A fake flower that squirts water in the eyes of unsuspecting victims can still draw yuks. But practical jokers have new ammunition.
Now there are "calculators" and miniature "word processors" that squirt water when the keys are punched. A disposable plastic cigarette "lighter" squirts water when it's pressed.People buy the new products, but the old timers, including joy buzzers and Whoopee cushions, are still popular.
"I think everybody has a bit of a sadistic nature," said Bud Adams, president of the S.S. Adams Co. in Neptune, N.J. The business is reputed to be the oldest joke and novelty company in the United States.
He admitted that many novelties that have been around for years continue to be popular. "However, you can't do business unless you continue to bring out new items from time to time."
The S.S. Adams Co. introduces about 10 new products a year, said Chris Adams, vice president of sales and marketing. Some of these are brand new, others are items that were dropped years ago.
This year's novelties include a silver dollar that sticks to the ground when someone tries to pick it up, a bottle of nail polish that looks as if it's been spilled and a fake cigarette that's attached to a "burned" spot - suitable for placing on a wooden table.
Chris Adams's grandfather, Sam Adams, went into the joke/novelty business in 1906 after a fluke incident. While working as a salesman for a coal tar company, Sam visited a factory and discovered a packing material that was making everybody sneeze. The material was scrapped, so Sam took it, packaged it in little envelopes and sold it as sneezing powder.
The powder was extremely popular at conventions during the 1908 presidential election year, said Chris. As a result, Sam formed the Cachoo Sneezing Powder Co. and invented more and more practical jokes and magic tricks. The S.S. Adams Co. now has 180 different products ranging from a "snake" that pops out when a can of "peanuts" is opened to a "fly" in an "ice cube."
What's it like working in a practical joke factory? "I'm definitely part of the test market," said Chris. "My mother is usually the best victim. She's seen everything from snakes jumping out of her yogurt to Whoopee cushions in places you'd never expect to find them."
The company does not make products that can hurt people, said Chris. "They're sold for children. We're very cautious about product liability. We wouldn't handle anything that's dangerous."
But sometimes practical jokes lead to dangerous situations.
Chris recalled the time a man accidentally lent a friend an exploding writing pen. Unaware that it was a joke pen, the man put it in his vest pocket. Later, he got on a plane, opened the pen and it went off. "The airline security was just about to arrest him when the salesman told him how this entire mishap occurred."
A regular customer for joke items is Memphis dentist Wally Dyke.
Dyke often puts Whoopee cushions on the dentist's chair to surprise unsuspecting patients. He also placed a rubber cockroach on the ceiling directly above the chair. He tells his patients to lie back, tilt their chins up, look at the ceiling and be still.
"I watch their eyes," said Dyke. "They look up, look at me and look back up. They never think about what I'm doing to them."
As another joke, Dyke also keeps a can of generic roach spray near the cup of water by the chair.
Dyke has devised his own party gag. He makes impressions of people's mouths and then inserts denture teeth into them. People put their new set of teeth over their real teeth, don eyeglasses and totally change their identities. This freaks people out at get-togethers, Dyke said.
Performing practical jokes is "just a good way of having good, clean fun," said Dyke. "It gives them (people) a little humility. I've never had people get really upset."
One of his newer jokes is a "screaming ball" that he keeps in his briefcase. This is a battery-activated device that creates the shrill sound of a human voice. "It's great on elevators. I can hide it in my bag. It makes people look around."
The screaming ball in his briefcase has even surprised Dyke a few times. "I'll get my keys out and that thing screams at me and I jump."
Dyke said playing practical jokes on people makes him feel like a kid. "You never feel better than when you're a kid."