The 1960s activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman reportedly divided practical jokes into three categories. The bad ones involve vindictive skewering, or the sort of head-shaving, shivering-in-boxers fraternity hazing that the sociologist Erving Goffman described as “degradation ceremonies.” Neutral tricks are more akin to physical punch lines, like wrapping the toilet bowl in cellophane, depositing a massive pumpkin on top of the student union building, or pulling some electronic high jinks on a co-worker’s keyboard (though on deadline this falls quickly into the “bad” category).
What Hoffman called the good prank, which humorously satirizes human fears or failings, is found in a wide variety of initiation rites and coming-of-age rituals. The Daribi of New Guinea, for example, have children make a small box and bury it in the ground, telling them that after a while a treasure will appear inside but they must not peek, according to Edie Turner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia.
Invariably the youngsters succumb to curiosity — only to find a sample of human feces.
The Ndembu of Zambia have an adult in a monstrous mask sneak and scare the wits out of boys camping outside the village as part of a coming-of-age ritual in which they are showing their bravery.
“These kind of tricks are very common,” Dr. Turner said, “and they are really a way to put a person down before raising them up. You’re being reminded of your failings even as you’re being honored.”