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Topic: The altruistic prank.
Message: Posted by: Caleb Strange (Dec 29, 2002 12:58PM)
In the Rudolph thread, David de Leon classed Operation R. as 'an altruistic prank', and wondered what we bizarrists could do with the concept.

This 'practical joke/magic effect on a grand scale' has interested me since university, when I got involved in 'Project Dawn Horse'. This was a scheme to put an authentic looking equine hill figure on the campus hill. It was done for the sniggering fun of it, both in the planning and the execution. And for the effect it had on hungover students, incredulous as they opened their curtains. Lots of bloodshot beary eyes were rubbed that day.

Crop circles were probably my favourite such prank. They caused little damage. Lots of farmers made/make plenty of money from visitors. They were often unexpectedly beautiful. They made lots of people wonder, enjoyed global coverage, and were usually cheap to make. That's the kind of the ethos behind Operation Rudolph.

But there must be lots of things we can do. I recounted, on another thread, the Forteana fall of nuts outside a seance party I attended. And, my proudest deception, I once helped a hole-in-one happen for a dear friend, who was having a bad time. (I wait patiently for some kind person to do the same for my golf game!)

At one time, I even toyed with the idea of setting up a company to sell such sheenanigans. Imagine buying a hole-in-one for you nearest and dearest, or a UFO sighting. I know people who fervently wish for nothing else. Some people want to see ghosts. That can be arranged. And so on. A whole fabric of experiences, rare or impossible, are there for us to engineer.

Any comments, any ideas? And what would you do for that special somebody? Who cares for a box of chocolates, when you could spend the night on the moon.


Caleb Strange.
Message: Posted by: Pakar Ilusi (Dec 29, 2002 02:28PM)
As usual, great idea Caleb! Love the hole-in-one story! Tempted to ask, how'd you do it?

My idea for this......

How about getting orphans from Orphanages to visit Old Folks Homes?
Throw in your Magic Show and clowns! Get the Press in on it! Make a big deal showcasing the orphans and the old folks like they were stars!
The "prank"?
Don't tell the old folks you're coming!
Celebrate humanity I say!
Message: Posted by: Caleb Strange (Dec 29, 2002 03:31PM)
I love the surprise visit idea. I've performed in lots of nursing and residential homes, and with repeat bookings, I got quite friendly with many residents. Not everyone has visitors, and holding hands and chatting became part of the job. Sad too, when familiar faces were absent from their chairs.

Hole-in-one easy enough to do, due to set up of my old course. There is an unsighted par 3, over a river, up a hill, and the green at the back of a plateau. My helper was a fellow member, and once we got near the hole, he lurked unseen by the green. I contrived not to have the honour for the hole, and prayed that my friend's shot would be reasonably straight. Thankfully it was, or we could have been back another day. Then I deliberately hit an awful shot which barely made it over the river. Which was generosity of heroic proportions by me, though I say it myself. While we were looking for my ball, the deed was done, and the assistant went back to the clubhouse.

It was great, when we got up there finally, and my friend said something like 'I've lost my so and so ball now'.
'Well it looked okay to me', I replied.
'I don't know, sigh, where's the so and so thing gone'.
'I'm sure it was on the green'.
And then he did what all golfers can't help doing, and checked the hole, just in case.

It was great. And it cost me a lost ball, and a drink for my assistant. And yes my friend did buy the traditional round of drinks in the clubhouse. But that was all part of the magic.


Caleb Strange (handicap 12).

Handful of magical prank ideas:

Glasses (drinking and spectacles!) shatter at the karaoke bar when the local Caruso hits the high notes.

The keen gardener bends down to sniff his/her prize blooms to be unexpectedly squirted with water.

A child discovers a buried artefact, with your help, which engenders a life long passion for archaeology.

A talking parrot REALLY talks. Its conversation is refined and erudite.

A single parent finds that the vast amount of washing and ironing outstanding, has magically done itself.

UFOs appear on your space mad friend's holiday snaps.

One house in the street is mysteriously covered in snow at Christmas, to the surprise of the occupants.

That bird-watching family member sees a very rare species.

Your modest, quietly spoken neighbour saves someone's life.

Your best friend's baby constructs Notre Dame cathedral out of wooden blocks, in the nursery, while her back is turned.

You sprinkle magic beans outside your young niece's window. The next morning a giant plant has grown.

