Although Mike Cook’s shift working in the basement of Commons does not begin until 6:30 a.m., he often comes to work at 4 or even 3 a.m. On the mornings that Cook chooses to make an early appearance, the rest of the Commons staff arrives to find the outdoor gangway by the Commons basement transformed into anything from an intricate Halloween display — complete with random synthetic body parts — to a ice-bunny-infested Easter scene.
On this April Fool’s Day, roommates will be moving each other’s furniture and changing each other’s thefacebook.com profiles, but some Yalies operate on a larger scale — and operate year-round. And unlike Cook, Yale’s major pranksters are in it for their own enjoyment and not the happiness of others.
The Yale Pundits is one of Yale’s most notorious groups of pranksters. With outrageous stunts such as running through Cross Campus Library naked during exam time and sending naked candy grams, the Pundits never fail to create a stir on campus.
Branford College Dean Thomas McDow ’93 said the Pundits were alive and well when he was an undergraduate at Yale.
“The Pundits used to do some sort of large-scale public pranks,” McDow said. “Like turning Machine City into hell with devils and people chained up, or turning CCL into an airport with metal detectors and those kinds of things. They also did some kinds of fake secret society pranks, like asking a group of juniors to gather at a certain place, and it turned out they were all named Chris, or something like that.”
Stressed-out Yalies often appreciate the Pundits’ infamous naked runs. Taraneh Nazem ’07 said she welcomes the change of scenery, so to speak.
“I think they’re fun,” Nazem said. “It’s nice when you’re in the middle of studying for finals to see them run in and lighten the mood.”
But while McDow may have fond memories of the Pundits, and Nazem does not mind their antics, other Yalies are not quite so positive.
“It’s simple,” Gary Green ’06 said. “I’m not a fan.”
No member of the Yale Pundits would comment for this article.
Aside from April 1, the day of the Harvard-Yale game is ripe for the pranking. Following tradition, Mike Kai ’05 and David Aulicino ’05 coordinated a massive prank on Harvard at this year’s Game. Donning crimson shirts with “Harvard Pep Squad” written on them, they, along with a team of clever Yalies, distributed poster boards to Harvard fans.
Harvard fans fell for the prank and proudly held up the poster boards which, unbeknownst to them, spelled out “WE SUCK.”
“We were really lucky — we didn’t know what would happen, but we knew we had to give it a shot,” Kai said. “We figured it was one of those rare prank ideas that wasn’t going to hurt anybody. We weren’t damaging property, and people weren’t emotionally hurt at all.”
Even Yale College Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg approved of the prank.
“Everybody thought it was very clever,” Trachtenberg said. “People were angered and then finally amused.”
The Yale Precision Marching Band is also famous for its pranks, although former drum major Karl Gunderson ’05 said some of them are too salacious for publication. But Doug London ’06, the current drum major, revealed one of the tamer YPMB tricks: ascertaining the opposing band’s half-time show material and revealing it before it can be performed.
The YPMB successfully carried out this trick last fall at Dartmouth when the YPMB announcer concluded the show by saying — with fake sincerity — he was confident that the Dartmouth band would not base their skit around the 2004 presidential election, Skull and Bones, or life in New Haven.
“The Dartmouth announcer took the mic, somewhat shocked, and proceeded to narrate a show about the presidential election, Skull and Bones, and New Haven,” London said.
For every large-scale prank, there are many more small-scale pranks that roommates and friends pull on each other. But few warrant administrative attention.
“Most pranks at Yale occur below the radar of the administration,” McDow said. “They’re not going to result in Executive Committee action.”
Love them or hate them, pranks do play their role on the Yale campus. And most pranks do end up making some people laugh, although not all pranksters have intentions as good as Cook’s.
While Cook’s artwork may confuse those who see it for the first time, his coworkers have come to know and love it. Cook said he started decorating the outdoor space by the basement of Commons right around Sept. 11, 2001 and has expanded to decorate the rooms in the basement as well.
“After 9/11, I thought that there would be more camaraderie, but I think people are becoming more aggressive and uptight,” Cook said. “When people are having a bad day, I want to make them smile.”
Cook, who said he spends a few hundred dollars every year on items for his artwork, began creating his mini-masterpieces with a simple display of shells and driftwood to provide a serene atmosphere for Commons workers on breaks.
“All of the managers have nice offices where they can put pictures of their families, but the workers don’t, so I made them a nice place,” Cook said.
Besides being known for his congenial personality, Cook is especially renowned for his elaborate holiday decorations. This past St. Patrick’s Day, for example, in addition to the shamrocks he printed on the snow, Cook also used 24 gallons of green food coloring to dye the snow all around Commons green. For Easter, Cook worked for days using food coloring, water, and rabbit-shaped Jell-O molds to create enough colored ice bunnies to populate the staircase.
“Mike Cook is very creative,” Commons worker Dee Emery said. “He likes having fun and making people smile. That’s just Mike … He makes it real pleasant here.”
So though some Yalies pride themselves in pulling off controversial stunts, other members of the Yale community take pleasure in simply making people happy.
“I make them smile and then,” he snapped his fingers, “I’ve done my job. That’s what it’s all about. It makes my day.”
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