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The Youthful Pranks of 5 Famous People

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Julie Winterbottom is the former editor in chief of Nickelodeon magazine, where she fulfilled her childhood dream of getting paid to write jokes; her book, Pranklopedia: The Funniest, Grossest, Not-Mean Pranks on the Planet! is on sale now. Julie lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she pulls pranks on her boyfriend and cat.

Does pulling pranks in childhood lead to success later in life? Judging from the youthful shenanigans of these five famous people, the answer might be yes.

1. Abraham Lincoln

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When Abraham Lincoln was a young man living at home, he was quite the prankster. His stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln used to tease him about his height, telling him that he’d better keep his head clean or she’d have to scrub the ceiling. The story goes that one day when Sarah was out, Abe noticed two boys playing barefoot outside next to a mud puddle. He asked them to stomp in the mud until their feet were covered. Then he brought them back to the house. One by one, he carried them inside and held them upside down so their muddy feet could touch the ceiling. Then he had them “walk” across the ceiling, creating a trail of brown footprints. Sarah reportedly took the prank with good humor—but she did make Lincoln repaint the ceiling.

2. Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Franklin D. Roosevelt is another president who got an early start pulling pranks. Young Franklin was looked after by a doting mother and a series of nurses, governesses, and tutors. When he was ten, a German-speaking nurse accompanied the family on their annual tour of Europe and became the inevitable victim of a prank. Franklin snuck into her room during the day and poured a few spoonfuls of effervescent powder in the chamber pot under her bed. That night, when the nurse relieved herself, the contents of the pot began to hiss and roil. Thinking she was ill, the nurse ran to Mrs. Roosevelt’s room for help. FDR later said that the two women never figured out it was a prank—but his father did. The senior Roosevelt summoned his son to the smoking room to be reprimanded, but he couldn’t keep a straight face. Breaking into laughter, he told his son, “Consider yourself spanked.”

3. Willie Morris

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Mississippi native Willie Morris was the editor of Harper’s Magazine during the 1960s and later wrote a series of bestselling memoirs. He had deep affection for pets and practical jokes, and he managed to combine the two in an ingenious prank he pulled when he was 13.

In the 1940s, it was common for kids in Morris’s hometown of Yazoo City to start driving the family car at 13. When Morris took his parents’ DeSoto for a spin, he would always bring his English fox terrier Skip along for the ride. One day, when they got to the edge of town, Morris got Skip to prop himself against the steering wheel so he was peering through the windshield. Then Morris slowed down to 10 or 15 mph and crouched out of sight under the dashboard. He guided the steering wheel with his right hand while Skip kept it steady with his paws. As they passed a café, a man shouted, “A dog! A dog drivin’!” and promptly fell off his chair. One Sunday, Morris got an even better reaction. As he approached a rural church, he noticed that a revival meeting was letting out. He pulled over, put Skip behind the wheel, and continued up the road. As they neared the church, a woman exclaimed, “Is that a dog drivin’ that car?” Suddenly the lively crowd of parishioners went dead silent. It was a hush Morris never forgot. “It was as if the very spectacle of Old Skip driving that green DeSoto were inscrutable, celestial, and preordained,” he later wrote.

4. Steve Jobs

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Growing up in suburban California in the 1950s, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was often plagued by boredom. Two things helped them survive: building electronics and pulling pranks. Jobs got started in the pranks department early. In elementary school, he and his friend Rick Ferrentino made posters announcing “Bring Your Pet to School Day” and passed them out to the other kids. The next day, teachers were up in arms as their classrooms became overrun with dogs chasing cats.

5. Steve Wozniak

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Apple's other cofounder, Steve Wozniak, gravitated towards high-tech pranks. During his first year in college, he built a pocket-sized circuit that could jam TV signals. He would take it to a dorm room where a group of people were watching TV and secretly activate the device. The TV screen would go fuzzy, and Wozniak would wait for someone to get up and hold the rabbit-ear antenna at a certain angle in an effort to improve reception. Once the person was in sufficiently awkward position, perhaps with his or her hand in front of the screen, Wozniak would deactivate the device and the picture would clear up. As soon as the person sat back down, Wozniak would jam the signal again. He would continue until everyone in the room insisted that the person stand holding the antenna for the remainder of the show.

