The Prank Hierarchy

april-fools-dayIt’s April Fools Day, and I’d like to talk about pranks and practical jokes. You see a lot of these things floating around the internet, on television, and sometimes they’re things your friends play on you or each other. We’re all supposed to have a sense of humor about it, but the fact is that a significant number of pranks out there just straight up aren’t funny (at least to me) and some of them should never be pulled. Others are great – creative, fun, and entertaining. It may be hard, however, to determine if a prank you’re considering is a good or bad idea. So, here are my thoughts on the matter – feel free to disagree – about what makes a good practical joke and what makes a bad one.

Basic Precepts

So, in my opinion, the purpose of a practical joke is ultimately to be funny. The more people who are entertained, the better it is. Furthermore, the source of the amusement is the person upon whom the joke is being played, not the joke itself (though that can help). Accordingly, the wider variety of reactions you can get out of the person being pranked, the more interesting it will wind up being – humor, after all, is spontaneous. Finally, the greater concentration of negative reactions elicited by the joke, the worse it becomes, as the odds of feeling empathy or sympathy for the people being pranked rises. If you feel bad for the person you pull the joke on, it isn’t funny anymore.  At least, assuming you aren’t a sociopath.

With this in mind, here is my hierarchy of prank-types, from best to worst:

Pranks That Cause Bewilderment

A prank that causes bewilderment exposes the targets to something strange and inexplicable and asks them to react. Frequently, this joke is funny in and of itself. You get a lot of different reactions to these jokes – confusion, annoyance, amusement, excitement – and every once in a while the targets even start to play along. These are the best pranks because they’re fun, nobody is harmed or embarrassed, and usually everybody leaves the situation laughing along. Any joke that ends with everybody smiling is a pure winner.


Pranks That Cause Shock

The next step down are pranks that are scary, but not viscerally so. The simplest example is somebody jumping up from behind a couch and shouting BOO! Probably nobody is hurt, and so long as you aren’t doing it in a hockey mask and covered in blood, people get over their fear pretty quickly. The best of these pranks mix in with the Bewilderment stage because the “shock” is not one of momentary terror, but of just plain old surprise. Often, the targets are not, themselves, the focus of the prank – it may be a shocking thing that they witness. Again, a variety of reactions can be expected, but among these reactions is actual fear and terror, neither of which are good things. Targets for these pranks can often appreciate them in retrospect, but don’t enjoy them while they’re happening. Some people actively hate them. Ultimately, your mileage may vary.


Pranks That Cause Disgust

The next step down is where we start to get into “probably not funny” territory. These pranks are designed to gross people out (though without destroying property). They are frequently sexually inappropriate, involve nasty smells, or are just generally creepy. Some people can appreciate these jokes (though I’m not one of them) and most of the amusement is generated on the part of the practitioners, not the target. This is where the jokes are starting to really be made at the target’s expense.


Pranks That Cause Fear

Now we are really getting into “not funny” territory. These jokes are intended to create pure, visceral panic in their targets. Unlike disgust (which has a variety of possible reactions) the reactions to these jokes are pretty standard: fight or flight. In that sense, not only are they cruel, they are also predictable. How they are supposed to be funny is a bit beyond me, but they can be interesting, in that you almost never see people exposed to these kinds of things. These jokes don’t involve intentional injury or harm, but they can cause it by accident, and for that reason I really don’t think they’re a great idea.


Pranks That Cause Embarrassment

These pranks are just for the purpose of being mean. I fail to see the humor in them or understand how other people find them humorous. Fear pranks, at least, are over quickly. These are likely to stick with the target and make them bitter and angry for a while. They aren’t even interesting, really – they’re crass and rude. As many of us live with embarrassments on a daily basis, there is nothing novel or clever about inflicting another one on another human being. Just stop.


Pranks That Damage Property

You know that prank where you spread chocolate sauce all over a friend’s bedsheets and say they shit the bed that night? Fuck you, assholes. Buy them a new comforter. Likewise if you squirt cherry sauce on somebody’s shirt, if you befoul somebody’s car with dead fish, or the like. That isn’t funny, that’s destructive, and making somebody believe it was their own fault that property was destroyed is even worse.


Pranks That Cause Horror

You’ll note here that I’m differentiating between Shock, Fear, and Horror. Shock is sudden and then suddenly over – there isn’t necessarily an element of danger, just true surprise. Fear is meant to evoke a survival response but, again, is relatively brief. Horror is destroying somebody’s sense of trust and faith in the goodness of the world or otherwise driving them towards despair. I think you can make a legitimate case that these pranks can be actionable in a court of law, and even clever ones are pretty much terrible. If you laugh at the expense of somebody who thinks her children have been kidnapped or her husband has died in a car accident, you are a bad person and should feel bad.


Pranks That Cause Physical Injury

There is nothing funny or clever or even interesting about hitting your buddy in the groin when he isn’t looking. It isn’t funny to put tacks on a toilet seat, or glue somebody to a doorknob. That is an unprovoked physical assault, and the person you do it to should knock your teeth in. Cut that shit out, assholes.

And no, in this instance I will not provide any examples.

So, in conclusion, go forth, cause bewilderment or shock, and do no harm. We will all appreciate it.

Well, probably.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on April 1, 2016, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It’s a good assessment. It’s interesting how as you descend through the levels outlined here, the “pranks” become more about attaining power of the target. Their biggest audience seems to be people who feel weak or impotent in their own lives. Watching these videos from the perspective of the prankster let’s them feel a vicarious thrill of power and control over the victims.

    • That’s true, I guess. Hadn’t thought about it that way, but you’re right. Of course, the exercise of power over the innocent is always problematic territory, and therefore why these things can go terribly wrong.

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