Just as certainly as another April Fools' Day is upon us, there are pranks being pulled across the country.
This year, in the name of social distancing, some of the best pranks will be executed at home. (Taping the water sprayer handle at the kitchen sink and aiming it directly toward where somebody would stand to turn the faucet on is a timeless classic in my house. Even when my kids get me with it, I just have to shake my head and laugh.)
But most years, it seems, the best pranks are deployed in the office. From the simple to the elaborate and from the merely humorous to the hysterical, office pranks can run the gamut. And while I do admire the occasional ostentatious and over-the-top prank, I find that I am much more partial to sublime, understated tomfoolery. You know, the ones that just sort of present themselves in the course of a normal work day. My ideal gag, in fact, would be something where afterward the victims might not even really realize they’ve been had -- but maybe it is just odd enough that they spend the rest of the day trying to figure out what happened.
And the best part of an unrecognized prank? You can play it over and over again.
Every office kind of takes on a life of its own when it comes to pranks in the workplace -- and The Daily Herald is no different. Having worked for the Daily Herald for nearly 29 years -- and having earned the reputation as one having a certain affinity for the art of the gag -- I was tasked with the project of coming up with a dozen of my favorite Herald office pranks for this April Fool’s slideshow.
All of these pranks were indeed pulled here at the Herald. Only the names have been withheld to protect the dignity of those involved.
Pulling pranks in a newsroom can be tricky. The cardinal rule is to never do something that could accidentally end up in print. I tempted fate early in my career with this first prank. It was a Saturday shift, and the final day for one woman in our composing department (which at the time, was in charge of pasting text copy onto finished pages, before everything gave way to computers). The woman had made no secret that she was quitting to devote her full-time efforts to her sales of a popular women’s cosmetics line. One of her main calling cards in advocating for this company was that it was staunchly opposed to anything involved with animal testing -- a view that was extremely important to her.
Sensing an opportunity, I quickly wrote up a fake wire news story that named the specific company in question, pointing out that it had, in fact, just been caught using animals to test its products and apologizing for misleading the public. I made sure this woman received that page to build then sat back and watched all her last-day-on-the-job enthusiasm slowly drain from her body language as she pasted the story to the page and slowly read through it.
But imagine her immediate relief when she was informed that it was all a gag!
Hello, I must be going
Our old phone system here came with a default password to each individual’s voicemail. Each person, of course, was instructed to change the default password to something of their choosing. Naturally, some people were just too busy -- or too trusting -- to be bothered with making the change. Occasionally when the mood struck, this created some intentional comedy.
Our phones also had a silent line feature where you could call and leave a message without the phone actually ringing. Once a prank target was chosen, I’d check their phone to see if they’d changed their default password. If not, it was game on.
First I would call in and change their password, before calling in on the silent line and leaving a blank message -- just long enough to trigger their blinking-red light-message alert. Then I’d live call them, only to hang up just as they answered. This would inevitably cause them to notice their message light -- except when they would dial in and enter their password, of course, they could not retrieve the message. Naturally, this would lead to three or four more attempts to enter the (now incorrect) password to no avail and would often lead to verbal expressions of frustration and dismay (which were greatly appreciated by myself and anyone else in on the joke).
At this point, the target would usually leave to track down the in-house maintenance and facilities manager, who was in charge of phones and such. While this was happening, I would remotely phone in and change their password back to its original default. The facilities manager would always arrive, ask their password, and type in the default code. Of course, at that point everything would work completely fine, causing a combination of exasperation and embarrassment from the victim. It was also fun to watch them listen to the message they were so intent on receiving only to discover it was blank.
Would you think bad of me if I mentioned that sometimes I’d call right back in and change their password again?
You learn over the years that people handle deadline pressure differently. One night when I was working on the night shift, I overheard an editor partway across the room receive a phone call from someone who, based on his reaction, was obviously his wife.
“No, I’m not done yet!” he exploded into the phone. After a brief pause, he angrily retorted, “I’ll be done in 20 minutes!” and then slammed down the phone.
I couldn’t help but look at the clock after he said that and take note of the time. After 20 minutes had passed, I stole a glance in his direction, and sure enough, he was no closer to heading home than he was when he got the initial call.
Sensing an opportunity, I called my wife at home and gave her some very specific instructions.
“All you have to do is call his number, and say in a naggy, perturbed voice, ‘Haven’t you left yet?’ Then immediately hang up,” I instructed. Keep in mind, this was in the days before caller ID.
Moments later the targeted editor’s phone rang. There was a brief pause before the inevitable outburst.
“No, I’m not ready yet!!! I’ll leave when I’m ready,” he erupted. “Hello? ... Hello? ... Hello?”
I stole a sideways glance at him and the look on his face was priceless. He was literally dumbfounded that his wife had hung up on him. He immediately called her back and started giving her the business, when all of a sudden he stopped. “You didn’t just call me? ... Oh, sorry. I’ll be home soon.” Within minutes he penitently packed up and left.
