The greatest pranks often take place on April Fool’s Day.
As a general rule, I don’t like April Fool’s Day because I don’t like practical jokes. They are neither practical nor are they jokes. There is nothing practical nor funny about putting salt in the sugar bowl; that’s just being a dick.
However, there are exceptions to every rule, and in the case of practical jokes — hoaxes, if you prefer — there have been some spectacular pranks played on the first day of April by some of the most ingenious people in the world. Here’s my top 10 list:
We begin with one of the oldest, which has been played from time to time on the unsuspecting in London since at least 1698. The most famous episode occurred in 1860, during the reign of Queen Victoria. Numerous people received an invitation that read: “Tower of London — Admit Bearer and Friend to view annual ceremony of Washing the White Lions on Sunday, April 1, 1860. Admittance only at White Gate. It is particularly requested that no gratuities be given to wardens or attendants.” Naturally, there haven’t been lions in the Tower for centuries, and never any white ones that I can ascertain. Still, “no gratuities” must have been convincing. A large crowd of people turned up and left after a while disappointed. This is, perhaps, the most elegant form of “ha ha, made you look.”
Another joke from long ago was one from 1915, during the First World War. A French aviator flew his canvas and wooden airplane over a German encampment and dropped something on the bosch below. Naturally, the Germans ran for cover, but there was no explosion. Cautiously, they move toward it and discovered a large ball; tied to it was a note that read “April Fool!” This is, most assuredly, the most elegant form of “ha ha, made you crap your pants.”
Another great prank from our French friends came in 1986 when the guys at Le Parisien reported that the Eiffel Tower was going to be dismantled and moved to the Euro Disney theme park that was under construction not far away. They sold the story by explaining that by removing the tower Paris could build a 35,000-seat stadium to enhance the French bid for the 1992 Olympics. The editor of Le Parisien received more than a couple of pieces of mail on that.
Disney figures in two other really good hoaxes. One was a 1995 story in the Irish Times that claimed Disney had bought the body of Vladimir Lenin, who has been preserved by the Soviet-Russian governments and lays to this day in Red Square (I’ve seen him while touring Moscow and he doesn’t look bad for a guy who has been dead since 1924). The people at Disney were going to move the body to Euro Disney, which had suffered from weak attendance (probably because there was no Eiffel Tower there), and give the old Bolshevik the “full Disney treatment.” That meant showing the corpse “under stroboscopic lights which will tone up the pallid face while excerpts from President Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ speech will be played in quadrophonic sound.” And yes, Lenin t-shirts were going on sale.
Of course, Disney always needs Imagineers, and so, the home page of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1998 announced that Disney was buying MIT for $6.9 billion and was moving it to Orlando, Fla. However, I think the guys who hacked the website overdid it in the press release claiming “the Sloan School will be renamed the Scrooge McDuck School of Management.”
Another New England hoax was a great radio prank played by Carolyn Fox, a disc jockey for WHJY in Providence, R.I. In 1986, she simply announced that the city was closing for the day and gave out a phone number that listeners could call for more information. That number was the switchboard at rival station WPRO-AM. There were hundreds of calls not just to WPRO but also to the police and various agencies at City Hall. Her managers later told the media they didn’t think there’d be such a big response.
Rivaling that for the best radio prank of all time is a 1979 hoax from Capitol Radio in London, England. The station announced that owing to the changing back and forth from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time, Britain was actually 48 hours ahead of the rest of the world. Since that had to be fixed, the Cabinet had approved Operation Parallax — April 5 and 12 of that year were to be canceled. Among the calls coming in was one from a woman who wanted to know what was going to happen to her birthday, which was being canceled. Another came from an employer who wanted to know if he had to pay his employees for the canceled days (yes, you cheap bastard: time and a half).
The print media in the UK love a good joke (like Rupert Murdoch having journalistic integrity — first time I heard that one I laughed so hard that I had to change my pants). One of the best was a travel piece in The Guardian in 1977 — actually it was a seven-page supplement (not cheap even then) touting the beauties of an archipelago in the Indian Ocean called San Serriffe. Led by General Pica, the Republic’s two islands were said to look like a semicolon in the sea. The northern island was Upper Caisse and the southern Lower Caisse. The towns there included Garamondo, Cap Em, Umbra, Bodoni and numerous other typefaces. Most callers wanted more information, and few noticed it was a huge inside joke for the printers. This is largely seen as the joke that began the April Fool’s enthusiasm on Fleet Street (where no papers are now published — they moved ages ago).
Probably costing even more was a full-page ad Taco Bell ran in six American newspapers on April 1, 1996, stating that to help with the national debt the company was buying the Liberty Bell and renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Hundreds of calls came into the National Park Service complaining. Taco Bell had to put out a denial a few hours later. When asked about the sale at a press conference, Mike McCurry, who was Bill Clinton’s spokesman, said that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold and would be rechristened the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.
My former neighbor and publishing hero, George Plimpton, is responsible for the 1985 hoax Sports Illustrated played on its readers. Plimpton claimed that the New York Mets had found a pitcher with a 168-mile-an-hour fastball (for you non-baseball fans, few pitchers break 100, ever). British orphan, Harvard dropout and follower of Indian mysticism Sidd Finch was the subject of a seven-page cover story. He never existed, and Plimpton left a clue in the article’s subhead: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga.” He spelled out “Happy April Fool’s Day” with the first letter in each word.
As marvelous as the Plimpton-Finch Jape (to call it by its scientific name) was, it is second place in my mind to the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. Back in 1957, the BBC weekly news program “Panorama” broadcast a three-minute segment on the bumper crop of spaghetti the Swiss were harvesting that year owing to a mild winter. Now, how could grown people believe this? What you have to understand is that pasta was largely unknown in Britain back then; World War II bread rationing didn’t end until 1948. Also, this was “Panorama”; that’s like “Meet the Press” or “60 Minutes” (before that lost its credibility). Some folks got the joke, others called in wanting to know more — the reaction was amazing. Eventually, the BBC operators came up with a definitive response: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
Words to live by. By the way, not a bit of this is made up. Honestly.