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.
Thanks for shopping with us, Zeus
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.
"The idea was that nobody checks your credit-card signatures," explains Hargrave, who has been working on the Web site full-time since leaving a corporate job in February. "They're always asking you to sign, but no one actually looks at it."
To test his theory, he began scribbling all sorts of ridiculous things on receipts, including a grid, a stick figure in a landscape, "Zeus," and "Mariah Carey." Nobody said anything about these bogus signatures. Nor did anyone take him to task even when he signed "I stole this card."
"It's not that the idea itself is really that original," explains Stevens. "How many times have people said, 'I could probably just write anything I want down there'? The difference is, everybody says it — John does it."
Prince for a day
Hargrave's most ambitious stunt took place two years ago at the rain-soaked 2007 Super Bowl between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears. It was early February, a few days after Boston's Mooninite bomb scare made national news. Hargrave claims he and five other pranksters snuck a soft-drink delivery van — containing 2350 light-up devices they intended to hand out to football fans during the game — into the stadium. The devices were rigged to broadcast a secret message.
Hargrave says his stunt was supposed to be a statement about homeland security: "We do a lot of pranks about security. . . . It's like that credit-card thing. All of these things are sort of devices we use to make us feel safe. But they don't really make us significantly safer. We all buy into this collective reality that, like, 'Oh, we're safe now because we've got people guarding the Super Bowl,' but we're not."