Whither the pranks of yesteryear?

On the decline of zany schemes, high-octane heists and campus stunts.

Art by Lauren Lancaster

Consider, if you will, the Platonic ideal of a recently-pranked Dean. He is red-faced and furious, his pants freshly yanked around his ankles, revealing his underwear. He stumbles and sputters, too angry to form a complete sentence, cursing the meddling students responsible for his predicament, the objects of his ire, his bêtes noire, his nemeses. 

Today, however, you step onto Camperdown campus and the first thing you are struck by is just how sterile and insipid the place is. There is little to puncture the mundanity aside from the odd jaywalker on City Road; the occasional ibis terrorising someone’s picnic. 

A particularly nostalgic Honi article on Fisher Library’s long-forgotten rooftop courtyard shed light on the stark decline of campus culture alongside the soul-destroying corporatisation of our university. What was once a hub of activity and leisure was suffocated in the inescapable grip of bureaucracy, no doubt victim to building regulations and liability concerns. 

Regardless,​​ the article did a wonderful job of bringing into view the decline of that most vital part of student life: zany schemes. High-octane heists involving books smuggled in jackets and thrown off roofs seem like a distant memory in our drab modern-day university, but one can imagine the buzzing atmosphere of 1960s USyd: cunning rascals outwitting red-faced deans by leading cows up the stairs, glueing the furniture of stuffy academics’ offices to the ceiling, and, yes, perhaps stealing a book or two – a small price to pay for a radically enlivened campus culture, where wacky stunts such as these are the norm.

It pains me to say it, but no campus stunt of this sort seems to loom in recent memory. Whither the pranksters of yesteryear? The food fights in Wentworth Food Court? The writing of one’s name on the quad lawns by pouring big bags of salt? The egging, the TP-ing, anything to break us out of this stultifying routine?

A google search of ‘pranks USyd’ (this qualifies as investigative journalism now) paints a clear picture of just how far we, as a collective, have fallen in our prank game. Perhaps the peak of USyd’s disruptive antics was more than 60 years ago at the 1956 Sydney Olympics. Nine students from St John’s College protested the torch-carrying relay ceremony, partly because it was invented by the Nazis at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The group designed a fake torch out of a chair leg painted silver, with an empty plum pudding can on top, inside of which was a flaming kerosene-soaked pair of underpants. One of the nine, Barry Larkin, ran with the torch to Town Hall, protected from the completely-fooled crowd by a police escort. Larkin presented the torch to Lord Mayor of Sydney, Pat Hills, who began to make his speech before realising the torch was a fake. Larkin reportedly went on to have a successful career as a veterinary surgeon.

Pranks in recent years have yet to reach such heights. There are some notable examples, however, that stand out from the usual antics which have come to define campus pranks – that being writing your friend a USyd Love Letter or running a cringe joke stupol campaign.

In 2013 for instance, USyd students of GOVT2603: Media Politics were tasked with an assessment to prank UNSW’s student publication Tharunka, by designing a fake news story to be published in the paper. The assignment was later pulled for ethical reasons. 

In 2015, some dickhead had a ‘rave’ in the Lawbry during exam season to post on his shitty YouTube channel. The prank consisted of enthusiastic hacking over blasted hardstyle music to an audience of perplexed students. 

In 2016, this fabled campus paper dedicated an entire edition to replicating Australia’s lead masthead, The Australian. Honi’s version, The Ausrtailan, evaded copyright laws through strategic spelling mistakes and included a feature headlined ‘Rupert Murdoch dead at 85’. 

In 2019, a USyd psychology lecturer pranked his class by verbally abusing a student whose phone went off in front of a packed lecture theatre. It was later revealed that the student was a willing participant in a psychological demonstration of ‘controlled behaviours’ in response to ‘abnormal actions’.

While admirable exploits in their own right, such antics pale in comparison to the legendary stories of a thriving campus of yesteryear. I’m not quite sure as to why this decline has occurred. Maybe VSU, maybe COVID, maybe stricter disciplinary processes. I have a suspicion that social media may have played a role – not in taking us away from the physical world, but in making goofs and japes just another tunnel in the content mine, a source of likes and clicks.

To be a prankster requires a certain generosity – the miniscule returns on often very elaborate planning sort of necessitates it. This generosity, this whimsy, is important in the modern university, where there’s such a drive to classify and rationalise. Everything becomes part of a stultifying routine. Make a discussion post. Go to a forty-person tute. Visit a university-run, Raytheon-sponsored ‘Therapaws Picnic’ and wonder why you still feel like shit. 

Of course, there’s resistance to this model of education, and worthwhile resistance, too. Indeed, some recent student protests – the 2020 occupation of F23, for instance – have the same disruptive irreverence as a prank. But a prank is, almost by definition, incongruent, and there is nothing incongruent about student resistance. These protests cannot fill the role of the prank; they are merely prank-like.

So where to for pranks? I can’t pretend to be a guide. I am, to be honest, a habitual rule-follower who does not enjoy inconveniencing others. But the great thing about pranks is that you don’t really need a how-to guide. All you need is an eye for opportunities: a desk ripe to be filled with shaving cream, an open window to an office big enough to fit a chicken through, or a Dean with a loose-looking belt. If your tutor is being a bit of a dick, rock up to class early and super glue their stationary to the wall. Feeling artistic? Get creative with chalk on Eastern Avenue. Feeling agricultural? Plant a tree in the quadrangle.

There’s a risk to all of this, of course, but it’s worth it, I think, to step out of class and see a red-faced dean, pants around his ankles, bellowing in rage, and feel something new – something alert and vital – for no reason at all.

Now that the majority of us are back on campus, I don’t think we should discount the importance of zany escapades in contributing to a real campus life. Let’s get silly again.