The Prankster's art

A correspondent asks me whether I’m keen on practical jokes. I reply that I enjoy a harmless prank as much as the next ape, but keeping them innocuous is no easy matter in the wild. I recall the case of an infant gorilla who put a live frog inside his sleeping mother’s mouth. She was so shocked when the croaking awoke her that she swallowed the amphibian whole. It must have hopped about inside in her belly for a good five minutes before expiring. It sounds amusing, but what if the frog had been poisonous? The wrong sort of caper can be deadly in the jungle.

There were far more opportunities for this sort of thing in the circus. I remember a trick we played on an acrobat – a pretty girl who looked in the mirror a lot. We were watching a home movie of a recent show when she fell asleep in her chair. “Must have had a late night,” someone said. One of the clowns got a felt pen and was about to draw something on her face when I grabbed his wrist.

“What are you going to draw?” I asked softly

“A Hitler moustache,” he whispered in reply.

I immediately thought this was a bad idea. Who really wants to see a woman who looks like Hitler? Not even Hitler himself, I should imagine. Eva Braun might have, but she was a kinky mare. More to the point, there is a dearth of good quips to toss at a girl with a Hitler moustache. Asking her if she’s going to make Rommel commander of the Africa Korps is not particularly funny and tends to give the game away.

“I’ve got a better idea,” I said, taking the pen from the clown. With a few delicate strokes, I drew some very fetching cat’s whiskers on her face.

She woke up a little later and yawned with her hand over her mouth.

“How long have I been asleep?” she asked. “God, I must look awful!”

Sensing that a trip to the bathroom was imminent, I made eye contact with the clowns to signal that the wisecracks should commence without delay.

“Nonsense!” said one of them to her. “You look like an absolute sex kitten!”

“Thanks,” she said beaming, while everyone else smirked.

“Can I get you something to drink?” another clown asked her. “Tea, coffee…saucer of milk?”

Everyone laughed liked mad. After asking what the hell was going on, she went to the bathroom and found out for herself. I am pleased to say that she took the joke in good spirit, perhaps because she did look rather cute with those whiskers.

Now this was a genuinely harmless prank with no ill consequences, but many others have not been so benign. A sure sign that a joke has got out of hand is when someone calls the police. This is what happened when a 17-year-old girl in New Zealand sent lewd text messages to a 31-year-old man, promising him unspeakable debaucheries if he presented himself at a certain address. To speed things along, she advised him to strip naked when he got to the front door. He did as she suggested and rang the doorbell. The person who answered was not the girl, nor anyone else expecting the company of a naked man. Infuriated by the nude intruder, the householder called the police, who arrested both the man and the girl.

The moral of the story is that a good practical joke requires careful forethought. The Kiwi girl was clearly inexperienced and didn’t think through the consequences of sending a naked sex maniac into someone’s front garden. The man, of course, played a big part in the debacle. Based on what happened, I would describe him as a village idiot seeking promotion to the rank of moron. If you’re going to hoax people, you should choose your targets carefully. There’s not much kudos in making an arse look like an arse.

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