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From Wikipedia:

April Fools' Day or April Fool's Day (sometimes called All Fools' Day) is an annual celebration commemorated on April 1 by playing practical jokes and spreading hoaxes. The jokes and their victims are called April fools.

As the name implies, traditionally, April Fools' jokes over here are made to make the other person look a bit foolish: having them check that their shoelaces aren't untied, or having them believe some kind of implausible information. Usually, we stick with small stuff like telling people 'your shoelaces are untied', then letting them know how foolish they were for checking by saying 'April Fools!'.

But, sometimes, the joke goes too far. I've been in trouble in the past with people reacting badly to my jokes, but I've also been the party that 'can't take a joke' and experienced April Fools' jokes that I absolutely didn't find funny or appropriate as they made me more of a fool than I'd prefer to look, or actually resulted in (unintended) physical pain. Wikipedia also sort of points this out by referring to April Fools' jokes as 'harmless pranks':

Aside from April Fools' Day, the custom of setting aside a day for the playing of harmless pranks upon one's neighbour has historically been relatively common in the world

So, in order to make April Fools' day fun for both the joker and the fool:

What is suggested to keep in mind, to make proper April Fools' jokes that are both harmless towards the other person and at the same time make them look a bit foolish by having them believe or fall for a prank?

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  • April Fools' jokes are traditionally based on the element of surprise. If an answer mitigates this surprise element (for example, by telling the future victim "I'm gonna prank you today"), would this be an acceptable answer?
    – Ael
    Apr 1 '19 at 18:38
  • @Ælis I'd rather keep the element of surprise (if there still can be such on April Fools' Day, where people kinda already can expect it/see it coming).
    – Tinkeringbell
    Apr 1 '19 at 18:50
  • In the past have you tried thinking about how you would feel if a prank you are considering was played on you?
    – DaveG
    Apr 1 '19 at 19:03
  • @DaveG of course. But feelings aren't often the same for different people, hence what I feel is okay may be received negatively and (assuming the same level of introspection from another person) what other people feel is funny to do to me might not be appreciated by me.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Apr 1 '19 at 19:05
  • 1
    @DaveG well, apparently people do misjudge. So, perhaps there's some behavior out there associated with minimizing risks of April Fools' jokes going wrong, that I can keep in mind when judging, to better my judgment even further? Some kind of unwritten rules or etiquette for making nice jokes on this day?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Apr 1 '19 at 19:15
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TL;DR

To give your joke a higher chance at success you want to

  • Involve multiple people if possible
  • Cause a "mishap" as opposed to a "tragedy"
  • Ensure that you're in a non-threatening, relaxed environment

But at the end of the day, you need to use your own judgement and social/emotional acumen to determine whether your joke will be well-received.


I'm going to attempt to dissect this by looking at the psychology behind jokes. Specifically, what will give your joke a better chance at being well received?

Humor in Groups

Robert Provine wrote a nice article on the subject of laughter. He finds that humans are almost 30 times more likely to laugh when in a group as opposed to alone. He sums this up nicely by saying

The necessary stimulus for laughter is not a joke, but another person.

This is also the basis for adding Laughing Tracks in TV shows--to make you feel like you're enjoying the show with and laughing with others.

The idea that a group makes it easier to laugh and joke backs up what AsheraH has said about not targeting a single person. If more people are part of the joke, it will be easier to laugh at!

Tragedies vs. Mishaps

Peter McGraw, Caleb Warren, Lawrence Williams and Bridget Leonard wrote another article entitled "Too Close for Comfort, or Too Far to Care?" The article proposes that negativity is an essential part of humor--that humor is only made possible by violating some norm or rule. They examine how breaking some rules too far can turn a joke from funny to disturbing and turn laughter to hate.

They specifically focus on "Tragedies" and "Mishaps." From the abstract:

Five studies show that tragedies (which feature severe violations) are more humorous when temporally, socially, hypothetically, or spatially distant, but that mishaps (which feature mild violations) are more humorous when psychologically close.

For April Fools, you'll be playing a joke directly on the person--they'll be directly psychologically close to your violation. As such, you'll want something that does not introduce tragedy. You're looking for something relatively benign.

Environment Matters

In addition to violating some norm or rule, one cause for amusement is a mismatch of expectation and reality. This is the basis for most April Fools jokes.

Professor Rod Martin, author of "The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach" mentions this with one caveat:

This brand of humor only works in a playful atmosphere where the incongruity represents no real threats. There could be things that are incongruous, but they aren't funny. Someone walking down the sidewalk and being hit by a car is incongruous, but not funny."

This ties in with "Tragedies vs. Mishaps," but adds the idea that the mood and the environment the person is in plays a large role. As a boss, setting up a meeting with your employee titled "Your standing in the company" as a joke likely wouldn't work well. They'll immediately be on the defensive, worrying about whether or not they'll have a job tomorrow.

Conclusion

All three of the above are tied together. Having multiple friendly people together will both give the joke more chance at success as well as creating a non-threatening environment. Keeping the incongruities from being threatening will also involve creating "Mishaps" instead of "Tragedies."

However, even if you follow all of these rules, your jokes may still flop--or worse, result in anger instead of laughter.

At the end of the day, you need to know your audience. Some people can take a joke better than others--this may depend on their personality or their relationship to you, but this is something you'll need to judge for yourself.

