The 5 Most Epic Backfires in the History of Bad Jokes
The problem with sarcasm, other than making it that much more likely that you'll be mistaken for Matthew Perry at some point in your life, is that you can do it so well (or so poorly) that people don't realize you're joking. Sometimes a sarcastic misfire can make you come across as a cynical asshole or an insensitive prick. Other times it can land your ass in front of a judge.
So please, before you go down this dark road yourself, let the following cautionary tales remind you that a good chunk of the world really doesn't like jokes.
Man Jokes About a Bomb in His Luggage, Shuts Down an Airport
On his way home from officiating at a hockey tournament in October 2012, 44-year-old NCAA referee Peter Friesema saw a golden opportunity for comic brilliance when the ticket agent was messing with his bags. You can already guess where this is going: Yes, he made a goddamn bomb joke.
Specifically, after the agent at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport explained that it didn't really matter that she'd put his luggage sticker on his friend's suitcase by mistake because they were going to the same place, Friesema quipped:
"But my friend's bag has a bomb in it!"
"We're still having you detained for being a fucking idiot. Thanks for flying, though."
One Small Problem
Friesema, obviously not a very big Ben Stiller fan, was at an airport ... in America ... in the 21st century. There might be three words in the entire English language that you can't say at an airport, and this grown-ass man just happened to blurt out two of them (he failed to work "jihad" in there).
Besides being (figuratively) shot down by the agent he was apparently trying to hit on and then having to relive the awkward experience during interviews with (we assume) an entire team of disgruntled security officials, Friesema was also taken to jail, charged with disorderly conduct, and ordered to remain in the Klondike for another six weeks until his next hearing.
The judge was out of town for the Iditarod.
That last part was particularly bad news for Friesema, who claimed that his many years of service enforcing whatever "rules" hockey pretends to abide by would be lost if he couldn't return to Colorado sooner, but, as the judge was eager to point out, the order was indeed justified, given just how disorderly Friesema's conduct had been.
Oh, and thanks to Friesema's quip, the airport's main terminal was shut down for three hours in the middle of a cold Alaska night, causing several costly delays and forcing hundreds of pissed-off passengers (including many who were dressed in summer attire en route from warmer destinations) to shuttle to another terminal, hide out in a rental car garage, or simply huddle up in a freezing arctic doorway for a couple of hours while the FBI double-checked to make sure this really was just an extreme case of failed flirtation and not the most poorly planned and executed terror attack in history.
Newspaper Tries to Raise Zoo Safety Awareness, Causes Widespread Panic Instead
In case you think 9/11 was the starting point for "subjects you don't joke about unless you want to see the cops lock down everything in sight," let's give you an example from way back. After a leopard nearly escaped from the Central Park Zoo in the early 1870s, New York Herald editor Thomas Connery decided to expose the zoo's dangerous practices. Sure, he could have just written a boring, straightforward editorial on the subject, but that shit doesn't sell newspapers, baby.
So, rather than simply calling out the zookeepers for sucking so bad at their jobs that they couldn't even transfer an animal between cages without making passersby fear for their lives, Connery asked his writers to create a fake front-page story warning New York's 1.4 million citizens that an army of wild animals had escaped from the zoo, had already killed 49 people, and were quickly coming to murder the rest of the city at that very moment. Zing!
The picture of a man punching a tiger in the face failed to alert readers to parody because this was 1874.
One Small Problem
Even though the story was outlandish and occasionally nonsensical (besides labeling the incident "A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death," it also claimed that one of the escaped rhinos "appeared the picture of stupid amiability" and that a Bengal tiger "seemed as harmless as a prostrate forest tree"), it ran 10,000 words long and occupied six full columns. So you can imagine how a reader would just glance at the headline, see the sheer scale of the article, and assume that no newspaper would take a mere joke that far.
And, save for one tiny paragraph at the bottom of the last page, there was no mention whatsoever that the catastrophe might possibly be made up and that maybe people shouldn't drop everything to prepare for the terrifying animal apocalypse soon to be heading their way.
