By his calling card alone, Sir John Hargrave sounds like he may be a world-renowned botanist, or the first man to set foot in some remote part of Papua New Guinea. Those occupations, however, could not be further from his true résumé. Hargrave is a Needham-based master prankster — and the deceptive complexity of his work is evident in his very name. The author and Internet humorist acquired his title while planning a stunt on the queen of England.
"I just thought it sounded classier," says the 40-year-old Hargrave from a booth at an unknightly Cambridge IHOP. "So I wrote . . . asking to be knighted, please. The queen's people wrote me back and said, 'There's a form you have to fill out.' "
When he didn't hear back after nominating himself on an application, he went ahead and legally got his name changed in the American courts.
"It's on my driver's license, it's on my YMCA card," offers Hargrave. "So I guess it's official."
(The coupde grâce of the prank was to ring Buckingham Palace to deliver the news. On the phone, Her Majesty's spokesman threatened Hargrave with arrest should he "set foot in England" calling himself Sir John.)
For years, Hargrave has fixed his impish sights on powerful prey. In addition to the Royals, he has also targeted Walmart, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Starbucks, and the US Senate. His latest project is trying to pass off that rebellious spirit to a new generation: children.
Though his new book — a guide to pranking and practical jokes for kids called Mischief Maker's Manual (Grosset & Dunlap, out last month) — is aimed at an adolescent audience, Hargrave hasn't lost his subversive edge. His advice to a youngster whose pranking mission is compromised is not to own up and apologize. Instead, "Just run like the wind. Most adults are fat and sluggish, since they live on a diet of McDonald's and gravy."
Hargrave says that just because the tome is for tots doesn't mean he altered his writing style significantly. "Obviously you can't use swearing," he says, "and you have to simplify some of the words. Other than that, I really wrote like I normally write. Some of the jokes might go over kids' heads. But I think that's the fun of reading it as an adult."
The book may have some appeal to grown-ups, but it's the 10 year old who will appreciate Mischief Maker's combination of Mission: Impossible–inspired secret-agent speak and Roald Dahl–esque black humor.
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Hargrave's pranking career took flight in the '90s, after he moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music. Here he launched, with help from long-time friend Jay Stevens, two Web projects: the user-generated, "real-life" comedy site zug.com (in 1995), and the groundbreaking online show Computer Stew (1999). The latter (best-known for its lo-fi production values and recurring characters, like Whizzo, the helpful robot from the future) ran for five seasons before its demise; Hargrave and wife Jade (who does administrative work for the site) still operate the former.
Zug.com originally began as a Web zine where Hargrave and friends posted myriad gags and acts of sabotage. One of these, the 2001 "Credit Card Prank," put the site on the map when it was viewed hundreds of thousands of times.