Do you want to hear a joke? So do I. I can appreciate the artistry involved in an elaborate yarn or a sharp one-liner. I enjoy having my knocks knocked. After a childhood aversion, I've even come around on the beauty of a well-placed pratfall. Like most people, I think I have a pretty good sense of humor.
However, I do not like pranks.
I know this is an unpopular opinion, akin to saying you believe grandmas are overrated. Upon hearing it, well-meaning people barrage me with stories from middle school and clips of Nathan for You. Sometimes I'll even laugh, and they take that as proof that I do not truly dislike pranks. They're wrong. My issue is not that I don't think pranks work (though I do think that most pranks are unfunny); I just think pranks are bad. If someone were to force you to watch a stolen nudie vid of my sister, you may become aroused, but that doesn't necessarily mean you are in favor of stolen nudie vids.
Pranks exploit a balance of power. You might prank your co-worker, but you probably wouldn't prank your boss. Between friends, it's usually the dominant members of the group who play a trick on the weaker ones. Would a prank by any other name sound as harmless? Hazing is essentially a vicious form of pranking that results in multiple deaths per year.
I was recently told a story about a traveling college sports team who secretly stuck a Ziplock bag containing a bottle of lotion and a large double-sided dildo into their coach's luggage. At the airport, when asked if he was carrying any liquids, the coach said "no," forcing the TSA agent to rummage around in his bag and pull out the dildo-lotion bag and ask "Is this yours?" in full view of the security line, howling athletes included. I think it was also the coach's birthday.
I laughed, of course, but I was immediately plagued with uncomfortable questions. For starters, isn't this a gay joke? Maybe the players didn't mean it that way—they probably just spent ten seconds debating, "What's the funniest thing to put in Coach's luggage?" But why is a big double-sided dildo the go-to funniest thing to be caught with? There's nothing wrong with involving a big fake dick in your sex life. Isn't it plausible that someone in the vicinity might have seen this incident as just another instance of society mocking gay people? Might this person have felt personally wounded? But also: Maybe secretly having a giant penis statue in your duffel is just funny. Surely it's possible to acknowledge that some sex acts are humorous without saying that the people who like them are bad? In finding this troubling, am I being the kind of bore who compliments your new engagement ring by noting that I recently read an article about how there's no such thing as a non-blood diamond?
The point here is not to decide if this joke is OK, but to say that thoughts like these go through my head every time I witness a prank. They make me physically uncomfortable. Think about the infamous Jackass prank where a man leaves a car seat with a (fake) baby on top of his SUV and then starts to drive. You are supposed to laugh at Home Depot shoppers who desperately try to tell a man there's a kid on his car. Do we really want to live in a world where we worry about being punk'd before warning a stranger about their child's imminent death? Not to mention how weird it is that TV prank shows feature celebrities putting civilians into situations where they humiliate themselves so that we, the knowing audience, can mock them.
Ultimately, pranks ignore the fundamental truth that living can be hard, and most people are trying to do their best. Our lives are a series of relative victories and minor defeats, with occasional eruptions of love, life, and loss. It's impossible to know what someone's going through. So today, before you put up that irreverent lost pet dragon flyer, ask yourself how it might affect someone whose cat recently died. Before you put your co-worker's Jello-encased stapler back on her desk, consider that she might be going through a horrible breakup. What I'm saying is that, as a prank happens, this person with aspirations and bills is thrown into temporary crisis. Why would you want to add more bad moments to someone else's life?
There's a pretty simple way to tell if a joke is offensive: If the punchline is the victim, the joke is probably bad. Pranks take this one step further. They not only laugh at the victim, pranks create a victim for the sole purpose of laughing at them. If that's your idea of a good time, maybe you're the April Fool.
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