According to History.com, a number of historians believe that the first April Fool’s Day occurred in 1582 when France made the big switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar would start the New Year on or around April 1st tied with the spring equinox. Some people failed to get the memo that the New Year had switched to January 1st and so those people became known as “April fools.” To make things worse, these fools were often tagged with a paper fish which symbolized what was known as an “April fish” – a fish that was easily caught.
Others speculate that the holiday began in ancient Rome during Hilaria festivals (a Latin term for joyful) where people would dress up in disguises and mock their fellow citizens. Some people also say that the holiday began during the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere when the weather should have been spring-like but instead became unpredictable. By the 18th century, folks in Scotland began “hunting the gowk (cuckoo bird)” sending various people on phony errands. They also celebrated what was known as Tailie Day when people would literally pin “kick me” signs on other people’s backs.
Some April Fool’s Day pranks are harmless while others have been large examples of bad taste. Here are just of the more memorable ones:
Catching the Train
The top photo taken in 2001 shows how Copenhagen Metro in Denmark created an elaborate prank using a retired subway car and placing it in front of the town hall making it look as if it had surfaced to street level. (Image: Wikimedia)
Saved by the Bell
People still debate if Taco Bell’s 1996 stunt was a brilliant marketing campaign or a really bad idea. The fast food restaurant chain posted full-page ads in seven major newspapers announcing that they had bought Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and had renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell. The White House response? Mike McCurry, the press secretary added that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold and would be known as the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial.
In 1992, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation show had some fun creating a story where former President Richard Nixon announcing that his was running for president again. His slogan? “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” Many were fooled because the voice, provided by Rich Little, sounded just like Nixon.
The Odd Couple
While John Lennon and Yoko Ono may have made for one odd couple, the two certainly liked to have fun. Right after their honeymoon in 1969, they told reporters at Heathrow Airport that they were “willing to be the world’s clowns” in order to spread peace. In 1970, the pair announced that they would be getting dual sex change operations. Then in 1973, they stated that they had created a new country called Nutopia where there were “no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people”, its flag was a white tissue and its national anthem was silence. Just imagine.
In 1998, Burger King began offering the Left-Handed Whopper. It was the same Whopper but all of the ingredients were rotated 180 degrees so that left-handed people could experience the burger like right-handed people have for years. According to BK, there were many people requesting the new sandwich and just as many people saying that they would prefer the old right-handed version.
Free Color TV
In 1962, a rather elaborate five-minute special was broadcast on Swedish TV telling people how they could receive color transmission on their old black-and-white televisions by placing a nylon stocking in front of the screen. Apparently, thousands of viewers tried it out.
In 1965, the BBC conducted a trial of a new “smell-o-vision” technology that would allow viewers to smell what they saw on TV. A demonstration was made with a man chopping onions and later brewing a cup of coffee. Oddly, a number of viewers called in to state that the test had indeed worked.
You Can Fly
In 2008, a trailer for the fake BBC film, “Miracles of Evolution” was shown highlighting a group of penguins who have learned how to fly. The film was hosted by Terry Jones narrating the birds’ journey from Antarctica to the Amazon rainforest. It was all in a promotion for the BBC iPlayer.
Public broadcaster NTS in the Netherlands had some fun in 1969 when they announced that inspectors with remote scanners had been disbursed to detect and find people who had not paid their radio/TV tax. However, they also stated that they only way to prevent this detection was to wrap up their TVs and radio with aluminum foil. The next day it was reported that grocery stores had sold out their aluminum foil and that there were a surge of TV/radio taxes being paid.
One of the more famous pranks came in 1957 when the BBC “Panorama” series showed footage of Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti in their family’s orchard. After the airing, the BBC received calls and letters requesting information on where they could purchase their own spaghetti tree. The hoax worked because at the time, spaghetti noodles were fairly unknown to the people in the United Kingdom.
Redbox has created various new uses and products over the years including Petbox (a dog-sized video distribution kiosk offering animal-themed movies for pets), MoodMatch (where the red box would change colors depending on one’s mood) and Lunch Meat (where the box would offer DVD-shaped snack foods).
In 1993, a radio station in San Diego, California announced that the Space Shuttle Discovery had been diverted and would land at Montgomery Field, a small, local airport. Despite the fact that the Space Shuttle wasn’t even scheduled to fly on that day, over 1,000 people made their way to see the landing of the space craft which inadvertently tied up traffic for hours. Not only was the airport manager was mad, the police department was mad as well billing the radio station for the cost of having a number of officers help to redirect traffic.
They Blew It
One prank that didn’t go over so well happed in 1980 when Boston TV station WNAC aired a fake news bulletin stating that the Great Blue Hill in Milton, Massachusetts was erupting using stock footage. The prank caused some residents to flee their homes in fear and an executive producer being fired.
They Also Blew It
In 1989, a local comedy TV show in Seattle called Almost Live was “interrupted” by a “special report” announcing that the iconic Space Needle had collapsed. An actor portraying a KING 5 news reporter gave the grim news. The volume of 911 calls shut the lines down and hundreds of other calls flooded the KING 5 switchboard. Even some medical volunteers from Eastern Washington came over to help with the “disaster” that never was. The following week, the show’s host made an apology for the prank and surprisingly, kept his job.
In Monroe, North Carolina, the country and gospel music station known as WIXE had already been known for creating April Fool’s Day pranks every year but in 2009, the joke was on them. Bob Rogers, the mid-day host had announced that the station was changing its format to heavy metal. While they expected to receive a number of complaints, about half of the callers were actually calling in to request a song!
Haden Siddhartha Finch
Sports Illustrated once ran a lengthy story about Haden Siddhartha Finch, a New York Mets pitching prospect. Written by George Plimpton, the story in great detail gave an expose’ on Finch who had a talent for pitching balls at 168 miles per hour with one bare foot and the other donning a hiking boot.
Perhaps it was because the story was brought to light days before April 1st in 2007 that led many people to believe in Dan Baines’ “discovery” of a dead fairy. The illusion designer for magicians posted photos of the mummified remains of a fairy which reportedly was found by a dog walker at Firestone Hill in Duffield, Derbyshire. The “corpse” was said to have been examined by anthropologists who confirmed that it was real. Baine’s website received over 20,000 hits that day. The model was later sold on eBay.
In 1989, Des Lynam, the host of BBC’s Grandstand sports show commented on the professionalism of his team while a fight amongst his staff broke out directly behind him.
Since 2000, Google has been known as being a real trickster during April Fool’s Day featuring new products like “telepathic search” or enhancements like the ability to play Pace Man on Google Maps. One of the funniest pranks occurred in 2008 when all of the featured videos on all of the international homepages of Google-owned YouTube linked to Rick Astley’s song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The company however did not pull any pranks in 2020 as the year was hard enough on everyone as it was.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.