An igloo appears on the local traffic roundabout, in the height of summer.

Thor, god of thunder, goes shopping at the mall.

And here are a few pranks perpertrated by others:

Expensive and empty picture frames left outside museums, that had security dashing to see what had been stolen.

A carved bit of corned beef drew the crowds at a Van Gogh exhibition as it was labelled 'The painter's ear'. The perpetrator was able to enjoy the pictures in peace.

Barry Humphries (Dame Edna) went into a chemist and bought a bar of soap. Having paid for it, he gave it back to the assistant, saying that he was eccentric, and had paid only for the pleasure of social intercourse, and that the shop could keep the soap. Mr Humphries repeated this every morning for a month. On the last day, he, for the first time, clumsily exchanged the purchased bar, for one in his pocket, letting the assistant see him doing this. You can only imagine the thoughts of the shop assistant opening the 'soap' to find a bar of lard. And then the slow chill as he/she turned to look at the bars on the shelf, and imagined that this had been going on for a month.

Finally, I once read of a beautiful impromptu trick performed by an Irish magician, whose name escapes me. The magician was sharing a small train compartment with several other travellers. It sat 12 people, facing each other on two seats. There were external doors either side of this compartment (no corridor). Now people got to chatting, and found out the man was a wonder worker. And a young, 8 or 9, world weary girl said, 'That's rubbish, there's no such thing as magic. If you were really magic, then you could make this train go the other way.'

So he closed her eyes, span her round a few times, and the train went the other way. The methods there, if you would but get up and see it. Is this the best impromptu trick ever?!


Caleb Strange.
Message: Posted by: ptbeast (Dec 30, 2002 03:14PM)

The train bit is priceless. Thanks for sharing.

Message: Posted by: Caleb Strange (Dec 30, 2002 03:36PM)
Dave, you're very welcome. Imagine having the impish genius to come up with that on the spur of the moment! Something to which we can all aspire.


Caleb Strange.
Message: Posted by: David de Leon (Dec 30, 2002 04:02PM)
Thank you Caleb for starting this thread! There were lots of reallly nice suggestions! Here are a few small pranks that I might pull:

• Get a fake plastic cigarette that glows as if lit and give it to my baby daughter to suck on when I take her for a walk in her stroller.

• Print up stickers to put on packages in the supermarket. The stickers should be made to look as if they were part of the original package. Imagine messages like this appearing on your groceries: ”Now 15% less content (on your bottle of washing up liquid); ”Box is made disproportionally large, content only fills halfway (on your box of breakfast serials); ”Free”, ”150% off” (stickers can be placed on any product); you all get the gist....

• Chose a favourite book (something that has had profound impact on you) and write a short argument for why everyone should read it. Place written note together with a bank note/bill in copies of the book in a bookstore.
Message: Posted by: Caleb Strange (Dec 30, 2002 04:16PM)
David, fantastic ideas! They've all got substance to them. Wonderfully subversive, and thought provoking. The baby stunt made me LOL! And I'm all for encouraging people to think about the shopping process, and the way we're all duped into buying far more than we need.

The book idea is charming. It's the anonymity, and the randomness of the generosity that make it so powerful. That sort of thing could change someone's world. Of course, we'd have to stop people leaving money in Mein Kampf...


Caleb Strange.
Message: Posted by: David de Leon (Dec 30, 2002 04:58PM)
Caleb, I’m happy you liked the suggestions (and also that you caught the intent behind each stunt)!

To me an altruistic prank is a prank that has some meaning beyond simply entertaining the pranksters themselves. It is a prank that is performed for the [i]benefit[/i] of those duped. To me, this is also the beauty of the concept. The benefit to the ”victim” might be amusement, astonishment, a story to tell, an occasion to reflect, a service performed, or a gift received. In most cases (at least the ones given in this thread so far) the pranks are clearly beneficial or, at least, not obviously harmful. Now a question we could ask is: should we stop here, at light entertainment, or can we go further?

