April Fool-proof

New York man doesn't let anyone off the hook

New York man doesn't let anyone off the hook

April 01, 2003|by Chris Copley

Your shoes are untied.

That homework was due yesterday.

Your hard drive has been erased.

April Fool!

As holidays go, April Fools' Day is strictly second-string. No one gets a day off. No one sends flowers or cards. There are no flags to fly or decorations to put up or special foods to serve. No one even gives a speech.

Many people simply gloss over the day as though it were any other.

But not Joey Skaggs. For Skaggs, April Fools' Day is the premiere day to tweak the noses of politicians, big business, the news media and other institutions too sure of themselves.


One of his most enduring pranks is the annual April Fools' Day Parade. Today is the 18th annual parade, according to promotional material distributed by the New York April Fools' Committee.

Over the phone, Skaggs sounded drained from the efforts of organizing this year's event.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "But it's amazing. Floats pertain to issues that people think are significant - they are mostly political in nature. There are contributions from artists and students. The parade is an outlet for people."

Oddly, The New York Times had only one report on previous April Fools' Day parades, according to Judy Tong, news assistant with the Times. The report was dated 1987. The story featured a person who said he had come in costume for the inaugural parade - and found himself the only person there.

In fact, the New York Police Department has not issued a permit for this year's parade, which is scheduled, according to Skaggs' press release, to process down Fifth Avenue in the middle of the workday. Indeed, a detective with the NYPD public information department said he'd "never heard of this guy's parade."

Skaggs said he likes a good prank. For him, pranks are an artform. And he thinks big. In the late '70s, he promoted a (fake) celebrity sperm bank, poking fun at the public's fawning over public figures. In the past few years, Skaggs organized a psuedo-business he called The Final Curtain, a cemetery theme park hoax satirizing the funeral industry and people's desire to be remembered after death.

The media play a part in Skaggs' art, covering his alleged business or event as if it were real and not seeking out third-party sources to confirm facts. Since the public learns about Skaggs' hoaxes through TV, radio, newspapers and magazines, the media are essentially the canvas upon which Skaggs expresses himself.

"I'm a performance artist of an unusual kind," he said. "When I do elaborate hoaxes, these are designed to deal with significant issues. These are statements and that's what art is to me. I question authority, make the preposterous believable. Art can be decorative or functional or provocative."

For Skaggs, that's what April Fools' Day is about: poking fun at pretension; questioning complacency; bringing down the high and mighty through laughter.

A little laughter is a good thing, he said, especially today. Lighthearted fun is good; mean-spirited fun - as in the classic prank of placing excrement in a paper bag on the victim's front porch, knocking on the door, igniting the bag and running away - is not.

"I think that given what's happening in the world, any relief that's not vicious is a good thing," he said. "The burning bag of poop is kind of vicious, depending on where you're from. But paying attention to someone else in a loving, prankish way (is good)."

It all goes back to funny French fish

Scholars disagree on the origin of April Fools' Day, but most say it got its start as a French response to a Catholic Church decision to change an ancient new year's festival.

During the Middle Ages, Europeans observed the new year on April 1. But in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII instituted a new calendar of 365 days plus one leap year every fourth year. And he moved New Year's Day four months forward to Jan. 1.

French King Charles IX adopted the church leader's new calendar and ordained his government to institute the change. But many ordinary people resisted the change in date (how would you feel if President Bush decided to move New Year's Day four months forward to Sept. 1?), the new New Year's date took a while to catch on.

So, for years after the king's command, many people still celebrated New Year's Day on April 1. The more in-the-know French folk poked fun at their out-of-date friends. The old-fashioned French were considered simple-minded, called "fools," and nicknamed "poisson d'Avril," - in English, "April fish" - named after an easily-caught native fish. April fish were teased and invited to non-existent New Year's Day parties on April 1. Paper fish were affixed to their backs.

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