Best of luck and happy April Fools!

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From personal experience, I think the best April Fools jokes are ones where a) you’re not targeting a single person and b) are not cause of any (even unintentional) physical harm.

The best one that was ever played on me was a colleague making us believe he had won the lottery and he was inviting us all to dinner to celebrate. It worked very well because he was the last one we would suspect of pulling such a stunt.

It was a good prank because it was aimed at whoever was around and we just all felt a bit silly as a group, instead of individually. It also did not cause any material damage, physical pain, or great effort for anyone.

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  • 8
    I would even go further and say that the best April Fools jokes do not cause any kind of harm. For example, saying that a close relative of the fooler or the fooled has died, only to be able to shout "Haha april fools!" after they made some phone calls, is a total no-go even if no physical harm was caused.
    – kscherrer
    Apr 2 '19 at 17:28
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    A good example that fits both criteria: a Krispy Kreme donuts box in the staff lunch room with a sign saying “help yourself,” and vegetables inside.
    – Wildcard
    Apr 2 '19 at 17:45
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Something that none of the other answers have addressed is the emotional and psychological harm that can be caused by one of these pranks. These are going to vary between different people, so it is important to know that the person on whom you are pulling the prank will be able to take the prank you have decided on well. As Astralbee pointed out, it is also important to consider who might witness the prank since it could effect them even if they are not the original target. I am personally susceptible (and have suffered from) a very specific kind of psychological harm that can be caused by these pranks, so I will focus on what that is and how it can be avoided.

Psychological Harm

I am a person who is at risk of psychological harm from April Fools pranks. The reason for this is that I am on the autism spectrum, and therefore I have some challenges related to social norms. Unlike most people, I have to work extremely hard to learn and understand social norms. I do this primarily by extensively studying the actions the people take when interacting (and also by asking/reading questions here).

Some April Fools pranks rely on tearing down social norms and significantly altering social behavior. I have had this type of prank pulled on me before, and it took me several weeks to fix the damage that it did to my understanding of the social norms involved.

How you can avoid causing psychological harm

As I mentioned earlier, the best thing you can do is to know your audience. If the target of your prank or anyone who might be watching has any sort of social impairment (such as autism) you should avoid pranks that rely on breaking social norms.

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What is suggested to keep in mind, to make proper April Fools' jokes that are both harmless towards the other person and at the same time make them look a bit foolish by having them believe or fall for a prank?

"Practical" jokes would at one time have nearly always involved some kind of physical consequence upon a person - a bucket of water falling on their head, boot polish around their eye - but these days things like that would be considered dangerous. A "practical" joke really can be anything that has some physicality - that is it involves the other person in the joke, rather than just relating something funny to that person. To answer your first part about a joke being "harmless" I think you have to consider safety by not only thinking what will happen to your target person in the short term, but also what your prank might motivate them to do before you reveal it to be a prank.

Consider a couple of April Fools pranks that "went wrong". In 2014 an American woman texted her daughter and told her that a shooting was going on at the college where she worked. The daughter called 911 and the mother was eventually arrested and charged with "aggravated breach of peace". I think to most people that is a pretty sick joke, but in the moment this woman must not have imagined it would go the way it did. But even seemingly harmless pranks can get out of control. In 2001 a British radio station broadcast that a replica of the Titanic was in the sea near the cliffs at Beachy Head, fully expecting that gullible people would go and take a look. The problem was that so many people went to look, the cliff couldn't take the weight. A large crack appeared and the following day a whole section of the cliff where people had stood fell into the sea. A near miss that could have been worse. In both these pranks, the joker physically involved the other party by bringing them into it, which is why they resulted in harm.

Many comedians have made the observation that the subject of a joke and the target of a joke are two very different things. For example, in the UK during the 1980s a lot of comedians made jokes about the standard of care in the National Health Service that offended hard-working doctors and nurses, but they argued that while they might have been the subject of the jokes, the target was really the government who they felt were not funding the service properly. I think this principle can be used to formulate a good "practical" joke that achieves your goal of making someone "look a bit foolish" without physically harming them directly or indirectly. Instead of causing something to happen to someone so that they are the subject and the target, try and come up with something that involves the target person but does not affect them in a physical way.

For example, this year on a UK television show the production team staged a fake live scene that some viewers believed, and then they later revealed it to be a prank. Some viewers saw through the slightly ropey acting, but as an added layer one of the presenters had been kept in the dark so the joke was also on them. This made it doubly satisfying for viewers because even if they were not taken in by it they got to see someone else fooled. This was a "safe" prank because the events did not involve the viewers or the presenter, they just unfolded in front of them so as to make them believe something false.

A couple of years ago I played a prank on a colleague - their work of the past months had been to connect as many IT services as possible to our ICC cards to eliminate multiple passwords. I took a spare card-reader and "installed" it in the staff toilet with a notice saying that the toilet flush was now smartcard-operated. I didn't think for a minute that anyone would believe it - and they didn't - but it gently poked fun at the work my colleague had been doing, so by the time he saw it and knew that everybody else had seen it and had a laugh at his expense, the effect was much the same - it made him look "a bit foolish" but was ultimately harmless and did not "involve" anyone despite the prank being "physical".

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