Prankly, my dear: An ode to the best-ever April Fool’s jokes
by Brett Buckner
brettbuckner@ymail.com
Apr 01, 2012 | 12728 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
From Gmail Motion to the Left-Handed Whopper, from Sidd Finch’s 168 mph fastball to Taco Bell buying the Liberty Bell, April Fool’s Day pranks have left an indelible mark on our collective funny bone.

“I think it’s fun to just have that one day of the year when we all stop taking ourselves so seriously,” said Alex Boese, curator of the online Museum of Hoaxes. “It’s good to be silly. Reminds us of what it’s like to be kids again.”

A history of April Fool’s Day

Some historians speculate that April Fool’s Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

People who were slow to get the news failed to realize that the start of the New Year had moved to Jan. 1. They continued to celebrate the New Year from the last week of March through April 1 — becoming the butt of jokes. This included having paper fish placed on their backs and being called “poisson d’avril” (April fish) — meaning a young, easily caught fish, i.e., a gullible person.

Historians have also linked April Fool’s Day to ancient Roman festivals such as Hilaria, during which people dressed up in disguises and celebrated at the end of March.

There’s also speculation that April Fool’s Day was tied to the vernal equinox, or the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fooled people with unpredictable weather.

April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the tradition was a two-day event that began with “hunting the gowk” (“gowk” being the word for cuckoo bird, which was the symbol for fool), in which people were sent on phony errands. This was followed by Tailie Day, when people played pranks on one another, such as like pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on people’s backs.

The greatest April Fool’s jokes

Back in the late ‘90s while in grad school studying history, Alex Boese began combing through old newspapers to compile what is now The Top 100 Greatest April Fool’s Hoaxes of All Time (online at Boese’s Museum of Hoaxes).

While the list has seen a few changes over the years, Boese has his favorites, including No. 3, “Instant Color T.”

In 1962, there was only one TV channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white. But on April 1, 1962, the station’s technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display color reception. All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over the TV screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people were taken in. Regular color broadcasts didn’t commence in Sweden until April 1, 1970.

Then there’s the “New Zealand Wasp Storm,” coming in at No. 29:

In 1949, Phil Shone, a New Zealand DJ for radio station 1ZB, announced to his listeners that a mile-wide wasp swarm was headed towards Auckland. He urged them to take a variety of steps to protect themselves and their homes from the winged menace. For instance, he suggested that they wear their socks over their trousers when they left for work, and that they leave honey-smeared traps outside their doors. Hundreds of people dutifully heeded his advice, until he finally admitted that it had all been a joke.

Even Alabama gets in on the action at No. 7 with “Alabama Changes the Value of Pi.”

The April 1998 issue of the “New Mexicans for Science and Reason” newsletter contained an article claiming that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.

Soon the article made its way onto the internet and rapidly spread around the world. It only became apparent how far the article had spread when the Alabama legislature began receiving hundreds of calls from people protesting the legislation.

The original article, which was intended as a parody of legislative attempts to circumscribe the teaching of evolution, was written by physicist Mark Boslough.

“To me, the best April Fool’s jokes are when you not only make people believe something, but you actually get them to do something,” Boese said. “It’s all meant to be mischievous fun, but some people can get out of hand and become almost aggressive — that’s not what April Fool’s is all about. It’s supposed to be a way to diffuse tension through laughter.”

A fish story

Debbi Weldon of Anniston wasn’t amused when her 8-year-old grandson called while she was at the store to tell her he’d caught a “huge catfish.” Afraid it was going to die, he brought it home and put it in the bathtub.

“I have never left a store so fast in my life,” Weldon said. “I was livid till I got home and realized I had been pranked.”

The ominous telegram

Local tattoo artist Brooke Hunter was a college student in a “certain city in Iowa” when some of her friends sent an ominous telegram to some city officials warning, “All is discovered. Flee.” No fewer than four of them left town, Hunter said.

The preacher and the fool

Woodfin Grove, pastor emeritus of Anniston’s First United Methodist Church, keeps in the spirit of April Fool’s with a joke only a preacher could tell: “An atheist hired a hotshot lawyer and brought suit because atheist did not have a designated ‘Day,’” Grove said. “The judge heard the opening plea and said, ‘Case dismissed.’ ‘On what grounds?’ the plaintiff asked. ‘The judge replied, ‘You already have your designated day — April 1st.’”

