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Beyond a joke

Stephen McCulloch

April Fools’ Day comes around once a year, although sometimes it seems more often than that. Today, we are allowed to play practical jokes, and expected to be the good-natured victims of jokes played by others.

The tradition of practical joking on April 1 is less vigorous than it used to be, perhaps because every potential victim is ready to call his or her lawyer and sue for pain, humiliation or catastrophic injury. It’s safer to play jokes on your family and friends, if you have any friends left after last year.

The origin of April Fool’s Day is obscure. It is certainly many centuries old, but every historical source gives a different explanation. Some cite the Hilaria Festival in Ancient Rome, or the Holi or Huli Festival of India, both at the end of March. Other authorities say that All Fools’ Day began with the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1562, which changed the start of the year from April 1 to January 1. Those who got their dates mixed up were called “April Fools.”

April Fool’s Day jokes vary from place to place. In Portugal, for example, they throw flour at each other on this date. In France, they secretly attach a paper fish to your back and cry out, “Poisson d’avril!” I know that sounds silly, but the French are fond of fish. Here in America you are more likely to be told that your shoelaces are untied, or have your clocks changed, or be inundated with hostile computer viruses.

Even the media get in on the joke. When I was young and even more naïve than I am now, BBC television broadcast a whole program about the Italian spaghetti harvest on April 1. It showed diligent peasants cutting long strings of spaghetti hanging from trees. Years later, my mother told me that this had been a joke, and I never trusted spaghetti or the BBC ever again. Fake news stories on this date have become something of a tradition, although now it’s hard to tall the difference between April Fool fake news and regular fake news.

Since the dawn of history, practical jokes have been the special province of malicious young boys. When I was that age, there was a joke shop in the nearby town, and in retrospect, it seems as if I spent most of my young life there, poring over catalogs of tricks and novelties: itching powder, whoopee cushions, stink bombs, soap that turns your skin black, rubber hammers for banging in glass nails, and lifelike severed hands. My staple movie diet was slapstick of the Laurel and Hardy kind. A bucket of whitewash balanced on top of a half-open door seemed to me the height of sophisticated wit

Jokes are designed to make you laugh. Practical jokes tend to be cruel and even dangerous, which is why malicious young boys love them. A practical joke is intended to make the victim scared, disoriented, embarrassed, or angry. It’s not funny.

The coming presidential election, for example, has all the appearance of being a huge practical joke, guaranteed to upset everybody. There’s nothing funny about it. When the bucket falls on your head, and the stink bombs start flying, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.