What Is the Greatest Prank of All Time?

A big question

Graham Roumieu

Alex Boese, curator, Museum of Hoaxes

Brazilians were stunned when the São Paulo soccer team suffered a humiliating defeat to rival Milan in 1951—until fans learned that the game had never happened. The “live” radio coverage had been fake, broadcast from a garage by the Brazilian announcer Geraldo José de Almeida, who was later threatened with legal action for “tarnishing” the image of Brazilian soccer.

Graham Roumieu

Peter Funt, host, Candid Camera

Until recently I would have cited “The War of the Worlds”—the 1938 radio drama that fooled listeners into believing Martians had taken over New Jersey. Now I believe it’s Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—the 2016 reality-TV show that has convinced many people that Martians have taken over the GOP.

Judith Yaross Lee, author, Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture

P. T. Barnum’s mid-19th-century prank to relieve congestion at his American Museum takes the prize. Visitors followed a sign reading this way to the egress, expecting to see another marvel, but found themselves exiting onto the street instead.

Bob Cohn, co-president, The Atlantic

In 1982, UC Berkeley beat Stanford on a play that snaked through the Stanford band’s premature celebration. Students in Palo Alto took revenge by creating a fake issue of The Daily Californian, which declared, “NCAA Awards Big Game to Stanford” above a doctored photo showing a referee negating the play. Seven thousand copies were delivered to Berkeley, where horrified students picked them up on their way to morning classes.


Kembrew McLeod, author, Pranksters

In a legendary 1967 Wall Street protest, future “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin tossed hundreds of dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The white-collar workers dove for the dollars, revealing the naked avarice that bubbled just beneath their veneer of respectability.

Graham Roumieu

Will Leitch, senior writer, Sports on Earth

George Clooney was once a struggling actor who lived with a roommate and a cat. For days, Clooney scooped out the litter box without telling his roommate, who grew increasingly worried that his cat could not excrete. One night, Clooney relieved himself in the box. When his roommate came home and saw the mess, he exclaimed, “Oh my God, kitty!” Now you can picture the Oscar winner squatting over a cat box.

Jon Solomon, radio host

In 1995, shortly after Jerry Garcia died, a memorial was held at a Chicago park. Grieving hippies received flyers listing a number they could call to relay their condolences to Garcia’s family. The home phone of Steve Albini, the hippie-loathing punk-rock producer, rang for weeks and weeks.

Reader Responses

Donald Wigal, New York, N.Y.

In 1992, NPR’s John Hockenberry and the Nixon impressionist Rich Little tricked listeners on the April Fools’ Day Talk of the Nation. The most memorable fake Nixon line was “I never did anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.”

Ernest Davis, New York, N.Y.

The Piltdown man. The combination of a human cranium and an orangutan jaw confused paleontologists from its “discovery” in 1912 until the hoax’s exposure 41 years later.

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