The whoopee cushion, sure to be dusted off by pranksters young and old this April Fools’ Day, is among the most enduring pranks in human history. The gag was already part of the societal laugh track as far back as 218 CE when the Roman priest-emperor Elagabalus used it on unsuspecting dinner guests, as Near Eastern archeologist Warwick Ball recounts in Rome in the East.
You could argue that the teenaged Elagabalus deployed proto-whoopee cushions solely for his own amusement. Or maybe they provided a way for him to put stuffy dignitaries in their place.
Pranking has always made space for the above and more—offering us a source of entertainment, amusement, humiliation, and embarrassment. The most radical can even educate and activate us. As the organizer Nancy Kricorian once put it, pranks—like her group CODEPINK glitter-bombing a presidential hopeful for his anti-LGBTQ politics—give us “an alternative version of reality visible on the streets and on the news.”
But has the digital age ruined pranking?
Social media has certainly opened up the prank—allowing anyone with a camera to upload a stunt with the possibility that it could go viral, which led to something of a cash grab in the aughts as creators made a fortune posting sensationalist clickbait (sometimes real, sometimes staged) on monetized prank channels.
Whether it was making crank calls, performing bizarre acts in public, or provoking strangers, these entrepreneurial prankster accounts generated millions of page views at their height, becoming “one of the major contents of social media landscape … purposively designed [for an] economy of pay-per-click/view,” researchers report.
It can be depressing to think of the modern prank primarily serving as an engine of page views. But commercialized pranksters are nothing new. As Kembrew McLeod, author of Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, tells me: “It’s just that our new media environment has probably made us pay attention to especially the strain of hucksters and hoaxers who are in it for the money.”
All the way back in the 18th century, prankster Benjamin Franklin drummed up sales of his Poor Richard’s Almanack by starting a trolling war with rival printer Titan Leeds. By using astrology, “Richard,” Franklin’s pseudonym predicted Leeds’ exact time of death in the papers. When his prediction didn’t pan out and the publisher remained alive and producing pamphlets, “Richard” hen kept the gag going by insisting that Leeds’ ghost was now in charge. (Like most pranks, Franklin wasn’t the first to pull this gag; 25 years earlier, Jonathan Swift, looking to stick it to astrologer John Partridge, published his own prediction of the astrologer’s time of death.)
But it’s also important to remember that pranking is an ecosystem, and as tastes and trends change, so too will the pranks that rise to the top.
From fake kidnapping to straight-up harassment, modern pranksters pushed the boundaries so far in their quests for stardom that by 2019, YouTube was forced to clarify what could—and could not—be posted on its platform. Its community guidelines no note: “We don’t allow pranks that make victims believe they’re in serious physical danger – for example, a home invasion prank or a drive-by shooting prank. We also don’t allow pranks that cause children to experience severe emotional distress.”
It was clear that the joke had started to go too far online, and fan backlash, coupled with YouTube’s policy changes, once again has started to shift the prank landscape.
NBC trends reporter Morgan Sung called attention to waning interest around the aughts YouTube prankster in 2022, observing that “the pranks that truly flourish online today are the ones trolling political establishments as a form of social activism.”
Activist pranksters have a rich lineage all their own. In 1991, members of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) pranked then-U.S. Senator Jesse Helms by installing a giant condom over his home to draw attention to his vocal opposition to funding safe-sex education. And in the 1960s, Youth International Party (better known as Yippie) activists pulled pranks like throwing money onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and nominating a pig for president at the Democratic National Convention.
One of the most impactful pranks of late in this vein came when a Twitter user impersonated the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. On their fake account, they announced that insulin—a life-saving medication for people with diabetes—was now free. Just months after the stunt, and after three decades of raising list prices on its most widely used insulin product, Eli Lilly was seemingly shamed into announcing that it would cap out-of-pocket insulin costs at $35 per month.
Viewing the landscape of pranks from the lens of 2023, it may be most useful to see the trickery afoot operating amid a larger ecosystem. As McLeod put it: “The socially conscious pranksters and the hucksters and P.T. Barnums of today have continued to operate essentially in parallel with each other.”
But McLeod has noticed one recent change in the prank world today that has less of a precedent: the danger that people take on for the sake of the prank.
Having once dressed up as a robot to confront Bill Clinton, McLeod is no stranger to the risks inherent in his craft. But he’s noticed that there’s been a heightened danger of physical violence around pulling political pranks in the past decade.
“It’s just this much more charged political environment,” he said, which leads to more altercations, making it “much more dangerous to engage in these sorts of disruptive pranks that are intended to be social commentary.”
But such a volatile political atmosphere, of course, suggests that causing some good mischief is all the more vital.
Should you want to try your hand at something a little more complex than a whoopee cushion this April 1, McLeod has some advice for you: to pull off a good prank, he shared, all it takes is “a little bit of planning, a little bit of bravery, and some imagination.”