A Lifelong Education In Pranks: An Essay
For me, executing a media prank is akin to tossing a pebble in the pop culture pond to observe what sort of patterns emerges—studying the ripple effect. Just send out a press release, cross your fingers, and see how the news media reacts. Another thing I discovered a long time ago is that a prankish deception can help kick start an honest discussion about important topics of the day. It is in that sense that you can think of a prank as a kind of eccentric op-ed piece, or something to that effect. Early on, when I was an undergraduate, I discovered that it is cheap and relatively easy to pull off a prank. I spent less than two dollars to pull off my first big media intervention, which I did as a class project—earning me an “A” for the class and three credits toward my appropriately named B.S. degree. It resulted in front page newspaper stories, appearances on NBC local news affiliates across the South, and, yes, even an appearance on CNN. All I needed was a few twenty-nine cent stamps and a little imagination.
I was successful in spite of my amateurish single-spaced press release—the first one I ever wrote—that was printed with a blocky dot matrix printer, and then photocopied. It began with an all-too-vague headline and quickly descended into silliness:
A James Madison University Coalition of Students (Harrisonburg) On Thursday, Oct 31 at 12:00 noon, a rally will take place on the Commons of JMU. This rally will support a bill submitted to the Student Government Association that will change the JMU mascot to a pig with three eyes and antlers. … During the rally, to show how dedicated they are to this movement, 100-200 will marry themselves to bananas in a mass wedding ceremony.
Why did I grow up to be a prankster? Well, I don’t have a good explanation for why I’m the way I am. Perhaps it’s because I was born on Halloween. The fact that everyone celebrated my birthday by dressing in weird outfits when I was little boy, well, that had to have warped my brain in some way. Maybe it’s because of where I’m from. Virginia Beach was home to both Pat Robertson (the conservative evangelical who founded the Christian Broadcasting Network) and Edgar Cayce (a descendent of nineteenth century Spiritualism and founder of the Association for Research and Enlightenment).
I grew up watching Robertson’s local UHF television channel, which played cartoons in the daytime interspersed with fundamentalist Christian public service announcements. At the same time my parents’ bookshelf was filled with books on Astrology, Edgar Cayce, Atlantis, and other far-fetched subjects. I learned to be skeptical at an early age—whether it was the result of a conservative Christian crackpot who claimed that he convinced God to divert a hurricane that might have hit Virginia Beach, as Robertson did in 1987, or a mystic who once predicted that we would discover a “Death Ray” in Atlantis during the year 1958.
I have experienced quite an education in pranks, and I take these fun and games very seriously. From my time as a junior high nerd to my more recent days as a socially awkward professor, I never stopped learning from my pranks—and from their aftershocks, big and small. Over the years, this is what I learned …
Part One: Junior High
When I was a kid I loved watching professional wrestling with my best friend—the television. It was my first introduction to the concept of fakery, because I tacitly understood that what I was watching wasn’t real, that it was all staged. As the bad guys preened on stage and executed carefully planned body slams, I knew I was essentially viewing a hoax. That must be one of the reasons I liked it, especially because—in the time-honored tradition of adolescent rebellion—my parents hated it.
“I don’t see why you are wasting your time watching a sport that is fixed.”
“I know, I know it’s fake,” I would say, “that’s the point.”
But the funny thing is, even though I thought I got it, I was still suckered: by Andy Kaufman. In my defense, I only knew him as the affable Latka Gravas character on Taxi, one of many sitcoms I watched as a child. I had no clue about Kaufman’s own personal history of trickery, so when the entertainer showed up at the Mid-Atlantic Coliseum in 1982 openly making fun of professional wrestling, this twelve year-old kid was annoyed.
“I’m from Hollywood,” Kaufman would say into the camera, pointing to his cranium—mouthing off about how smart he was and how Southerners were stupid. At first he bragged about how he could beat any woman at wrestling, claiming he was the world’s first and best “Intergender Wrestling Champion.” What a laugh, I thought. And when Kaufman literally rubbed a woman’s face in his victory, humiliating her, I cheered when local hero Jerry Lawler intervened and shoved him to the ground.
