Gag Me with a Gag: Practical Jokes

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In 1609, Galileo invented the telescope. Five minutes later, someone invented the shoe-polish-on-the-eyepiece gag. We call these prop-based jokes "practical jokes" because they require action to be put into "practice." The term also distinguishes them from strictly verbal or intellectual jokes, such as the one about the Grecian Urn. (What's a Grecian Urn, you ask? Oh, about $25 per hour if he's union"¦.) Here's a quick look at the origins of some of the classics, which never get old if you're on the "giving" end"¦

1. Makin' Whoopee (Cushions)

One boring day in 1930, employees at Toronto's Jem Rubber Company were idly playing around with scrap pieces of rubber. One enterprising fellow (the actual inventor has never been named) found that by gluing two pieces of rubber together at one end and forcing air through them, he could create an entertaining sound. Realizing the far-reaching ramifications of such technology, Jem officials felt they might be sitting on a windfall. They offered to sell their new device to novelty king Sam Adams, but he turned them down, saying that the item was far too vulgar. Other companies were apparently not as dignified. Before long, sales of the Whoopee Cushion skyrocketed, and citizens no longer had to resort to the hand-under-the-armpit method of making disgusting noises.

2. That Itch You've Got to Scratch

Scratch!Itching powder has been around as long as rosebushes have existed, since the original component of the product was simply ground rose hips. During World War II, however, the status of itching powder was elevated from a schoolboy prank to a genuine instrument of espionage. Documents of that era which have since been de-classified reveal many, er, undercover uses of itching powder, including instructions for British soldiers (who'd managed to infiltrate the many brothels patronized by the Nazis) to surreptitiously sprinkle it inside the shorts of German officers.

3. The Joys of Joy Buzzing

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZRPT!Samuel Sorenson Adams invented the Joy Buzzer in 1928. He based his design on a similar device called "The Zapper." The Zapper, in his opinion, didn't give enough buzz for the buck, and the button that activated it was too large and cumbersome. Adams took a crude prototype of his new invention to a machinist in Dresden, Germany, who created the tiny coiled spring and trigger device that could be concealed in the palm of a hand.

4. A Whole New Jar of Snakes

Sproing!One day in 1910 Emily Adams complained yet again about the family jam jar "“ no one closed it properly, they left it sticky, did they want the cupboard infested with insects, etc. Most husbands would just murmur "Yes, dear" and forget about it, but when your husband is novelty king S.S. Adams, you should know better than to gripe about anything within his earshot. Sure enough, Sam sequestered himself in his workshop and covered two feet of tightly coiled spring with cloth. He packed the makeshift "snake" into an empty jam jar, and we can only hope that hilarity ensued (and not cardiac arrest) when his wife eventually opened it.

5. The Delicate Art of (Fake) Vomit

Ralph!The actual inventor of fake vomit is still a matter of debate, but what we do know is that a prototype for the novelty was presented to executives at Chicago's H. Fishlove and Company during a board meeting. The company started marketing pools of phony puke in 1959, and it's still a staple of Fun Inc's product line (Fun Inc. purchased H. Fishlove in the mid-1980s). The exact "recipe" is a secret, but the company does admit that the main ingredients are natural latex and colored pieces of foam. And, just like Mother Nature's snowflakes, no two pieces of bogus barf are exactly the same.

6. God Bless Sneezing Powder

Achoo!You've probably noticed the name Sam Adams mentioned more than once in this article. Apparently the man never found a product that couldn't be turned into a gag. For example, in 1904 he worked as a salesman for a dye company that was having trouble selling a German coal-tar derivative because anyone who worked with the powder lapsed into sneezing fits. On a whim, Adams started bottling small amounts of the powder and blew it into crowded rooms for comic effect. Folks pestered Adams to buy some of his "sneezing powder," and the Cachoo Sneeze Powder Company was born.

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April 1, 2009 - 6:39am
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