July 03, 2009

Practical jokes usually demonstrate little more than the greater knowledge of one person over another, and a more or less vicious willingness to exploit the other person's ignorance for laughter at their expense. Simple scatalogical jokes are by far the most common, although sometimes there may be a glint of subtlety. Occasionally, however, the joke exposes a deeper truth. All the following jokes were set up and carried out by a professional company.

Joke #1

The first prankster, who has arrived in a van with a 'botanical gardens' logo, points out an unexpected find: a flower marked in her book as extinct is in full bloom on the park lawn. She asks her targets to keep an eye on it until she can get it safely transplanted into the botanical gardens, and goes to her van to get the materials. Almost at once, an uncaring park worker comes through on his heavy duty riding lawnmower, paying more attention to his earphones than his job, and heedlessly mows down the flower. He is, of course, the second prankster.

Some people stand by in clear shock. Some call out to him. Some run up to him and pluck his sleeve, trying to catch his attention: they are the ones who come closest to risking personal injury to save a species. No one automatically dismisses it as a joke. Not one person is indifferent.

Joke #2

A person eating solo is seated in a small, cozy restaurant, the kind that has tablecloths and leather menus but is not pretentious or particularly expensive. The waiter, who is one of the pranksters, hands the customer a menu and indicates the blackboard, where the chicken special of the day is written in chalk. The prank continues where the customer chooses the special. In this case, the waiter leaves for the kitchen, where a tape recording of a panicked chicken is started. Less than a minute later, a live chicken is released to run into the restaurant, chased by a cook wielding a cleaver. He is, of course, the second prankster.

Some look appalled. Some just can't seem to believe it. A few start grinning, often with their hands over their mouths: they look as though they suspect that this can't be real – even though in most parts of the world this is exactly what would happen. As was the reaction in Italy, upon finding out that the terrible derailment in Viareggio was caused by simple neglect: this kind of thing happens elsewhere, not here.

Joke #3

On the grassy banks of a river park, a man, who is the primary prankster, approaches a couple with a box in his hands. Lifting the lid to reveal a cute kitten inside, he asks if they are able to adopt it. They always say no, more or less apologetically. He leaves. A quick, unseen box switch takes place, replacing the kitten with a tape recording. Then, within sight of the original couple, he shrugs and tosses the box into the river.

Every person approached has always been shocked by that twist. One dove into the river to rescue the box.

Joke #4

The prankster is dressed as a homeless man, sleeping on a bench. A $20 bill is stuck to his shoe. Passersby can clearly see it, but he seems utterly unaware of it.

Here, about a third of those spotting the money tried to retrieve it for themselves without waking the man. Nearly all of the others let it be. Curiously, the better dressed the passerby, the more likely they were to try to get the money for themselves. The correlation was not 100%, but it came very close. The great exception was an expensively dressed businessman with a briefcase. He walked up, took the money off the man's shoe, folded it, put it in the man's breast pocket, and left.

Sacha Baron Cohen's style of humour also falls into this category. He chooses an out-of-the-ordinary persona, complete with belief structure and assumptions about life, and in that he stays fixed. Reactions by those who encounter him to his appearance and attitudes lie totally within them. But the film-viewing audience, they have the luxury of sidestepping that initial reaction and only reacting to those who had been put on the spot, usually with laughter.

Unlike the vast majority of simple practical jokes, each of these scenarios has a truth to it. In many cases, they bring into unwanted visibility something that had been occurring all along, with our tacit agreement – so long as we are not faced with it. The joke on us gives us the chance to look just a little more deeply and learn something about ourselves. Do we act according to our self-image? If we don't like what we see, whose fault is that?

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