There are cases were a prank has the power to do good (in the sense of doing something of value for the ”victim” of the prank), but were it is much harder to tell whether we are entering questionable moral ground. For example, think about the film [i]The Game[/i]. If I remember correctly the character played by Michael Douglas is given a birthday present by his brother which is basically a very intricate and expensive scam. The prank (perhaps this is something other than a prank) is a rather harsh performance put on for the benefit of the Douglas character, eventually leading him to think that he has been plundered of his wealth and even that he has murdered his own brother. At the end of the film (warning, spoiler coming) he jumps from a building in an attempt to kill himself. As it turns out, this move has been predicted and he lands safely (on whatever it is that stunt men land on), after crashing through some fake windows. In short: the character played by Douglas (who is, I think, middle age, successful, but disillusioned) is given a [i]transformative life experience[/i], which is probably to his benefit.

The book [i]The Magus[/i] by John Fowles revolves around a similar idea. The main character applies for a teaching job on a remote Greek island. On the island he is gradually drawn into strange company and has some unique experiences, including an unhappy love affair. As it turns out (yet another spoiler coming) his experiences are mostly staged for his benefit as a form of tranformative psychotherapy. The guy suffers a lot, but again, the experience seems to make him a better person. (This is a great book, by the way.)

I also seem to remember that there is a similar idea in a scene in the film [i]Fight Club[/i]. If I’m right, there is a scene in which a guy is threatened with a gun and made to promise to do something, something that he actually would like to do, but never gets round to doing. Something like: go to college, or we will hunt you down and blow your brains out.

Now these three examples are all rather extreme. Don’t you think? The people arguably benefit, but they do so through painful experiences. Clearly most would agree with me that these ”pranks” cross the line. There is something disturbing about someone making these kinds of decision for you and there seems to be so much scope for error and misjudgement. However, there is also something alluring here and I’m wondering whether there is a space between the rather extreme transformative life experience and the inconsequential pedestrian prank?

What I’m asking for are morally acceptable pranks that are performed for the benefit of a person(s), but that have more far-reaching consequences than simple amusement or astonishment.

Message: Posted by: Wiley (Dec 30, 2002 05:01PM)
Cool Stuff!

Smaller-scale pranks like these can be found in the books by Penn and Teller....
"How to Play With Your Food" is one of my favorites, especially the section on switching the fortunes in Fortune Cookies...I've had a lot of fun switching in cookies that wish someone a Happy Birthday, or congratulate them on a new job, or even just tell them what their favorite color is.

...and I'd love to figure out a way to cover my neighbor's house with snow...Great idea....

Message: Posted by: Caleb Strange (Dec 30, 2002 05:37PM)
David, I've believed for a long time that our art has the potential to transform lives, and not just the queen of hearts into the ten of spades. Your thinking, as ever, is insightful and rich.

I suppose the time and place would be particularly important in such experiences. Would the person be ready to benefit from the challenge, or would they shrug it off? There are some examples of this kind of thing in the teaching materials of various mystical traditions. I believe that they have the mechanics of the psychology, too.

As for things we can do, off the top of my head, I've occasionally witnessed passers-by being extremely rude to homeless people. With the homeless person's permission, you could set up a Candid Camera type van opposite, and wait for such a 'charming' person to spout his/her venomous tosh. Suddenly switch on the hidden lights, cameras come out of the van, with a full production crew and a presenter, and let them think they've been filmed on a new live TV show called 'Who's the jerk?'

Let them get all sheepish/bullish/litigious, then say it's all a scam. The person is not on TV.

(Works for racists, homophobes, and others).

Or how about a genuine car crash wreck, dressed like a Christmas tree, dumped in the local 'watering hole' car park, to deter those sociopathic drink drivers. Taking this further, a chronic offender could smash through a pram or push chair (empty save for a convincing doll) on their sozzled way home. The shock might do us all some good.


Caleb Strange.
Message: Posted by: David de Leon (Dec 30, 2002 06:57PM)
Caleb, you really give me the chills! Imagine that: driving drunk and smashing through a pram! What horror! That would really make you think!

An interesting aspect of this particular scenario is that the horror the person is subjected to would probably be justified. This is a case were the behaviour of the ”victim” seems to warrant the rather extreme experience set up for them. Singling out bigots and wrongdoers (as you do in this and the other cases) is one way of accommodating some of the moral issues involved in these kinds of pranks.

This is powerful stuff indeed!