“Lawler, you think you’re really being smart,” Kaufman ranted after picking himself up off the mat. “Look, I’m from Hollywood,” he fumed. “That’s where we make movies and TV shows. I tape Taxi in Hollywood. I make movies in Hollywood, okay? I’m not from down here in [in a mocking Southern accent] Memphis, Tennessee, okay? I’m from Hollywood, and I want to have the respect that I deserve.”
What a jerk.
Kaufman kept needling the crowd about how his matches with women were real and the ones by the professional wrestlers were phonies, and he openly mocked the crowd in the Mid-South Coliseum. He said they were stupid hicks for believing in professional wrestling, something that made me seethe: Andy Kaufman was such a jerk and I really, really hated him. I even stopped watching Taxi because of it.
“When I do the wrestling act, I’m playing the role of the villain,” Kaufman explained to a reporter around this time. “What I’m trying to do is get the people to dislike me just like they would any villain. So that they’ll root for the woman I’m wrestling—so that they’ll really dislike me and hope that I lose and get really excited.” Over the course of 1982 Kaufman kept returning to Tennessee to torment the crowd and the other wrestlers. A few months later, after Lawler first attacked Kaufman, the spectacle spilled over into another favorite television show of mine, Late Night With David Letterman.
“On April 5th, 1982, in Memphis, Tennessee,” Letterman said, introducing the segment, “Andy Kaufman, the actor-comedian, and Intergender Wrestling Champion, had his first wrestling match with a member of his own sex. The opponent was a very serious wrestling favorite named Jerry Lawler. Here, now, are the results of that match….” The tape showed Lawler attacking Kaufman again, delivering an illegal pile driver move that sent his head crashing to the wrestling mat. For maximum effect, the Taxi star left the Mid South Coliseum in an ambulance. “I always thought wrestling was fake. I guess I was wrong…,” Kaufman sheepishly told reporters from his hospital bed. Watching this replay brought all the reasons I disliked Kaufman into clear focus, and I hoped Lawler would teach him a lesson on Late Night.
“Tonight, for the first time on network television,” said Letterman, “they meet face to face. Here are Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler.” Some studio audience members cheered and many others booed as Lawler and Kaufman—who was wearing a dubious neck brace and was trailing behind the wrestler from a safe distance—made their way onstage.
“Now, I don’t know a great deal about wrestling,” the talk show host said, breaking the ice, “but it looks to me like you gave Andy that second pile driver after the bell. Now, that didn’t seem like a really sportsmanlike thing to do.”
“You say that wasn’t a sportsmanlike thing to do,” Lawler drawled, “but everybody that sees Andy Kaufman, the way he is now, you know, Mr. Nice Guy—the very loveable little Latka character and everything—this is not the Andy Kaufman that I saw.”
Damn right. This guy is a Grade A moron.
“You know, it’s something that I take very seriously,” Lawler continued. “It’s the way I make my living, and he comes in making a joke of it. You know, he did it all for publicity. That’s why he’s still wearing”—he said, pointing at the “neck brace” worn by Kaufman—“I don’t know if it’s a neck brace or a flea collar.”
Over the course of the interview, Kaufman kept needling Lawler until he finally snapped, delivering a wide-palmed slap that sent the Taxi star tumbling out of his chair.
Cut to commercial.
“Hi there,” said Letterman, “and welcome back to the show, ladies and gentlemen.”
Kaufman was lurking off camera, stage left.
“As you can tell, Andy Kaufman is here, sort of. Andy, are you coming in here again or…”
Kaufman burst onstage, screaming at Lawler.
“I am sick of this BLEEP! You are full of BLEEP, my friend! I will sue you for everything you have! I will sue your ass! You’re a BLEEP BLEEP as far as I’m concerned! You hear me?! A BLEEP BLEEP! BLEEP you! I will get you for this!”
He left for a few seconds, then returned.