As you will no doubt recognize while reading through this list, few items in a newsroom provide more potential prank fodder than phones. Sometimes I would let off a little steam by dialing up one person in the newsroom, and then as they went to answer, transfer the call to someone else in the same room. When timed perfectly, both parties would pick up the call simultaneously -- each thinking the other had placed the call. It was always humorous after the initial semi-awkward chit-chat died down to hear someone say, “Well, what did you want? What? ... No, you called me!”
My favorite deployment of this prank, however, involved calling someone at home and transferring it to someone else in the newsroom. The two targets in this case were both notorious talkers. Literally they could easily extend conversations 15 minutes beyond any practical need for further discussion -- and that was if you were lucky. One night, as one of them blathered on and on about something in the newsroom, I wondered what would happen if these two were placed together in a transferred call situation -- neither having any need to have called the other.
The conversation turned confusing, of course, as they initially tried to figure out how they got connected on this call together. But after coming up with no viable answer, they proceeded to talk -- about anything and everything -- for another 20-30 minutes. The thought of this one still cracks me up.
We have an in-office P.A. system here at the Herald -- which really doesn’t get used very often anymore. But there was a period about 10 years ago when one of our receptionists used it way too often. Which started me thinking about prank potential.
The P.A. system is accessed by phone, which got me wondering if it was somehow transferable. You know, kind of an added layer to the connecting-two-unsuspecting-people-via-transfer gag. It turns out you could.
I would keep my ears open while walking around the building and listen for the most enthusiastic phone answerers. I would log onto the P.A., then transfer the call to the chosen victim. Unbeknownst to them, their phone was live to the P.A. from the moment they answered it. This generally resulted in some pretty humorous reactions, especially as the target suddenly recognized their over-exuberant greeting being broadcast throughout the building. Incidentally, this prank is best played after normal business hours.
Over the years, I have had many people attempt payback for pranks. One April Fools I walked in only to discover my entire desk, and every single item on it, individually wrapped in aluminum foil. Another time my desk was covered in hundreds of sticky notes.
But I think one of the best pranks played on me was when someone popped out a couple keys on my keyboard and switched them around. If done properly and with some restraint -- meaning only rearranging a few keys a space or two away from where they are normally found -- this is a truly genius prank.
I have never done this to anyone here because of the cardinal rule -- never wanting a mistake to somehow end up in print. But I was extremely impressed when someone did it to me.
Once, a new person took over coaching the company-sponsored city league basketball team, which had been a long-standing tradition, and prepared for the new season with a plan to only invite a select few people and cut out those who had participated and helped keep the team running for years.
In somewhat of a surprise occurrence, however, the coach arrived one day to find flyers posted around the building under the bold title of “Players Wanted” inviting anyone and everyone to talk with the coach and get on the roster for that night’s game.
I can’t imagine how that could have happened. (wink)
Did I mention how much I love the truly simple gag? What could be more bare bones than taking a twist tie and tying together the opposite ends of the phone cord on someone’s receiver -- essentially shortening the long curly cord to a fraction of its normal reach? The art of this prank is in leaving just enough slack so that the target hits maximum force on the pullback of the receiver to answer -- thereby jerking the whole phone across (and sometimes completely off) the desk. It is especially effective on phones that are situated on elevated surfaces.
The story is still told of one reporter who was bent over sideways, ear laid down against his desk, trying to carry on a conversation into his receiver -- which had very little slack from the main phone.
‘Don’t answer that phone’
Many years ago, long before the advent of cell phones and caller ID, the teenage daughter of one of the editors had a part-time job on the sports desk -- usually handling agate for the scoreboard page. She would usually sit in the same desk -- which belonged to one of the other editors who wasn’t generally in at night. She would often give that number out to friends so they could reach her at night. (Did I mention she was a teenage girl?)
One night, however, the person running the sports desk gave her specific instructions to not, under any circumstances, answer that editor’s phone. It turns out that the editor had slipped out from work early to go hang out with the guys and didn’t want his wife finding out in case she happened to call. He’d given express directions that nobody was to answer his phone.
Everything was fine until the phone rang a couple different times. The girl started complaining about how stupid it was to not answer the phone -- especially since she thought she was missing out on personal calls in the process. But again she was directed to not answer the phone.
Sensing prank potential, I moved to a phone out of view behind a wall and started calling the phone in question. Now, my intent was simply to ramp up the pressure on this girl, kind of like Chinese water torture -- and make her wonder who was so persistently trying to reach her.
However, she caught me off guard by doing the near-unthinkable: She actually answered the phone. I hadn’t expected that, and the only thing I could immediately think to do was talk in a high female-like voice. I asked for the editor by name and proceeded to attempt to impersonate his wife. I grilled this poor girl with a series of pointed questions about where he had gone -- even to the point of wondering if I should start calling around to hospitals since he hadn’t arrived home yet.
