Meet the Madmen of Pranks

Walk into Jerry Stepani’s office and you’ll see vestiges of the practical jokes of yore. There’s a whoopee cushion on the couch, a dollar tied to a string on the floor, even fake vomit on his desk. But Stepani, president of Pranks Inc., a subsidiary of Bloomberg, isn’t looking back. The golden age of pranks is here. “There are big bucks in yucks,” he says as he jolts me with a joy buzzer.

Meet the Mad Men of PranksPhotographed by Andrew BrussoNever turn your back on (from left) John Hargrave, Tom Mabe, Streeter Seidell, and Charlie Todd.

Stepani and company are busy establishing the U.S. Prank Exchange, which lets investors buy and sell shares in hoaxes. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “blue-chip pranks, like those involving whoopee cushions, are expected to have moderate growth, whereas tech and online pranks are expected to be highly volatile but …”

Okay, we’re lying. There is no Pranks Inc., no Prank Exchange, no Wall Street Journal article, not even a Jerry Stepani as far as we know. Too bad—we could make a mint, what with all the pranks being perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. Just last year, the world was introduced to bottled organic air (courtesy of Whole Foods Market), animal gyms (Virgin), and a new breed of sheep sporting tartan-patterned wool (the London Daily Mail), to name but a few. Bears may have decimated the stock and housing markets, but there’s still a lot of bull in the bull business. Here, four of the best pranksters tell us what makes them trick.

Gag Reflex Forty-two-year-old comedian Tom Mabe was a prank prodigy, having executed his first when he was only eight. He had just made a snowman on the front lawn of his Louisville, Kentucky, home when he watched helplessly as teenagers in a car ran over it. He made another, with the same result. The third snowman he built was on a fire hydrant. “There I was with their wrecked car and water gushing out everywhere, and I acted like, Gee, I didn’t think anyone would hit it with his car,” he says. “I had to do something. I was just a little guy. So I came up with this kind of cowardly way of getting revenge.”

Mabe grew up to be six feet four inches tall, but he never lost the little-guy attitude. His specialty is torturing telemarketers. He once checked into a Washington, D.C., hotel that was hosting a telemarketing convention, and spent the night making phony phone calls, trying to sell the sellers insomnia medicine at three o’clock in the morning. The front desk manager finally begged him to stop because one of the guests was so outraged. Mabe promised to fix the situation. He phoned the guest and identified himself as the manager. “Sir, I’m sorry about your losing sleep,” he said. “I believe we can make it up to you.”

“Thank God,” the man said.

“Here it is … Rock-a-bye, baby, in the treetop …”

Why do you pull pranks? “Revenge and fun. If some salesman is going to call my house, it’s game on.”

Best gag you’ve pulled off: “One time there were a couple of homeless guys in front of a McDonald’s. I called the restaurant impersonating a policeman and pretended that the men were actually undercover cops. I persuaded the manager to bring them burgers and coffee.”

Best gag someone else pulled off: “My buddy Jim Clark took his family to the zoo, and upon exiting, he and his family ran past the people entering screaming, ‘Run, run! It’s right behind us!’ People were taking cover, jumping up on picnic tables!”

Any pranks you regret pulling? “I once saw a dead deer by the side of the road. I ran back to my house, put on a Santa suit, and then I lay down beside the deer—just in time for a school bus to drive by. Freaked the kids right out.”

Pearls of wisdom: “If you’re a revenge prankster like me, remember: Not everyone is evil, not even telemarketers. Every year around Christmas, when one of them calls, I’ll always say something like, ‘Hmmm, that transmission insurance policy sounds like something I could really use, but it’s kind of expensive, and it is Christmas. Hmmm … Do you think—do you think that if I put my kid on the phone, you could pretend to be Santa Claus and tell him you’re not coming this year?’ So far, no one has taken me up on this. Score one for humanity.”

Sir Pranksalot Sir John Hargrave got into the pranks business honestly: He was born on April 1. With that head start, he founded one of the premier prankster sites on the Web, zug.com, which stands for “zug is utterly great.” The 41-year-old embarked on world hoax domination some years ago when, posing as a ten-year-old, he wrote to every U.S. senator asking them to send him a joke as part of a homework assignment. Many senators responded, including Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, who contributed this: “Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road? Because he didn’t have any guts!”

By the way, don’t let Hargrave’s lofty title fool you. He’s from Boston. He added “sir” to his legal name when Buckingham Palace refused to knight him for “honourable pranking.” Why do you pull pranks? “It’s a sport for thrill seekers. The moment before you pull off something, it’s pure adrenaline.”

Best gag you’ve pulled off: “I once filled out my tax forms using Roman numerals. The IRS was not amused.”

Best gag someone else pulled off: “Mat Benote, a graffiti artist, hung one of his paintings at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. It took two days before they realized it didn’t belong.”

Any pranks you regret pulling? “No, but I do regret having been punked myself. Before my book Mischief Maker’s Manual was published, I solicited celebrity blurbs on my website. I got an e-mail from a kid who said Eric Idle of Monty Python was his uncle. So the next thing I know, I was e-mailing with Eric Idle, and having conversations with his assistant. A year later, I saw this article, ‘How I Pranked John Hargrave.’ It was the kid—he played all the parts in the prank: Eric Idle, the assistant, everyone.”