I am also reminded of that brand of theatre played in public, on the tube for example, which is sometimes acted out as if it was real. I am sure there all kinds of scenes that would effect people in positive ways if they were experienced as real. Take the example of bigotry and stereotypes. You could have some real fun with actors that act in unexpected ways: the excessively well spoken and well mannered punk, the down and out who gives a passing beggar money, or the dancing blind man.
Message: Posted by: Jonathan Townsend (Dec 30, 2002 10:37PM)
Caleb et al
Great ideas! Making 'stuff' just happen for folks is meaningful. Especially in these times when so much **** seems happen to people. You probably already read adbusters. And this stuff does not depend on presenting an offbeat personal appearance too. Way to go! -Jon
Message: Posted by: Caleb Strange (Dec 31, 2002 01:52PM)
Has this been keeping me awake at night, or what?! Here are some of the thoughts buzzing in my head like wasps in a sticky bottle.

'It's a wonderful life' is such a life changer/saver effect, albeit performed by an angel.

Traditional examples include the following story. A group of people go to a Sufi teacher to study. He asks them to come back tomorrow, and asks them to do just one thing. They are each given a wooden box, and are told that they must not open it. Bring the box back unopened, and he will accept them as students. So off they all go, and nearly everyone of them opens the box. Out of each opened box flies a bird that none of them can recover. The next day, the master opens each of the boxes in turn, and only one still contains its bird. He dismisses the 'peekers', and accepts only the person who didn't look as his student. A combined test/prank, which provides teaching even for those who failed.

I was reminded of a scene in a Michael Moore film. (You know him, the big bearded, very amusing activist). As a Christmas treat, Moore took a group of smokers who'd all lost their larynxes to cancer, and he formed them into a distasteful, croaky choir. Then he doorstepped several tobacco companies and their executives, and treated them to a cacophonous carol concert. This awful noise seemed sick, but a moment's thought, told you who was really sick in this situation.

I remembered there was an 1980's male pop star who'd get the roadies to admit a handful of gasping groupies after the gig. He'd sit them on his bed, and with them in a fever of anticipation, so the story goes, he'd then hand each of them a bible, and lecture them for an hour on the perils of casual sex. Or so the story goes.

I'm also reminded of a family member who nearly always sends food back in retaurants, and makes a big fuss with the manager. It's not assertiveness, it's the kind of bullying Edwardian ladies did to make the servant girls cry. This person's offspring (I was tempted to say spawn) is getting married soon, I'm off to the reception. I'm ALMOST tempted to send the first three courses back, and see how this complaining is received!

However, I think there are many inherently sticky issues with this wonderful 'altruistic prank' idea. None that we cannot address, but here's the small print.

Firstly, how would people pick up on what you're trying to communicate. Confidence tricks often work by appealing to somebody's greed. The victim is scammed into thinking that THEY are doing the conning. You could pull such numbers, and eventually return the money to the 'victim', but would they understand that they had been the victim primarily of their own greed? Even if this was explicitly stated when the money was returned, would they take this on board? Time, place, and preparedness would be everything.

Secondly, as I was compiling a list of stunts I'd like to pull myself, I became painfully aware that I was targetting groups of people who met with my personal disapproval. For instance, just before Christmas, some happy elf forgot to scoop the poop, and left a canine present outside my house. This found its way into my house, twice, and required much scrubbing, as I fought to keep my young son from playing with it. So I thought, how about stalking one of these dog owners to their house, waiting outside, and when they come out, eating, or better yet getting my son to eat, what appeared to be another canine present. When they were fully grossed out, I'd say, 'You think that's disgusting? But it's not real. Unlike the pile you left outside my house last Tuesday'.

I realised, you see, that the prank holds up a mirror, to enable the person to see themselves as they really are. Trouble is, in holding it up, I caught a glimpse of myself. Lots of the ideas I'd had, said far more about me than anyone else. And boy, am I a bitter, petty little man.

Of course there is a kind of answer to this 'Who polices the police' problem already in our society. Respectable psychotherapists have to have their kinks and bumps straightened out before they're let loose on clients. It would be nice if altruistic pranksters were similarly well balanced. I think it would be especially important if the boys and girls from the magic club all went through this intensive and painful processes, before working one of these stunts. Just kidding :).

Thirdly, and perhaps most interesting of all, I had the thought 'What kind of therapeutic stunt would be good for me?' I half-answered this question with ideas for giving me things I want. 'This would make me more assertive. This would make me less prone to procrastination', and so on. And then I realised I was not answering the question through the mirror. I was not seeing myself externally, via the mirror. It's not what I want, it's what I NEED. And those are often two entirely different things.

