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Posts Tagged ‘pranks’

Letter from West Virginia

May 17, 2016 | by

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“A newspaper for people who can’t read, edited by an editor who can’t write”

Jim Comstock (1911–96) was the iconoclastic editor of the West Virginia Hillbilly, a “weakly” paper based in Richwood, a former logging boomtown in Nicholas County fallen on hard times. I spent the first years of my life over the mountain from Richwood, where Jim’s stunts were much discussed. The Hillbilly wasn’t just a paper—it was an art project, a platform for historic preservation, a conservative wailing wall, and, above all, an exploration of the West Virginian id. Once, in early spring, Jim famously added “ramp oil” to the ink at the printing press, a tribute to Richwood’s Feast of the Ramson, which celebrates the wild leeks that sprout in the mountains after a hard winter. They give off a terrible stench. Warehouses full of mailmen were made to gag. To his delight, Jim received a stern rebuke from the postmaster general. “Now we’re the only newspaper under orders from the federal government not to smell bad,” Jim told the Associated Press. “That’s an awful thing to do to a striving newspaper.” Read More »

Put Your Antlers On

November 18, 2015 | by

An Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, ca. 1900.

These days I’m not really one for flash mobs, ubiquitous improv, or other anodyne, faux-spontaneous acts of pranking and merrymaking. I mean, you do you—I’ll be over here, surly and unwacky. I think it’s because a part of me knows I could have gone in that direction, very easily; with one slight twist of fate or genetics, I might be riding the subway in my underpants right now. It is very nearly in my blood. Read More »

The Great Bottle Conjurer Hoax

March 13, 2015 | by

A representation of the Bottle Conjurer from an English broadside dated 1748-49.

From William S. Walsh’s Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, a 1909 compendium of “bibelots and curios” from the world of letters. The critic Barbara M. Benedict has written that the Bottle Conjurer “promised to bring literature to life; to reverse power relations; to incarnate onanism; to make monstrosity—the transgression of physical boundaries—humorous. Instead, he made the audience fools of their own desire ... The explosive result revealed the danger of unmonitored curiosity.”

Perhaps the most gigantic hoax ever perpetrated was that known to history as the Great Bottle Hoax.

Early in the year 1749, a distinguished company of Englishmen were discussing the question of human gullibility. Among them were the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield. “I will wager,” said the duke, “that let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.”

“Surely,” returned the earl, “if a man should say that he would jump into a quart bottle, nobody would believe that.”

At first the duke was staggered. But having made the wager he held to it. The jest pleased the rest of the company. They put their heads together and evolved the following advertisement, which appeared in the London papers of the first week in January: Read More »

Insure Yourself with Faulkner

September 25, 2014 | by

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From December 1921 until October 1924, William Faulkner enjoyed a famously disastrous tenure as the University of Mississippi’s postmaster. He’d arrive late, leave early, play bridge, and work on his fiction—all while losing mail or simply throwing it away. (“I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp,” he wrote in his brief, pungent resignation letter.)

During these years Faulkner wrote regularly for The Mississippian, the school newspaper. Of his contributions, the strangest and most apocryphal is the mock-advertisement above, for the Bluebird Insurance Co., which offered to indemnify students “against professors and other failures.” It goes on to discuss feet, heartbreak, and hollow logs, none of them very coherently.

Faulkner, minus the u, is listed as one of the company’s three presidents, and apparently it’s never been clear whether he helped write the ad or was named without consent. Whatever the case, in the weeks and months to follow, more ads for Bluebird appeared in The Mississippian and the Ole Miss annual. One of them took a (self-deprecating?) jab at Faulkner’s job performance: “It is a gross injustice to say that President Falkner has permanently retired in the Post Office. He merely takes temporary naps—during business hours.”

Carvel Collins tells the story more completely in the introduction to his William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (1961): Read More »

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A Vintage Plimpton Prank

April 1, 2014 | by

Today’s been so chock full of hoaxes, shenanigans, pranks, put-ons, spoofs, tomfoolery, and good-natured hooliganism that we’ve almost forgotten to remind you of the hoaxes, shenanigans, pranks, put-ons, spoofs, tomfoolery, and good-natured hooliganism of yesteryear. One case in particular merits revisiting: we speak, of course, of a 1985 hoax executed in grand fashion by our late founder, George Plimpton. PBS’s American Masters tells the story with help from Jonathan Dee:

For the April 1, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated, George Plimpton wrote “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” a profile on an incredible rookie baseball pitcher for the New York Mets. Sports fans took his April Fools’ Day joke seriously. Even other journalists were willing to believe a novice could throw a 168-mph fast ball, thanks to his Buddhist training (Sidd was short for Siddhartha, the title character of Herman Hesse’s novel). To keep the hoax going, a nervous George Plimpton relied on a young Jonathan Dee, now a famous fiction writer but then an associate editor and Plimpton’s personal assistant at The Paris Review. Dee describes Plimpton’s tense days surrounding the hoax in this film outtake.

American Masters’ Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself premieres nationally Friday, May 16, on PBS.

 

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The Bookstore of the Year, and Other News

April 2, 2013 | by

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