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5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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NBC Universal
12 Wild Facts About The Jerry Springer Show
NBC Universal
NBC Universal

Trash TV will never be the same: NBC Universal just announced that after more than a quarter-century on the air, The Jerry Springer Show has been canceled. Springer, the former mayor of Cincinnati, has taped more than 4000 episodes over the course of 27 seasons, and featured more than 35,000 guests. Because the format allowed for crass topics and guests who weren’t afraid to throw chairs at each other, in the late 1990s the show’s ratings topped Oprah Winfrey’s. Over the years, guests have accused the producers of staging and encouraging the fights for ratings. Still, it’s been popular enough to remain on the air since September 30, 1991. Here are 12 final thoughts about the controversial talk show.

1. THE FIRST SEASON TAPED IN CINCINNATI.

Before he stepped in front of the cameras, Springer’s main gig was in politics. He (unsuccessfully) ran for Congress in 1970, but was elected to Cincinnati’s city council a year later. In 1977, he served as the city’s mayor for one year and made a run for governor in 1982, but was derailed by a sex scandal.

In September 1991, Cincinnati NBC affiliate WLWT needed to replace The Phil Donahue Show, so they tapped Springer to host his own politically-focused daytime talk show, The Jerry Springer Show. At the same time, he was also appearing as a nighttime co-anchor on WLWT. In 1992, Springer moved The Jerry Springer Show to Chicago; he flew back and forth between Cincy and Chicago every day so that he could continue hosting his nightly broadcast. But in 1993 he resigned from Channel 5, after the ratings slid

2. TWO ANCHORS QUIT BECAUSE SPRINGER APPEARED ON THEIR NEWS SHOW.

In 1997, Springer began a temporary job on Chicago’s WMAQ as a news commentator. Anchor Carol Marin, who had worked at the station for 19 years, refused to share airtime with Springer and quit the show. “I am sorry she found it necessary this week to use me as the stepping stone to martyrdom,” Springer said at the time. In solidarity with Marin’s decision, co-anchor Ron Magers departed a few weeks later. Dozens of people from religious and women’s organizations protested the station’s nighttime addition as well.

The heat ended up being too much for the station; in May 1998, it dropped the Springer Show, though a Fox affiliate quickly snatched it up. To cover costs, they had to air the show not once, but twice a day.

3. SECURITY DIRECTOR STEVE WILKOS THOUGHT HIS JOB WAS A “ONE-TIME GIG.”

The show hired Steve Wilkos, a former Chicago cop and marine, for a 1994 KKK-themed episode. “The pay was good and I figured it was a one-time gig,” Wilkos told Mediaweek. “But I ended up doing another show, and another, and before I knew it, I was hired as the full-time director of security. So, I left my career as a cop to give this a shot.”

Eventually, Wilkos gave advice on a “Steve to the Rescue” segment, and started subbing for Springer when the host went off to appear on Dancing with the Stars. That led to Wilkos getting his own show, The Steve Wilkos Show, in 2007.

4. THE SHOW WAS TARGETED BY THE GOVERNMENT.

In 1998, at the peak of the show’s popularity, education secretary William Bennett and Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman spoke at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention and implored broadcasters to remove the program from their schedules. “Drop it, or if you won’t drop it, urge the producers to clean up the show,” Lieberman pleaded.

“We’re here for three reasons,” Bennett added. “The first is to remind broadcasters of the high standards they once had; the second is to remind people in the business how low much of it has sunk, and also to remind people of the enormous influence and responsibility they wield.”

“The kind of perversity and violence on that show every day has to have a bad effect on the people and children who watch it,” Lieberman said. “Springer is not a network show. You make the decision to carry it. It’s not worth it … If you can’t do that, at least put it on late at night so that fewer kids are watching.”

