We humans like a good joke, and we’re not above making our nearest and dearest the butts of it, especially when the powers that be have set aside a day purely for that purpose. The first of April releases something within us that at other times during the year we attempt to keep reined in. Yet whatever social constraints we normally submit ourselves to, it is the amateur joker in us that comes to the surface every first of April, leaving us contemplating secreting ketchup in the shower head on that day or filling the sugar bowl with salt.
But first-of-April pranking takes place on a larger scale too, with the media likewise giving in to its urge to kick over the traces, if only for one day. Even some corporations have heeded the siren’s call. Throughout the years, those who we trust to provide us with reliable facts and honest reporting have themselves pulled an array of memorable jokes. Some have been hilarious, and some have been meanspirited, yet they’ve all been part of the insanity and deception of the day.
Arguably the best media-generated April Fool’s joke dates from a Richard Dimbleby “news report” aired on 1 April 1957 on BBC’s Panorama. It opened with a line about Spring coming early that year, prompting an early spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. Against a video backdrop of happy peasant women harvesting spaghetti from trees, whimsical claims about the foodstuff’s cultivation were made in a straightfaced manner, including the assertion that the foodstuff’s oddly uniform length was the result of years of dedicated cultivation and the heartening announcement that the ravenous spaghetti weevil which had wreaked havoc with harvests of years past had been conquered.
More than 250 viewers jammed the BBC switchboard after the hoax aired, most of them calling in with serious inquiries about the piece — where could they go to watch the harvesting operation? Could they buy spaghetti plants themselves? (For those anxious to try their hand at homegrown pasta, Panorama producer Michael Peacock offered this helpful hint: “Many British enthusiasts have had admirable results from planting a small tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce.”)
One of the more imaginative April Fool’s Day hoaxes was the work of a well-known restaurant chain. In 1996, Taco Bell Corp. announced it had bought the Liberty Bell from the federal government and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Citizens outraged by the vending of a historic treasure complained to the National Historic Park in Philadelphia where the bell is housed. A few hours later, Taco Bell admitted the spoof.
When asked about the sale, Mike McCurry (who was then the White House press secretary) replied with tongue in cheek that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold to a different corporation and would henceforth be known as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.
Another fast food restaurant served up its own April Fool’s prank, this one in 1998. That year Burger King announced via full-page ads a new item added to its menu: “Left-Handed Whoppers.” Designed for the thousands of southpaw Americans inconvenienced by the standard Whopper, this re-engineered sandwich contained all the ingredients of the original but with them rotated a full 180 degrees to redistribute their weight so toppings would no longer squish out from the right side of the bun. On April 1 1998, according to the company, thousands requested the new sandwich. Others were moved to ask if a right-handed version was also available.
Pranks involving food are legion. In 1994 sweets lovers in Britain were enthralled by ads touting the biggest ever Mars Bar: The Emperor. This behemoth of candyland contained “32 lbs of thick chocolate, glucose and milk” and was on sale for only one day — April 1. (Which was a good thing; it would have taken all year to eat it.)
The more health-conscious had a carrot prank set for them. 2002 saw the British supermarket chain Tesco advertising the successful development of a “whistling carrot.” Said vegetable, the product of genetic modification, had airholes in it that would cause it to whistle to signal its being boiled to perfection, in the same way that a kettle toots when the water therein reaches full boil.
In 1979 London’s Capital Radio announced that thanks to British Summertime, 48 hours had been gained by the calendar. To make things come out right, two days needed to be cancelled: April 5 and April 12. Said announcement caused panic among folks with birthdays and anniversaries on those days.
The respected magazine PC Computing was overcome by an attack of pranking fever in 1994 when it published an article describing a bill before the U.S. Congress. SB 040194 would make it a crime to use the Internet while intoxicated or to discuss sexual matters online. Blaming the term ‘Information Superhighway’ for the legislators’ zeal on this issue, the article’s author explained “Congress apparently thinks being drunk on a highway is bad no matter what kind of highway it is.”
In 1977 a British newspaper published a seven-page supplement extolling the 10th anniversary of San Seriffe, a small republic in the Indian Ocean consisting of several semi-colon-shaped islands. Its two main islands were Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, its capital Bodoni, and its leader General Pica. Readers intrigued by the purported charm of this little-known holiday spot were disappointed to learn the islands did not exist and the references to them were drawn from printer’s terminology.
In 1976 British astronomer Patrick Moore told listeners the movement of two planets would result in an upward gravitational pull that would make people lighter at precisely 9:47 a.m. that day. He invited his audience to jump in the air and experience “a strange floating sensation.” Within minutes, dozens of listeners had phoned in to say the experiment had worked!