"I don't see how scaring the shit out of people through mass media could possibly backfire." -Orson Welles, 70 years later
The joke was picked up on by approximately no one, as most readers were far too busy loading their weapons or retrieving their kids from school to bother reading the entire article. As described by the Museum of Hoaxes:
"By all accounts, the article caused widespread panic throughout the city. Armed men rushed into the streets, ready to defend their homes. Reporters were dispatched to cover the story. The police mobilized. Parents rushed to bring their children back from school."
"Remember, honey: You're already dead. Don't give that lion the pleasure of tasting fear."
In a follow-up story, the New York Times printed letters from readers who'd genuinely feared for their safety on account of the hoax (on a related note, Connery later claimed that on the day of publication, the editor of the Times "ran out of his home waving two pistols in the air, ready to shoot the first animal he encountered"), while several of the more bitter victims went a step further, marching to the district attorney's office and demanding that the Herald pay for their deception. They didn't, as far as we know, but we can't say the same for ...
Pepsi Jokingly Offers a Fighter Jet in a Contest, Gets Sued
If you watched television in the 1990s, you may remember this Pepsi commercial and the contest that went with it. It's pretty standard "win shitty prizes for buying our product" fare -- the ad was for the "Pepsi Stuff" reward program and showcased various items viewers could redeem their points for, including T-shirts, sunglasses, and, apparently, the cool, rebellious spirit of a young Marlon Brando.
"Shades" are an exclusive trademark of PepsiCo.
Then, in the name of hilarity, the ad threw in a joke prize at the end. The commercial says that for the seemingly impossible sum of 7 million Pepsi Points (all the other items cost between 75 and 1,450 points, to compare), customers could score themselves a brand new $33 million Harrier II fighter jet, then, apparently, use said jet to somehow still not get to school on time.
"Between filing flight plans and following air traffic control, it's not the time saver you'd think."
One Small Problem
Although they did omit the Harrier from the official catalog of prizes, at no point did Pepsi ever come right out and say, "Oh yeah, and that part about us somehow being authorized to issue fully functional, state-of-the-art military aircraft to anyone who drinks roughly 17,000 years' worth of soda? Totally not true!"
John Leonard, a 21-year-old business student from Seattle, saw that ad and immediately jumped off his couch, snapped his fingers, and declared, "Oh hell no! They're not getting away with this shit!"
Five months later, some unsuspecting Pepsi employee opened a package from Leonard and found inside 15 Pepsi Points, a $700,000 check (additional points could be purchased outright for 10 cents each), and an order form with the words "1 Harrier Jet" handwritten at the bottom of the "Item" column. While we're not sure whether the aforementioned employee then fainted, shat their pants, or just laughed hysterically at the absurd request for hours on end, one thing we know they definitely didn't do was send back a $33 million airplane they never had in the first place and that the U.S. government would never allow them, or anyone else, to ever possess in flyable condition anyway.
"We have an exclusive deal with Coke."
Instead of the plane, Pepsi mailed back some free coupons and an overly polite explanation that despite his impressive efforts (Leonard was able to convince five greedy investors to put up the cash and did already have a team of lawyers lined up for the legal battle that was inevitably about to ensue), he wasn't getting no stinkin' jet. But, instead of simply taking that news in stride and moving on to some other despicable get-rich scheme, Leonard responded with an ultimatum: Either send me my jet or I'll see you in court.
And that's how Pepsi's stupid throwaway joke at the end of an advertisement wound up keeping them tied up in court for three years. It wasn't until 1999 that a federal court finally made official a settlement in which Leonard agreed to withdraw his claim. Pepsi did not, at the end of all of that, have to buy the guy a jet, but did have to eat about $90,000 in legal fees defending the case. And this, kids, is why every commercial has to have a stupid disclaimer at the bottom, no matter how ridiculous the thing you're seeing onscreen.
