Usually at the end of the semester, especially in the spring semester, I dress up in costume, assume a character, and prank students in the corridors during the passing periods. In past years I have appeared as a Viking war-leader recruiting students for a raid on Kingston, Ontario, and as a Star Fleet Inspector-General on an evaluation tour of the satellite facility. My theory is that contemporary college life suffers from a dearth of absurdity. That is – it suffers from a dearth of the right kind of absurdity. I want, naturally, to make up for the lack.
The trick in carrying out the mission is to stay in character resolutely, betraying absolutely no sense of incongruity or anachronism. It is also useful preparation to memorize one’s lines and the probable responses. In Star Fleet uniform, I asked the coed at the information desk whether she could direct me to Stellar Cartography – and the poor girl earnestly began looking up where I could find Stellar Cartography!
Happy the Viking is full of insistent questions…
PRANKSTER [to male student]: How many foemen have you felled for the thede?
STUDENT [sheepishly]: Well… er…
PRANKSTER [swiftly]: Practice daily – your score will improve!
Generally it happens that word gets around about an eccentric performance in the commons. A crowd gathers. I end up being asked to pose for photographs with the kids.
This year, with the cooperation of one of my graduate students, I dressed like a religious canvasser, armed myself with flyers, and heartily extended my hand to one and all (as the young lady did hers) on the pretext that today was “Lesser Gods Day.”
PRANKSTER [to male student]: We of the Campus Committee for the Lesser Gods feel that the Lesser Gods rarely receive the acknowledgment that they so richly deserve.
STUDENT [sheepishly]: Well… er…
PRANKSTER [swiftly]: And we’re just asking you to take a few seconds of one day out of the whole year to remember the Lesser Gods collectively – because they’re so many that it’s hard to recall them by individual name.
Here is the flyer, front and back:
One of the things that I’ve discovered over the years is that most people have a sense of humor and are at least willing to pay attention for a few seconds to a set-piece of obvious staged absurdity. Others, who perhaps are nascent ironists, even struggle to participate. More than a few people, however, are uncontaminated by playfulness or irony and probably wouldn’t recognize a joke if punched in the nose by one.
Faculty members tend to be even denser concerning humor than students. The more abstract the discipline the more prone the person will likely be to joke-resistant literalism.
COLLEAGUE [blandly]: I didn’t know that Lexus was an actual god.
The fact that canvassers passing out leaflets – usually to complain about some form of intolerable micro-aggression or outrageous marginalization or scandalous pay-gap – are a permanent feature of the college commons was helpful: It was entirely believable that the fellow in a neat jacket and tie, and the lovely young woman, were representing some cause that it would be impolitic to ignore. And who isn’t ready nowadays to assent to almost anything?
P.S. The spell-check program at WordPress doesn’t recognize the plural of ironist, which it wants to change to arsonists. Welcome to the Twenty-First Century…