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Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 364
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    From Benjamin Franklin's newspaper hoax that faked the death of his rival to Abbie Hoffman's attempt to levitate the Pentagon, pranksters, hoaxers, and con artists have caused confusion, disorder, and laughter in Western society for centuries. Profiling the most notorious mischief makers from the 1600s to the present day,Prankstersexplores how pranks are part of a long tradition of speaking truth to power and social critique.Invoking such historical and contemporary figures as P.T. Barnum, Jonathan Swift, WITCH, The Yes Men, and Stephen Colbert, Kembrew McLeod shows how staged spectacles that balance the serious and humorous can spark important public conversations. In some instances, tricksters have incited social change (and unfortunate prank blowback) by manipulating various forms of media, from newspapers to YouTube. For example, in the 1960s, self-proclaimed professional hoaxer Alan Abel lampooned America's hypocritical sexual mores by using conservative rhetoric to fool the news media into covering a satirical organization that advocated clothing naked animals. In the 1990s, Sub Pop Records then-receptionist Megan Jasper satirized the commodification of alternative music culture by pranking theNew York Timesinto reporting on her fake lexicon of grunge speak. Throughout this book, McLeod shows how pranks interrupt the daily flow of approved information and news, using humor to underscore larger, pointed truths.Written in an accessible, story-driven style,Prankstersreveals how mischief makers have left their shocking, entertaining, and educational mark on modern political and social life.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6436-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    American wit and wisdom began with some mass-mediated mischief. In the December 19, 1732 edition of thePennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin penned the following advertisement: “Just published for 1733:Poor Richard: An Almanackcontaining the lunations, eclipses, planets motions and aspects, weather, … [and the] prediction of the death of his friend Mr. Titan Leeds.” Writing under the name Richard Saunders, he not only narrowed down Leeds’s time of death to the date and time—October 17, 1733 at 3:29 p.m.—but also the exact moment when two worldly bodies aligned: “at the very instant of the conjunction of the...

  5. 1 This Is the Dawning of the Age of Enlightenment … and Pranks
    (pp. 25-53)

    Pulling a prank is like throwing a rock in the pop-culture pond. Observing the ripple effect can help us better understand how the modern world was formed—though that raises the question of why modernity has been so tangled up in trickery. The short answer is that media technologies made it easier to misrepresent reality. Through tape editing, 1940s radio producers could add applause, cut out risqué jokes, and place laughs over ones that bombed. This shifted recordings away from being a fairly straightforward “record” of a performance, opening the doors to all kinds of studio trickery. “Magnetism itself may...

  6. 2 Con Artists and Consumer Culture
    (pp. 54-72)

    Near the end of Edgar Allan Poe’s life, he published a lighthearted essay titled “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences.” The worddiddlingreferred to an elegant ruse that delighted audiences (though today, in some juvenile circles, it has taken on a more sordid subtext). The term was popularized byRaising the Wind, a popular 1803 play that featured a good-natured fellow named Jeremy Diddler. “Perhaps the first diddler was Adam,” Poe wrote, though he was quick to add, “The moderns, however, have brought it to a perfection never dreamed of by our thick-headed progenitors.” This assessment stemmed...

  7. 3 Spirits in the Material World
    (pp. 73-93)

    Trickery ruled the school throughout the nineteenth century. In addition to confidence men and playful Barnumesque exhibitions that invited audience scrutiny, popular culture was haunted by the supernatural. Middle-class consumers embraced theatrical magic during this period, spawning a hugely profitable retail industry of instructional books, magazines, and goods used for parlor tricks. Magic slowly became a respectable entertainment after it began shedding its mystical pretentions in the late 1700s. An increasing number of conjurers distanced themselves from the insinuation or explicit suggestion that their manifestations were mystical in origin, and their clothing, props, and overall self-presentation were influenced by Enlightenment...

  8. 4 Meet the Illuminati
    (pp. 94-113)

    The intentions of political pranksters, attention-seeking hoaxers, and criminal con artists vary greatly, but they fool people for the same reasons. In each instance, their deceptions are engineered to exploit a victim’s belief system. The same is true of conspiracy theorists, whose self-deceptive tendencies prime them to buy into fictions that validate their worldviews. As this chapter colorfully illustrates, conspiracy theories are often based on source material drawn from a combination of genuine historical events, satirical pranks, and the sorts of self-serving hoaxes and cons that prey on the credulous. In the case of the Rosicrucian prank, the blowback from...

