Play Stuff Blog

Practical Jokes as Play: The Spritz, the Sneak, and the Penguin  

Here's a story about the important lessons I learned about a peculiar form of play from Tommy, a mischievous high school pal of mine.

Practical Joke, Fake Spilled Beverage


Practical jokes and harmless pranks are blithe and funny, especially to the perpetrators and the onlookers. Such jokes and pranks fool, hoodwink, and ensnare their victims and play best when the object of the joke seems slightly deserving of the attention. Practical jokes and harmless pranks must make the victim himself laugh along. If such a joke or prank isn't playful, it’s not a joke or prank any more. It’s something else. I’ve been just this kind of lucky victim. Every year the night before April 1, my young daughters would wrap the sink sprayer-hose handle with a pony-tail scrunchie. The next morning, feeling not too sharp, I’d turn on the kitchen tap and … spritz!

But this trick was nothing compared to the mischief Tommy would get up to. He perfected the “sneak,” the simplest and most effective harmless prank I know. The “sneak,” too, depended on an element of surprise. With Tommy around, a “sneak” could come at any time. Here’s his formula for a classic simple “sneak:” Spy a pretty girl at a dance who’s facing the other way. Yell, “Hey!” in your loudest and most emphatic voice, and when she turns around point to the shy guy who’s standing next to you. (This works best if the shy guy has a crush on the girl.) Be sure the mixed expression on your face says “what’s with him?” Tommy’s celebrated “cruiser sneak” caused even more bother. Once, I found myself at the wheel of my car directly behind a patrol car at a stoplight. With Tommy in the passenger seat, I went on high alert, fruitlessly. Tommy reached over and held down the horn. Beeep-Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! Practical jokes work best when the jokee is less than watchful, though. One of my college roommates routinely pulled all-nighters and always awoke in a muzzy state; he made a tempting target. One April 1, he was still snoring away at 11:30 a.m. though he had a Russian history exam scheduled at 12:15. I eyed both the clock and the calendar. Then I woke him as he’d asked (for the third time), but this time I immediately told him that the Toledo Zoo had called my parents and gotten them to reroute their central air conditioning into a bathroom to make it possible for mom and dad to quarantine a penguin on an interim basis during an epidemic of deadly avian intestinal flu. I told him that right after the exam we had to drive to Toledo to meet with the keeper and retrieve the penguin because my mother was afraid of feathers. We had not a moment to lose! I bombarded my groggy friend: “Where can we get some tuna fish?” “Can we use your car?” “Does your car have air-conditioning?” And, “Do you have a raincoat?” Some other time, I’ll tell you about the rhino and the ear.