The calendar conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian (in the 1500's) is the origin of April Fools' Day, right? Well, according to the master debunkers at Snopes.com, that's not entirely clear. What is more clear is that pranks have existed throughout human history and across cultures. Today's Science section of the New York Times discusses the social utility of practical jokes:
Jonathan Wynn, a cultural sociologist at Smith College, said pranks served to maintain social boundaries in groups as various as police departments and sororities. “And you gain status by being picked on in some ways,” he said. “It can be a kind of flattery, if you’re being brought in.”
One of the most highly respected pranks was the 1957 BBC Broadcast about the Swiss spaghetti harvest:
On the Media this week profiled Alan Abel. He's made a career of creating fake news events and is the subject of the new documentary, Abel Raises Cain.
The Yes Men take pranks to activism, impersonating such groups as the WTO, Exxon and Halliburton. Before they were known as The Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno participated in the Barbie Liberation Organization. The BLO is the group that switched the voice boxes of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls.
In science and math, we have Alabama Changing Pi to the Biblical Value of 3. This is a personal favorite which seems to resurface every few years.
The Museum of Hoaxes site lovingly enumerates the Top 100 April Fools' Hoaxes Of All Time.
In 1987, philosopher Daniel Dennett, Dr. Richard Paul Astley, and biologists Richard Dawkins and William Hamilton discussed the evolutionary adaptiveness of humor and pranks on the WYNS show, Perspectives. Video here.