Making Mischief in the Modern World

364 pages

April, 2014

ISBN: 9780814796290



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Kembrew McLeod is a writer, filmmaker, and Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa, and occasional prankster. He is the author of Creative License, Cutting Across Media, Owning Culture, and the award-winning Freedom of Expression®. McLeod’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, and Rolling Stone.

All books by Kembrew McLeod

From Benjamin Franklin's newspaper hoax that faked the death of his rival to Abbie Hoffman’s attempt to levitate the Pentagon, pranksters, hoaxers, and con artists have caused confusion, disorder, and laughter in Western society for centuries. Profiling the most notorious mischief makers from the 1600s to the present day, Pranksters explores how “pranks” are part of a long tradition of speaking truth to power and social critique.

Invoking such historical and contemporary figures as P.T. Barnum, Jonathan Swift, WITCH, The Yes Men, and Stephen Colbert, Kembrew McLeod shows how staged spectacles that balance the serious and humorous can spark important public conversations. In some instances, tricksters have incited social change (and unfortunate prank blowback) by manipulating various forms of media, from newspapers to YouTube. For example, in the 1960s, self-proclaimed “professional hoaxer” Alan Abel lampooned America’s hypocritical sexual mores by using conservative rhetoric to fool the news media into covering a satirical organization that advocated clothing naked animals. In the 1990s, Sub Pop Records then-receptionist Megan Jasper satirized the commodification of alternative music culture by pranking the New York Times into reporting on her fake lexicon of “grunge speak.” Throughout this book, McLeod shows how pranks interrupt the daily flow of approved information and news, using humor to underscore larger, pointed truths.

Written in an accessible, story-driven style, Pranksters reveals how mischief makers have left their shocking, entertaining, and educational mark on modern political and social life.


  • “A spellbinder of a book, Pranksters attempts to weave together a slew of seemingly unrelated individuals, anecdotes, and themes…[I]t cuts a swath along a wide range of academic disciplines, making it relevant to scholars of popular culture, sociology, media studies, and the history of the book.”

    Journal of Popular Culture

  • “Overall, this study of pranks is engrossing in the fullest meaning of the term.”


  • "From Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal' to the modern 'hacktivists' of anonymous 'spoofing' corporations and governments, McLeod, the man who actually trademarked the phrase 'Freedom of Expression,' examines hoaxes, pranks, and successful feats of trickery that inspire widespread public amazement and reinforce the need to critically assess miraculous stories or occurrences. He shares thoughtful insights into both lighthearted hoaxes like the Feejee mermaid and well-known darker pranks, such as the 17th century Illuminati conspiracy created by a college student or the 1980s 'Satanic Panic.'  Benjamin Franklin (who borrowed liberally from Swift) and P.T. Barnum are notable, famous tricksters, but McLeod's description of the lonely, blind phone-phreakers who created their own 'electronic social net-work' in the 1960s speaks to the primary need for expression and connection commonly found among the perpetrators. McLeod entertains and engages readers with everything from Thomas Paine to T-Pain in this clever mix of historical figures' imaginative pranks and modern attempts to capture public attention."   

    Publishers Weekly

  • “In this action-packed book, vampire-fanged strippers, Satanists and circus escapologists jostle for our attention with conspiracy theorists, Fox News anchormen and gay rights activists . . . McLeod is no ordinary academic. He avoids post-modernist jargon, writing in refreshingly straightforward journalese.”

    Times Higher Education

  • "The story of how mischief-makers hope to change the world one prank at a time . . . McLeod’s renditions of his own pranks bring sparkle and humor to the serious message of his book."

    Kirkus Reviews

  • "Those who like their reads breezy need not apply—but this is not to say that Pranksters is not worth the read. Anyone in the business of deception—whether remediating or fomenting it—ought to treat this as a primary source." 


  • "It's fantastic! Finally, a book that rescues the critically important art of the prank. Thanks to Pranksters, we finally understand what we've been trying to do all these years. No joke! Read it, and get out there and apply it!"

    The Yes Men

  • "Throughout history, Western society has been thrown into confusion, disarray, and laughter by the work of hucksters and con artists. Pranksters reveals how these mischief makers have left an educational and entertaining mark on our modern social and political life. Writer and filmmaker, Kembrow, a prankster himself, argues that these actions underscore larger, pointed truths by disrupting the daily flow of approved information and news."

  • "McLeod is good at finding common threads that unite all the multifarious pranks together and making sense of what may seem like a tangled mess of characters and events . . . . The heady stew of the 1960s—including the Merry Pranksters, and Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies—serves as an object lesson on pranks and how they could interface with society, culture, politics, and activism. McLeod’s vivid description of the Merry Pranksters’ kooky school bus, painted in wild colors, makes you pine for the freewheeling San Francisco of yore, before the Google bus took over."

  • "Meticulously organized and researched book."

  • “In his new book Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, Kembrew McLeod demonstrates that sometimes pranksters, working as cultural jammers, provoke worthy debates ‘by showing skepticism’ about power.”

    Reuters Blog

  • An occasional prankster himself, McLeod (communication studies, Univ. of Iowa; Creative License) uses sly humor to explore the ways in which public opinion has been and can be manipulated by some unlikely deceptions. With looks at Rosicrucians, secret societies, spiritualists, conspiracies, John Birchers, Merry Pranksters, and a vast array of printed and broadcast hoaxes, McLeod weaves a tale of fantasies that sparked social commentaries and persisted for years or sometimes centuries. The author concludes with a description of his participation in a number of pranks and his perspective about his success and failure communicating his message....Verdict: Students of media or publishing history in the West will appreciate the comprehensive survey of untruths and their enduring legacy.  

    Library Journal, Barbara Ferrara, Chesterfield Cty. P.L., VA

  • “Ultimately, what McLeod gives us in Pranksters, his topic aside, is an example of the best of cultural-studies writing. The book can engage almost any reader; it is not necessary to have been part of any academic ‘conversation’ before picking it up. At the same time, it can be extremely useful to the scholar who does want to continue the particular discussion. . . . The result is an engaging book, one as important for the example it sets as for the scholarship it presents.”

    The Popular Culture Studies Journal

  • "Satire, irony, and performative politics—from The Daily Show to the Yes Men—are being enacted, thought about, and discussed a great deal these days, but the subject is only starting to be written about. Kembrew McLeod, an engaging writer as well as a practicing prankster, does a brilliant job in analyzing the ways in which pranks underscore a larger, often pointed truth."

    —Stephen Duncombe, editor of the Cultural Resistance Reader

  • “In locating mischief at the center of media history, Pranksters transforms what, up until now, has been a series of odd footnotes into a rich and hilarious story about the making of the modern world. In doing so McLeod challenges overly-rationalist accounts by compelling us to laugh out loud about hoaxes, hoodwinks, cons, and more. But this isn’t laughter simply for its own sake.  He has a deeply ethical purpose in mind, showing us how to use media spectacularly, and, indeed, responsibly, to promote meaningful social transformation Pranksters is smart, lucid, and funny—but it’s no joke.”

    —Ted Striphas, Indiana University