Living in an April Fool’s Paradise: Novelty Gags Through the Ages

Black soap. Plastic vomit. Snakes that pop out of cans of peanut brittle. What would April Fool’s Day be without them? Like Paul Rudd, these items never get old. But where did they come from? Who invented them? I’ve spent over 45 years finding answers. Here’s what I learned in what can only be called “a wasted life.”

The Whoopee Cushion

The Ancient Romans gave us many things: indoor plumbing, Roman numerals (which they called just numerals) and the ever-popular orgy (where legend says they invented LXIX).

We’re thankful for these things and especially for their festival called Hilaria, which was the forerunner of our April Fool’s Day, a day celebrated in current times on April 1 or March 32, whichever comes first.

The whoopee cushion was born during one such Hilaria festival. It was the brainchild of a basically brainless child—the 18-year-old Roman Emperor Elagabalus. He was a high-spirited youth who hated stuffy Roman nobles, many of whom he had stuffed and put on display in his foyer.

To prepare for his Hilaria feast, he killed two-dozen sheep. These sheep were the ones he’d count to fall asleep. But realizing that drinking an urn of wine worked better, he didn’t need them. The meat was turned into shish kebab and the wool into new cushions for the dining room. But instead of stuffing the cushions with straw (like he did to stuff the nobles), he used sheep bladders, which were then filled with air. This would cause a raucous flatulent sound whenever his guests sat down on them.

Elagabalus loved the looks on the Roman nobles’ faces when the sound of “breaking wind” filled the room. And the nobles loved the look on Elagabalus’s face when they cut off his head and tossed his body into the Tiber, despite knowing he couldn’t swim.

The Snake Peanut Brittle Can

This gag goes back to Biblical times and Ham, the youngest of Noah’s sons, who was a bit of a practical joker. (That a Jewish boy was named after a pork product is amusing in itself.)

After Noah had built the ark, Ham got the job of collecting two of every reptile, a task he loathed. For the rest of the story, let’s turn to the Bible.

And Ham doth collected iguanas from Syria, crocodiles from Egypt and the geckos from the land of Geico. But lo, he foundeth himself with a dearth of serpents, because Ham, being boneless, feared them. Angered that his father Noah gave him such a horrid task, he decideth to have sport at his father’s expense. He fashioned two snakes from twigs and palm leaves and, returning to the Ark, hid them in a jar of peanut halvah. (Halvah being the Hebrew word for “brittle.”)

It came to pass that Noah, looking for a snack at midnight, opened the jar of halvah at which time the snakes suddenly springeth forth, causing him great alarm and making him fall upon his ass, which brayed loudly. There was much laughter amongst the hyenas and chimpanzees and wide grins amongst the dogs and Cheshire cats. Noah smote Ham about the head and ears for his half-baked scheme, which caused Ham to remain glazed for a fortnight.

X-Ray Specs

These were popular items sold through ads in comic books in the 50s and 60s. These joke glasses let you “see through clothing,” much like the screening devices used at the airport by the TSA.

However, the concept of X-Ray Specs dates back to the 11th century, when they were invented by Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. He was a cruel man who taxed the peasants of Coventry unmercifully. His wife, Lady Godiva, whose chocolates we all know, begged him to lower the peasants’ taxes. He said he would do it, but only if she stripped naked and rode her horse through the streets. (He was always setting odd tasks for her, such as agreeing to help with the dishes if she stood on one foot and yodeled a Gregorian chant.) Godiva, behind a kind, generous and somewhat dim-witted soul, agreed.

Leofric put up notices in the town announcing his wife’s upcoming ride but left out the part of her being in her birthday suit. Instead, he said that he was selling special “Ex Reus” spectacles, which allowed anyone who wore them to see right through her clothes. The men fell over themselves to buy the special glasses because Lady G was hot and PornHub hadn’t yet been invented. Even the women bought them to check her for cellulite and stretch marks.

Lady Godiva, being modest, had asked everyone stay indoors and keep their windows shut, but those wearing the “Ex Reus” specs simply peeped through their curtains and saw her riding in the buff as promised, which they would have seen anyway, glasses or not. 

True to his word, Leofric reduced the taxes, but by selling the spectacles at £1.99 each, 2 for £5 (the peasants not being good at math), he made so much money that he could buy mink earmuffs for his hunting dogs and a solid gold outhouse for himself.

Exploding Cigars

Chief Sitting Bull was the leader of the Lakota tribe and the man who defeated General Custer at Little Big Horn. He also had a great sense of humor, often coming out of his tepee wearing the “arrow through the head” gag.

Whenever another tribe sent a smoke signal, he’d send back a smoke “busy signal.” He’d also prank smoke signal his neighbors, asking if they had Jack Daniels in a bottle. And if they did, he’d signal back, “Let him out.”

But what he’s most known for is the exploding peace pipe, the inspiration for the exploding cigar. Unfortunately, he once smoked an exploding peace pipe with a delegation from the US Government. They repaid this prank with one of their own. They presented him with a peace treaty that granted his tribe all the territory in the western United States, but they wrote it in disappearing ink.

Sitting Bull spent his last years pretending to be a cigar store Indian outside a tobacco shop and suddenly saying “boo” to passers-by.

Chattering Teeth

In December 1777, when the Continental Army was spending a freezing winter in Valley Forge, the soldiers often heard George Washington’s teeth chattering like castanets in his cold, unheated tent. They knew then that they could drink, gamble and nap on duty because Washington’s teeth only chattered when he slept.

Washington got wind of this and had Ben Franklin construct, from a set of his old wooden dentures, spring-loaded teeth that would chatter when wound up. He did this to trick his men into thinking he was sleeping so he could catch them neglecting their duty.

The gambit worked. He caught the soldiers red-handed and immediately lined them up to be shot. But unknown to Washington, Ben Franklin had tampered with the guns, so when firing squad pulled the triggers, flags saying “Bang” popped out.

The Joy Buzzer

The joy buzzer is first mentioned in the diaries of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who is known for opening Japan for trade with the West in 1853. He wrote:

When I learned I would be sailing to Japan, I saw this as a golden opportunity for America as well as myself. I knew of a novelty company owned by my wife’s cousin’s step-uncle’s brother. My idea was to bring their most popular item to Japan to sell and thus secure my fortune. Sadly, it was only misfortune. For I invested my entire life savings in 3 million joy buzzers, which were worthless in Japan since no one there shakes hands but simply bows. I was ruined.

Joy buzzers were also a favorite prank of the other Matthew Perry from the TV show Friends. However, he never could use one because the cast and crew didn’t like him and no one ever wanted to shake his hand.

“Kick Me,” Signs

Perhaps the most dangerous of all April Fool’s pranks is the “Kick Me” sign. In 1935, it caused the death of millionaire playboy Jasper Copperplate III, a man very attracted to chorus girls. Tragically, he was kicked to death backstage at Radio City Music Hall when a disgruntled stagehand placed a “Kick Me” sign on his back during a rehearsal of the Rockettes.

Today, Italy holds the world record for the biggest “Kick Me” sign ever made. In 1986, the artist Christo known for wrapping landmarks and landscapes in fabric covered the entire island of Sicily in cloth and wrote on it “Kick Me” (“Calciami” in Italian), thus giving the famous boot of Italy something to aim at. Unfortunately, this gag could only be seen from space.




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