When Every Day is April Fool’s Day

I still wake up twitchy and suspicious on April 1st. Who knows what carefully hatched plots await in the email inbox or what kind of early morning phone call will catch me off guard?

Where I come from, we take April Fool's Day seriously. Why wouldn't we? It's a celebration of one of my family's favorite activities.

Pranking is in the DNA. My mother's father used to gleefully torment his dinner guests with moving silverware (magnets were the operating mechanism there). Years later, I discovered a Talking Toilet device deployed to startle unassuming visitors on the can. When they took a seat, they'd activate a camouflaged air-pump that would trip a tape loop. "I’m working down here!" an obnoxious voice would bellow, followed by farting noises and laughter. I thought it was the greatest invention known to man.

If there was a trick to be tried, I'd do it. Putting a sleeping hand in warm water? Child's play, literally (although, it never seemed to make anyone piss the bed). Whoopee Cushions? Duh. Short-sheeting? Guilty. I didn't need an excuse or occasion for these hijinks. The mood would strike, and so would I.

April Fool's Day would preoccupy me for at least two weeks in advance. I carefully mulled my ruses and preemptively tried to predict what traps were being set for me. My younger brother John and I usually ran a tag-team racket. More often than not, our ideas were too elaborate to pull off and, instead of stealthily re-setting a houseworth of clocks, we'd have to settle for less complex plots.

Then there was the year I decided to go traditional and booby-trapped our New York City apartment. I lay in wait, patiently, which, while we're here, I should tell you is one of the secrets to good pranking. You must always be patient, especially when retaliating. Slow and steady wins the “gotcha” race, people. After midnight, with my father's snores ricocheting off the walls and reverberating down the hall, I got busy. Saran Wrap was stretched across his agape toilet's mouth; a rubber band wrapped around the kitchen sink's spray attachment so that it would shoot water at whoever was the first to turn the faucet; Vaseline smeared on some doorknobs, and salt swapped for sugar.

The next morning, banshee shrieks emerged from the kitchen —Mom's, in case there was any question. I should explain my mother's particular aversion to water getting anywhere near her hair. Let's just say it's sensitive — her hair, as a topic, and as a surface. It's naturally beyond frizzy (she has only let me see it in its natural state twice in my life; it was as advertised). If a few drops of water drizzle from the sky, Nancy puts her rain hat on (yes, there is always one folded up in her bag, at the ready). So, you can see how that rubber band around the old spray appendage move was particularly cruel. Unfortunately, I didn't think about this while jerry-rigging things for the “holiday.” I'd almost forgotten about my crimes until I heard her. I swear the woman channeled the Wicked Witch of the West. She might as well have been wailing, “I'm melting!”

“Don't you ever, ever do that again!” she screamed at my poor (brother and me. (He was only guilty by association or of having prior knowledge of the deed.) “Try it again and you will be severely punished!” she continued, then finished her red-faced rant with, “If there's anything else you've done, you'd better go fix it now, before I find it!” It was too late for dad's plastic wrap. I managed to undo the rest. But the damage was done. From thereon in, for my April Fooling, I resorted to what, on any other day, would be considered lying for sport.

At some point, my brother and I discovered that we had a knack for convincing people of nonsense; that my dad was surprisingly gullible and, therefore, an easy mark, and that we were that much more successful (and laughed a lot harder) when we didn't restrict our shenanigans to first day of April.

It makes perfect sense, just like my Valentine's Day theory. Is not prescribed romance the least romantic thing of all? Same with enforced practical joking. Not so funny, or effective. It's the least-expected japes that jive.

That's why, on a random Saturday, my father could find himself presented with a mix tape of what I claimed were the Chopin Polonaises I was learning to plonk out on the piano and, was, in actuality a cued-up, early bootleg copy of 2 Live Crew's Move Somethin'.

Maybe you're supposed to outgrow this kind of behavior. I didn't. Even now, every so often, my brother will call or email me with something that resembles the following directive: Char, tell dad some of your food writer friends are saying that Chirping Chicken has been taken over by a famous chef and has the best rotisserie chicken in New York. (Note: Chirping Chicken is an NYC-based fast-food chain that opened at some point during my childhood.)

Post college and grad school, I volunteered to be a Class Notes agent for my all-girls' prep school and was tasked with keeping tabs on and chronicling the on-goings of my classmates for our alma mater's bi-annual bulletin. The usual entries were rather boring and braggy, mostly full of wedding and birth announcements. This seemed depressingly retro for The Brearley School, an institution that holds itself to such high, progressive and academic standards. What, I wondered, could I do, to draw attention to the jarring pettiness of it all?

My inner prankster had the answer. I reached out to the other women in my class and outlined the plan: we would collaborate on a mock set of notes. Anyone who wanted to participate would be included so that the whole thing was one big, brilliant pile of bullshit. Each person could come up with her own fabricated news or else trust me to assign her a fake update.

Never has anyone delighted so much in drafting a set of class notes. One of my friends came up with a story about her new obsession with miniature horses and the ranch she'd built to raise them on; another wrote of her documentary film project about Vegas strippers and how it necessitated her working the pole, undercover.

I loved the idea that no matter where we were, or how much time had elapsed, we could still have this much fun and work together. Sadly, the school did not see our group effort in such a warm and fuzzy light. I was chastised, as I might have been while enrolled, and our notes banned from the bulletin. Something to the effect of “The Brearley Bulletin is a living historical document,” was invoked to justify the ban. What this said to me was that we’d done something disruptive, which, I suppose was the intention; executing it in a divisive or offensive manner was not.

This is when I initially saw the potential power of pranking. Done right, it carefully — just barely — crosses the line between reality and fantasy. When applied subversively, it can be used as a form of activism.

Tina Fey recently corroborated this line of thought during her interview with James Lipton on “Inside The Actor’s Studio.” Discussing her impersonations of Sarah Palin, Lipton posited, “These sketches were not just funny, they were history. They may have influenced the election to a certain extent.” Fey replied, spiritedly, “No, you don't go into it being like, ‘We're taking them down.’ But you do try to think, like, ‘What's the kernel of truth here?’”

Another, slightly more antagonistic version of this approach has been a trademark of the Guerrilla Girls since they started using humor to challenge the sexism, racism and insidious inner-workings of the art world and beyond in the 1980s. The self-described “feminist masked avengers” use facts, deliberately distracting large-scale visuals, and, most important of all, humor to make their point and provoke with a wink and a chortle.

What I’ve learned from these women in gorilla masks, Tina Fey and my own history as a prankster is that we can use our leg-pulling skills for the greater good. The idea is to get off the soapbox, and imbue one's message with fun; to reveal truths that might otherwise seem unpleasant through playful teasing; to replace self-righteousness with humor; or, as I like to say, to make sparkly mischief.