A gag anyone can pull off: “Stick someone’s toothbrush in a Dixie cup of water, and put it in the freezer overnight. Put it back in its normal place in the morning.” Pearls of wisdom: “Pranks and practical jokes should never be confused. A practical joke is something you pull on coworkers, like the guys in Utah who transformed their vacationing colleague’s cubicle into a small cottage, complete with a working doorbell, mailbox, and ceiling fan. A prank goes after the man. For example, there’s a video where Tom Cruise is being interviewed. The interviewer is holding a trick microphone and squirts water in Cruise’s face. Cruise starts chewing him out, and we crack up because, well, Tom Cruise is the man.”

Getting Schooled Tension fills the halls of collegehumor.com. Two of the humor site’s writers are at war, a prank war to be precise. The small-scale gags that Streeter Seidell and Amir Blumenfeld first pulled on each other have ballooned into elaborate productions.

In one, Blumenfeld arranged for Seidell and his girlfriend to go to a Yankees game. Unbeknownst to Seidell, Blumenfeld also arranged for the scoreboard to display a bogus wedding proposal. A hidden camera recorded the couple’s reaction. It’s painful to watch. Seidell’s girlfriend is understandably startled. Seidell is even more startled when she accepts. “I did not put that up!” he exclaims. “I don’t want to marry you.” She slaps him and leaves. For good.

Seidell, 27, says his friendly war with Amir has only escalated since then.

Why do you pull pranks? “It began as a fun way to kill boredom. Now I’m just trying to top the one before.”

Best gag you’ve pulled off: “I arranged for Amir to be selected to take a halftime half-court shot for a half-million dollars at a college basketball game. While Amir was led to a secluded office ‘to sign forms,’ I let the crowd in on the gag and requested their help. When Amir came back, we blindfolded him, and he took his shot … missing by at least 20 feet. But on cue, the crowd went crazy, as if he sank the shot. Amir did a victory lap around the court, yelling and punching the air. It lasted right up to the presentation of the fake check … which was presented by me. That’s when he realized he’d been had.”

Best gag someone else pulled off: “The lottery ticket prank. Videotape a lottery drawing. The next day, buy a ticket, asking for the same numbers that won the day before. Give that ticket to a friend and watch the ‘live’ drawing together. When he ‘wins,’ he will leap for joy like Amir did … until you turn off the tape.”

A gag anyone can pull off: “Bet someone that you can make it so they cannot lift a glass of beer off the table with their thumbs. When they’ve agreed to the bet, have them place their thumbs on the table next to each other. Now balance the full glass of beer on their thumbs. Unless they want to take a beer bath, they’re stuck.”

Pearls of wisdom: “You need a bit of meanness to be funny, but too much and you make people uncomfortable.” Like what Amir did to your ex-girlfriend? “Yeah.”

Prank You Very Much On a freezing January morning, New York City commuters boarded subways from various lines and braced themselves for the day. They could not have expected this: Fellow passengers—businesspeople and college kids alike—removed their pants and skirts and nonchalantly rode to their destination, Union Square, in their underwear. Riders gawked, leered, and laughed their heads off. The ninth annual No Pants Subway Ride was another successful gag perpetrated by Charlie Todd and his New York Prank Collective, Improv Everywhere.

Todd has a curiously upbeat mission for a guy trying to pull a fast one on the populace: “Cause scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” They stage such scenes about ten times a year. There was the impromptu wedding reception for an unsuspecting couple getting married at City Hall, and Frozen Grand Central, in which 200 “agents” (the preferred term for participants) milled about Grand Central Terminal’s Main Concourse before unexpectedly freezing in place during rush hour.

Todd, 31, grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and moved to New York City in 2001. It was there, in an East Village bar, that something changed his life for good—he pretended to be the alternative rock singer Ben Folds. “People were posing for photographs with me, the bartender gave me free drinks, a girl gave me her number,” he says. “But what I liked about it was that it was a positive experience for everybody, even though they were being fooled. When it was over, I didn’t smirk, Ha-ha, you’ve been pranked. I just thanked everyone and left. It gave them something they could tell their friends. Even if they Googled Ben Folds and found out he’s, like, ten years older than me, they’d still have a wonderful story: ‘This guy, for some reason, pretended to be Ben Folds!’ ”

Why do you pull pranks? “I get excited about pulling pranks that make people smile.”

Best gag you’ve pulled off: “The fake U2 concert in 2005. We assembled a group of musicians—with me dressed as Bono—and played a rooftop concert in New York. It was a crazy 20 minutes for the crowd watching … especially when the police arrested us for unreasonable noise.”

Best gag someone else pulled off: “Rob Cockerham posted a fake T.G.I. Friday’s menu page on his website cockeyed.com and encouraged people to insert it inside a real T.G.I. Friday menu. It parodied the Atkins Diet and had really disgusting stuff, like Bacon Churner with Faux-tatoes: two whole sticks of fresh Dutch dairy butter on a bed of crisp bacon.”

A gag anyone can pull off: “Here’s one my college roommates pulled on me: They covered every object and surface in my bedroom with tin foil. All the windows and lightbulbs were blacked out. I needed a flashlight to even figure out what was going on.”

Pearls of wisdom: “Anyone can pull pranks. Look at Frozen Grand Central. All you have to do is freeze in place.”

Revenge of the Nerds A self-described nerd’s paradise, MIT has a long tradition of hoaxes. The students’ favorite target is the school’s Great Dome, home to the engineering library. Over the years, the dome has been dressed up like R2D2, accessorized with a solar-powered subway car that moved along a track, and crowned with a beanie. But in 1994, the ante was upped when students awoke to find a police car, with blinking lights, parked 150 feet high. Closer investigation revealed a parking ticket tucked under the windshield wipers and a dummy dressed as a campus policeman, a box of doughnuts at his side.