“I am sorry,” he said, turning to the audience, “I am sorry to use those words on television. I apologize to all my fans. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“But you! You’re a BLEEP BLEEP!” Kaufman shouted at Lawler, pounding on Letterman’s desk. “You’re a BLEEP BLEEP! You hear me? A BLEEP BLEEP!” He then picked up Letterman’s mug and hurled coffee at the wrestler, only to run off like a coward.
“I think, uh, I think you can use some of those words on TV,” Letterman deadpanned. “But what you can’t do is throw coffee. I’ve said it over and over again.”
I had never seen anything like that on television, and my mind was officially blown.
Years later I found out that the blood feud was all staged—from its Memphis beginnings to the psychodrama’s spectacular televised peak on Late Night With David Letterman. But at the time I had no idea about Kaufman’s back-story. I was too young to have seen his infamous Saturday Night Live performances, including lip-syncing the Mighty Mouse theme on the show’s debut broadcast in 1975. Nor did I witness any of his many other mind-melting pranks on television, like the Mike Douglas Show or Fridays, or anywhere else. All I knew was that a Hollywood jerk was trying to make fun of something I liked. But even though I didn’t understand it at the time, Kaufman’s hijinks surely must have body slammed my consciousness.
It was like a time bomb waiting to go off.
Part Two: High School
“Come on Colleen,” one of us shouted, heading for the mall’s front doors. “We’re gonna leave you if you don’t hurry up!”
Shoppers stopped in their tracks, staring at us as Colleen wobbled on her crutches about twenty paces behind us. She looked like she was going to burst into tears.
“You’re going too slow!”
Click—clomp—shuffle. “W-wa-WAIT UP,” Colleen said, weakly.
“If you don’t make it to the car in time we are going to take off!!!”
As Colleen cried for us to wait, people looked on, horrified. The boring monotony of shopping just got a little more interesting—and unsettling—which was exactly the point. Yes, it would have been a cruel act had our friend not been in on it, but she was. Colleen was confined to a wheelchair and crutches, and she hated people patronizing her, no matter how well intentioned. She once wished death on the disabled character featured in the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, a wisecracking wheelchair-bound girl whose signature phrase was, “I’m not handicapped. I’m handy-capable!” Of course, none of the bystanders knew this; they only saw a bunch of jerks picking on their crippled friend.
Looking back, I realize that we were budding anti-consumer culture activists and snot-nosed mall rats—all wrapped up in one package. We wanted to make people uneasy and we also intended to disrupt the frictionless shopping experience of our local suburban mall. For us, it was like a social experiment, and it likely sprouted from our recent discovery of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s electrical shock experiments in the 1960s. Those famous experiments—in which ordinary people were coerced into delivering apparently fatal electric shocks to other test subjects—were eye-opening warnings on the dangers of blindly following orders.
Milgram’s lesser-known experiments were also quite fascinating, particularly his so-called “stimulus crowd” studies, which were pretty wacky. Dr. Milgram would hire small groups of up to fifteen people to stop on a busy New York City street and peer up at a sixth floor window. Nothing was there, but that didn’t keep passersby from stopping to look. He published his findings in a paper titled “Note on the Drawing Power of Crowds of Different Size,” which almost sounds like a prank academic journal article (it wouldn’t be the first). Milgram was a provocateur, and it is in that way that he deserves recognition as one of the twentieth century’s most important performance artists. “Consider his crowd experiment,” Harper’s magazine’s Bill Wasik writes, “which, to be admitted, is fairly thin gruel as science: everyone knows that such an effect would be observed, and what value is there in quantifying it? Milgram’s crowd study was far less explanatory than it was expressive, serving as an elegant metaphor for conformism while adding little to our scientific understanding of who conforms or why.”
Similarly, our own high school hijinks were social experiments disguised as performance art. We wanted to see how people would react, or not react, if put in an odd or uncomfortable situation. For instance, when most of our peers were out drinking wine coolers and cruising the Virginia Beach strip, we launched an ongoing fast food-centric art piece. We would regularly go through one particular Hardee’s drive-thru window—over and over and over again—enacting variations of the following spectacle. First, our “crippled friend” Colleen would be buckled in the passenger’s seat, upside down, fastened in with her head on the floor and her feet on the headrest. Gabe, shirtless and using Colleen’s crutches, trailed behind the car with a rope that was tied around his bare chest and, at the other end, to the car’s rear bumper. Other friends in the back seat would speak in tongues and smack their foreheads. Each and every time we would all order coffee at the drive-thru window, scream a nonsensical word in unison—“AARDVARK!” for instance—and throw our beverages on the windshield. I named it the Hardee’s Experimental Art Series.
