New York Times
April 1, 2005
By Andrew Jacobs
Don't Read This. It Could Be a Trick.
Shortly before noon today, the 20th annual April Fools' Day parade will start its zany prance down Fifth Avenue, complete with whimsical floats, cacophonous music and this year's grand marshals, SpongeBob SquarePants and impersonators standing in for former Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey and the filmmaker Michael Moore, who will goad spectators to spar him on his own "wrestling float."
Sounds like a real crowd pleaser.
As in year's past, news cameras from around the globe will be on the sidelines hoping to capture the perfect wacky shot of what organizers bill as "a commemoration of the perennial folly of mankind."
And as in year's past, those reporters who do show up will end up playing the fool. That is because New York's April Fools' Day parade is a great big hoax, the brainchild of Joey Skaggs, the éminence grise of pransksterdom who has been duping the news media with his outlandish stunts for decades.
There's a sucker born every minute, P. T. Barnum reportedly said, and the phantom parade, advertised through official-looking press releases, has drawn a wide range of news media outlets in the past, including CNN, USA Today and, without fail, a camera crew or two from Japan. (As of last night, Fox's "A Current Affair" and the morning show on WB-11 news had confirmed their plans for coverage, Mr. Skaggs said.)
"Sometimes a reporter will call me from Fifth Avenue in a panic, saying he can't find the parade, and I'll say: 'Oh, they're probably already down at Washington Square. You'd better run,' " he said. "It's an important opportunity for all of us to review our inherent foolishness."
Although slightly dampened by the prevailing culture of hair-trigger litigation and political correctness, April Fools' Day is still the only acceptable occasion to humiliate friends and employers in front of as wide an audience as possible. It is the day when Alison Reiser, a Bronx Zoo employee, spends much of the morning fielding calls from gullible souls who have received a message to phone a Mr. Lyon or Mrs. Bear.
It is also a delicious opportunity for Amy and Ann Glynn, identical twin sisters who lead fairly separate lives in Manhattan, to wreak havoc on unsuspecting associates. Last year Ann showed up at her sister's beginner Spanish class and started to speak flawless Spanish. On another occasion, Amy took her twin's place at ballet rehearsal just before a performance and stumbled around like the unschooled dancer she is. "We can be really cruel," Ann said with pride. "The more outlandish the stunt, the better."
In recent years, some of the nation's most sober-minded corporations have dabbled in April 1 foolery. In 1998, Burger King convinced thousands that it had come out with a new left-handed whopper. Two years earlier, Taco Bell made an announcement that it had purchased the sacred Liberty Bell from the federal government and renamed it you know what. The hoax sparked a furor among liberty-loving Americans, prompting the company to donate $50,000 toward the bell's preservation.
One of the more visually rewarding local pranks dates from the 1930's and involved the violinist Joe Venuti, who called every known tuba player, asked them to show up for a paying gig and then watched as dozens of musicians lugging large piles of brass gathered near the address.
Although its provenance is appropriately murky, April Fools' Day is thought to have originated in 16th-century France, around the time Pope Gregory XIII rejiggered the Christian calendar and shifted New Year's Day to January 1 from April 1. It understandably took a while for the news to spread, and some simply refused to believe it. What to call those stalwarts who continued celebrating New Year's on April 1? "April fools," so the story goes.
In modern times, this celebration of lies and treachery has become entrenched in much of the world, although Europeans, especially the British, are more fervid pranksters than Americans, says Alex Boese, a self-described hoaxpert at the Museum of Hoaxes in San Diego. Mr. Boese, whose museum exists largely in cyberspace but who has written extensively about games people play, said there was really only one rule: If you keep the joke going too long, you become the fool.
Scientists who have studied the hoaxing habits of Americans say the proclivity to trick and embarrass a loved one or colleague often starts early in life. If said studies actually existed - thankfully, they do not - Jennifer May would probably be Exhibit A. When she was a guileless child, an April 1 morn might involve being doused by a cup of water suspended over her bedroom door or getting an earful of peanut butter after reaching for a ringing telephone that carried the goo on its earpiece (as well as the voice of her father in stitches.)
Ms. May, now an adult living in Brooklyn, has learned well. In recent years she has secretly moved her fiancé's car so he thought it had been stolen, and she has placed exploding Snaps under her roommate's toilet seat. (The unfortunate aftermath of that stunt is too tasteless to repeat.)
Some time this morning, a travel agent will call Ms. May's fiancé and announce that the couple's honeymoon cruise to the Greek Isles has been canceled for the second time in recent weeks. "I'm usually very kind and generous," Ms. May said. "It's just this one day that my evil side comes out."
Anecdotal evidence reveals that workplace pranks are far more elaborate and mortifying than those unleashed at home. Just ask Steve Wyatt, an associate creative director at Kenneth Cole who received scores of odd calls last April 1 - some from prospective semen donors looking to collect $500 for a deposit, others from people seeking free Thai massages or cheap luxury rentals.
After a few dozen such calls, Mr. Wyatt and the company's other victims discovered their phone numbers on a series of fake ads on Craig's List, courtesy of some conspiring underlings. "I found it very amusing, but it did get a bit tiresome when I kept getting calls three weeks later," Mr. Wyatt said.
Would-be pranksters beware, however. April Fools' Day-related lawsuits are not uncommon, and lawyers and psychologists say that the damage from a prank gone awry can be lasting and costly. "Some people are fragile and some people aren't; it's important to know the difference," said Dr. Robert R. Butterworth, a psychologist who specializes in trauma and who truly exists. "It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt."
Melissa Jurist, a television researcher, can attest to that. While she was standing transfixed at the copy machine a few years ago, a co-worker placed a clammy chicken foot on her bare shoulder. In an act of pure reflex, she swung around and whacked the man in the face, drawing blood.
"I felt terrible," she said, "but he felt worse."Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company