Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World
New York University Press
New York, London
By BRAD WEISMANN
Nobody likes a smartass.
Pranks are often thought of as a low form of humor, ranged down there with puns and practical jokes. However, Kembrew McLeod’s comprehensive and thought-provoking history of pranking ranks it much more highly. Pranking runs through modern history like a fault line of sardonic disorder, and McLeod demonstrates admirably the great, society-changing effects some of it has caused, as well as the damage and destruction that other examples have wrought.
McLeod’s wide net takes in all activities designed to make fools of society at large. He marks his start at the point where broader, faster forms of communication – pamphlets, almanacs, and proto-newspapers – lent themselves to the pointed attack, the spoof, and the literary hotfoot. The gamut begins with Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” and wends its way to today through a variety of forms and frames, motivated by everything from sheer criminal intent to the most idealistic attempts to remake society.
A short list of topics and characters covered should in itself propel the curious into its satisfying pages: Benjamin Franklin, P.T. Barnum, the anti-Spiritualism movement, yellow journalism, the Merry Pranksters and the Chicago 8, “Paul is dead”, Andy Kaufman, and today’s hackers and groups like Anonymous. All relate to the intent of invoking a cathartic rethinking of a culture’s shared assumptions, waking it from its addled distractions.
While it seems that the primary motivation of a prankster is to crack a joke, McLeod makes it very clear that, by and large, society rarely gets it (and if it does, it tries to tear the perpetrator to shreds). Indeed, many of the fonts of crazy conspiracy theories – documents pretending to pertain to the Rosicrucians, Illuminati, Freemasons, the “Inner Circle” – were written as humor, satire, parody, all unfortunately taken at face value and run with by those that are inclined to paranoia. Even more disturbing are his accounts of the life-and-career-ruining “rumor panics,” such as the satanic-messages-in-rock-songs and the repressed-memory-child-abuse cases of more recent decades. In McLeod’s universe, the human mind doesn’t need much tinder to spark an outbreak of fear, hate, and ugly behavior.
McLeod is the perfect person to tackle the topic, as he himself has participated and/or perpetrated some mind games of his own. Most notably, he made Michelle Bachmann feel uncomfortable in the guise of a gay robot – which makes him A-Number-One in my book. He is able to expertly dissect not only the mechanics and thrust of the pranks, but analyze the repercussions and the effectiveness of the actions as well, providing a micro- as well as macro-focus.
It’s an examination, not a celebration. The moral ambiguities of pranking are in full view here. Still, there’s a sense here that the author sees pranking at its best as a creative kind of non-violent civil disobedience, justified in the face of a domineering state that brainwashes its inhabitants with propaganda of the kind pioneered by Edward Bernays, which can be construed as a kind of pranking itself. McLeod quotes media critic Stuart Ewen, who “characterizes Bernays’s ideal model of communication as merely a hallucination of democracy: ‘A highly educated class of opinion-molding tacticians is continuously at work, analyzing the social terrain and adjusting the mental scenery from which the public mind, with its limited intellect, derives its opinions.’”