Part Three: College
In 1989 I left my small group of friends in Virginia Beach for Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee—the only school that would accept me. And what a school it was! When I entered MTSU it still displayed on the outside walls of the student center a giant plaque of KKK founder Nathan B. Forrest, and when it was removed in 1990 many students protested this erasure as an affront to their “Southern heritage.” It wasn’t my scene, and I was pretty miserable there. Life didn’t pick up for me until I befriended Fletcher Moore, who loaned me his copy of the legendary book Pranks! I had just found my calling in this manual for mayhem.
Published by Re/Search, an influential San Francisco Bay area underground press, Pranks! featured a series of interviews with counterculture figures known for their pranks. Abbie Hoffman, for instance, talked about the time when he and Jerry Rubin dumped hundreds of dollar bills from a balcony overlooking the New York Stock Exchange. They invited reporters to cover the event, which stopped the stock ticker as brokers grabbed at the money that was falling from the sky. Their prank was simple and elegant, and it revealed the naked greed that bubbled underneath the NYSE’s veneer of respectability. Pranks! also featured an interview with Alan Abel, the godfather of all media pranksters. Abel got his start in the late fifties by launching a satirical organization that advocated clothing naked animals. It’s censorship-mocking slogan: “Decency Today Means Morality Tomorrow.” Filled with over three-dozen interviews with all sorts of colorful characters, Pranks! provided an à la carte assortment of strange ideas and subversive activities.
It turns out I wasn’t alone in my inspiration. Probably the most notorious of modern media pranksters are the Yes Men, an “organization” headed up by the pseudonymously named Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum. The funniest thing about the Yes Men is that their code names, Mike and Andy, are far more plausible than their real names, Igor and Jacques. Go figure. In an interview with the publisher of the Pranks!, Andy told V. Vale this book “was a formative thing. It was amazing. At a certain point it felt like everyone had that book.” Bonanno adds, “When I was working on some projects around 1990, that book was out on the floor for people to read. We had a big group and we were doing all kinds of strange things in Portland, Oregon, and that was the reference book, the source that you cite. It was very important in our development.”
In 1993, Mike Bonanno masterminded the Barbie Liberation Organization. The BLO purchased multiple Barbie and G. I. Joe dolls, switched their voice boxes, and “reverse shoplifted” these gender-bending toys back into stores. During Christmas that year, in select toy stores, Barbie grunted, “Dead men tell no lies,” and G. I. Joe gushed, “I like to go shopping with you.” After the BLO sent out press kits to news organizations, the story broke nationally. Around the same time, soon-to-be bosom buddy Andy Bichlbaum was working as a computer programmer at Maxis, Inc. During his tenure there, he had the bright idea to alter a sequence in the combat video game, SimCopter, in a way that undermined its chest beating, shoot-em-up message. The game originally contained an animated segment that, after the player racked up enough kills, rewarded the hero with images of women fawning over him. Andy rewrote the software so that the victorious video warrior was presented with an homoerotic sequence with two men in swimsuits making out. This change went undiscovered by the company until after the game had shipped to stores; Andy lost his job, but it was worth it.
Individually, they did some wild projects, but together they have caused even more trouble. One major target of the Yes Men was the World Trade Organization (WTO), which administers the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a controversial treaty that governs world commerce. They successfully registered the domain name gatt.org, and soon before the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle they debuted their satirical “WTO/GATT Home Page.” Many have mistaken the Web site for the real thing, in part because their rhetorical parodies are so spot-on. This is because the Yes Men do a great job of mimicking corporate-speak, flipping familiar phrases in an attempt to show how language conceals power—how bland-sounding expressions can hide unsettling ideas.
