Take Back April Fools' Day!

03/30/2015 11:45 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015

Wednesday is April Fools' Day. I almost feel bad reminding you because, in doing so, I might deprive you of the wild pleasure of being thoroughly had. That said, I might also remind the more adventuresome souls to do your civic duty and pull a practical joke.

When I was a kid, the nuns, priests and lay teachers of our Catholic school ran a tight ship, generously handing out demerits and detentions. On April 1st, however, we evened the score. Blackboards were graffitied, teachers' desks ransacked, classroom furniture rearranged and removed. I recall the camaraderie of hiding in a dark coat closet with five or six fellow fourth-graders. Hearing the teacher grill our classmates, and hearing them snigger with uncomfortable loyalty, sent ticklish waves of power and danger through our band of conspirators. When we finally burst out of the closet shouting "April Fools!" everybody felt the rush of release. Even our hard-nosed teacher laughed. That was our day to push the limits. Although we were usually punished, we sensed that we had centuries of history on our side.

April Fools' Day had special prestige, for instance, in gold-rush San Francisco, where for several years the fun-loving journalist Alfred Doten recorded the people's ad-hoc gags -- from sealed envelopes littering the pavements labeled "April Fools & Co" to a newspaper report that sent people flocking to the vacant shore to see a beached whale. Forty-niners were puckish in general. All year round, roughneck miners were connoisseurs of pranks. They educated greenhorns, latecomers and idiots -- which is to say, the vast majority -- with an ongoing curriculum of hoaxes and jokes that played on the average citizen's weaknesses: cowardice, gullibility, hot-headedness, greed. By toughening each other's sense of humor, they strengthened their civil society.

According to the good advice of (a charming try-this-at-home database),"a successful prank should always end with your victim laughing." Or in the words of Charlie Todd, the millennial mastermind behind viral "missions" like the annual No Pants! Subway Ride, "any prank should be as much fun for the person getting pranked." Well-turned pranks electrify the crowd with jolts of freaky satire -- and bring strangers into joyous conflict. They throw society into pleasant disarray. In our ever-thinner-skinned, Stand-Your-Ground public sphere, with our eyes plastered to self-flattering partisan news sites, we may all stand to benefit from some good-natured trickery. It could teach us hands-on lessons in civility. It could make us tougher and friendlier citizens, as it did 19th-century miners.

But now April Fools' Day has been transformed by budget-busting corporations. In recent years, as if to confirm the Citizens United ruling that says multinationals are citizens (just like anybody else!), they have deployed the full force of their marketing arsenals to bring us jokes that crush the competition -- i.e., plucky individuals pulling pranks. Google announces "Google Nose," Virgin Airlines rolls out the "glass-bottomed plane," Procter & Gamble advertise bacon-flavored Scope, Sony offers "Power Food" that can charge your personal devices. Pretty funny stuff, to be sure -- but that's the problem. These charming high-production pranks pose at least two threats. For one thing, they keep the public glued to screens, passively scrolling for the next scripted joke instead of pulling their own pranks on friends and coworkers. For another, by coopting this time-honored tradition, they convince us that corporations have a bubbly sense of humor -- when in fact their behavior is often more predatory than ever.

None of these corporate April Fools' jokes trigger the big, naughty guffaws of radical gadflies like the Yes Men, who notoriously publicized a letter from GE giving back their $3.2 billion tax benefit, or like "billboard liberator" Ron English, who thought so differently of Apple's "Think Different" campaign -- which branded the Dalai Lama's and Rosa Park's faces to sell tech products -- that he modified their ads to feature Charles Manson's psychopathic glare. Corporate admen conceal the truth; these citizen pranksters -- in the spirit of both satire and democracy -- set it free.

But you shouldn't just hang around waiting to be entertained by the Yes Men. To be sure, you can cruise over to their Action Switchboard for local opportunities to join a fun-loving crowd -- or for the inspiration to stage a radical prank of your own. Yet maybe the first course of action is to put down your device and to pull a fast one on the folks around you. Plan ahead, be smart about it. Take special note of their daily habits -- their blindspots, foibles, secret desires. Then start their day with news too good to be true, or spring a nice little trap to interrupt their routine. Let them know that you've been watching -- and that you care.