- Practically Joking by Moira Marsh
I am writing this in the weeks following the 2016 presidential election. Amidst the news reports and online calls for both support and denunciation, one of the more charming vernacular responses to have emerged is the “Pranking Joe Biden” meme cycle, featuring the outgoing vice president telling President Barack Obama his plans for a series of pranks, practical jokes, and booby traps for the incoming Trump administration. Among the many variations, Biden shows the president-elect an Etch A Sketch that he calls a remote control for drone strikes; Biden changes the White House Wi-Fi password to “ILoveMexicans” or “PssyGrbbr45”; he leaves behind false evidence of Obama’s Kenyan and Muslim heritage; and he wants to hold hands with Obama “to freak [the ostensibly anti-LGBTQ vice-president-elect] Mike Pence out.” In addition to Biden’s reputation for earthiness (and Trump’s reputation for self-grandeur), this meme cycle builds on a tacit understanding of the practical joke: as play, as disruptive without being destructive, as associated with passages (and the rites thereof), as a deliberate breach to another’s presentation of self, and as a performance of and about power. At this precise moment in history, and within this imaginary, the practical joke is a—and maybe the—legitimate response.
Moira Marsh’s Practically Joking, refreshingly without subtitle, is the culmination of almost 30 years of researching and theorizing one of the least-lauded of folk forms. Her definition of the practical joke (“a scripted, unilateral play performance involving two opposed parties—trickster and target—with the goal of incorporating the target into play without his or her knowledge, permission, or both” [p. 12]) is broad enough to incorporate a number of performances without losing definitional integrity. Her use of “target” as opposed to “victim” or its analogues shifts the tone from the joke being an inherently hostile act and the focus from the act as completed to the act in potency. This is affirmed further by her use of “scripted”: the joke is effective if it “[runs] in a way that the jokers can plausibly claim is in line with what they expected to happen” (p. 16). The script need not be particularly involved: for example, when you momentarily stand up, I remove your chair, anticipating that you will sit down again with the assumption that the chair has not disappeared.
The target completes the performance produced and directed by the joker. In her chapter on “The Types of the Practical Joke,” Marsh identifies the simple “put-on” as requiring only some indication that the target has accepted as true some deliberate falsehood. A “fool’s errand” requires action, often including discomfort and the target soliciting assistance from others; a “kick me” alters the target’s presentation of self and moves him or her through the public sphere; and a “booby trap” alters everyday places and objects and requires the target to engage with them. With a “stunt,” the target is the public: whether a put-on such as fake news reports on April Fools’ Day or a fool’s errand such as official-looking notices from town councils requiring immediate action, any specific unwitting participant is but one of a more-or-less undifferentiated mass.
In 10 brisk chapters, Marsh moves the reader along two trajectories, both of them responses to the standard arguments against the practical joke and/or its serious study: that it is primitive and that it is cruel. To the first, she clearly shows that while some jokes may be lacking in complexity (like my chair-removal example above), others are highly elaborate, well-planned, and in many ways elegant performances, as determined not simply by Marsh’s assurances but through the assessments of the audiences and, in many instances, of the targets themselves. An implicit additional counter-argument to the [End Page 81] charge of “primitivism” is that practical jokes are not relegated to an “Othered” stratum of society but are part of the joking culture...