History of the Prank

It’s April Fools’ Day - so our Review of the Week features a historical perspective on pranks and hoaxes

Pranksters : making mischief in the modern world

McLeod, Kembrew. New York University, 2014
355p bibl index afp, 9780814796290 $29.95

This book borrows from and complements Pranks!, ed. by Andrea Juno and V. Vale (1987). McLeod (Univ. of Iowa) chronicles four centuries of playful and educational hoaxes, from the Rosicrucians and Illuminati to the ironic protest group Billionaires for Bush. McLeod’s particular interest is media, from 19th-century pamphlets to underground photostats to contemporary social media. He details the connections between pranks and the conspiratorial thinking that thrives on them, as with the John Birch Society, panic over satanic cults, and fear of world-controlling Freemasons. The anti-authoritarian ethos of the 1960s counterculture gets a good share of the attention as do the dangers of blowback (when a prank ends up damaging its cause). McLeod is himself a sometime prankster—he trademarked “freedom of expression” and confronted Bill Clinton in a robot costume—and he provides an insider’s view of some of his stunts. Though the scholarship is thoroughly documented, the stories are occasionally repetitive and the facetious tone sometimes conceals sloppiness with the facts. The rapid gallop through dozens of pranks makes for entertaining reading, but less narration and more analysis would have resulted in a better book.

Summing Up: Recommended. With reservations. All readers.
Reviewer: J. T. Lynch, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Newark
Subject: Humanities
Choice Issue: Oct 2014