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Today, the joke's on you

canstockphoto26114917My middle daughter called me early one morning when she was a sophomore in college. In a voice laced with distress, she told me that she had had a few too many the night before, and now an indecent photo of her had popped up on the Internet.

I reacted with a mother’s tangle of emotions: horror, sorrow, empathy, anger. Until I noticed the date.

Daughter No. 2 had reeled me in again with her annual April Fools' hoax. Somehow, every year, I bite.

In a family that loves games and gags, April Fools' Day looms large. I am still living down the disco tape my brother-in-law hordes from a long-ago Yuletide dance contest. But this first day of April offers far more ammunition than any other holiday for familial harassment. My oldest daughter told her sister, on April 1 before her wedding six days later, that she had broken her ankle playing soccer and wouldn't be able to  serve as maid of honor.

We’ve been known to take our antics further afield, too. My youngest daughter texted her entire sorority one April 1 that I had been chosen as a Real Housewife of New Orleans for the installment of THE TV franchise. Should I accept? Responses were passionate and mixed.

On one memorable April 1 in the mid '90s, when I was editor of The Times-Picayune’s Friday TV Focus magazine, the holiday fell on a publication day. TP TV writer Dave Walker and I cooked up a story about the reality show Survivor planning to film its third season in the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge. Despite such details as tribes named Boudreaux and Thibodeau, challenges that would include a pothole-navigation test and battling with giant mosquitos, plus a “By the way, April Fools” at the end, the story was picked up by a TV news station in Baton Rouge. Now that’s an April Fool’s gag that worked. (I got a lot of reader calls about the story, with most thinking it hilarious, but a few furious at having their legs pulled.)

In the late '70s, when I first joined The States-Item, the city’s afternoon paper, the news desk published a front-page April Fools' Day story every year. The only one I recall at the moment is the 1978 announcement that the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes were going to be relocated to the Superdome to replace the Saintsations. It drew an official denial from a spokesperson in the Saints office, who added, "We have a sense of humor."

All Fools Day, as it sometimes is called, is celebrated worldwide, although it is not an official holiday anywhere. Its origins are something of a mystery. One theory traces it back to the Roman end-of-winter celebration, Hilaria. Others argue that it began in the 16th century, when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian one, which had celebrated the new year on April 1. Those who forgot and attempted to usher in the new year on April 1 were, therefore, dismissed as fools.

Whatever its roots, April Fools’ Day has spawned some epic hijinks. I fell in love with the whole concept after chancing upon the famous 1957 BBC report on the spaghetti harvest in Ticino. I caught a rerun in my early teens; thanks to Youtube, we can still access this historic 3-minute clip:

Hoaxes.org runs a list of the top 100 April Fools’ Day pranks of all time. It proves that a sense of humor is not exclusive to eccentric individuals. Witness the Swiss Tourism Board’s 2009 video explaining that the country’s mountains look so clean thanks to the hard work of official Swiss Mountain Cleaners, who daily scrub Alpine rocks of bird droppings. Or The Daily Mirror’s 1987 report of a romance blossoming between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. Or Burger King’s full-page ad in 1998 for a left-handed Whopper. Taco Bell one-upped them with a 1996 ad claiming it had bought naming rights to the Liberty Bell.

In 1950, an entire city got in on the act, when the residents of Skyforest, California, under the direction of cartoonist Frank Adams, ventured out at night to hang 50,000 oranges from pine trees along a mile stretch of highway.

April Fools' continues to be embraced in the 21st century. In 2012, the British Library announced it had unearthed a Medieval cookbook with a recipe for preparing unicorn (marinate it with cloves and garlic). In 2014, the renowned King’s College Choir released a video claiming that members had decided to replicate the high pitch of boys’ preadolescent voices by using helium. It has garnered a million and a half views:

Other spoofs have ranged from an announcement of a move to metric time, with 100 minutes per hour, to the melting away of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch due to a faulty cleaning solution. Back in 1965, BBC unveiled Smellavision (viewers called in to say they had indeed smelled the onions), while, three decades later, PC Computing magazine reported on a Congressional bill that would make it illegal to use the internet while drunk.

Google plays along big time, with an annual April Fools’ Day ploy. In the Top 100 is the company’s introduction of Gmail Motion, allegedly allowing users to write emails using only hand gestures.

Some jokes meant to be smalltime turn big time. In 1972, a Yorkshire zoo worker shaved a dead elephant seal and stuffed its cheeks with stones, then threw it into Loch Ness as a joke on his colleagues. Newspapers around the world reported the sensational discovery of the body of the Loch Ness Monster.

A love of pranks is nothing new – this generation’s Punk'd on MTV has a solid precursor in the 1948 hidden camera/practical joke show Candid Camera, hosted for decades by Allen Funt. Still, with technology and global communication, April Fools’ Day pranks are reaching new audiences -- and rising to new heights. Send your favorite Aprils’ Fools’ day anecdotes to us at [email protected], and we will share them with the world.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]