Very Impractical Jokes

| August 6 2012
Burt Prelutsky

I hate so-called practical jokes.  I don’t even know why they are called practical jokes, unless it’s to distinguish them from jokes that are actually clever and amusing.  One of the reasons I despise them is because they place the onus on the victim.  As tradition has it, the goat is supposed to pretend to find it hilarious that some jerk has made him the butt of public ridicule, and if he doesn’t laugh, he is branded a humorless dolt, a prig, a stuffed shirt.

I’m not saying that practical jokers should be executed, but a few hours on the rack shouldn’t be out of the question.

Some years ago, when I was a student at UCLA, writing a humor column and movie reviews for the Daily Bruin, I was friends with a fellow we’ll call Terry who contributed book reviews to the student publication.  One day he came up to me and said, “I guess you didn’t see it.”  “See what?” I asked.  And that is how it all began.

It seems Terry had written something stupid in the form of a letter to the editor of the L.A. Herald Express, and signed my name to it.  What’s more, they published it.  After all this time, I can’t recall the content, but the obvious intention was to place me in the corner with a dunce cap perched on my head.

However, because my family, along with every other family I knew — except apparently Terry’s — took the L.A. Times, not only had I not seen the letter, but nobody had embarrassed me by asking why I had put my name to such balderdash.

When I asked Terry why he’d done it, he said he really didn’t know, but that it had seemed like a funny idea at the time.  One could say, no harm, no foul, and let it drop.  But that is not my way.  So far as I’m concerned, if you shoot someone, but he doesn’t die because the bullet is deflected or because the surgical team works a miracle, he’s still made his intention crystal clear, and he must be punished.  Terry had crossed a line and there was no going back.

Even though I had not yet read Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” I instinctively understood that revenge is a dish best served cold.  And, so, I bided my time.  It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Terry received a letter at the Daily Bruin office.  It appeared to be from his favorite author and L.A. resident Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World” and “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.”

In the letter, Huxley gushed that he had long been a fan of Terry, and regarded him, in spite of his youth, as the best book reviewer in America.  He rhapsodized about Terry’s depth of knowledge and his critical analysis, and also claimed to be enchanted by his captivating writing style.

He suggested that Terry come pay a visit and enjoy a cup of tea with him and Mrs. Huxley, suggesting a date a few weeks off, by which time he would have finished correcting the galleys for his latest book, “Panorama of Ignorance.”

Terry, who was given to unwarranted displays of enthusiasm unknown outside a political convention, was simultaneously beside himself and over the moon.

But, alas, all good things must come to an end.  They just don’t generally come so quickly.  Two days later, when Terry received identical letters in identical envelopes from Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom had recently taken their leave — one in an automobile accident, the other by a self-inflicted shotgun blast — he realized that all the phone calls to relatives and all the bragging to his English professors had been, to put it as gently as possible, decidedly premature.

At least he didn’t have to ask me why I had done it.

After that, if I even caught Terry looking at me cross-eyed, I merely had to whisper, “Panorama of Ignorance,” and watch him cower and whimper.

Predictably, Terry went on to become an English professor, specializing in American poetry, at a Midwestern university.  It is a career for which he was ideally suited, as it required nothing but an unnatural tolerance for life on a college campus, teaching the unreadable to the illiterate.

The lesson he, himself, was taught some fifty years ago is one that the United States should also take to heart.  Don’t get involved in a war unless you are prepared to go all out to win it.

And nothing less than unconditional surrender is an acceptable outcome.

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