Among the royal treasures in Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, Denmark, is a carefully preserved 17th-century armchair. It once belonged to Christian IV. A hidden mechanism in the arms of the chair would pin the king’s guests in the seat, where they would be soaked with water from a container on the back. When they were released, a small trumpet tooted the news to all who cared to hear, thus proving that flatulent jokes have an ancient and royal lineage. 

Despite their pedigree, practical jokes and pranks are often disparaged. As the compiler of one early joke book put it, “If the pun is the lowest form of wit, the practical joke may be described even more assuredly as the lowest form of humor.” 

The practical joke “gives no intellectual satisfaction” according to humor scholar Avner Ziv: “For years a variegated industry has supplied players of practical jokes with an apparatus for secret attacks devoid of humorous talent: flowers that spurt water up a person’s nose as he bends over to smell them; cigarette boxes from which frogs jump out; jars of mustard whose lids conceal snakes; fake mice designed to look as real as possible, to be placed in such sensitive spots as kitchen drawers; and many more. ... An attraction to this sort of humor is without a doubt connected to the innocence and lack of sophistication characteristic of childhood.” 

Like Ziv, many sophisticated persons disparage the practical joke as puerile and devoid of skill or talent. 

But as a folklorist, I believe that creativity and artistry exist throughout society in humble everyday settings as much as they do in the semisacred arenas that post-Renaissance Western culture has created for art and literature. 

However, to appreciate the skill and artistry of the practical joke it is necessary to look at the particulars — particular practical jokes as they are played by particular people at particular times and in particular places. Some practical jokes are better than others, but the best of them demand significant skill and talent, not only to think up but also to execute.

Types of practical jokes

At any given moment, the chances are good that somebody near you is involved in a practical joke, plotting another or regaling friends with stories of tricks that they have played, been taken in by or heard of. The ready availability of phone cameras and social media makes it easy for practical jokers to record their efforts and post them for the enjoyment and commentary of wide audiences. 

Various attempts have been made to categorize pranks, practical jokes and their cousins. Folklorist Richard Tallman suggested a classificatory scheme that took into account the scale, action and the intent of the prank. Sociologist Erving Goffman arranged these jokes by scale and elaborateness: kidding, leg-pulling, practical joking, surprise parties, larks or rags, and corrective hoaxing. 

I propose five types, based on the different roles of their targets and whether their effectiveness requires revelation and/or deception — put-ons, fool’s errands, kick-me pranks, booby traps and stunts.

Put-ons

Put-ons, also known as leg-pulls, may arise spontaneously in the course of everyday discourse and contain their targets very briefly. 

When visitors ask me what the stuffed animal in my office is, I tell them it is a jackalope.

“What’s a jackalope?” they ask.

“A jackalope is a cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope.”

“Oh. I never saw one before.”

“They’re very rare. They come from Wyoming, and only come out at night. If you listen closely out on the prairie, sometimes you can hear them singing (pause) ‘Home on the Range.’”

Performers tell tales to fool the stranger or the greenhorn while delighting the insider audience with displays of verbal artistry. 

Piling exaggeration on exaggeration, tall tales move the listener from belief to doubt to disbelief. What distinguishes this category of fabrication is that nothing is required of the target beyond a word or phrase that shows he or she believes the fiction.

Fool’s errands

Whenever the target moves from passive belief to acting on that belief, we have a fool’s errand, one of the earliest recorded forms of practical joke. 

In “The Birched Schoolboy,” an anonymous 16th-century poem, the eponymous character excuses his tardiness by claiming that his mother had sent him to milk the ducks — “milke dukkis”. This type of practical joke lures its targets into a specific but misguided course of action: for example, venturing on a nocturnal snipe hunt, or driving to a nonexistent public event.

Effective fool’s errands must find ways to motivate targets to interrupt their everyday activities and act in specific, extraordinary ways. According to practical jokers, targets who fail to notice this playful joking contribute to their own victimization. 

Kick me

This trick deserves a type of its own because it requires neither extraordinary action by the target nor revelation of the joke. By a simple stratagem, the target is unwittingly made into a performer for a hidden audience. A sign on one’s back, something painted on one’s face while asleep, or something similar is all it takes to effect the transformation. 

As with other fabrications, the humor is enhanced by the targets’ ignorance of their objective appearance and by the incongruity between self-image and what others see.

Booby traps

Where a fool’s errand uses false auspices to persuade its targets to get up and do something out of the ordinary, an effective booby trap aims only to surprise — sometimes in an unpleasant way but always with the intention of causing loss of composure. The jokers’ goal is to cause everyday composure to collapse into surprise, alarm, embarrassment, annoyance, helpless laughter or a combination of these.

At work, jokers coat telephone receivers with grease, fill safety helmets with water, or rearrange the keys on computer keyboards. At home, they put salt in the sugar bowl, loosen the cap on the ketchup bottle or short-sheet the bed. The office cubicle wrapped in tin foil and the car filled with packing peanuts both belong to the booby trap type. 

Booby trap jokes tamper with everyday objects so that they are unusable or have unusual effects, and the jokes are effective only if the targets fail to notice these changes and attempt to use them in the normal fashion. While a fool’s errand tries to elicit an out-of-the-ordinary response, the effectiveness of a booby trap depends on people’s attempts to use everyday objects in everyday ways. 

The surprise need not be an unpleasant or messy one — but astonishment is essential to effectiveness.

Stunts

These pranks require surprise but not extended deceptions, and while they have audiences, they scarcely have targets in the same sense as other practical jokes. 

The “rags” of British University students and the “hacks” of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology both belong in this category. MIT hacks are widely celebrated for their impressive constructions designed to be sprung upon the rest of the campus or surrounding areas. 

In what MIT students widely regard as a supreme example of the hacker’s art, the MIT community awoke one morning in 1994 to find a campus police cruiser parked on the top of the dome (150 feet above ground), complete with flashing lights and a dummy police officer eating donuts. The car sported a parking ticket that read “No permit for this location.”

Instead of scrutinizing targets, these pranks direct attention primarily to the creativity and artistry of the pranksters.

Beyond the university environment, public stunts unsettle conventional thinking. In practical jokes of this type, targets are always collective and anonymous — anyone who happens to encounter the pranksters’ work.

The (im)morality of the practical joke

Practical jokes are unilateral play. This is the only definition I have found that can encompass the full range of activities that are commonly called practical jokes or pranks (the two terms are virtually indistinguishable synonyms).

They are about relationships, whether between individuals or between individuals and the groups to which they belong. 

Are practical jokes inevitably simple and crude? I submit that the practical joke in its various forms allows plenty of room for skill, creativity, elaboration and personal style. 

By muddying the clear boundaries that usually surround the play realm, practical jokes provide a glimpse into chaos. The clear limits of time and space and the elaborate rules that surround play all exist to create the illusion that chaos is safely contained. 

Chaos is simply the universe as it exists outside of the social constructions that human beings impose upon it. “Social order, when it functions well, envelops the individual in a web of habits and meanings that are experienced as self-evidently real,” according to Peter Berger. 

A practical joke disrupts the constructed social order. Practical joking pushes to the limit our reliance on boundaries and our simultaneous longing for chaos. Just remember: chaos is thrilling when it is safely bounded, but fearsome when it is on the loose.

This essay is a modified excerpt from Moira Marsh’s “Practically Joking” published by the Utah State University Press. Marsh is the subject librarian for anthropology, sociology, folklore and comparative literature at the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries. She holds a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University, and her research on practical jokes, cross-cultural approaches to laughter and humor theory has been published in folklore journals, textbooks and encyclopedias.