Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World

Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World

Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World

Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World

Synopsis

From Benjamin Franklin's newspaper hoax that faked the death of his rival to Abbie Hoffman's attempt to levitate the Pentagon, pranksters, hoaxers, and con artists have caused confusion, disorder, and laughter in Western society for centuries. Profiling the most notorious mischief makers from the 1600s to the present day, Pranksters explores how "pranks" are part of a long tradition of speaking truth to power and social critique.

Invoking such historical and contemporary figures as P.T. Barnum, Jonathan Swift, WITCH, The Yes Men, and Stephen Colbert, Kembrew McLeod shows how staged spectacles that balance the serious and humorous can spark important public conversations. In some instances, tricksters have incited social change (and unfortunate prank blowback) by manipulating various forms of media, from newspapers to YouTube. For example, in the 1960s, self-proclaimed "professional hoaxer" Alan Abel lampooned America's hypocritical sexual mores by using conservative rhetoric to fool the news media into covering a satirical organization that advocated clothing naked animals. In the 1990s, Sub Pop Records then-receptionist Megan Jasper satirized the commodification of alternative music culture by pranking the New York Times into reporting on her fake lexicon of "grunge speak." Throughout this book, McLeod shows how pranks interrupt the daily flow of approved information and news, using humor to underscore larger, pointed truths.

Written in an accessible, story-driven style, Pranksters reveals how mischief makers have left their shocking, entertaining, and educational mark on modern political and social life.

Excerpt

American wit and wisdom began with some mass-mediated mischief. in the December 19, 1732 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin penned the following advertisement: “Just published for 1733: Poor Richard: An Almanack containing the lunations, eclipses, planets motions and aspects, weather, … [and the] prediction of the death of his friend Mr. Titan Leeds.” Writing under the name Richard Saunders, he not only narrowed down Leeds’s time of death to the date and time—October 17, 1733 at 3:29 p.m.—but also the exact moment when two worldly bodies aligned: “at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury.” Franklin was a rationalist product of the Enlightenment. He was a cynic who valued science over superstition, and heaped scorn on astrologers such as Titan Leeds. More crucially, Leeds was a business rival, and the printer’s way up the ladder of wealth was often achieved by stepping on his competitors. Franklin claimed that the two friends frequently debated when the cosmos had scheduled Leeds’s appointment with the grim reaper: “But at length he is inclinable to agree with my judgment. Which of us is most exact, a little time will now determine.”

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