Good news, gang: Office humor is alive and well.
On May 30, we ran a question from a medical laboratory technician who had gotten a three-day suspension without pay for a prank at work that involved apple juice and a urine sample cup. There recently had been a management change at his workplace, and the joke, which he said the earlier bosses would have seen as quite the knee-slapper, was viewed as an assault on productivity by the new regime.
It was a good illustration of how comedy can be seen differently in different settings. An expert on workplace humor told us that a wise prankster has to consider the potential negative consequences of jokes that may go astray, make people feel ridiculed or insulted, or land with a thud before an unappreciative audience.
Always looking for a laugh, we asked readers to send in examples from their own workplaces. Here's a sampling:
* Gizmo runs amok. A Washington area high-tech employee said his boss, "Jack," a very bright engineer, is always fascinated by the latest technology and likes to buy everything new that comes onto the market. For a long time, the supervisor carried a standard pager, but then he purchased a text pager that allowed him to send a message of up to 240 characters. He retreated to his office, feverishly sending and receiving messages and shouting with excitement when he received them quickly.
So the prankster, a systems engineer, sent him a message: Low battery. The boss yelled to his secretary to ask her whether they had any batteries, which they didn't. A few minutes later, the prankster sent the message again. Still no batteries. Then he sent another: Lower battery. The boss asked again about batteries.
"By this time, I was dying of laughter and it was a good thing I was separated from them or they would have heard me laughing out loud," he writes. "Meanwhile, Jack is planning to send his secretary to the drugstore to get batteries. His life is going to fall apart if his new pager doesn't work."
Time for the final message: Really, really, really low battery, Jack.
For a minute Jack was in awe of the little device, crowing that it had so much intelligence that it knew his name. Then the prankster came forward with a quip about how the batteries die fast on text-based pagers. Jack figured it out and saw the humor.
"Jack is pretty at ease with himself," the high-tech prankster writes. "He thought the whole thing was funny. He told his peers the story and even told it in a meeting with his 20 subordinates, and people are still laughing about it, including me."
* BYOL. A Washington area telecommunications employee loves to parody her company's skinflint ways. Two co-workers were planning to attend a formal industry dinner and weren't sure how to handle the cost on their expense report, so they innocently and unknowingly asked the prankster for help. She copied the applicable provisions from the employee guidelines but doctored them to say employees were expected to attend such events but were supposed to bring a bag lunch, though the company would spring for the cost of a soda.
"I thought the joke would be obvious to my co-worker, but instead . . . she started raving about how cheap our company was getting," she writes. ". . . I had to admit to her immediately that it was a joke. I was afraid our department head would hear about the new rule and issue it to the entire department."
* No smoking allowed. "I had two assistants, including one who smoked," an Alexandria man writes. He and the nonsmoking assistant rigged the smoker's computer so that whenever they saw her light up they could send her a message whereby her terminal screen would begin flashing a warning that smoke had entered the computer and that a meltdown was likely. A minute later, it would say the meltdown was in progress. Then a radiation counter would appear, ticking loudly. The Geiger counter kept increasing its rate, and finally, flashing red, it displayed a final "Goodbye World" message. Although the pranksters got a laugh, the smoker kept puffing.
* Coloring the picture. A former general manger of a Denver multiplex movie theater, which had locations on the two far sides of a shopping center, sent us this one: "We would tell the victim (usually someone new and gullible) that our sister theater was out of Technicolor and needed to borrow some from us. Technicolor, we explained, was poured into the projectors like oil into a car, and kept the colors in the film bright and fresh. We would then give them a bucket filled to the brim with a scary-looking concoction of water, Coke syrup, dishwashing liquid, popcorn oil, etc. This bucket of Technicolor, we would tell them, was highly acidic and would eat through nearly everything it came into contact with. For protection, we covered the victims' shoes and lower legs with plastic garbage bags tied off around the knees, and gave them oversized gardening gloves. Because the bucket was so full and its bearer so scared of the acidlike contents, he or she would shuffle along with the bucket at arm's length, moving barely an inch at a time, valiantly struggling to keep any of the contents from spilling. When they had finally made it to within a few feet of the other theater, another employee would come recklessly dashing past, knocking over the bucket and spilling its precious contents into the parking lot . . . then he would whip out a camera and shoot a picture of the stunned and horrified employee.
"How times have changed," said the writer. "In my office now, the biggest prank we've dared to play involved hiding someone's doughnut when they stepped out of a meeting for a minute."