Pranks are one of the underappreciated comedic forms. The opposite of improv, they require advance planning and conscientious execution.
In January 2009 a hacker changed two LED road signs in Austin to warn drivers of zombies. The signs, along the well-traveled Lamar Blvd, were operated by construction contractors, but hackers broke in and changed the messages to things like "Zombies in Area – Run!" and “Caution! Zombies! Ahead!!!” This prank made thousands of people smile. It was right out there in the open for everyone to see – ridiculous and in-your-face. Everyone knew it was a prank right away, and everyone was impressed, even the police.
The perpetrator(s) of this fine hoax never came forward and claimed credit.
They were probably afraid of being prosecuted for criminal mischief and endangering public safety. Or maybe they are just modest and self-effacing. Either way, the anonymity of the perpetrators makes the prank all the more delicious. Like the audience who really doesn’t want to know how the magician pulls off those illusions, prank aficionados won’t necessarily be happier if we know who did it.
The best pranks to me are
- Safe (nobody gets hurt)
Even simple and low-key pranks are good. The April Fools' joke, the practical gag on a friend's birthday. Any form of culture hacking is good culture hacking. Like a caper movie, witnessing a prank of any complexity makes you feel alive and as if the universe is teeming with possibilities.
There are the archetypal suburban teenage pranks – the flaming bag of manure left on the doorstep, the toilet paper in the trees. These are all good too, but it is a shame that the teenage pranksters don't graduate to something more public and large scale when they grow up. Because if there's anything out earnest world needs, it's more pranks.
One of the most transcendently awesome pranks was the Manti Te'O fake dead girlfriend prank of 2011-2012. Te'O, a linebacker for Notre Dame University, told reporters he had a California girlfriend named Lennay Kekua. The two had a long-distance relationship. Kekua was lucky to have one of the best college football players as a boyfriend, but otherwise she was very unlucky. She was seriously injured in a car crash and while in the hospital was diagnosed with leukemia. Te'O and she talked by phone regularly while she was in the hospital. Her family members reportedly said she brightened when she heard his voice. But her luck ran out as she died in September 2012.
The prank, of course, is that Lennay Kekua never existed. She was made up.
Three days later, Notre Dame's football team achieved an upset over Michigan State. Te'O had an amazing 12 tackles. The press went wild. Te'O gave a post-game interview thanking the fans for the support of his girlfriend’s family.
A week later Lennay Kekua's funeral allegedly took place. (It didn't because she never existed). Te'O said she asked him to skip the funeral and help Notre Dame beat Michigan. In a post-game speech, coach Brian Kelly awarded the game ball "to Lennay".
Notre Dame went 12-1 and to the BCS Championship game. Te'O placed second in Heisman Trophy voting. The Notre Dame media machine and fans, raised on stories of Knute Rockne’s motivational speeches about The Gipper, ate it all up. This inspirational story gave the Notre Dame players a little extra motivation and gave their fans a little extra reason to feel superior.
As if they needed it. Aren’t we tired of hearing about the hallowed traditions of Notre Dame and the alleged integrity and moral advantage they have over the rest of college football? Notre Dame set themselves up to be taken down by a good prank, and their best player delivered.
This amazing prank also exposed the national sports media as an Emperor with No Clothes. Many media outlets had repeated the compelling story of the dead girlfriend and the inspiration she gave to Te'O, to Notre Dame, and indeed to America itself. Never letting the facts (or lack of verifiable facts) get in the way of a good story, lazy sportswriters looking for an emotional hook swallowed this story whole Do you ever want to punch those talking heads on ESPN? I do, and the revelation of the fake dead girlfriend prank was a much deserved embarrassment to the vapid sports journalism industry.
Some claim Manti Te'O was not in on this prank, and was in fact duped by someone in California pretending to be Lennay Kekua on the internet. I'm not buying it. First Te'O was 21 years old in 2012. Isn't his generation supposed to be savvy about social media? This isn't a case of a senior citizen being confused by an email spammer. Second, Te'O was a college student and presumably had some smarts. There's no way he was duped by a prankster for that long. He was in on it.
Now, my challenge to you readers, is: what prank are you in on? Can you think up and execute a prank that is audacious, public, safe, legal, and original? The Universe will love you for it.