Always read the fine print. That's where they get you.
Writer Creates Fake L.L. Bean Catalog, Hundreds Try Ordering His Made-Up Crap
In 1982, Avon Books published a spoof L.L. Bean catalog created by humor writer Alfred Gingold entitled "Items from Our Catalog." It was filled with ridiculous items for "sale," such as edible moccasins and nose warmers. Granted, half of that stuff probably was actually for sale via SkyMall, but clearly the whole thing was intended to be a joke.
We'd like to draw your attention to the dog bra.
One Small Problem
Even though most people caught on that it was a joke, neither Gingold nor any of the folks at Avon thought to clarify that none of the items featured in the catalog even existed, let alone were actually for sale, nor did they think to include a small disclaimer anywhere in the thing saying something to the effect of "Please don't mail us a check or call the phone number on the back of this catalog and try to order any of this shit."
First of all, keep in mind that a shitload of people bought this fake catalog. It sold over 8 million copies at $4.95 each and even spawned a sequel the following year.
Don't even pretend you wouldn't buy that mouse-sized shoeboat.
And yes, Avon was slammed with "several hundred" calls from people trying to order their ridiculous contraptions; so many, in fact, that until the madness died down, they had to bring on additional staff to answer the phones and crush the dreams of some "very upset" potential customers. Others took a more direct approach by mailing checks straight to the office with attachments indicating how many of each item they wanted, in what color, and in what size.
Even stranger is the fact that Avon didn't even include their real phone number in the catalog, meaning that those several hundred calls were generated by people who looked up the number, no easy feat by 1982 standards. People were that desperate to give Avon their money in exchange for this fictional bullshit. The reception was so great at one point that Avon even considered actually producing the items, but chose not to because they didn't think they could keep up with the demand. The demand, that is, for products like battery-operated eyeglass wipers. And now you know how Hammacher Schlemmer can continue to exist.
Johnny Carson Jokes About a Toilet Paper Shortage, Inadvertently Causes One
In December 1973, Wisconsin Congressman Harold Froehlich made headlines by publicly complaining that the United States was falling behind on bids to supply toilet paper. OK, so it wasn't exactly Watergate, but it was a relevant national issue nevertheless. Newsworthy or not, however, the nation's most beloved television personality saw in the story an opportunity to steal a laugh, so Johnny Carson used it, sarcastically, in the following setup for what would normally be just a routine Tonight Show joke:
"You know what's disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper. There's an acute shortage of toilet paper in the United States."
Now, this is a great example of how bullshit spreads. A politician exaggerates a problem for political purposes. A comedian exaggerates the claim even further for comedy purposes. And then people accept it as absolute fact.
"Over 14 billion people were killed by rabid marmots last year, and Republicans are doing nothing!"
One Small Problem
To be fair, even though it should go without saying that a talk show probably isn't the most reliable source to get your breaking news, this was 1973. If a man on television told you that stores were running out of toilet paper in 1973, you listened, just like you listened when they told you that the historic oil crisis that struck only months before this broadcast was so substantial that the government might have to start rationing the shit out, which they indeed ended up doing the very next year. These were lean times, and considering all of the other shit that went on in the 1970s, a shit paper shortage was by no means out of the question.
And this is toilet paper we're talking about here, a necessity so vital that even suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay are allotted 15 sheets per day. How do you think people reacted?
"This isn't Angel Soft -- it's Charmin cut with paper towels! You tryin' to fuck me, man?!"
Many stores were sold out of every crap napkin in stock by noon the next day, as people were buying, according to some reports, "as many rolls as they could carry," and even though Scott Paper issued statements reassuring everyone that this was all just one big misunderstanding and let the media film their factories in full production just to make certain this was clear, it still took three full weeks before shelves were properly restocked.
Carson apologized for the mix-up on air a few nights later, and America never got worked up into a panic over a bullshit rumor ever again.
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If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 8 Needlessly Insane Moments from Star Trek.