Before the advent of the internet and social media, pranks and deliberate misinformation were relegated to one day a year. Anyone who played jokes on a regular basis was usually known as the “class clown” or the “office clown.” Now, we have 24/7, non-stop pranks and satire.
The origin of April Fools’ Day, also known as All Fool’s Day, is a mystery. Some historians postulate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582 when France switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.
People who were slow to get the news or failed to acknowledge the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the recipients of jokes and hoaxes.
One such prank involved having paper fish placed on their backs and being called “Poisson d’avril” (April fish), which described a young, easily caught fish, and a gullible person.
April Fools’ Day has also been linked to the festival known as Hilaria, which was celebrated in ancient Rome with people dressing in disguises.
April Fools’ Day advanced across Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the custom became a two-day event, beginning with “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on bogus errands. Gowk is another word for the cuckoo bird, the symbol of a fool. This was followed by Tallie day, which involved pranks played on peoples’ posteriors, such as pinning fake tails or “Kick Me” signs on them.
Throughout the years, newspapers have played April Fools’ Day jokes on readers. After Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, Americans were sure there was no limit to his genius. So, when the New York Graphic announced on April 1, 1878, that Edison had invented a machine capable of transforming soil directly into cereal and water directly into wine, thereby ending the problem of world hunger. Newspapers throughout America copied the article and heaped lavish praise on Edison.
In 1931, the “Los Angeles Times” ran a front-page “exclusive” reporting that Hamburg scientist Dr. Eugene Lirpa had discovered good health to be caused by a bacteria, “Bacillus sanitatis.” Sick people were lacking this “germ of health,” but they could be cured simply by breathing in the same air as healthy people.
“The Progress” (Clearfield, Pennsylvania) published a picture of a flying saucer in 1950, supposedly hovering over the business section of Clearfield. The photo caption read, “Scoring an unquestioned scoop on the other newspapers of the nation, “Life,” and “Look” magazines and other pictorial publications, “The Progress” proudly presents today the first published picture of a ‘flying saucer’ in the air.”
In 1969, “The Daily Journal,” based in Kankakee, Illinois, reported that a Soviet space capsule had landed outside of the city. Apparently, the cosmonauts had seriously miscalculated their trajectory during reentry. The Soviet government was said to be keeping its silence about the capsule. An accompanying photograph showed a space capsule with a hammer and sickle displayed on its side. The article said that one of the cosmonauts, Lirpa Loof, had been missing for over a year. Many people drove to the supposed site of the landing to see the capsule.
In elementary school, April Fools’ Day was a time to play jokes on the teacher. We would place fake vomit on the teacher’s desk, perhaps a “whoopee cushion” in his or her seat. Other go-to prankish products included rubber snakes, fake roaches, and of course, rubber mice.
By junior high, the pranks became a little more sophisticated. A friend of mine replaced the coffee on the teacher’s thermos with a foul-smelling brown liquid that remains unknown to this day. I once put a coat of fingernail polish on the erasers. One young man went perhaps a bit too far. He gave the teacher what she thought was a chocolate bar, however, it was Ex-Lax (a laxative).
The April Fools’ Day pranks in high school reached another level altogether. One April Fools’ Day joke was placing a teacher’s Volkwagen up on the grass. Another prank involved loosening the salt shaker lids in the cafeteria.
The students played pranks on other students. I remember one day that my 1957 Chevy wouldn’t stay running on April 1. As it turned out, someone had wedged a potato in my tailpipe. The teachers would occasionally prank the students. I remember my history teacher announced we were having a 100 question pop quiz which would be 30 percent of our grade. The test had questions on subjects he had not covered. Everyone flunked, and the next day he said, “April Fool.”
In college, I had refined the art of April Fools’ Day pranks. I once obtained a letterhead from the school nurse and typed out a fake letter stating my friend had to come in for a venereal disease exam because he had been listed as a sexual contact for a girl in school. I placed the letter under the door of his room in the dorm.
I once told some students from Thailand that they go could skiing in Slick, Oklahoma. They drove out there to find no such thing. They were not amused.
The “pièce de résistance” was putting Super Glue in the door lock of the head of the electronics department. That really was a huge mistake. Earl McKendree threatened to flunk everyone in the Electronics Department if the perpetrator did not confess. No one confessed and fortunately, we all passed that trimester.
I continued April Fools’ Day pranks into the workplace after college. I had an obnoxious co-worker, so one April Fools’ Day, I switched his stock of receiving tubes that he kept on his bench with defective ones. It took him a week to figure out what happened.
Of course, I was once on the receiving end of a prank. A friend of mine worked part-time as a projectionist at the Capri Drive-In, which showed X-rated movies. The State of Oklahoma made the theater cut out certain parts. One day, he placed one of these clips, which showed an act I will leave to your imagination, in a “flying spot scanner.” This instrument used slides that were test patterns and it was hooked into our antenna system so we could adjust the televisions with the pattern. I was working on a set for an 80-year-old woman. I turned the set to channel three, and the scene appeared. She screamed, and my friend and I wound in the manager’s office. I was exonerated, but my friend was severely chastised and told if he did something like that again he would be fired.
I am much older and wiser now. I consider April Fools’ Day pranks, but I restrain myself.