The Yes Men demonstrated this when the organizers of the Textiles of the Future Conference unwittingly emailed gatt.org and invited a “WTO representative” to deliver a keynote address. The merry pranksters answered in the affirmative, and in August 2001 the Yes Men/®™ark flew to Tampere, Finland. Posing as “Dr. Hank Hardy Unruh of the WTO,” Andy Bichlbaum delivered a speech—wrapped in such terms as “market liberalization”—that favorably compared sweatshops to slavery. During a subsection of his speech, titled “British Empire: Its Lessons for Managers,” Dr. Unruh dismissed Mohandas Gandhi as “a likeable, well-meaning fellow who wanted to help his fellow workers along, but did not understand the benefits of open markets and free trade.”
During the final moments of his lecture the assistant to Unruh/Andy removed his tear-away business suit, revealing a formfitting gold body suit connected to a massive, shiny inflatable phallus. The golden phallus contained a video screen Andy said was designed to monitor workers in the Third World, which they illustrated in Power Point. They called it the “Management Leisure Suit.” None of the international scientists, businesspeople, officials, and academics hardly blinked; they just politely applauded.
We can thank the book Pranks! for inspiring this and many other stunts. As Mike Bonanno says, “People like Andy and I read it and were inspired by it when we were just spring chickens.” Fletch and I were similarly inspired, and even though the book was entertaining and enlightening, we were not content to passively consume the stories in Pranks! Like the incubating Yes Men, we wanted to do something, and the very conservative Southern college we attended provided us with fertile fields to carry out our experiments. But rather than high profile acts of subterfuge, we started out with low-level disruptive deceptions.
“Hey Kembrew,” Fletch would say, within earshot of anyone around us, “remember the time when we fed LSD to the cat and set it on fire?”
We wanted to shock people out of their everyday routines, which was the point of my earlier mall adventure with Colleen and friends. Most of the pranks were ephemeral and innocuous, though there was one time I played an unintentionally mean-spirited prank on someone. I composed a fake disciplinary letter that I sent to a friend’s roommate, something I still feel bad about today. Using a typewriter, a photocopier, scissors, and MTSU letterhead, I forged an expulsion letter based on an unspecified “honor code infraction that occurred in Dr. Scott’s classroom on April 18, 1990.” It was signed “Justin Jesting, Admissions Office,” which I figured would be enough of a hint that it was a joke. What made it funny, I thought at the time, was that she was a model student who never would have cheated, and the letter was so vague and abrupt that it couldn’t possibly be for real.
It was designed to catch her off guard, though if I had known how much it would upset her I never would have pulled the prank in the first place. I was there when she checked her mailbox, read the letter and … immediately burst into tears. She clutched a letter that had just informed her, “You may not return to MTSU or any other Tennessee Board of Regents institutions within the next five years.” I tried to calm her down, but it was too late; I had just ruined her day. Later, she got me back by dumping Kool-Aid on my head.
This was the first incident that helped shape my thinking about the ethics of pranks. Pranks, for me, aren’t the same as a practical joke or a fraternity hazing ritual designed to humiliate someone. The latter activity is what it is: it uses deception to make someone or something look foolish, and nothing more. In the introduction to Pranks!, the editors argued that “these pointless humiliations do nothing to raise consciousness or alter existing power relationships. They are deeds which only further the status-quo; they only perpetuate the acceptance of and submission to arbitrary authority, or abet existing hierarchical inequities.” A good prank, for me, involves cooking up a story or stage-managing an event in order to make a larger satirical point—or at least to befuddle someone with a good dose of nonsense.
At their most productive, pranks blur the line between fact and fiction—using deceit to, as the Yes Men put it, “achieve a condition of honesty.” For instance, these two pranksters helped set up a fake George W. Bush Web site in 1999 that duplicated the layout and photos on the official Bush campaign site. They frontloaded it with slogans like “Hypocrisy with Bravado” and filled it with deadpan Swiftian satire. Responding to his doppelganger site, candidate Bush was frighteningly candid: “There ought to be limits to freedom.” After the Bush team failed to have the fake site shut down, his organization bought 260 more domain names, including “bushsucks .com,” “bushsux.com,” and “bushblows.com,” just in case anyone else had any wise ideas. For at least a year after he entered office, if you typed in the domain names bush-blows.com or bushbites.com, it sent you directly to the official Bush-Cheney Web site.
