Friday, December 30, 2005

In praise of pranks

The best pranks have always blurred the lines between legality and illegality, good and bad taste, right and wrong conduct. Festivals like Saturnalia appeared to undermine the social order, but paradoxically helped to reaffirm it, by allowing people to act out their frustrations in a harmless way. The nearest thing to this today is April Fool's Day—“the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year,” as Mark Twain gently put it—though the best April 1st jokes tend to be media hoaxes, rather than traditional pranks. A classic of the genre is a 1957 BBC “documentary” on Swiss spaghetti farmers. Many British viewers asked where they could buy pasta trees.

Some of the best April Fool's stunts are those that send up national characteristics. To prove the point that Germans who break even minor rules struggle with their guilt, a few years back a newspaper in Tübingen announced a new experiment by the traffic authorities. Local drivers who had knowingly exceeded the speed limit in recent days were to turn themselves in, pay a fine and take lessons in safe driving. More than 60 sinners obliged.

From this absolutely wonderful essay in the Economist.

Link via slashdot.