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Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Sir John Hargrave

by Ashton Kutcher


It's not that I have a problem with authority; it's that I have a problem with senseless authority. I have no problem with rules, just ridiculous rules. It's like the pool rules. I was at the pool the other day. Have you read those rules lately? Out of the twelve pool rules, I was breaking four, and that was in front of my toddler son. I was engaging in horseplay, chewing gum, diving off the side, and I hadn't taken a cleansing shower. I haven't taken a cleansing shower since 1972. And: no horseplay?! What the hell is the point of a pool, if not horseplay!? Without horseplay, it's known as a BATH.—From the introduction to Prank the Monkey

Buy now from Amazon! Sir John Hargrave, as he is now legally known (he changed his name through a court order when Buckingham Palace refused to knight him) has been pranking corporations, celebrities, and Congress for years on his humor Web site ZUG (www.zug.com). We were lucky enough to get another famous practical joker, Ashton Kutcher, to sit down with Hargrave for a one-on-one interview about his new book, Prank the Monkey: The ZUG Book of Pranks.

 

AK     You were actually born on April Fool's Day.

JH     Yes. I consider that my greatest prank. It's not easy getting your parents in the mood exactly nine months beforehand. The secret, by the way, is to tickle the ovaries.

AK     "Tickle the Ovaries" would make a great name for a women's piano bar.

JH     Yes. A combination fertility clinic/piano bar.

AK     What makes a good prank?

JH     A prank should make a point. It should be creative, funny, and have a higher purpose. There's a big difference between a prank and a practical joke. A practical joke is something you play on co-workers. A prank goes after The Man.

AK     Give me an example.

JH     The great hoaxer Alan Abel started the "Society for the Indecency to Naked Animals," which was a campaign to put clothes on animals. He hired people to pose as members of his group, picketing the White House with signs like "A NUDE HORSE IS A RUDE HORSE." For several years, he fooled the media into reporting his group as legitimate news, including Walter Cronkite. That's a prank, because it gets a laugh at the expense of The Man—in this case, the media, who fell for this ridiculous ruse.

AK     You definitely go after some big targets in Prank the Monkey.

JH     My motto is, "The bigger the buffoon, the funnier the fall." I tried to think of the biggest, most deserving targets: Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Michael Jackson...

AK     ...and me.

JH     And you. We, of course, tricked the media into thinking that your wedding to Demi Moore was a hoax by doing an interview with Access Hollywood, pretending to be you. That was a huge prank that took several months to prepare. But some of my hoaxes take even longer. I pranked the IRS by filling out my tax return in Roman numerals, and it took almost a year to sort out that mess.

AK     A lot of people don't realize the complexity that goes into pulling off a good prank.

JH     Absolutely. We faked an appearance of Michael Jackson in Boston while he was living in Bahrain, and there were hundreds of details to worry about: finding the actor to play Michael Jackson, renting a limo, getting fake credit cards, alerting the media, making hotel reservations, and so on. With our pranks, there's a lot of planning, conning, and improvising. They're tremendously fun to do.

AK     And everyone has to keep the secret.

JH     Secrecy is essential! One of the most dangerous things about what we do is that any member of the team can ruin the prank at any time, just by talking to the wrong people. It only takes one person to wipe out thousands of dollars in planning.

AK     You've also got to have a solid team.

JH     Teamwork is key. I have a small group of people I've worked with for years, all improv actors and comics. You need people who are money under pressure, who have balls of steel. The women need to have ovaries of magnesium.

AK     Which is not a good name for a fertility clinic.

JH     No. "Ovaries of Magnesium" would not work. Too clinical.

AK     The difference between our two pranking "styles," if you will, is that I'm an actor and you're a writer. You can watch my pranks unfolding on TV, but yours require imagination. Which begs the question: are all the stories in Prank the Monkey true?

JH     This question drives me up the wall, because I put so much time and effort into these pranks that it's very frustrating when people think I'm making them up. That's why I try to include as much documentary evidence as I can.

Now, I will sometimes take "storyteller's license" for the purposes of tightening the narrative. My prank on you, for instance, was a massive media hoax that stretched over several months. If I detailed every conversation and letter, word for word, the book would be long, boring, and unfunny. Much like one of your movies.