  9. 5 The Golden Age of Newspaper Hoaxes
    (pp. 114-129)

    In the 1830s, with literacy hovering around 90 percent for white New Yorkers, the city was primed to become America’s newspaper capital. But it wasn’t quite there yet. New York’s eleven daily newspapers had a combined total circulation of only 26,500, a small number compared to the total population of Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs. The top-selling papers (such as theJournal of Commerceand theCommercial Advertiser) focused on political and economic news only of interest to the mercantile and upper classes. And at a whopping six cents per issue, they priced most residents out of the market. The...

  10. 6 Political Pranksters
    (pp. 130-149)

    The San Francisco Bay Area house occupied by Ken Kesey served as a communal spot where creative types hung out, took drugs, and pondered the cosmos. From this launching pad, the Merry Pranksters drove their psychedelic vision right into the heart of Middle America. Their famous 1964 road trip was a rolling social experiment, or a “superprank,” as Tom Wolfe called it inThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Sparks flew after Kesey bought a used school bus that the Pranksters dosed with traffic-accident-inducing swirls of color. They placed a “Caution: Weird Load” sign on the back and “Further” on the...

  11. 7 Prank Blowback
    (pp. 150-182)

    During the 1960s, pranking and paranoia exploded across the political spectrum—from the left, right, and thoseMöbius-likespaces where the two extremes joined up. Right-wing media, in particular, simmered with conspiracy mania. It occasionally bubbled to the surface and was picked up by mainstream media and lefty alternative newspapers before going back underground—only to resurface again, and again, andagainin the decades that followed. This cycle has been repeating ever since those Rosicrucian pranksters first tweaked conservative church authorities four centuries ago. Each incarnation of the Illuminati myth was shaped by its historical moment, and during the...

  12. 8 A Satanic Panic
    (pp. 183-216)

    Shadow secret societies and Satanism have been intertwined in the right-wing imagination throughout the modern era. This conspiratorial worldview helped American evangelicals make sense of the tumultuous 1960s, which witnessed several radical breaks from tradition. Many people in the youth movement came to believe that Western rationalism was dehumanizing, and they expressed their rebellion by retreating into Eastern religions, mysticism, and paganism. Social historian Theodore Roszak points out that there is nothing new about the existence of Theosophists, Spiritualists, Satanists, and other kinds occultists. “Whatisnew,” he wrote in the late 1960s, “is that a radical rejection of science...

  13. 9 Showbiz Tricksters and the Pop Underground
    (pp. 217-253)

    Popular culture is an inviting space for trickster figures. Entertainers generally have more leeway than your average person to push the boundaries of convention because they tend to be, well,entertaining. Bitter truths can be swallowed more easily with a dollop of sugar and spice. The eccentric Otherness exuded by early television star Korla Pandit, discussed in the next few pages, was made palatable by a spectacle that featured hypnotic music and striking costumes. One can get away with most anything by making people tap their toes, laugh, or shake their heads in disbelief. This was also true of Gorgeous...

  14. 10 An Education in Pranks
    (pp. 254-274)

    I have a confession. The subject matter covered in the previous chapter is very close to my heart, for I myself am a former computer hobbyist, Dungeons & Dragons nerd, zinester, Church of the SubGenius member, indie music fan, and mainliner of pop culture. It’s in many ways a stealth autobiography, because all of those things fundamentally shaped who I am today. That is one reason why this book’s closing pages take a personal turn—though not entirely, because several other people have shared the same kinds of experiences. I’m merely a minor actor in a comedic drama that played out...

  15. Conclusion: Reflections of a Prankster
    (pp. 275-286)

    Tapping into a rich, centuries-old tradition, pranksters infuse their performances with humor, irony, and satire. They reject the dominant protest model—march, chant, and listen—in favor of one that is more dynamic, engaging, and social. Before this new form of activism made its presence known in the 1990s, most political rallies were quite predictable. They required passive spectatorship: leaders organized and made speeches while followers listened and sometimes got arrested. The mass anti–Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s embodied this approach, which was at odds with the counterculture’s radical pretentions. Ken Kesey noted this contradiction when he took...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 287-310)
    (pp. 311-332)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 333-354)
    (pp. 355-355)