The practical joker

The practical joker is a twin brother of the kidder -only worse. He is the eternal adolescent who indulges in a dangerous pastime. The practical joke represents a primitive form of the funny which often is so cruel and so thinly disguised in its hostility that the sensitive or esthetically minded person can hardly enjoy it. The practical joke is a dangerous performance, a realization of the sadistic and often cruel tendency which underlies the creation of wit. It lacks symbolization, elaboration, or disguise; by using not words but aim-inhibited action, it stands less than halfway between an intended aggression and its witty, verbal expression. The practical joke is so close to uninhibited and unrepressed cruelty that one needs a robust conscience and a lax censorship as protection against a reaction of guilt.

The practical joker also needs a victim who good-humoredly accepts the assigned role -- usually in the hope of later revenge. Anyone who does not take it in good grace may lose group status, may not be considered a "good fellow," and he may not get his chance for revenge the next time.

Only one tolerable practical joke will be recounted here: When I was a medical officer in the United States Army, I once went to sleep in my chair after a night interrupted by frequent emergency calls. In my exhaustion I slept deeply and peacefully. (This is not against the rules, for being on duty is different from being on guard. Sleeping is allowed.) I did not notice the change of guard and the arrival of the commanding officer and medical staff at daybreak. The commanding officer, a practical joker of the worst kind, in my opinion a sadist at heart, decided to give me a hotfoot. During the preparation, I must have noticed something and awoke gradually. Without giving myself away, I observed the strange performance. Slowly, a tenth of an inch at a time, I lowered my foot so that the commanding officer had to bend over, then had to go down on his knees, and finally had to lie down on the floor to complete his preparations. In the meantime, the entire medical staff had silently collected to watch the peculiar show and its complications. When all had been done and the match was about to be lighted, I turned to the commanding officer with the innocent eyes of a child awakened from sleep and said, with all the respectful concern I could muster: "What are you doing there on the floor, Colonel?" The intended aggression was turned against the aggressor and fully enjoyed by everybody -- with the possible exception of the frustrated colonel.

A most shocking version of a practical joke was played once when I was returning from New York to Los Angeles. The plane was crowded with professional entertainers, flying west to work in their movie studios. One of these extremely gifted fellows appeared from the forward cabin playing the role of a drunken pilot, unbalanced in his gait, apologizing for falling all over passengers, pretending to be helplessly trying to maintain his dignity, confusedly consulting his map, and making absolutely clear that he had lost his way and did not know whether he was twentyfive thousand feet above Kansas or Canada. Sad-eyed, he finally looked through the window as if hoping to find the answer there, like a lost motorist looking for a filling station. Everybody was laughing hilariously by then. To add to his trouble, he discovered that the motors were also having trouble and that engine number three wasn't turning over. His fellow passengers followed his glance through the window. He was right. There we were, high above the Rockies, with a motionless propeller on the right and one of the motors obviously dead. Our laughter froze to momentary horror, and everyone needed a double take to find realistic orientation again. From the skillful play of the drunken pilot the scene suddenly shifted and a realistic threat was keenly felt. A playful threat: Your pilot is drunk, was suddenly replaced by a rude awakening: Our engines are not working properly. We soon realized that three engines were still enough to bring us home safely; but it left me with an insight that the performing clown must have been a sadist at heart to tell us in this way about the unpleasant situation we found ourselves in.

A practical joke tends to deteriorate into a disaster or accident because of its poorly disguised aggression which breaks through and asserts itself beyond control. If a witticism fails in its disguise and the intended insult or aggression breaks through, we are not physically endangered but we react with embarrassment, may become hostile, and resent the tactlessness. The situation of the deteriorated practical joke is more dangerous. As the word "practical" implies, the intended aggression is not verbal but physical and realistic. The disguise and inhibition, therefore, are not mental or verbal but have to be realistic; the practical joke takes place on the level of action, the witticism on the level of thought.

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