Australia appears to have embraced the custom of April Fool’s pranks perpetrated by the media. In 2003 newspapers in that country touted a breakthrough advertised by car-maker Mini that promised an end to parking hassles with its “vertical parking locator” and flagged the development of vertical parking lots on the sides of buildings. Not to be outdone, another paper’s Good Living supplement featured a review of Species restaurant, where diners could feast on culinary delights crafted from animals featured on the World Wildlife Fund’s endangered list. The restaurant, owned by April Phewell, specialised in braised slices of hairy nosed wombat, yellow spotted tree frog kebabs and Sumatran Rhino steaks, the newspaper said. Another paper reported on a plan to hack down some of the Sydney suburb’s Norfolk Island Pines to make way for mobile phone towers in the shape of, you guessed it, Norfolk Island Pines. Two of the major dailies carried an advertisement that claimed motorists would be able to avoid road tolls through use of new technology that would render their vehicles invisible.
In 2000 respected source for financial information The Motley Fool announced its discovery of Shakespeare’s $18.7 billion investment portfolio. An exhumation of the bard had unearthed his stock holdings, which apparently had been buried with him. Old Will certainly knew how to pick them: his investment in Horse, Inc., for instance, was converted into shares of The Ford Motor Company.
Also in 2000 the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals organization (PETA) convinced many its members planned to slip tranquilizers into Lake Palestine prior to the Red Man Cowboy Division Fishing Tournament. The fish would doze while fishermen grew red, PETA said. Park rangers were dispatched to patrol the area to prevent animal lovers from doping the water to protect the fishes, yet the math of it should have ruled this one a joke — to drug the 25,500-acre reservoir containing 40 billion gallons of water would have taken enough Sominex to fill three Exxon Valdezes.
In 1986 disc jockeys in Providence, Rhode Island announced the city was shutting down for the day. The “Providence Labor Action Relations Board Committee” was blamed for the decision with the radio station advising listeners to go home. Those seeking further information about the closure were directed to the telephone number of the station’s cross-town rival. That unsuspecting victim received hundreds of calls from folks wanting to know what was going on, and the police in that city were, according to one dispatcher, likewise “swamped” by folks calling in.
Yet not all jokes are of the pleasant or humorous sort. In 2000 families of men being held in a Romanian prison were duped into travelling hundreds of miles to the facility to await the release of their loved ones, an event that had been announced in the newspaper as a joke on April 1.
In 1987 three Massachusetts teens who sprayed a teacher in the face with silver nitrate were sentenced to fifteen days in jail and two years of probation. The caustic solution caused burns to the face, neck and arms of Virginia Guistina and left her skin temporarily discolored. That same year (but thankfully in a far lighter vein), residents of a town in Illinois were advised to all flush their toilets at a predetermined time to force a 10-foot alligator from the town’s sewer.
Also in 1987 residents of another town in Illinois were worried about a new “sin” tax their city was instituting. According to the plan, townspeople would have to call a special number once every two months to be taken through a questionnaire by a city employee who would first hook up the phone to a device that determined whether callers were answering truthfully. Answers that indicated residents had been engaging in various forms of sin would prompt the levying of a bi-monthly tax against them, the amount depending on what they’d been up to and how often.
In another 1987 April Fool’s joke, a newspaper in Tennessee ran a story about chic, waterproof attire from European clothing designers, who call their creations “Le Sac Pourri,” otherwise known as plastic garbage bags. “The plastic garments come in boxes of 10 and are inexpensively priced at $1.35, but viewers were warned that unless accessorized by expensive jewelry costing hundreds of dollars, the look will lose its impact,” it said.
And some pranks provoke outrage. In 1999 a bank in Connecticut angered its customers through a prank it ran in the local paper as an announcement of a new fee. According to the ad, those of its patrons wishing to speak with one of its tellers would be charged $5 a visit. Though many got the joke (it was meant as a jab at the financial institutions that actually follow this practice), some didn’t, resulting in customers threatening to close all their accounts. The bank ran the ad the next day, that time clearly marked as a joke.
Other jokes are pulled by those who we would hope would know better. In 1989 two police officers in Utah were suspended without pay for a couple of days for their April Fools’ Day prank of placing invisible dye (used by police to catch criminals and normally put on money) in restrooms in the city-county building and the mayor’s office. The colorless powder dye turns a dark purple when it comes into contact with skin — it’s harmless but takes a while to wear off, as the mayor found out when it turned him into a “marked man.”
Each 1st of April brings with it more opportunities for merriment, which means the books will never be closed on this topic. If you could stand to hear about a few more pranks, our article on the origins of April Fool’s Day lists a few more.