Anatomy of a Prank: Is the Show Host Fair Game?

Apr 1, 2014

Credit viZZZual / Creative Commons

Every April 1, I think, "Why didn't we do a Colin McEnroe Show on pranks?! Next year, it's gonna happen." A few weeks ago, I put it on the calendar, and started researching.

When I searched "professional prankster," I found Joey Skaggs, Tom Mabe, and Jeff Pinsker, who was mentioned in a People magazine article from 1987. He was, at the time, paid to prank CEOs. 

Now Pinsker is the president of Klutz, a much-loved kid's book and toy maker. I emailed and asked if he'd be interested in coming on our show to talk about his process of pranking. He agreed. I exhaled. 

A common anxiety among producers is that the guest we really want won't want to or be able to come on, and no matter how many times you successfully put a show together, there's always that tension. So to get this guy who clearly loved and cared about pranking people was a huge "get", and I was relieved and excited to put the rest of the show together (which included Skaggs & Mabe, which would also make a good alt-country band name).

The tension returned when Jeff confidently suggested that we prank Colin.

My mind raced: What could I get away with doing on public radio? I've known Colin for about 5 years now, but I just don't know how he feels about pranks. What can I do that won't make him angry? What can get away with that will still respect the purpose of the show? What if he sees it coming? It's April Fools' Day, you know? What if I'm totally off-base about even considering doing this? I've been wrong before about what my bosses consider appropriate for our airwaves, and they're trusting me, here. Am I over thinking this? Should I just lighten up? It's not like anyone will get hurt... Right?

An April Fools' Day prank in a bathroom includes Post-It notes on everything.
Credit Ganesha Balunsat / Creative Commons

A foil-covered desk.
Credit Jeremy Vandel / Creative Commons

Jeff wanted to know a few things about Colin: What do his listeners all know about him? Has he ever been pranked before? What are some of his favorite things?

Credit solarseven/iStock / Thinkstock

I promised to get him some answers, and we'd talk again in a few days. In the meantime, Jeff listened to a few of Colin's shows online (he lives in California, so he didn't know what he was missing), and I met with our other producer, Betsy Kaplan.

She and I agreed that triggering some sort of static sound or other random technical difficulty would not be cool. We didn't want to look incapable of running the board, and we also didn't want our engineer, Gene, to have a heart attack.

Jeff and I reconnected over the phone a few days later, and he said that April Fools' Day would be the wrong day to prank Colin. It'd just be too obvious. 

My notes with zero regard for impressing people with my handwriting.
Credit Chion Wolf

We'd wait until The Nose, our Friday show, when Colin wouldn't suspect it. Here are some of the ideas we discussed:

  • Many of Colin's listeners know that he spent a few weeks on a tandem bicycle across Europe last summer. We'll have someone calling in as a lawyer from Bicycle Magazine, saying that there was damage to the $16,000 tandem bike, and that Colin hadn't responded to their request for reimbursement;
  • Rush Limbaugh would call in (I did reach out to his people with this pitch - No response! I'm still shocked and crushed) threatening a lawsuit because we used a clip of him on our airwaves last week;
  • Anytime I would message Colin during the show would be in Swedish;
  • Someone would call in and speak only in German;
  • Periodically, someone would walk into the studio and deliver a small pizza with something disgusting on it, like tuna (with the can still overturned);
  • Jerry Franklin, our President and CEO, would burst into the studio to say we were canceled, and to halt operations immediately.

We hung up, and I had a sinking feeling. Was I getting in over my head? Would this backfire in a way that would forever be known as "How Chion Lost Her Job On April Fools' Day"? It's one thing to muse about a fun idea with someone who has been doing this for decades, but executing it presents a whole different set of emotions.

I was worried. I consulted friends, whose opinions were mixed. I wasn't sure what to do, until Monday afternoon, when I recorded Colin's promo for the upcoming practical joke show. It started with, "I’ll be honest – I hate April Fools' Day, and I’m not a big fan of practical jokes…”

Aaaaaaaand that was that. I had to pull the plug. I emailed Jeff with the subject line, "Urgent!" and explained why I had decided not to do any of the things we'd planned, but that he's more than welcome to discuss during the show the process we went through to plan it all out.

Jeff let me sweat until I woke up this morning, groggy and still in bed, reading his email on my phone that he reluctantly agreed to call off his dogs. I didn't deeply exhale again until today's show ended, and now that I think of it, I probably won't fully exhale until this week's Nose is over.

UPDATE: Looks like I'll be holding my breath for the rest of my life. Moral of the story? Never cancel plans with a prankster.