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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March 29, 2013 - 2:00pm
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