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.

Top April Fool’s Day hoaxes

From a list of the Top 100 Greatest April Fool’s Hoaxes of All Time, compiled by Alex Boese at the online Museum of Hoaxes.

The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest

On April 1, 1957, the respected BBC news show “Panorama” announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. It accompanied this announcement with footage of Swiss peasants pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees. Huge numbers of viewers were taken in. Many called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this the BBC diplomatically replied, “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

Sidd Finch

The April 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated contained a story about a new rookie pitcher who planned to play for the Mets. His name was Sidd Finch, and he could reportedly throw a baseball at 168 mph with pinpoint accuracy. This was 65 mph faster than the previous record.

Surprisingly, Sidd Finch had never even played the game before. Instead, he had mastered the “art of the pitch” in a Tibetan monastery under the guidance of the “great poet-saint Lama Milaraspa.” Mets fans celebrated their teams’ amazing luck at having found such a gifted player, and they flooded Sports Illustrated with requests for more information.

In reality this legendary player only existed in the imagination of the author of the article, George Plimpton, who left a clue in the sub-heading of the article: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga —and his future in baseball.” The first letter of each of these words, taken together, spelled “H-a-p-p-y A-p-r-i-l F-o-o-l-s D-a-y — A-h F-i-b”.

The Taco Liberty Bell

The Taco Bell Corporation took out a full-page ad that appeared in six major newspapers on April 1, 1996, announcing it had bought the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Hundreds of outraged citizens called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia where the bell was housed to express their anger. Their nerves were only calmed when Taco Bell revealed, a few hours later, that it was all a practical joke. The best line of the day came when White House press secretary Mike McCurry was asked about the sale. Thinking on his feet, he responded that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold. It would now be known, he said, as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

San Serriffe

On April 1, 1977, the British newspaper The Guardian published a special seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe, a small republic said to consist of several semi-colon-shaped islands located in the Indian Ocean. A series of articles affectionately described the geography and culture of this obscure nation. Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Its capital was Bodoni, and its leader was General Pica. The Guardian’s phones rang all day as readers sought more information about the idyllic holiday spot. Only a few noticed that everything about the island was named after printer’s terminology. The success of this hoax is widely credited with launching the enthusiasm for April Foolery that gripped the British tabloids in subsequent decades.

Nixon for President

The April 1, 1992 broadcast of National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” revealed that Richard Nixon, in a surprise move, was running for president again. His new campaign slogan was, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” Accompanying this announcement were audio clips of Nixon delivering his candidacy speech. Listeners responded viscerally to the announcement, flooding the show with calls expressing shock and outrage. Only during the second half of the show did host John Hockenberry reveal that the announcement was a practical joke. Nixon’s voice was impersonated by comedian Rich Little.

The Left-Handed Whopper

Burger King published a full page advertisement in the April 1st edition of USA Today announcing the introduction of a new item to their menu: a “Left-Handed Whopper” specially designed for the 32 million left-handed Americans. According to the advertisement, the new whopper included the same ingredients as the original Whopper (lettuce, tomato, hamburger patty, etc.), but all the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of their left-handed customers. The following day Burger King issued a follow-up release revealing that although the Left-Handed Whopper was a hoax, thousands of customers had gone into restaurants to request the new sandwich. Simultaneously, according to the press release, “many others requested their own ‘right handed’ version.”

Hotheaded Naked Ice Borers

The April 1995 issue of Discover Magazine reported that the highly respected wildlife biologist Dr. Aprile Pazzo had found a new species in Antarctica: the hotheaded naked ice borer. These fascinating creatures had bony plates on their heads that, fed by numerous blood vessels, could become burning hot, allowing the animals to bore through ice at high speeds. They used this ability to hunt penguins, melting the ice beneath the penguins and causing them to sink downwards into the resulting slush where the hotheads consumed them. After much research, Dr. Pazzo theorized that the hotheads might have been responsible for the mysterious disappearance of noted Antarctic explorer Philippe Poisson in 1837. “To the ice borers, he would have looked like a penguin,” the article quoted her as saying. Discover received more mail in response to this article than they had received for any other article in their history.
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