a gas and a giggle.


My friend also put together an impressive but worrisome collection of stocking-wearing mannequin legs stolen from the women’s clothing sections in department stores like Eaton’s and Kresge’s. More kinky than funny for my taste. But it’s reassuring to know that when it comes to goofball behaviour, humans still leave Artificial Intelligence programs badly wanting. Screw ’em. They can have chess and mahjong.

And what is it old farts with long and distinguished careers behind them most love to talk about with old friends when they get together? (Male old farts, I hasten to add.)

Accomplishments and awards, grandkid stories and mounting health woes are all very well. There’s the ever-popular growing death toll among friends and acquaintances, of course. But it’s recounting the goofball behaviour they and their friends got away with when young and foolish that really turns their cranks. It’s workplace high jinks and camaraderie that we really miss when we retire.


Boys will be boys.

At the funeral of my seemingly strait-laced, always-by-the-book, world-weary father, a group of his doddering remaining schoolmates gleefully told me and my 15-year-old wife something I would never have guessed.


When he was an adolescent in the nothing village in the middle of nowhere where they grew up, Dad was legendary far and wide for his unrivalled adeptness at pushing over outhouses on Halloween. On at least one occasion that survives in cherished living memory, one of the privies was occupied. Possibly by a visiting minister of the United Church of Canada.


Laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.


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