Master Pranksters

Unlimited’s compilation of the most successful pranks ever played

By Cailynn KlingbeilWhile there exists just one day a year devoted to practical jokes, mischief still occurs the other 364 days of the year. April Fool’s Day or not, here are some of the most successful pranks ever played:

Jester Kugel and Professor Boskin

The uncertain origins of April Fools’ Day were finally put to rest in 1983, or so it seemed, when Associated Press reported that a Boston University professor knew the day’s true roots.

Jospeh Boskin told a reporter that the celebration started during the Roman Empire, following a boast. When the fools and jesters of the court claimed they could rule the kingdom better than Emperor Constantine, the emperor gave the jesters one day to prove it. A jester named Kugel was appointed the first ruler and he decreed that only the absurd would be allowed that day – thus, April Fools’ Day began.

It turns out Kugel is an Eastern European dish that a friend of Boskin’s had been craving – but the connection wasn’t made until the fictitious explanation was reprinted throughout the country. “I thought I should have been complimented for a quacky, quirky story that was fitted to the occasion,” Boskin told National Geographic many years later. The news agency wasn’t so thrilled.

The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest

The Museum of Hoaxes, a California-based attraction that explores “deception, mischief, and misinformation throughout history,” has an impressive list of the top 100 April Fools’ Day Hoaxes of All Time. Coming in at number one is the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest, a prank that happened on April 1, 1957 and is believed to be one of the first times television was used to stage an April Fools’ Day prank.

The hoax happened when a BBC news show, Panorama, broadcast a short but convincing segment about an abundant spaghetti harvest by a family in Switzerland. The program’s host discussed details of the impressive spaghetti crop and footage was shown of the Swiss family pulling strands off spaghetti trees and placing them in the sun to dry. While some viewers criticized the BBC for airing the item on a serious and factual show, others wanted to know where they could purchase their own spaghetti tree.

Campus Cruiser Dome Hack

College campuses are often rampant with pranks and one of the most famous ones occurred in 1994 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The “Great Dome” is a large classical dome that sits atop a campus building, and it’s been a favourite site of hacks over the years. Pranksters pulled off the most famous Dome hack by placing what appeared to be a MIT campus police cruiser on top of the dome. The cruiser’s flashing lights were seen from ground level, while helicopters that came for a closer look saw a dummy inside dressed as a police officer, complete with a toy gun, box of donuts and a parking ticket (“no permit for this location”). The car, which was carefully assembled by pranksters using the outer metal parts of a Chevrolet Cavalier, remains on display at the MIT museum.

The Life and Times of Nat Tate

The art world was tricked in 1998 by a hoax involving both an author and rock star. The story of Nat Tate, a supposed tormented artist who burnt most of his painting before killing himself at age 31, was detailed in a book by William Boyd, titled Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960.

There existed great excitement about the rediscovered talent and many came out to the book’s New York City launch party, which featured David Bowie celebrating the launch of his new publishing house and reading extracts from the book.

But Tate did not befriend Picasso, suffer depression, burn most of his paintings or kill himself by leaping from the Staten Island ferry, because Tate never existed. He was invented by Boyd, who writes that, “My aim was, first of all, to prove how powerful and credible a pure fiction could be and, at the same time, to try to create a kind of modern fable about the art world.” One of Tate’s “paintings” (a drawing created by Boyd but signed “Nat Tate”) sold at Sotheby’s in 2011.

Quite the Opposite

Pranks, of course, don’t always turn out so well. Take prankster John Hargrave’s 2007 Super Bowl Prank: The self-proclaimed “most ambitious prank in history” involved smuggling in and distributing light-up necklaces and official looking instructions to thousands of spectators, who, when they wore them during the halftime show, were told they would collectively spell out the word “PRINCE”. Instead, the lights spelled, the name of Hargrave’s website, to the millions of people watching the Super Bowl performance. While Hargrave documented his prank’s success in detail, others were not so convinced it worked.

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