BTW don't let this 'anything you come up with tells us what a twisted little maggot you truly are' idea, put you off from posting ideas! Such stunts form an under-explored territory for us entertainers, and it'd be another string to our bow. Magic as therapy is a WONDERFUL idea. And perhaps, by holding the mirror up to others, we can catch an edifying and important glimpse of ourselves.


Caleb Strange.
Message: Posted by: Jonathan Townsend (Dec 31, 2002 03:44PM)

The issue of getting your message across and knowing if your intended action will communicate is well defined.
The folks working on NLP are trying to learn from folks behavior what they might be feeling and HOW they might be thinking. This may be the key to your getting good results. As you get to know your 'victim', calibrate their responses/reactions to items they like, enjoy, feel good about later, are polite but annoyed etc. from this you can model their reactions to things and find those to which they will respond as desired.
Message: Posted by: Caleb Strange (Dec 31, 2002 04:50PM)
Jontown, the use of psychological ananlysis including NLP is an interesting idea. I wonder how common it is for 'mind professionals' to employ the sorts of ruses that might be commonly regarded as our kind of stuff?

Two stories come to mind. In Bandler's 'Time for change' there's a story of a hypnotic subject who could not have hallucinations induced whilst in trance (the x ray specs didn't work etc.). Until the hypnotist said 'Look at the book on the table. Now close your eyes, and when you open them the book will be gone'. Of course the book was gone, the hypnotist hid it under the table whilst the client's eyes were closed! From that moment on the client COULD see the weird stuff.

There's also Carl Jung's famous synchronicity story. Jung was treating an intelligent, but overly rational woman. She could intellectually grasp concepts such as synchronicity, but refused to believe in such mumbo jumbo. Jung felt that this was harming her self-actualisation. One day, the woman told Jung of a dream she'd had about a scarab beetle. Then, as she, for the umpteenth time, belittled synchronicity, what should fly in and land in her hand but a fat beetle! From that moment on she was able to accept the quirkier concepts, and her therapy proceeded more smoothly. Jung used this story to illustrate synchronicity, happy meaningful events of seeming chance. But imagine a therapist who resorted to subterfuge to produce similar reactions. I'm not suggesting that Jung did this. What would he be doing with a beetle? BUT such little ruses could be beneficial in a therapeutic situation.


Caleb Strange.
Message: Posted by: Chad Sanborn (Jan 1, 2003 03:49AM)
Oh on the just plain mean pranks, go get a fake arm or leg and go to a construction site. Find a pile of dirt and insert the arm/leg so that it partially sticks out. Wait for someone to notice! The more police cars that show up, the more points you get!

Message: Posted by: Peter Marucci (Jan 1, 2003 07:32AM)
Or try this at no cost at all:
Go into a bank and at the table where you fill out withdrawal slips, take one and write on the back: "This is a stick-up. Give me all the cash."
Then put the slip, right side up, back in the stack, about 10 or 20 down from the top.
And wait until someone fills it out, gives it to the teller, and the teller turns it over to date-stamp it!
Message: Posted by: Chad Sanborn (Jan 1, 2003 10:10AM)
ohhh Peter! Very Devious Idea!! hahahaha.
I have antoher one fo you. Get some real dollar bills and make some decent one-sided copies of it. Lets say you have 5 real one dollar bills and 5 fakes. Alternate the real and fake ones in a stack and with some rubber cement glue the edges on one side together so that it creates a pad of bills. Now, go to yoour local Wal-Mart or other store and buy soemthing cheap. Less than 5 dollars. When yo get up to pay, tear the bills off 1 ata time from the pad and pay with them. When you get to one of the ones that is only half printed, mumble about this one not turning out right. And ask the cashier to throw it away for you! This is a very very funny gag!

oh one more for you, buy some life savers and carefully open one end, roll up a 10 dollar bill and slip it inside and seal the end up. Go to your local Wal-Mart again and get an item for less than 10 dollars. When its your turn to pay, pretend that you forgot your wallet, and finger palm out the lifesavers. Ask the cashier if she has heard about the new lifesaver contest and reachover and pretend to take a pack of lifesavers off the shelf, actually yoru fingerpalmes package. Say that lifesavers has a contest where they put real cash inside some of the packages. Tear open the package by breaking it in the middle. Out pops the 10 dollar bill. Use that 10 to pay for the item and life savers. I guarantee that the next few people in line behind you will buy some too.