Very Impractical Jokes

I hate so-called practical jokes.

I don’t even know why they are called practical jokes, unless it’s to distinguish them from jokes that are actually clever and amusing. One of the reasons I despise them is because they place the onus on the victim. As tradition has it, the goat is supposed to pretend to find it hilarious that some jerk has made him the butt of public ridicule, and if he doesn’t laugh, he is branded a humorless dolt, a prig, a stuffed shirt.

I’m not saying that practical jokers should be executed, but a few hours on the rack shouldn’t be out of the question.

Some years ago, when I was a student at UCLA, writing a humor column and movie reviews for the Daily Bruin, I was friends with a fellow we’ll call Terry who contributed book reviews to the student publication. One day he came up to me and said, “I guess you didn’t see it.” “See what?” I asked. And that is how it all began.

It seems Terry had written something stupid in the form of a letter to the editor of the L.A. Herald Express, and signed my name to it. What’s more, they published it. After all this time, I can’t recall the content, but the obvious intention was to place me in the corner with a dunce cap perched on my head.

However, because my family, along with every other family I knew — except apparently Terry’s — took the L.A. Times, not only had I not seen the letter, but nobody had embarrassed me by asking why I had put my name to such balderdash.

When I asked Terry why he’d done it, he said he really didn’t know, but that it had seemed like a funny idea at the time. One could say, no harm, no foul, and let it drop. But that is not my way. So far as I’m concerned, if you shoot someone, but he doesn’t die because the bullet is deflected or because the surgical team works a miracle, he’s still made his intention crystal clear, and he must be punished. Terry had crossed a line and there was no going back.

Even though I had not yet read Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” I instinctively understood that revenge is a dish best served cold. And, so, I bided my time. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Terry received a letter at the Daily Bruin office. It appeared to be from his favorite author and L.A. resident Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World” and “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.”

In the letter, Huxley gushed that he had long been a fan of Terry, and regarded him, in spite of his youth, as the best book reviewer in America. He rhapsodized about Terry’s depth of knowledge and his critical analysis, and also claimed to be enchanted by his captivating writing style.

He suggested that Terry come pay a visit and enjoy a cup of tea with him and Mrs. Huxley, suggesting a date a few weeks off, by which time he would have finished correcting the galleys for his latest book, “Panorama of Ignorance.”

Terry, who was given to unwarranted displays of enthusiasm unknown outside a political convention, was simultaneously beside himself and over the moon.

But, alas, all good things must come to an end. They just don’t generally come so quickly. Two days later, when Terry received identical letters in identical envelopes from Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom had recently taken their leave — one in an automobile accident, the other by a self-inflicted shotgun blast — he realized that all the phone calls to relatives and all the bragging to his English professors had been, to put it as gently as possible, decidedly premature.

At least he didn’t have to ask me why I had done it.

After that, if I even caught Terry looking at me cross-eyed, I merely had to whisper, “Panorama of Ignorance,” and watch him cower and whimper.

Predictably, Terry went on to become an English professor, specializing in American poetry, at a Midwestern university. It is a career for which he was ideally suited, as it required nothing but an unnatural tolerance for life on a college campus, teaching the unreadable to the illiterate.

The lesson he, himself, was taught some fifty years ago is one that the United States should also take to heart. Don’t get involved in a war unless you are prepared to go all out to win it.

And nothing less than unconditional surrender is an acceptable outcome.

©2012 Burt Prelutsky. Send your comments to

Author Bio:

Burt Prelutsky, a very nice person once you get to know him, has been a humor columnist for the L.A. Times and a movie critic for Los Angeles magazine. As a freelancer, he has written for the New York Times, Washington Times, TV Guide, Modern Maturity, Emmy, Holiday, American Film, and Sports Illustrated. For television, he has written for Dragnet, McMillan & Wife, MASH, Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Bob Newhart, Family Ties, Dr. Quinn and Diagnosis Murder. In addition, he has written a batch of terrific TV movies. View Burt’s IMDB profile. Talk about being well-rounded, he plays tennis and poker... and rarely cheats at either. He lives in the San Fernando Valley, where he takes his marching orders from a wife named Yvonne and a dog named Angel.
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  • BurtPrelutsky

    Sahyan: Very often great minds arrive at similar conclusions.


  • Sahyan

    Bert, about your “a few hours on the rack” notion….Robert Heinlein suggested, in the “Notebooks of Lazarus Long” interlude in “Time Enough for Love,” that, as regards practical jokes and jokers, keel-hauling should be reserved for the very funniest

  • BurtPrelutsky

    juju: No, I suspect it was a writer named Jack Prelutsky, who is probably a distant relative, and writes poetry for kids.

    Monkdiz: Thank you.

    cma: I have no objection to our bombing Arab/Muslim nations, but neither of our countries should ever again protect one gang of Islamics from another.  When we take sides in these conflicts, it merely proves that we have no morality ourselves.

    GlenFS: Yes, I was happy that our conflict never escalated into bloodshed.  Especially since he was quite a large fellow.


  • Monkdiz

    Your writing is thoroughly enjoyable and inspirational.  Thank you!!

  • jujubeebee

    Just curious Burt if you are the same Burt Prelutsky who wrote the poem “My parents think I’m sleeping”?    My child had to pick a poem in first grade to memorize and recite and that was the one we chose for him to do.   I remember it because I thought it was cute and appropriate for the assignment.   Was that you?

  • cmacrider

    Burt:  Your comment ”
     Don’t get involved in a war unless you are prepared to go all out to win it.” is so true.  I cannot speak for Americans but as a father of a Canadian soldier who has done his tours in Afghanistan only to return home to state that nation building in Afghanistan is a hopeless case … I simply do not understand why we are wasting blood and treasure in these foreign ventures.  After 911, I argued that the U.S.A. should simply send over a squadron of stealth bombers and blow up 10 important buildings in the middle east.   When the inevitable whining occurred …. America should have simply said “these terrorists are your people … get them under control or otherwise the next time it will be 20 of your important infrastructures.” 

  • GlenFS

    Thanks for the amusing story.  It seems you won the war without any casualties except that of your antagonist’s pride.