WEBSITE UPDATE–MARCH 30, 2016
by Connie Willis
April Fool’s Day is Friday, and I’ve already begun bracing myself for it, not because I don’t love April Fool’s jokes but because I don’t want to fall for them. Especially NPR’s April Fool’s stories. I got fooled by one of them a few years ago in spectacular fashion, and it was truly humiliating.
It was on All Things Considered. I was listening as I drove home, and they were doing a piece on the National Mouth Sounds Competition. It began innocently enough with sounds like bird calls and dogs barking and the wind blowing and then progressed to interviewing some of the contestants, who sounded exactly like the people at science-fiction conventions and birder gatherings and a capella competitions–it was all totally believable.
And then they played the winner of the competition making the sound of an oncoming train, with clacking wheels and steam and whistles and the roar of the train whooshing past. Wow! I thought. How did he do that? And went home and told my husband how talented he had been.
Halfway through my account, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d been had–and what day it was–and went, “Oh, no! It was an April Fool’s joke!” But as you can imagine, that didn’t save me from years of being teased about it, and rightly so.
In my defense, I can only say that I didn’t fall for the “Why don’t Americans read anymore?” one or the “Nixon deciding to run for President again” one. And that, except for the train, the entire mouth sounds piece was all entirely plausible. I mean, there could be such a thing as a National Mouth Sounds Competition, couldn’t there? There’s every other kind: show choir competitions and yodeling competitions and whistling competitions. Why not mouth sounds?
That’s the key to a great April Fool’s joke, of course, that it’s just an inch or two over the line from being plausible. Not: “Oh, my God, I just heard on the news that aliens have landed, but: “Did you see those new skinny skinny jeans from American Eagle Outfitters? You spray them on.”
The “mouth sounds” piece was narrated by Robert Siegel, who always narrates All Things Considered human interest pieces, and NPR does a lot of that kind of stuff: pieces on a Cuban all-female orchestra and tatting and Susan Stamberg’s horseradish-and-sour cream cranberry sauce recipe. (Which I actually made and which in fact might be an April Fool’s joke, considering how it tastes, even though she does it at Thanksgiving.)
They also easily might have done a real story on holographic advertising (their April Fool’s story said physicists at MIT had perfected a laser that could project long-distance holograms and that Coca-Cola had licensed the rights to beaming their logo onto the Moon’s surface, turning it into a giant billboard.)
That’s another key to a good April Fool’s joke–details. The more specific the story is, the more believable, especially if it involves science. Or a technology that’s already in our lives. Like lasers or smartphones. Or digital watches. My favorite April Fool’s joke of all time was the one the BBC did where they announced Big Ben was going to go digital. A bright green digital readout was going to replace the four Victorian clock faces. You can imagine how that was received!
The BBC is probably the best in the world at April Fool’s jokes, beginning with their classic “spaghetti harvest,” which you can still see on YouTube.
Here are some of my other favorite April Fool’s (and other day’s’) jokes:
- In 1998, the April 1 issue of USA Today had a full-page ad for Burger King’s new Left-Handed Whopper, especially designed for the 32 million left-handed people in America. It had exactly the same ingredients as the regular Whopper, but the catsup and mayonnaise had been rotated 180 degrees and the sesame seeds on the bun were “strategically placed to ensure the least amount of loss during consumption” by left-handers.
- In 1976, Washington, D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library almost caused an international crisis when it announced that its researchers had determined that the Bard had been born not in Stratford-on-Avon but in the United States. Claiming lines such as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” (Hamlet), “Westward ho!” (Twelfth Night), and “Whoa, Pilgrim, take it easy there!” (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), and the naming of Shakespearean characters after American cities: King Lear‘s Duke of Albany (New York), As You Like It‘s Orlando (Florida), and The Merchant of Venice‘s Antonio (San) were proof positive of Shakespeare’s American birth, the library demanded all copies of the First Folio be immediately handed over to them. The British were not amused.
- Also that year (it was apparently a great year for April Fool’s jokes), the British astronomer Patrick Moore appeared on BBC Radio 2 to announce that at 9:47 a.m. Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, and the alignment would counteract the Earth’s gravity and make people momentarily weightless. Hundreds of listeners called in to say they’d experienced a floating sensation. One even claimed he’d cracked his head on the ceiling and intended to sue for compensation.
- In 1977, The Guardian published a seven-page travel section on San Serriffe, a little-known island chain in the Indian Ocean. Its cities were named Bodoni, General Pica, and Thirty Point, and its two main islands–Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse–looked suspiciously like a semicolon.
- In 2013, YouTube announced that it was going to shut down. Communications director Tom Liston admitted they’d only started it to find the best video in the world, which they had, so there was no reason to continue. What was this best video? YouTube said it would be announced in 2023. My money’s on the skateboarding bulldog video. Or the sneezing panda one.
- In the 1800s two con men announced a plan to tie iron chains to one of the islands in the Hudson River and float it down-river to New York City. They sold hundreds of shares in the scheme before people remembered that islands don’t float.
- In 1996, Taco Bell took out ads in six newspapers on April first, announcing it had bought the Liberty Bell and planned to change its name to the Taco Liberty Bell.
- When P.T. Barnum opened his museum in New York City, he had big signs posted just inside the front door with an arrow and the words “To the Egress.” When people followed them, they found themselves outside on the sidewalk and were forced to pay again to come back inside.
- The April issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter reported on a vote that had just been taken by the Alabama State Legislature to change the value of pi from 3.14159 to 3.0 to bring it more in line with the Biblical value. “We need to return to absolutes,” legislator Leonard Lee Lawson said and quoted I Kings 7:23 and its description of Solomon’s Temple as his authority for the change: “And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was around all about, and a line of 30 cubits did compass it round about.”
- In 2005, NPR did a frightening story about maple sugar harvesting. So many people were dieting that sales of maple syrup had plummeted, with the result that fewer trees were being tapped, and the built-up sap was exploding, causing injuries to people all over Vermont.
- And this year (jumping the gun by two days) Frank Bruni published a column on the editorial page of the March 30 New York Times, reporting that Stanford had dropped its admission rate for next fall to zero, claiming that there hadn’t been any truly exceptional applicants. The op-ed quoted a Stanford administrator as saying they hadn’t received a single application from an Olympic medalist and that “while there was a 17-year-old who’d performed surgery, it wasn’t open-heart or a transplant or anything like that. She’ll thrive at Yale.” I can’t wait to read the letters to the editor tomorrow.
- Finally, the most spectacular hoax of all was perpetrated in April and May of 1944, when a handful of radio operators and intelligence officers convinced the Germans there was an entire army in southeast England, poised to attack Calais, when what there actually was was a few dozen inflatable rubber tanks, some cardboard and plywood airfields and army camps– complete with smoke coming out the chimneys and washing hanging on the line–and a bunch of judicially placed fake news stories and letters to the editor.
And the fool who got duped by all of this? Adolf Hitler himself. So much so that he was convinced Normandy was just a feint and refused to release Rommel’s tanks to go help till it was too late to stop the D-Day invasion. Best April Fool’s joke ever!
(Note: If you want to know more about it, read Hoodwinking Hitler: The Normandy Deception by Gilles Praeger or The Secret of D-Day by William B. Breuer. Or my own Blackout and All Clear. I wrote all about it.)
(Second Note: One of the above 12 listed hoaxes isn’t real. I mean, none of them are real, but one of them wasn’t done on April Fool’s Day. I just made it up. And no, it’s not the D-Day one!)
Happy April Fool’s Day!!!!!