A practical joke (also known as a prank, gag, jape or shenanigan) is a mischievous trick or joke played on someone, typically causing the victim to experience embarrassment, perplexity, confusion, or discomfort. Practical jokes differ from confidence tricks or hoaxes in that the victim finds out, or is let in on the joke, rather than being fooled into handing over money or other valuables. Practical jokes or pranks are generally lighthearted, reversible and non-permanent, and aim to make the victim feel foolish or victimised to a degree, but may also involve cruelty verging on bullying if performed without appropriate finesse.
The term "practical" refers to the fact that the joke consists of someone doing something physical, instead of a verbal or written joke. For example, the joker who is setting up and performing the practical joke might hang a bucket of water above a doorway and rig the bucket using pulleys so when the door opens the bucket dumps the water. The joker would then wait for the victim to walk through the doorway and be drenched by the bucket of water. Objects can also be used in practical jokes, like fake vomit, chewing gum bugs, exploding cigars, stink bombs, costumes and whoopee cushions. In Western culture, April Fools' Day is a day traditionally dedicated to performing practical jokes. A person who performs a practical joke is called a practical joker. The most common cases of practical jokes are encountered inside offices, usually to surprise co-workers. Covering the computer accessories with Jell-O, wrapping the desk with Christmas paper or aluminium foil or filling it with balloons are just some examples of office pranks.
The American humorist H. Allen Smith wrote a 320-page book in 1953 called The Compleat Practical Joker (ISBN 0-688-03705-4) that contains many examples of practical jokes. A common one, recalled as his favorite by the playwrightCharles MacArthur, concerns the American painter and bohemian character Waldo Peirce. While living in Paris in the 1920s, Peirce "made a gift of a very big turtle to the woman who was the concierge of his building". The woman doted on the turtle and lavished care on it. A few days later Peirce substituted a somewhat larger turtle for the original one. This continued for some time, with larger and larger turtles being surreptitiously introduced into the woman's apartment. The concierge was beside herself with happiness and displayed her miraculous turtle to the entire neighborhood. Peirce then began to sneak in and replace the turtle with smaller and smaller ones, to her bewildered distress. This was the storyline behind Esio Trot, by Roald Dahl.
Modern and successful pranks often take advantage of the modernization of tools and techniques. In Canada, engineering students have a reputation for annual pranks; at the University of British Columbia these usually involve leaving a Volkswagen beetle in an unexpected location (such as suspended from the Golden Gate Bridge and the Lions Gate Bridge). A similar prank was undertaken by engineering students at Cambridge University, England, where an Austin 7 car was put on top of the Senate House building. Pranks can also adapt to the political context of the era. Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are particularly known for their "hacks".
The 2003 TV movie Windy City Heat, consists of an elaborate practical joke on the film's star, Perry Caravallo, who is led to believe that he is starring in a faux action film, Windy City Heat, where the filming which is ostensibly for the film's DVD extras actually documents the long chain of pranks and jokes performed at Caravallo's expense.
Films in which practical jokes are featured include:
Some people have developed reputations as pranksters in addition to other work, or in some cases have made pranking their primary work. Many pranksters are comedians or entertainers, while others engage in pranks connected to social activism or protest movements.