AK     That brings up a good point. Not about my movies, but about the timing. Some of your pranks stretch over a period of years. How long did it take you to write Prank the Monkey?

JH     The last chapter of the book—where I faked my own death—is actually the first to happen chronologically. That was about fifteen years ago. In a sense, the book is kind of a memoir. It's the most retarded memoir you will ever read. But it's mine.

AK     You make reference to the Michael Jackson prank costing "thousands of dollars." How much did you spend on these pranks?

JH     I actually spent my entire book advance on the pranks themselves. Let me explain the economics of being a first-time author: they suck. My advance was $5,000, which I understand is pretty common unless you're Monica Lewinsky. My strategy was to write the best and funniest book I could, even if I wouldn't turn a profit on it. Ultimately I'm hoping that a great book will draw more readers to my Web site, which will lead to more great books. But you don't become an author to grow rich, unless of course you write a book called HOW TO GROW RICH BY WRITING BOOKS. Those are the only people who actually grow rich by writing books.

AK     There's a great line in Prank the Monkey about the Tony Robbins Wealth Mastery Seminar costing several thousand dollars to attend, making you wonder if people were actually paying to watch Tony Robbins master his wealth.

JH     So you read that far into the book. That's impressive.

AK     Contrary to popular belief, I do know how to read.

JH     I assume you had an intern help you with the big words.

AK     Your book comes out of your comedy blog. How does writing for the Web differ from writing a book?

JH     The Web is instant gratification. I come up with an idea in the morning, post it by noon, and I have reader feedback by evening. Writing the book was a grueling, two-year slog where it was just me and the empty screen for months on end. On the flip side, what I loved about writing a book was that huge empty canvas, the ability to develop overarching themes that aren't possible with a quick, transient blog post.

AK     The book does have the feel of a Web site, though.

JH     I'm glad you picked up on that, because that was definitely the intention. I learned to write on the Web, so I think in multimedia: my stories usually include photos, videos, MP3s, whatever suits the story. That was difficult to translate into a book. Unlike a scrolling Web page, I was surprised to learn that printed pages have a bottom edge. I was lucky to have an extremely talented designer, Jeff Rutzky, who put in many long hours making sure the book looked great and stayed true to the site, which it does.

AK     Does the book contain repurposed pranks from the site, or is it new material?

JH     There were two schools of thought: my editor wanted the book to be 100% new material, and I wanted the book to be 50% new material and 50% "greatest hits." My argument was that no established stand-up comedian would do an HBO or Comedy Central special using untested material. If you're George Carlin or Chris Rock, you work on jokes for months before you use them on national TV. My editor, on the other hand, felt that ZUG readers would be the primary audience for the book, so I shouldn't reuse any material they could already get for free on the Web.

In the end, we tried to strike a balance. The book is 2/3 new material, and 1/3 "greatest hits." I tried to keep the material as mainstream as possible, while throwing in plenty of inside jokes for my loyal Web site audience.

AK     What's your favorite prank from the book?

JH     Well, legally changing my name to Ashton Kutcher was pretty funny.

AK     Wait... you actually changed your name to Ashton Kutcher?

JH     Went down to the county courthouse, requested a hearing, and had my name changed to yours.

AK     Why, exactly?

JH     So I could prank you. Read the book.

AK     So you are me?

JH     Yes.

AK     So this whole interview is a prank?

JH     Yes.

AK     You're an idiot.

JH     Yes.

AK     But I'm an idiot, too.

JH     Yes.

AK     This really isn't fair. You can make me say anything you want me to.

JH     Yes.

AK     Well, let me just wrap up the interview by saying that Prank the Monkey is the funniest book I've ever read.

JH     Don't let me put words in your mouth.

AK     Demi committed the entire book to memory.

JH     Whatever you say, Ashton. Whatever you say.

 

Prank the Monkey
Citadel 2007
ISBN-10: 0806527803

 

Prank Disclaimer: So far as the editors know, this interview was not actually conducted by Ashton Kutcher. We cannot, however, say so with absolute certainty.

 

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