April Fool's Day is upon us again, with its annual awkward political gags, media blunders, eyeroll-inducing ad campaigns, mean-spirited pranks and, if you're lucky, maybe an actual laugh. Alex Boese, curator of the online Museum of Hoaxes, discusses some of history's most influential April Fool's Day jokes. — Washington Post
The washing of the lions at the Tower of London
In the first documented April Fool's prank, Brits handed out invitations to "see the lions being washed at the Tower of London," specifically targeting clueless out-of-towners and newcomers. Ha ha. And the joke was … no lions? Well, actually the tower did have a royal menagerie then, but there was no public washing. But then they resurrected the gag in the 19th century — when there really weren't any more lions there at all! Ha ha? Maybe you had to be there.
Robbery of the U.S. Treasury
The German newspaper Berliner Tageblatt decided it would be a riot to print a story claiming that all the silver and gold had been stolen from the U.S. Treasury, in a heist orchestrated by American millionaires. Then the hoax snowballed when other newspaper editors across Europe believed the story and reprinted it without hesitation; to them, the idea of criminal millionaires hijacking America's government didn't seem so far-fetched, Boese says. "It caused a bit of a ruckus, but no one got hurt — just embarrassed."
The Swiss spaghetti harvest
In an April 1 news segment, the esteemed BBC presented its viewers with a cheerful report: Swiss farmers were celebrating an unusually plentiful spaghetti crop, thanks to a balmy winter and the eradication of the menacing "spaghetti weevil." The story included staged footage of workers plucking limp pasta from trees. Amazingly, a lot of people believed it, and the prank is widely considered the most successful April Fool's Day joke of all time.
Resurrecting the woolly mammoth
Nearly a decade before Jurassic Park, the concept of bringing animals back from extinction was so wild that any mention of it would obviously be a joke — at least, that was the thinking behind an MIT Technology Review article about Russian scientists who were planning to "retrobreed" the woolly mammoth. But the April Fool's Day fakery was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and other papers before everyone realized it was a prank. (Though now scientists really are talking about bringing extinct animals back to life.)
Nixon's new presidential bid
Remember that time former President Richard Nixon shocked the nation and gave NPR the exclusive scoop that he was running for office again? "I never did anything wrong, and I won't do it again," he insisted — except it was actually a comedian impersonating him, of course. Considering the general insanity of American politics, we can maybe forgive the many NPR listeners who believed the report and called the broadcasting company in horror. "People may not initially have been thrilled" by the prank, Boese says, "but it's definitely now regarded as an absolute classic."
The Taco Liberty Bell
In a widely published full-page ad, the Taco Bell fast-food chain declared that it had purchased the Liberty Bell and was hereby renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Philadelphians freaked out, and baffled workers at the national park were flooded with outraged calls. Taco Bell declared it the "best joke of the day." Boese says the prank made history: Before then, companies mostly stuck to gimmicky wordplay in their April Fool's ads; Taco Bell paved the way for more elaborate corporate hoaxes.