She tried to offer comfort and talk me out of taking any crazy action -- knowing all the while that the editor was perfectly fine -- but the voice on the other end of the line would not be assuaged. I knew all the perfect questions to ask and follow up with, just to keep the pressure on.
When it was over, the girl was furious at the situation -- still thinking she’d been talking to his wife -- and angrily stormed off to the restroom to regroup. I let her in on the gag when she returned. Initially she was mad, but it wasn’t long before she was completely relieved.
But why did she answer the phone in the first place?
Many men might think that the remote control is the greatest thing since sliced bread. They’d be wrong. Clearly it is the fart machine.
Probably my favorite prank at the Herald involved deploying a remote-controlled fart machine during a daily editors news meeting. My main target was the executive editor at the time, and so I taped the machine under the main table at a point closest to him -- but also to where the fallout could conceivably be attributed to others in the vicinity. I also set up a small video camera in one corner of the room to record the reactions.
It worked like a charm. I wasn’t even in the room, but set the device off on two separate occasions from outside. When the noise first occurred, everyone in the room blamed the main target, who of course pointed the finger of blame elsewhere. By the second time, everyone was convinced it was the executive editor, who did protest too much -- even to the point of getting down on the floor and moving his chair around while trying to convince everyone it must have been a squeaky spring on his seat.
I have yet to try to this particular prank, but my ultimate end-game scenario for a fart machine is to hide one under the organist’s bench at church. Can you imagine?
Glitter pranks are gold
So about six months ago, one of our reporters was leaving for a new job and was in the process of cleaning out her desk. It was later in the evening preceding her last day, and I was alone in the office. (This is not necessarily a good thing, as my co-workers can attest. Although, I suppose it could be construed as some sort of precursor to the social distancing protocols we've all learned to live with recently.)
Looking through the objects in sight on her desk, I was intrigued by a mostly full plastic jar of glitter. I managed to sprinkle some glitter in the top of a jar of wet wipes, envisioning a cloud of silver the next time she pulled one out.
That gag apparently worked, because on my next trip to the office, I found that she had bequeathed me her jar of glitter, with a note that said, "I'm sure you can find a better use for this than I can." She was right.
I set up a few glitter bombs around the office, but the best trap I set was in a co-worker's box of tissues. I took out the top tissue and folded the bottom edges up, forming a pouch, and taped the edges solidly together. I also taped the next tissue to the top one, just to give it a bit more stability. Then, of course, the pouch was filled with glitter and carefully replaced back in the box. I snickered, imagining the surprise this co-worker would receive the next time she yanked out a tissue.
Little did I know, the prank would have a much more dramatic effect than I ever imagined.
The next afternoon, a different co-worker was interviewing a couple in one of our newsroom offices. The interview was quite emotional, and so the reporter popped out to grab a tissue box. She quickly looked around and, as fate would have it, grabbed the nearest tissues she could find, which, as I'm sure you've already deduced, just happened to the be the one with the glitter trap.
I didn't realize this was all happening at the time, but when they all left the interview room a while later, they were chuckling about glitter, pranks and payback. After escorting them out, the reporter returned and loudly exclaimed to the newsroom, "OK, who filled this Kleenex box with glitter?" (As if there was any doubt.)
The reporter recounted how the interview became so emotional that there were tears shed. That was when she quickly went in search of some tissues. And so when the glitter flew everywhere, she said, some of it actually stuck on their faces due to the tears.
Luckily, she said, the unintended prank seemed to lighten their spirits and cause laughter, and they all took it in good humor. If not, you can be sure that I wouldn't be telling this story now.
As a postscript, the reporter doing the interview left for another job a couple months after this incident. Guess who got covered in glitter when she pulled out her farewell card?
I didn't have anything to do with the following prank, but I wished I had. One Monday morning, everyone returned to the office, only to find Nicolas Cage staring at them from every possible vantage point.
Basically, someone had made color printouts of Cage, with a multitude of different expressions, and then carefully cut out the faces and taped them over the faces appearing in basically every photo in the room.
Nicolas Cage peering out from award-winning photography from our photo staff? Check.
Cage leering from the faces of newsroom employees' photos of their spouses and children? Check.
A small Cage face attached to my little wooden art figure, that I have since turned into a guitar-player with long hair, an earring, and an Eddie Van Halen Frankenstein guitar-shaped air freshener? Check, you really got me.
The newsroom was abuzz most of the next couple days with people trying to figure out who had pulled off this wonderful, but very time-consuming gag. But nobody stepped forward to take credit.
It remained a mystery for months. Finally, I was working late one night with one of the other reporters, and she brought up the prank -- and finally admitted she had executed it. She had been an initial suspect, sure, but she had covered her tracks well and had successfully diverted attention elsewhere when the subject first came up.
At this point, most of the Cage faces are gone (albeit, in over 60 seconds). But if you look closely around the newsroom, a few of them still remain.
It just goes to show, you can never trust the quiet ones!
Happy April Fool’s Day!