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Volume 9, Issue 2: Non Est

The Ethics of Practical Joking

Douglas Jones

Some practical joke victims call them "lies," and some perpetrators call them "works of art," so we better settle this issue once and for all. As a thoroughly objective party to the discussion, I will be able to judge fairly.

In simple form, a practical joke is a playful trick, often involving some physical means, in which a victim is placed in an embarrassing position. What could be wrong with this? Its legitimacy seems self-evident to me. But some of the weaker brethren among us might think that tricks or deceptions are types of lies or that embarrassing people is bad. Let's begin by considering some categories.
Practical jokes fall into two major kinds--(a) surprise pranks and (b) artful deceptions. Surprise pranks do not involve any thoughtful deception, but they do involve surprise, hence the adjective. Many things fall under the concept of surprise pranks, some of them low-class (whoopee cushions) and some a little more elegant. Whoopee cushions, snake cans, palm buzzers, water above doors, toilet-papered houses are vaudevillian throw-backs and should be banned under international law. But more elegant surprise pranks have some minor level of merit, though they are still inferior to artful deceptions. I have a dear friend who shall remain nameless, since as a lawyer his current life is a punishment already. I once purchased a brand new car, and, soon after, this person entered a classified advertisement offering my new car for sale at an unbelievable discount. My phone was flooded with calls. Cruel but artful. I replied by waiting for a time when he had a very important job interview, then I filled his small car to the brim with those styrofoam packing peanuts. The day was windy, and he was late. He still hasn't forgiven me. Pray for him. Other surprise pranks include placing "condemned" signs on houses that aren't, wrapping rubber bands around kitchen sink spray hoses so they spray immediately, sending in a friend's name for endless dating-service junk mail, and a long blurred history of torment that escapes me at present.
Artful deceptions, the second major category, are true practical jokes. You probably have your own list. But these are not just surprises, they involve slants on the truth (so-called "deceptions"). Word has it that those who work as janitors and security guards have access to all sorts of official-looking stationery. Some of these people have sent subpoenas to friends. Some have included friends in wills or drafted friends into military service. Phones are quite effective in this way too. Some friends call others unexpectedly and pretend to be intrusive social workers, IRS agents, EPA officials, etc., basically anyone who can strike abject terror into innocent people.
But these lower kinds of artful deceptions end a little too quickly for those enjoying them. People recognize your voice, or they realize there is no military draft. Better artful deceptions last a day or two and involve several kinds of stationery, props, confirmations, and actors. You have to plan these in advance, and check and recheck the story for believability. For example, if you want to trick a dear friend who is writing a book that his publisher has asked for major frustrating revisions at the last minute, you need to get a hold of the publisher's stationery (ask them to fax something to you) and learn to write in their style with facts close to the case. Then set your fax return number to show the publisher's return fax number and name. Send it off. Pretty soon your friend will be yelling at his quite confused editor and nearly losing the whole project. You can sit back and smile at a job well done.
For another friend, I went to a great deal of effort with city stationery to prove that the city was starting legal proceedings against him for building code violations. Tragically, another "friend" tipped off this friend, and so my suspected victim showered me with more realistic threat letters from the city that he said he regularly ignored at no peril. My letter paled by comparison, and I fell for his fake letters like a fool. It won't happen again.
A more elaborate deception involved setting up a fake interview for a friend on ABC's Nightline. I duplicated their logo and called their D.C. office to get all the right phone and fax numbers, along with the real names of the ABC folks in charge of booking guests. The ruse lasted all day, and then I had "Nightline" move up the interview to that same night by phone. My sister agreed to call my friend and act like a Nightline agent, and she asked more and more absurd questions, until she finally confessed the whole thing was a fake. A group of us burst into laughter in the back office. I still walk around in fear and trepidation, even though I've tried various penances. One more tip: you can only play good practical jokes on humble people. Humble people laugh, but arrogant people get angry. All my victim-friends showed their humble characters very well.
And now to turn to my main point about the ethics of practical joking. Hmmm. I seem to have run out of space. Oh well.

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