Over the years, I learned that pranks are multifunctional. They can be used to trick someone into being more forthcoming than they typically would be, they could be satirical, or pranks can be viewed as Milgram-eque social experiments, as was the case with our Virginia Beach mallrat performance art. The person who first helped me think about pranks-as-satire was Alan Abel, the aforementioned man who created SINA, or the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, back in the late-1950s. The idea began as a deadpan essay that argued we needed to clothe domestic animals for the moral good of the country. He originally sent the piece to the Saturday Evening Post, but it was promptly rejected when the editors read past the satire and took it at face value. They thought he was a crackpot, not a comedian, so Abel ran with it—printing up fake stationery, staging phony protests, and tricking news stations. “A nude horse is a rude horse,” Abel would say, and he predicted that, “By 1969, it will be very normal to walk down the street and see a dog in boxer shorts or a horse in Bermudas.” Over the next ten years Abel could walk into virtually any television or radio station with a drawing of a horse in shorts, and they would put him on (and then he would put them on). He even fooled Walter Cronkite, who covered SINA on the CBS Evening News—something that, Abel told me, the esteemed newscaster is still mad about.
This is surprising, especially given that the master hoaxer planted an obvious clue: the name of the organization acknowledged that it was the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals! No one seemed to notice, especially when he sent his bespectacled comedian friend Buck Henry (posing as SINA president G. Clifford Prout) to rant and rave about America’s declining morals. Prout told reporters things like, “I object to seeing animals in the nude and so do thousands of other decent people” and “Protect our children from the sight of naked horses, cows, dogs and cats!” Abel later told the editors of Pranks!, “My aim, I guess, is to just shake people up—give them a verbal or visual kick in the intellect, so they are able to suddenly stop and look at themselves and laugh more, and to participate in life rather than just be passive bystanders.” After learning so much from my experiences as an undergraduate, I decided to go to grad school.
Part Four: Graduate School
Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly work out for me in grad school, at least at first. My antics didn’t fly in this professionalized environment, and I dropped out after realizing I couldn’t merge art with sociology. The first clue that this was a failed exercise came in 1994 when I sent out an email about a prank to the sociology graduate student listserv. One of my peers replied to my missive, explaining that people use email as a “professional service, allowing them to communicate with people halfway across the world” and that I should “not continue to use the socgrads mailing list in such an inappropriate manner.” She concluded with the following thoughts:
Identity management is everything -- especially in a small and competitive academic department such as this. Now, do you really want everyone to have an impression of you such as they get from these messages? Someone may mention such acts to a faculty member -- and no one wants the faculty to think of them as "un-serious".
Just a word to the wise --
Please head [sic] them --
Part Five: Putting the “Ass” Back In “Associate Professor”
Being tagged as “un-serious” in academia, it seemed, was like being stuck with the communist label in the 1950s. Fortunately, everything worked out for me and I am now a tenured professor at the University of Iowa who never stopped my fun and games. The most satisfying thing about being a professor is that my employer tolerates and even supports what I do. A discussion of my media pranks was included in my tenure dossier that was approved by my dean, provost and, eventually, the regents who oversee the University of Iowa.
The university even publicized the time I disrupted a media press conference by asking singer/actor Meat Loaf a series of bizarre and disturbing questions. (He later told a journalist, “In my thirty years, that was the freakiest moment I’ve had.”) The University of Iowa deemed my prank noteworthy enough to mention it in “UI in the News,” a section of the school’s Web site that publicizes significant media appearances by faculty. Sandwiched between other equally important news items—like medical discoveries and a major business scandal uncovered by a UI professor—was the headline “Prankster McLeod Confronts Meat Loaf.”
There are certain days when I truly love my job.