Triticum Turgidum

Lying Dormant and Waiting to Bloom Since 2005

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Location: The Prairie, Illinois, United States

I am a beauty-loving ambidextrous higher-order primate who learned transcendental meditation at 7, statistical analysis at 23, tap dancing at 30, and piano at 35. I tolerate gluten, lactose, and differences of opinion, but not abuse. Or beets.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

For Love of Pranks

Pranks! by Re/Search Publications is one of my favorite books. I read it at the suggestion of an artist friend. It consists of a collection of interviews with artists, performers, and other "countercultural" individuals describing their philosophy of the value of pranks. The description of the book reads as follows:

"A prank is a 'trick, a mischievous act, a ludicrous act.' Although not regarded as poetic or artistic acts, pranks constitute an art form and genre in themselves. Here pranksters such as Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Monte Cazazza, Jello Biafra, Earth First!, Joe Coleman, Karen Finley, John Waters and Henry Rollins (and more) challenge the sovereign authority of words, images and behavioral convention. This iconoclastic compendium will dazzle and delight all lovers of humor, satire and irony."

And it does. But it’s thought-provoking too. What all of the interviewees seem to have in common is their regard for pranks as tools for temporarily overturning the status quo, or at least making it visible. So-called “pranks" that reinforce and maintain the status quo – like fraternity hazing – don’t fall into this category because they hurt their targets and serve no social or artistic purpose other than to remind said targets of the existing power structure and their lowly place in its pecking order. According to the folks interviewed in the book, one of the key "rules" of socially constructive pranks is that they must not harm anyone. (Mild embarrassment, alas, is not considered harm.)

One of the most articulate interviewees on this topic is Jerry Casale of the band Devo. Remember those red flowerpot hats? Are we not men? We are Devo. He describes a situation in which a bank president sets up a bookkeeper to get busted for breaking into a vacation house he thought was his to stay in. As Casale explains:

"That was a prank which I thought was regressive, an infantile prank. It wasn’t subverting reality to forward evolution. This was white jocks at play. (A good prank) calls into question every illegitimately held belief that’s really inhumane. A prank is a mirror… a prank is just a readout of the mentality in question. A prank is really an ancient form of performance art. In this society people just try to limit it to idiotic acts like the bucket of shit (over a door), or the hand in the lukewarm water. The hand-in-the-water infantile joke reflects the quality of information in all the small, tormented, repressed minds that run society. It’s the same guys who hire the naked girl to come out of the cake at their board meeting. What should come out of the cake is a transvestite who has had hormone injections for tits, but has a big cock and balls AND a blazing submachine gun."

I love the way this man thinks.

He goes on to explain that Devo itself was a prank. Casale and his bandmates would purposely book themselves in arenas that did not typically draw the electronica-nerd contingent that comprised Devo’s fan base. Instead, they would deliberately choose hair-band clubs populated with heavy metal fans for the sole purpose of forcing the electronica geeks and metal-loving burnouts to interact with one another. Fun!

My electronica geek friends and I had the extreme good fortune to be the targets of such a prank in the 1980s when we went to see Devo play at a Detroit club called Harpo’s. Harpo’s is, quite frankly, the scummiest place in Detroit. We laughed out loud when we heard that DEVO had been booked at HARPO’S! What idiot planned that? (Remember, I hadn’t read Pranks! yet.)

So we went. And we watched. The heavy-metal types who had never heard of Devo stood and glowered against one wall; the pocket-protector types with plastic flowerpot hats blinked nervously from the other wall. Would a fight break out? Would the evening’s end find the floor littered with cracked plastic flowerpots and bits of smashed calculator? Or would Burnout and Nerd look beyond appearances and embrace each other, drawn together by a love of absurd music and the gross misperception that a band named Devo must play heavy metal music? I was hoping, dreamily, for the kind of connection the high school beauty queen, nerd, jock, freak, and hoodlum made after a day in detention in the 1985 movie The Breakfast Club.

What actually happened was somewhere in the middle. The music started and the nerds rushed the mosh pit while the burnouts hung back against the wall, appalled. They were reluctant to leave because they’d paid a cover charge, so they lingered unhappily. Occasionally one would holler “Devo SUCKS!” but otherwise there were no altercations. My friends and I were up front with the rest of the nerds, dancing and trying to catch an Oscar Mayer weiner Mark Mothersbaugh had pulled from his meltdown suit and tossed into our midst. (I was this close to catching it.)

The idea that the members of Devo were playing a prank on their entire audience by forcing us to acknowledge a key aspect of the teen status quo – that metalheads and geeks must never occupy the same social space – never crossed my mind. I thought it was a colossal mistake, albeit a highly entertaining one. But I did leave thinking about how odd it was to have such socially different crowds in one space, and wondering why we had to classify ourselves so narrowly that the prospect of being in the same place together was almost unthinkable. But in the end I guess that was Jerry’s point:

"(As the target of a prank), if you end up seeing further into or through a situation, then the prank was a lesson; the prank was the vehicle for giving you a new insight. A prank only victimizes to the degree that people are attached to their level of reality—that’s what it’s really about. The more uptight and constipated someone is about their reality, the more the prank is offensive. The consequence in reality never outweighs the information gained through the prank. After all, the victim walks away. The victim is not hurt—only psychologically—but for his own good. Of course I’m thinking of good pranks, not regressive jock pranks."

Thanks Jerry. I appreciate the lesson.


Blogger AngelaCh1 said...

I had heard this whole "Devo was created as a prank" theory a long time ago, but no one quite believed me. Glad to hear that I'm not crazy.

psst... I have a blog now too :)


2:17 AM, June 12, 2005  
Blogger mireille said...

I love Devo. Also Blue Men.

7:54 AM, June 12, 2005  
Blogger Jonniker said...

I love this. And Devo. And Blue Men, too! And "Whip It" is one of my favorite videos ever.

8:35 AM, June 12, 2005  
Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

Never heard of Devo, but I LOVE pranks, and would delight in reading a book on the subject.

Actually, I could probably write write a rather devilish one of my own....he, he, he...

3:42 PM, June 12, 2005  
Blogger Tan Lucy Pez said...

Sounds as if it's a good read. I'll have to check it out. "Streaking" was a prank that helped folks see that being naked wasn't such a horrible thing.

8:28 PM, June 12, 2005  
Anonymous lightspeed said...

Very interesting. I think I'll pick up a copy of this book.
p.s. - nice to know that you haven't totally disappeared from the web!

10:25 AM, June 13, 2005  
Blogger cjblue said...

Great post! I think I'm going to have to pick up this book ASAP. A good beach read?

BTW, I copied your Candy post and sent it to my sister and brother, who both howled with laughter, identifying with it. My other sister wouldn't get the irony. She only eats chicken parmesan.

10:52 AM, June 13, 2005  
Blogger WinterWheat said...

Triplets: so close and yet so far.

12:12 PM, June 13, 2005  

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