P.T. Barnum, Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, Abbie Hoffman: A History of Pranksters

Reading between the lines.
May 8 2014 6:00 PM

Trolls!

A history of pranksters, hackers, and mischief-makers.

(Continued from Page 1)

MIT makes a few cameo appearances in McLeod’s book, but Pranksters covers so much ground in 300-odd pages that a lot of stuff is understandably left out or merits just a few pages of discussion. And pranks outside of Western culture don’t get much of a mention. A world history of pranksters still needs to be written, taking in everything from pranks in modern India to communist Russia to ancient Egypt.

Kembrew McLeod.
Kembrew McLeod

Courtesy of Tom Jorgensen

McLeod is good at finding common threads that unite all the multifarious pranks together and making sense of what may seem like a tangled mess of characters and events. McLeod celebrates good pranks, eschewing the particularly mean-spirited or ham-fisted ones, like fraternity hazing ceremonies. “Although ‘good’ pranks sometimes do ridicule their targets, they serve a higher purpose by sowing skepticism and speaking truth to power (or at least cracking jokes that expose fissures in power’s façade),” McLeod writes. “A prank a day keeps The Man away, I always say.” Pranksters enter into a sort of feedback loop with the media and can shape the media, too. “People don’t just make mischief with media; their mischief can also remake media in the process,” McLeod writes. But some pranks have a dark side, too, wandering into the shadowy territory of deception, con artistry, and conspiracy theories.

McLeod’s book really gains steam when it hits the 20th century; it’s clearly what he’s most passionate about. The heady stew of the 1960s—including the Merry Pranksters, and Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies—serves as an object lesson on pranks and how they could interface with society, culture, politics, and activism. McLeod’s vivid description of the Merry Pranksters’ kooky school bus, painted in wild colors, makes you pine for the freewheeling San Francisco of yore, before the Google bus took over.

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For McLeod, Pranksters is also, in a small part, autobiographical. “I have a confession,” admits McLeod near the end of the book, after a dizzying chapter taking in Yoko Ono, Korla Pandit, the Dead Kennedys, phone phreaks, the Church of the SubGenius, and the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. “The subject matter covered in the previous chapter is very close to my heart, for I myself am a former computer hobbyist, Dungeons & Dragons nerd, zinester, Church of the SubGenius member, indie music fan, and mainliner of pop culture. It’s in many ways a stealth autobiography, because all of those things fundamentally shaped who I am today.” The autobiographical chapter lends the book a personal touch, making it feel less like a distant academic survey and more like a passionate, on-the-ground analysis.

McLeod closes his book with some of the exemplary pranksters of the past decade, including the Yes Men and Billionaires for Bush, but he mostly sidesteps the current online maelstrom— everything from YouTube parodies, viral memes, the denial-of-service attacks that take down websites, and much more. But McLeod’s inspired book poses intriguing questions: Can we draw clear lines between, say, Ben Franklin’s offbeat trolling and the fearless direct action activists of ACT UP? Can we analyze Yoko Ono and the Dead Kennedys under one umbrella—to say nothing of the Rosicrucians and Steve Jobs? Did these myriad pranksters throughout history have a longstanding impact on how we see ourselves, our societies and our governments, and the world at large? The pranks I engaged in long ago taught me that, as McLeod writes, “When the world is temporarily turned askew, it can be seen from a new perspective.”

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Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World by Kembrew McLeod. NYU Press.

Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World

Geeta Dayal is the author of Another Green World, a recent book on Brian Eno. Follow her on Twitter.

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