The Cultural Poison of April Fool’s Day

April 1, 2013 in Musings

This may seem strange coming from someone who makes a good bit of his living off writing funny stories and humor-heavy novels, but I think April Fool’s Day is pure cultural poison.

First off, many of the “jokes” that pass for humor on April Fool’s aren’t funny. As John Scalzi has noted, the failure mode of clever is asshole. An awful lot of the posts and stories that appear on April Fool’s are supposed to be clever but aren’t. What that makes them is an exercise I’ll leave up to the reader.

But it’s not just that so many April Fool’s pranks fail, and fall into asshole mode because of it. It’s that so many of them start in asshole mode even when they’re successful. The bulk of April Fool’s jokes are premised on the idea that some number of readers/viewers will fall for them. The punchline is “Ha ha, you bought this crap we’re selling, you’re an idiot.” The goal is humiliation, and that’s not funny. It’s cruel.

Much of it is also asymmetric in the worst way, pranks played by the powerful on the powerless. News organizations printing false stories that some small number of their readers will buy into. When a “joke” consists of some powerful media entity making John Doe look like an idiot, that’s the powerful afflicting the powerless. Even when the asymmetry is smaller, say a moderately well known media figure privately jerking their fans around, it’s punching down. Good humor punches up or in.

Finally, April Fool’s humor tends to pollute the public information stream. Some people believe the joke, and never ever get over that, and they propagate it forward over and over again. Others deliberately misuse the dross created for April Fool’s. Photoshopped pictures or links back to articles that never get updated with an April Fool’s tag will be injected into the public conversation to intentionally enrage or discredit. The internet is forever, and a gag put up by the AP or the NYT can continue to bite people in the ass for years after the day. Scientists and others will have to spend valuable time debunking these things again and again. Time that could otherwise be spent on advancing knowledge will be routed into cleaning it up.

I guess it’s really not all that strange that April Fool’s pisses off this writer of humor. Most of the jokes of the day are bad for one reason or another. As someone who strives to craft the good kind of jokes, the poorly crafted or cruel variety that is marketed as humor on April Fool’s devalues the very idea. And that pisses me right the hell off.