Given the day, I'm reminded of my most memorable April Fools Day prank. I tend to remember it every year with no trouble, since I don't tend to do elaborate April Fools Day pranks, I loved the gag and also because I almost got fired because of it.
This was in 1983, during my dark days when I was just a kid and didn't know any better so I worked in PR. I was the head writer in the Publicity Department at Universal Pictures, and among my various jobs, one was to write press releases. So, I thought it would be fun to write one for April Fools Day. I made absolutely sure to mark it "NOT FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" (the standard press release says "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE") and clearly dated it April, 1. And I only passed it around the office, and did not send it out.
Ronald Reagan was president at the time, so that gave me my idea. And to make it work to its fullest, it's always best to put in little details that are true to ground things in reality, but twist that into absurdity (because given the subject matter I did want to make absolutely sure that this would be seen as a joke -- though enough veracity to give some people a "Wait a minute..." pause). And as luck would have it, only a week or so before it had been announced that First Lady Nancy Reagan would be playing herself in a cameo role on the sitcom Different Strokes to present a "Just Say No' pitch. And making that all the better, the TV show was taped on the Universal Studio lot and would take place the following week, I believe, and had received a great deal of attention. And ultimately, it read exactly like a standard press release, since after all that was my job, and something I could do in my sleep -- though I made the details as over-the-top and as silly as possible. If the Truly Gullible believed it, fine, but the point of it was a joke, and I most-wanted people to get it and laugh.
I don't remember the specifics but to the best of my recollection it read in part along the lines of--
April 1, 1983
That wasn't it exactly, but it's close, and there was a bit more in the press release, as well.
As I said, I wrote that it was NOT for immediate release, dated it April 1 and only distributed it to the people in the department. The reaction was better than I expected, with people stopping by my office to laugh. And then I went out of lunch.
When I got back, one of the secretaries had an ashen face and said, "You have to go to David's office -- now."
David was David Weitzner, the Senior Executive Vice-President and head of the entire Marketing Department, not just for Publicity, but Marketing and Advertising, as well. He was the Big Enchilada, and I was at the bottom of the barrel among the publicists. (I originally wrote "probably at the bottom," but there was no "probably" about it.) We'd spoken a few times, but I never had a meeting with him in his office.
When I got there, a bit wary, though more curious than anything, I saw him standing there with a face that appeared oddly beet red and body that seemed clenched. With him was the PR Director, Fred Skidmore, a insecure fellow, always trying to impress you with his importance, who I never got along all that well with -- I always sensed he bizarrely viewed me as "a threat" somehow. Weird, since I was the most inexperience publicist in the department, but I think that being the youngest it must have made me seen aggressive and someone who'd want to move up the ladder, eventually taking his job. (Not only was moving up the PR ladder the last thing on my mind -- I got out of the department a year or so later when I made some quiet contacts and got myself hired to work as an assistant production executive directly reporting for Bob Rehme, the president of the studio -- but even if I'd wanted to become had of the PR department there were half a dozen people far more qualified above me, and it would have taken many years.)
So, as David chewed me out, Fred stood there looking like the Chesire Cat, doing his best to look deeply serious, but grinning widely inside. Occasionally he'd nod in agreement to whatever David was saying,and chiming on a "That's right" from time to time. I don't remember all that much what David was saying -- in part because it's 36 years ago, but in part because it was words that didn't matter. It was clear he was upset, and I knew why, so the specifics were meaningless, and also the only thing I was listening for that mattered was the phrase, "You're fired." That didn't come, so I was okay. There is only one comment I do remember David saying -- he asked, "What do you think would be the reaction if this press release got out into the public???!" I remember thinking, as he pounded me with the question, that I very much wanted to answer, "The reaction would probably be -- Wow, what a great sense of humor they have at Universal...!!" The good news is that for all my sense of whimsy, I had the good sense not to say that. And not to say pretty much anything, but instead nod a lot and stay pretty silent, at most explaining that it didn't get out and was only distributed within the department, and "I'm sorry."
Nothing happened, other than I was told to go around the department and pick up every copy and destroy them. I think that Fred seemed a bit let down that I wasn't drawn and quartered.
(Side note: A few years later, after I left the department, and after I'd left Bob Rehme's office and Universal completely, and focused on being a freelance writer, though still doing independent publicity for a few more years because I had to eat, I was hired by David Weitzner to write a speech for him that he'd been asked to give at some big event. It went very well, and he even liked the jokes I threw in. Not a word about what would be the reaction if it got out that the head of Universal Marketing had a sense of humor..).
Okay, in fairness, I understand why he was bothered by the April Fools Day press release, and I didn't get fired, after all. But it was a joke, it was clearly an over-the-top joke, it was marked for April 1, and it didn't get sent out anywhere. But, yes, I get it.
And there's a funny post script.
A couple weeks later, I was having dinner with one of my oldest friends, Patrick Goldstein, who wrote an entertainment column for the Los Angeles Times. I'd been in the same cabin at summer camp, the oft-mentioned here Camp Nebagamon, and we also went to the even-more mentioned Northwestern University. So, I knew I could trust him implicitly. I told Patrick I had an amusing story for him, but added that not only could he not print it, he couldn't even ask me for permission to print it. I said I just didn't want to get into a debate about it, he simply couldn't even ask to print it, but I thought he'd get a chuckle out of it. He understood and agreed. He wouldn't print it, he wouldn't even ask.
So, I told him the story and then handed him a copy of the press release. (No, I hadn't thrown them all out...) Patrick read the release, looked up and said..."You have to let me print this!"
I didn't. And he didn't. I preferred to keep my job. But that easily I could have had it published in the Los Angeles Times -- explaining it was (obviously) just an April Fools Day joke.
Happy Aprils Fool Day.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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