The mindset of the prankster interests me, for personal reasons. As a well brought up little Jewish boy in the forbidding environment of apartheid South Africa, I had it drummed into me from an early age to keep my head down and my nose clean. However, this did not stop me from wanting to spring surprises on the adults around me and if possible, get them to laugh. I was constantly testing the boundary between ‘cuteness’ and ‘rudeness’ by uttering words without knowing what they meant, in order to see what reaction they would produce, or by parroting Yiddish phrases which I had overheard, with the same intention.
Sometimes this verbal precocity would get a laugh; more often, the reaction was one of shocked disapproval. When once I asked my mother what time ‘my late father’ (who was very much alive at the time) would be coming home from work, she was not amused. On another occasion, when I repeated one of my mother’s frequently uttered reproaches by gravely announcing, ‘Du host mir bagrobn’(‘You have buried me’), my parents could not refrain from bursting into laughter. Both of them were serious-minded people and I was delighted whenever I succeeded in getting them to crack a smile. Their more frequent scoldings did nothing to offset that pleasure. Therein lay the roots of my comedic propensities.
Language was not the only means at my disposal for poking fun at my elders. I frequently resorted to stealth and became adept at playing tricks. When I was three years old I would hide my grandfather’s hat just when he was at the point of taking his leave of us after one of his rare visits. Clearly, I had worked out that he would not be parted from his hat, and this was my way of detaining him. On another occasion, I tipped out all the books from our bookshelves and piled them in an untidy heap on the lounge carpet, hoping to achieve the effect of an explosion. Presumably, I was frustrated at being left on my own while my parents were out somewhere, and in making the lounge look like a bomb site I had found as good a way as any of signalling my anger without actually being destructive.
During my teenage years, these innocent exploits gave way to more risky undertakings. I soon discovered the potential of the telephone as an instrument for perpetrating hoaxes and found plenty of gullible authorities on whom to practice. Thus The Pretoria News came to feature an interview with a convict-laborer, to wit myself, who had escaped from a prison farm, about the brutal conditions to which he had been subjected. These places were notorious for their cruelty and I congratulated myself on having contributed imaginatively to the case against them.
On another occasion, I produced a frisson of excitement at the news desk of the Rand Daily Mail when I informed them that the Prime administer, Dr Malan, had collapsed and died of a heart attack while attending a reception for the Crown Prince of the Netherlands. I had done my homework on this and sounded plausible enough for them to assure me that they would hold the front page pending further details. Naturally, they checked back with their own correspondent covering the event, and my efforts came to naught.
In the days before my voice had broken, I could convincingly sound like a mature lady and to prove this, I made several calls to the offices of Nationalist Cabinet members, introducing myself in carefully rehearsed Afrikaans as a member of the Black Sash (a women’s organization whose aim was to protest at the government’s assault on the country’s constitution) and requesting an interview with this or that Minister. After a pause while enquiries were made, my request was invariably turned down, but I nevertheless chalked up each call as a qualified success.
I drew inspiration from books which came my way, including, among many, the tricks played by Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and William Brown (of ‘Just William’ fame), and the sixteenth century Flemish prankster Tyl Uilenspiegel, who punctured the pomposity of clerics and aristocrats by showing them up as fools, and who became something of a folk hero in the Flemish struggle against their Spanish overlords. My twofold aim was to create a sensation and to generate laughter, but from a safely anonymous position. The thrill lay in somehow managing to avoid detection.
In my more mature years, I abandoned the arena of the practical joke and turned instead to cartooning as an outlet for my rebelliousness. I particularly admired the cartoonists David Low and Victor Weisz (‘Vicky’) for their skill at depicting the posturings of the high and the mighty and for the way in which they captured the iniquities and political shenanigans of the day. Satire became my preferred genre of literature, from ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ to ‘Catch 22’, and one of my all-time favorite movies is Mel Brooks’s magnificent spoof, ‘The Producers’.
If I had not trained as a doctor, I would undoubtedly have sought to carve out a career for myself as some sort of satirist, but for better or worse, pragmatism prevailed. Nevertheless, I still regard it as a triumph whenever I manage to raise a laugh, and I remain a rebel at heart to this day.