Monday, April 6, 2009

Joke's On You

Something about this April Fool's Day joke by Improv Everywhere really irks me. The group is known for pulling outlandish pranks in public places--they're most known for their annual no-pants subway ride, which began with a group of people coordinating to ride the subway together, in January, without pants, while pretending not to know each other or even notice that something strange was afoot. (It's now sort of an annual parade, with thousands of participants in cities across the world.)

The joke was that they posted on their website that they crashed a funeral: They claimed that they selected a funeral in which the deceased had few family and friends, and then showed up en masse to make it the "best funeral ever." They didn't actually do anything so crude, of course; the joke was not on the nonexistent grievers, but on the viewers of the website. It's a clever conceit--here's a group known for doing mildly outrageous things, and so it's plausible that aficionados would believe that they'd do something like crash a funeral. (A local news channel even covered it--funnily enough, acknowledging the funeral-crashing as an April Fool's joke but apparently unaware that the whole thing was a setup.)

But here's the thing: I was suckered in for a minute or two. But instead of thinking, "What assholes" (or, as some misguided commenters on the site wrote, "How thoughtful"), I thought, "They really don't stop at anything, do they?" Something as intrusive as crashing a funeral somehow seemed like a natural extension of the invasive things this group does, in the name of fun.

I used to support the idea of public pranks, probably because I appreciated their revolutionary roots. When Joey Skaggs took a busful of hippies to a residential area of Queens in a faux-tourism program, he was highlighting the ways in which mainstream culture attempted to marginalize revolutionary forces by turning the freak flag in the other direction. Robert Delford Brown's "Mr. Jesus Christ Contest" called attention to the sexism (and general ludicrousness) of the Catholic church. (In writing this I learned that Mr. Brown recently passed away; here is his obituary.)

There's still some of that: Evan Roth's TSA Communication project, which utilizes flexible sheets of stainless steel to communicate messages to airport security workers viewing X-rays of your luggage, highlights how ridiculous this aspect of the "war on terror" really is. Improv Everywhere commandeered the flagship Abercrombie & Fitch store (which hires live shirtless male models to stand around the store during business hours) with dozens of shirtless not-models, a funny juxtaposition of images of physical ideals. And there's nothing wrong per se with the pranks designed simply to amuse or delight--Improv Everywhere's most delightful mission to date has been the "freezing" of Grand Central Station, in which 200 people simultaneously froze in place for 60 seconds in the bustling station, bringing a sense of wonder to all who were lucky enough to witness it.

But then there's the crowd who gathered to cheer on a random dude as he ate a sandwich. And those who welcomed back total strangers with balloons and signs at the airport. Some of the people surprised in these videos appear vaguely pleased--all seemed bewildered--but they all sort of reassure the videographer, "Oh, this is so nice of you." Self-indulgent seems the better word here--while the strangers chosen at random to be participants came away from the episodes with a story, none of them seemed, well, happy about it. The improv agents, however, seem supremely thrilled.

It's interesting that so many of these pranks revolve around singling out a person and turning them into a public spectacle. It's hardly news that our culture has gotten more and more celebrity-happy, but it doesn't take a genius to realize that not everybody wants that. Being a celebrity because you choose it is one thing; being cheered on by a group of strangers as you try to finish your sandwich is another. There's zero collective spirit involved in this--instead of making passersby ponder what's going on (which was the beauty of the Grand Central Station freeze), it's all about pointing the finger, turning on the camera, and forcing people to make a go of it, like it or not.

There's another strain of prank that engineers public spectacles of supposedly sentimental events. The fake subway wedding proposal, which roped in passersby to hold up "Will" "you" "marry" "me?" signs. The staged romance of leading a cab driver believe he's helping two star-crossed lovers find one another. It all seems harmless enough, until you think of how that driver might feel were he to discover that he was duped into thinking he was performing a small miracle, when really he was a hipster puppet. More than that, however, it takes away from the feats of daily magic, small and large, that are real: seeing two dear old friends run into each other on the bus and watching one of them cry tears of joy when the other announces her pregnancy; witnessing a small act of grace as a woman in a business suit wordlessly hands a crying teenager a packet of tissues in the park; watching as two subway musicians stroll into the same subway car from opposite ends and proceed to perform an impromptu duet.

[Final crank side note: The Urban Prankster site gets negative points for having a background that appears to be smudges. Amusing idea, except for those who actually smudge their screen trying to wipe away the nonexistent dust. (It was merely an annoyance to me, but I know graphic designers who depend upon a pristine screen to do their job smoothly and would find this downright meanspirited.)]

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