5. SPRINGER STARRED IN HIS OWN MOVIE.

At the apex of his popularity, Springer played a talk show host named Jerry Farrelly in the 1998 box office and critical bomb Ringmaster. The movie, like Springer's talk show, involved love triangles and cheating. It did win Springer an award, though: a Razzie for Worst New Star.

6. RELIGIOUS LEADERS FORCED THE SHOW TO TONE DOWN ITS VIOLENCE.

Under pressure from Chicago religious leaders, executives from The Jerry Springer Show promised to reduce the violence, though the fights are what helped it topple Oprah in the daytime talk show ratings. “We don’t want to take away from the show—we just think that Jerry will be able to do this show a different way,” Greg Meidel, the chief executive of then-distributor Studio USA, told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “It will still be confrontational, it will still be unpredictable, you will still sense the conflict. You will still see yelling and screaming. But we’re not going to show anyone getting hit.”

A spokeswoman for the religious Community Renewal Society felt it was a “partial victory,” but she also called for the cursing and poor treatment of women to be toned down.

7. AUSTIN POWERS PARODIED SPRINGER.

In the opening of 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Scott Evil (Seth Green) appears on The Jerry Springer Show—Springer cameos as himself—and confronts his father, Dr. Evil, who plots to take over the world. In typical Springer Show fashion, a fight breaks out and a lot of cursing spews from the guests’ mouths.

8. ONE FEATURED LOVE TRIANGLE ENDED IN A MURDER.

In 2000, during an episode called “Secret Mistresses Confronted,” a husband, his new wife, and his ex-wife appeared on the show and got into a tiff. The newlyweds accused the ex, Nancy Campbell-Panitz, of stalking them. But hours after the episode aired, a friend of Campbell-Panitz discovered her dead, beaten body inside her home. Eventually, Campbell-Panitz's ex-husband and his new wife turned themselves in. In 2002 the case went to trial and the court found the ex-husband, Ralf Panitz, guilty of second-degree murder. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison.

9. SPRINGER ELIMINATED THE WORD “TRANNY.”

The Jerry Springer Show was one of the first talk shows to focus on transgender issues, but he regularly referred to his guests as “trannies,” like in a 2014 episode named “Trannies Twerk it Out.” The LGBT community felt it was time to phase out that word, and Springer immediately obliged. “I didn’t know it was offensive to them and I’m not interested in offending people, so obviously I’ll just change the term,” he told The Huffington Post. “There’s no argument there.”

10. THE SHOW PRODUCED A CONTROVERSIAL EPISODE ON BESTIALITY.

A 1998 episode entitled “I Married a Horse” featured a British man who married his horse. Cameras went overseas to film the man and his “wife.” A disclaimer opened the segment: “Sexual contact with animals is illegal in this country and most of the Western world. This is the first film to examine a subject which many find deeply disturbing.” Some stations found the episode so disturbing that they refused to air it, opting instead to broadcast a rerun of “Past Guests Do Battle.”

11. IT WAS TURNED INTO AN OPERA (WHICH ALSO CREATED CONTROVERSY).

A musical version of the show, Jerry Springer: The Opera, debuted in London in April of 2003 and toured the UK in 2006. The production drew ire from the Christian community, because it included actors playing God, Satan, and Jesus, and the actors uttered about 8000 obscenities. When the BBC decided to air a performance in 2005, 45,000 angry viewers contacted the station about the show’s content. But, that didn’t prevent the opera from expanding to the U.S. In 2007, Las Vegas became the first American city to welcome the show. In 2008, Harvey Keitel played Springer in a two-day New York City performance.

12. SPRINGER MOVED THE SHOW TO STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT—AND RESIDENTS WEREN'T HAPPY.

In 2009, after spending 17 years in Chicago, The Jerry Springer Show moved to the east coast and besieged the idyllic town of Stamford, because Connecticut offered tax breaks and built the Stamford Media Center to create a local entertainment industry. Springer’s arrival was met with protests from the community.

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