April 1, 2010— -- This story is not a hoax. Seriously.
April might bring warmer temperatures, spring rains and of course tax day, but it begins with the ultimate moment for pranksters: April Fools' Day.
So instead of playing a joke on you -- we are sure there will be plenty today -- we've decided to recap some of the best pranks of all time. As always, it is possible that we missed one or two, so feel free to add your own in the comments section below.
April Fools' Day pranks hold a special place in our hearts. They mean a break from our normal routines and are a throwback to the old storytelling ways of our ancestors, said Joseph Boskin, a history professor at Boston University.
"I think it's something out of the ordinary. This is a very rational, technically oriented society," said Boskin, who is also on the editorial board of the International Journal of Humor and known for an April Fools' Day joke of his own.
In 1983, Boskin was interviewed by The Associated Press about the origins of the day. His response: The practice began when court jesters and fools told the Roman emperor Constantine that they could do a better job than he did. Constantine made one of them -- a guy named Kugel -- king for a day.
The story was picked up by newspapers across the country. It took AP editors weeks to realize that they had been the victim of a prank.
(Kugel is the Yiddish phrase for a traditional Jewish dessert similar to a pudding or casserole.)
Boskin said that April Fools' Day is so popular, in part, because comedy helps keep America's "diverse, complex society" intact.
"I think it just tickles people, it just tickles people's immigration. It has no meaning beyond it," he said. "I think two things keep America together. One is popular music and the other is popular comedy."
Boese, who has also written several books, including Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments, has ranked the top hoaxes of all time on the following criteria: creativity, notoriety and, of course, the total number of people duped.
The Spaghetti Harvest: At the top of his list is a 1957 BBC segment about the Swiss spaghetti harvest. The three-minute story talked about a phenomenal spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland that year, thanks to an unusually mild winter and to the "virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil."
While the anchor discussed the crop, footage was shown of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets.
"For those who love this dish, there's nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti," the anchor said.
The phones at the BBC rang off the hook from people wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. The answer: "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."
Boese said that back in the 1950s, a lot of people apparently had not thought about where spaghetti came from.
"It signifies what's best about April Fools' Day," Boese said. "It's a gentle kind of humor. It's something absurd that managed to actually fool a lot of people. But there was nothing mean about it."
Sidd Finch: Fast forward to 1985. That's when Sports Illustrated published a story about a new rookie pitcher who planned to play for the Mets. His name was Sidd Finch, and he could throw a baseball at 168 mph -- 65 mph faster than the previous record.
Finch had mastered the "art of the pitch" in a Tibetan monastery under the guidance of the "great poet-saint Lama Milaraspa."
Let's just say that many Mets fans were enthusiastic about their team's good fortune. Too bad Finch didn't exist, well, except in the imaginations of the author, George Plimpton.
"There are just an enormous number of people who kind of fondly have these great memories of Sidd Finch," Boese said. "For me, the best April Fools' Day pranks actually need to fool a lot of people. It's easy to think up some ridiculous story, but fool nobody. That's the trick: to think up something absurd that actually does trick people. Sidd Finch really took in a huge number of sports fans."
The Taco Liberty Bell: We've all seen stadiums named after corporations. But what about our national treasures? In 1996, Taco Bell announced it had bought the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell.
It wasn't just the folks in Philadelphia who were upset, but citizens across the country.
By 10 a.m., the company issued a news release saying the announcement was all in good fun. Taco Bell estimated that the prank generated anywhere from $20 million to $25 million of free publicity.
The joke made it all the way to the White House, where then press secretary Mike McCurry announced during a briefing that Ford was paying to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial in exchange for calling it "the Lincoln Mercury Memorial."
"Since the 1970s, April Fools' Day has really been picked up by the advertising industry," Boese said. "It's almost become like the Super Bowl in which people watch it for the advertisements."
The Left-Handed Whopper: Another example of a company playing off the day came in 1998 when Burger King introduced the Left-Handed Whopper. In a full-page newspaper ad, Burger King said it had introduced a Whopper specifically for the 32 million left-handed Americans. It had all the same ingredients, but the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of their left-handed customers.
There was no shortage of customers requesting the new Whopper. And, according to the company, plenty of others made sure to request the old "right-handed" version of the burger.
Nixon for President, Again: He might have left office in disgrace but in 1992, National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" show announced that Richard Nixon was running for president again.
His new campaign slogan was "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again," NPR reported.
To go along with the news segment, there were sound bites of Nixon giving a speech announcing his candidacy.
Listeners called into the show outraged at the announcement. Only later on during the broadcast did NPR say it was a hoax. Nixon's voice was impersonated by comedian Rich Little.
Alabama Changes the Value of Pi
In April 1998, an obscure newsletter reported that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of pi from 3.14159 to the "Biblical value' of 3.0."
The article, written by physicist Mark Boslough, went viral after being forwarded by e-mail around the world. It was only when lawmakers began getting hundreds of calls from people objecting to the move, did anyone realize it was an April Fools' joke.
Boslough would later explain his spoof was intended to be a parody of legislative attempts to "circumscribe the teaching of evolution," Boese says.
The San Serriffe Islands
In 1977 the British paper the Guardian published a seven-page supplement on the exotic island nation of San Serriffe including descriptions of it's two main islands, Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, and its leader, General Pica. Boese writes that the "Guardian's phones rang all day as readers sought more information about the idyllic holiday spot." But the islands were a hoax, Boese writes on his Web site. "Only a few noticed that everything about the island was named after printer's terminology."
The spoof was wildly successful Boese writes and is "widely credited with launching the enthusiasm for April Foolery that gripped the British tabloids in subsequent decades."