Pranking is an integral part of the collegiate experience, as young people, many of them away from home for the first time, revel in stretching their wings by pitting themselves against authority. Usually that "authority" takes the form of a particular professor or encompasses the school as a whole, but there have been instances where pranks have been directed beyond the ivy-covered walls and into the community at large. The following anecdote supposedly details one such case. Or does it?
Roadwork on Paramatta Road near the university inspired some students to create some mischief. They telephoned the police and claimed that some students had dressed up as road workers and were not only causing tremendous traffic disruption, but were actually digging up the road. The police said they would come out and investigate.
The students then went out to the road workers and told them that some students had dressed up as policemen and were going to try to remove them as a joke. The students assured the workers that they could say or do anything to these bogus officers. The road workers said they were looking forward to a little fun. So were the students ...
In 2004, Harvard Magazine attributed a version of this prank to one of their alums, the now-famous talk show host Conan O'Brien:
Enter one notorious prankster, Conan O'Brien, once president of the Harvard Lampoon and now a late-night talk-show host on NBC. Legend has it that O'Brien spent a night in jail following a stunt he pulled as an undergraduate. (On "advice of counsel," O'Brien declined to comment.) Having procured a jack-hammer as well as several hard hats and other construction-related paraphernalia, he and a group of fellow students cordoned off a section of street in downtown Boston and went to work, as it were, tearing up the pavement.
O'Brien then reported his own crime to the Boston police: college students dressed as construction workers were jack-hammering in downtown Boston -- Do something, quickly! His handiwork only half done, O'Brien then telephoned the Massachusetts state police. He and his fellow construction workers, O'Brien said, were trying to do their jobs but were being harassed by a bunch of college pranksters dressed as policemen. In short order, the Boston police came to arrest the students and the state police came to arrest the Boston police. The confusion that followed landed its choreographer in hot water, but also in the annals of Harvard prank history.
Another version of this jape appears in the 1998 comedy film Dirty Work, when Mitch Weaver (Norm MacDonald) sics police on a fraternity party after first informing the frat boys that criminals dressed as cops have been robbing homes. Weaver and his buddy, Sam McKenna (Artie Lange) then proceed to join in the ensuing mayhem by appearing dressed as police and aiding in the beating of the students:
Over the years accounts of a number of famous leg-pulls have worked their way into student lore, and time blurs the line between pranks actually played and ones merely heard about from others. This one is a classic example of the practical joke everyone's heard of but no one claims to have pulled. As Neil Steinberg says in If At All Possible, Involve A Cow, his 1992 book on collegiate pranking: "So much of a prank involves the right concept, that some people make the mistake of being hypnotized by the brilliance of a prank's idea, and never end up doing the deed." Could that have been the case here?
We can only note that this jape also shares more than a passing resemblance to the "Revenge on Jerks" legend, a wholly apocryphal tale in which two people who have angered the teller are deliberately set upon each by means of each of them being told a series of fibs. Such tales are immensely satisfying to contemplate because they suggest that armed only with our native wiles, we can make fools of those who annoy us or who have authority over us. They're empowering, thus we delight in them.
Variations: This legend is told as true in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and the United States, always as a recent and local occurrence.
In the 1998 film Dirty Work, Mitch Weaver (Norm MacDonald) sics police on a fraternity party after first informing the frat boys that criminals dressed as cops have been robbing homes. Weaver and his buddy, Sam McKenna (Artie Lange) then proceed to join in the ensuing mayhem by appearing dressed as police and aiding in the beating of the students.