Read Caption

A classic April Fools' Day prank in France is to stick a paper fish onto an unsuspecting passerby.


April Fools' Day Facts: How Pranks Are Going Viral

Hoax expert has observed fewer personal pranks in recent years.

Today is April Fools' Day—the prankster's favorite day of the year.

We talked to Alex Boese, curator of the online Museum of Hoaxes in San Diego, California, to get the lowdown on this quirky holiday and how it has changed over time.

Boese said he has never been much of a prankster; his family didn't participate in April Fools' Day pranks at all. But as a science historian and recognized "hoaxpert" (hoax expert), the more he's studied humorous pranks and hoaxes, the more he enjoys it. (See "April Fools' Day: Nature's Wildest Masters of Deception.")

In recent years, Boese has noticed that the number of pranks done in the home and at the office seems to have decreased in the United States.

"A hundred years ago, most people played pranks at home, on the street, or in the office. It was considered a nuisance holiday. Today we lack the street culture to encourage [and get away with] pranks on strangers in public."

Pranks of a personal nature have been replaced by large institutionalized media hoaxes. Viral marketing has caused a sea change in how advertising is approached, and Boese says April Fools' Day has been a huge driver of it. (Related: "April Fools' Day Special: History's Hoaxes.")

"In the last five to seven years we've seen an explosion of spoof ads by mainstream companies and organizations like the U.S. Army."

Because of sites like YouTube and Twitter, content can go viral instantly, and April Fools' Day provides a legitimate excuse to produce a fresh and funny video, in the hopes of earning widespread exposure.

"Companies feel enormous pressure to create these humorous videos, fearing that if they don't come out with one, they'll be considered unfunny or irrelevant," said Boese.

"I don't get sick of it at all," he said. "People love consuming humorous content, and April Fools' Day is a holiday specifically about this."

Boese is a little sad about the loss of personal participation, but he's delighted that the Internet has become such a great resource for humor.

April Fools' Day Origins a Mystery

The origins of April Fools' Day are shrouded in mystery, experts say.

The most popular theory is that after France changed its calendar in the 1500s to match the Roman calendar, the New Year then began in January instead of the start of spring, in late March or early April. Because word of the change traveled slowly, many people in rural areas continued to celebrate the New Year in the spring. These country dwellers became known as "April fools," the story goes.

But Boese, who has studied the holiday's origin, said the "theory is completely wrong, because the day that the French celebrated the beginning of the year, legally, was Easter day, so it never really was associated with April 1.

"Traditionally it was only a legal start to the year—people in France did actually celebrate [the New Year] on January 1 for as long as anybody could remember."

Boese believes instead that April Fools' Day simply grew out of age-old European spring festivals of renewal, in which pranks and camouflaging one's identity are common.

Today in France, April Fools' Day is called Le Poisson d'Avril—"the April fish"—and a classic prank is to stick a paper fish to an unsuspecting passerby's back. (Related: "April Fools' Day on Mars: Scientists Post Yearly Photo Joke.")

April Fools' Day: The Joke's on Us

Joseph Boskin, professor emeritus of American humor at Boston University, has offered his own interpretation of the holiday's roots—as a prank.

In 1983 Boskin told an Associated Press reporter that the idea came from Roman jesters during the time of Constantine I in the third and fourth centuries A.D.

According to Boskin's story, jesters successfully petitioned the ruler to allow one of their elected members to be king for a day.

So, on April 1, Constantine handed over the reins of the Roman Empire for one day to King Kugel, his jester. Kugel decreed that the day forever would be a day of absurdity.

Kugel, incidentally, is an Eastern European dish that one of Boskin's friends had been craving.

The news agency was less than thrilled about the gambit, Boskin said. "I thought I should have been complimented for a quacky, quirky story that was fitted to the occasion." (See "April Fools' Day Pictures: Seven Animal Hoaxes.")

Fact or Fiction: How About Both?

According to Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes, traditional April Fools' Day fake news is being out-absurded by actual discoveries.

Every year the Ig Nobel Prizes in science, medicine, and technology are awarded for research that "first make people laugh, and then make them think," he said in 2011.

In 2013 prizes went to legitimate research that confirmed that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive, that assessed the effect of listening to opera on mice heart transplant patients, and that discovered that dung beetles navigate using the Milky Way.

"The real stuff is funnier, simply because it is real," said Abrahams.

"In that sense, the things that are real and funny are a superior form of April Fools' joke, because you can tell them and people will think you are making it up."