The joke’s on you

Mar 302006
Authors: Jessica Driscoll Daily Targum Rutgers

(U-WIRE) NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Though it is not a true holiday by religious association, any opportunity to confuse, irritate, or embarrass your friends and family without significant repercussions or a yearlong grudge is cause for celebration. There is such inexplicable pleasure gained from the sight of a parent taking an early-morning gulp of coffee flavored with the salt that you covertly transferred to the sugar bowl before dawn or the sounds of a roommate’s expletives as she attempts slumber only to find that her sheets and pillows have been carefully sewn to her mattress. Who could have guessed that toilet paper and rubber insects could provide so many hours of entertainment and stories for years to come or that April 1st would be the ideal day to measure the gullibility of one’s acquaintances and test the thresholds of one’s friends?

Many theories have circulated about the origins of April Fools Day. In the ancient world, the New Year was celebrated among many cultures on or around April 1st One idea is that this day was the finale of vernal equinox festivities when celebrants had become particularly brazen and hungry for entertainment. There is still evidence of this theory today in the Indian culture when people are sent on useless errands for pure amusement. Another hypothesis is that the concept of “April Fools” originated when Charles IX of France decided that his nation would accept the Gregorian calendar which marked January 1st as the New Year. Those who were not privy to this decree were regarded as fools and endured mock ceremonial treatment during the bogus holiday. There is also a story that on one day during his reign, Constantine allowed his court jester, Kugel, to act as king for one day after he claimed that he could do a better job. The problem with this explanation lies in the fact that court jesters at that time were actually regarded with respect and were known to be intelligent thereby discounting the “fool” aspect.

Whatever its background, April Fools Day is celebrated annually in multiple countries with great enthusiasm. Humans love to test their limits and play upon the naiveties of their fellow men for entertainment. There have been several great hoaxes in the last 200 years that have proved how truly easy it is to dupe the general public.

One of the most famous pranks played on the world’s television audience came from the BBC. One would not expect such a reliable, straight-laced news organization to participate in Fools Day action, but on their respected news program, Panorama, the BBC announced on April 1, 1957, that due to a mild winter and the extermination of the “dreaded spaghetti weevil”, the people of Switzerland were enjoying an exceptional spaghetti crop harvest. The program ran footage of Swiss peasants plucking spaghetti noodles from trees and, unbelievably, a vast number of people took the bait. The station was barraged with phone calls from trusting souls who demanded to know how they could produce their own spaghetti trees. The BBC responded, “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

Continuing along a culinary line, two other food hoaxes were especially notable for their effects on the public. In 1878, the New York Graphic ran an April 1 story that Thomas Edison had invented a food machine that would convert soil directly into cereal and water into wine thereby solving all the world’s hunger problems. Newspapers around the country reprinted the story as fact and the Graphic had a field day in its next issue mocking the country’s media system. In 1998, Burger King decided to publish a full-page ad in USA Today announcing the introduction of the “left-handed Whopper” to the menu. The advertisement explained that this burger was specially constructed for the 32 million southpaws in the US, and that while it contained all of the same ingredients as the original whopper, the condiments were all rotated 180 degrees. The following day, BK reported that this ploy had been a hoax and that thousands had arrived at restaurants around the country requesting the new menu addition and “many others had requested their own ‘right-handed’ version” as well. Apparently hunger can drastically affect a person’s sucker-status.

Countless other pranks have been played on the American and international public from a 1962 Swedish announcement that one could convert his black and white TV to a color set by pulling a nylon stocking over it to a 1993 German radio station announcement that joggers in the nation’s parks could not exceed 6mph because they would be considered a danger to mating squirrels. Of course, some spurred more impassioned reactions than others such as the apocalyptic predictions of a certain museum representative.

On March 31st, 1940, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia issued a press release stating that the world would come to an end the following day at 3pm Eastern Standard Time. KYW radio relayed this information with an official addendum, “This is no April Fool joke. Confirmation can be obtained from Wagner Schlesinger, director of the Fels Planetarium of this city.” Public panic ensued immediately and only subsided after it was revealed that the message hoax had been released by the Institute’s press agent to publicize an April 1st lecture titled, “How Will the World End?” Needless to say, that particular press agent was dismissed soon after.

The celebration of April Fools Day can take many forms from a well-placed foam snake to a crisis-inducing public service announcement. The fact remains that humans are a susceptible group prone to falling for the most simple of tricks. However, with all the fun that can be had on each other’s behalf, who would want it any other way?

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