“Is this real?”
“Is anything ‘real’ at Yale?”
This is the only entry for the online FAQ page of “BareFOOT,” a new group supposedly offering a pre-orientation backpacking trip for freshman — in the nude. No longer a freshman? You too can answer the call of nature. As a BareFOOT leader, you can bear your sweaty, naked bits with a community of like-minded nudists in the beauty of the Berkshires — at least, that’s what the email in my inbox suggested.
The email came last Monday during my economics lecture, encouraging students to apply to be a BareFOOT leader, complete with a link to their mediocre website. After a few paragraphs on the home page, I scrolled down further only to see a picture of a man in a baseball cap and socks, buns exposed in the wilderness (and online) for all to see. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I closed the browser window to avoid judgmental gazes from surrounding students just trying to comprehend the Cournot duopoly.
This hoax is one of the first in a long line of practical jokes performed last week as part of the ritual “Pundit season.” During this period of about a week, pre-tapped juniors perform pranks in the hopes of joining the Pundits, a senior secret society founded for that very purpose.
Perhaps the most conspicuous prank of the week was the fake notice alerting students that they would be ticketed for jaywalking. On Tuesday, a student found the sign pinned to the bulletin board outside the Trumbull dining hall, purportedly from Yale Security. It stated that students would receive tickets for jaywalking between Elm and College streets beginning Wednesday, March 29, even referencing specific Connecticut General Statutes to justify the fine. She later posted a picture of the paper on the Facebook group Overheard at Yale, with a shocked emoji and the caption “overseen: don’t get ticketed friend (Is this a real thing? Not sure tbh).”
The next day, after seeing the sign, Mohammed Akam ’20 distinctly remembers jaywalking, and later than night, he received an email for a $10 ticket from the email address email@example.com, which was mentioned in the notice. The subject of the email read “You Have Recieved a Ticket” (notice the misspelled “receive”).
“At the time I was fairly convinced that the email was fake, but the amount of work that must’ve gone into this prank made me doubt myself for a minute,” Akam said.
Another personal favorite prank was the “Creative Uses of Normal Things” stand on Cross Campus. A group of students set up a table near the entrance to Bass Library, posing as staff members of the Student Wellness Center, earnestly informing students about new ways to enjoy sexual pleasure by use of common household objects, such as hammers, bananas and Elmer’s glue. One conversation discussed the possible use of the durian fruit, and how its distinctive odor, to some, can be sexually arousing — all without breaking character. Passersby could even use the “privacy tent” to test the various object in a secluded location. But no one quite made that leap.
While the pre-tapped juniors may be stepping into new terrain by performing pranks, these high jinks aren’t novel for the Pundits. Since 1884, the group has been duping its fair share of Yale students and professors. For years, they’ve hosted Yale’s infamous naked parties, which are exactly what they sound like. Parties. Whilst Naked. A 1998 Yale Herald article by Molly Ball ’01 and Emily Bell ’01 states that “the Pundits ridicule the stuffy atmosphere that their counterparts cherish.” Compared to other, older secret societies like Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key, the Pundits opt for an air of absurdity, rather than formality, in their dealings.
In the past, Pundit pranks have ranged from awarding Robert Shiller a fake Nobel Prize to almost impersonating the Whiffenpoofs on national TV. According to a 2001 Hartford Courant article by Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03, the Pundits once told students applying to Jonathan Spence’s GRD ’65 competitive Chinese history class that they could improve their chances by bringing woks or kung fu movies or writing essays with the opener “If I were a Chinese peasant or prostitute …,” resulting in more than a few confused teaching fellows.
Even the group’s chosen title reflects their anti-establishment attitude. A “pundit” is an expert, a scholar, a specialist, a maven, a sage, a savant — with distinctly political connotations. However, their raucous prankster activities don’t align with this label. The discrepancy between name and deed reveals a common victim of their hoaxes: the often “elite” establishment.
In this tradition, one recent prank took aim at the Yale Dramatic Association, an exclusive organization often accused of institutional bias against artists of color. An email was sent to various members of the theater community with the subject line “Reannouncing the Dramat Mainstage,” which apparently would now be “My Fair Lady” instead of the previously announced “Dreamgirls.” The email states “The ultimate decision to change the show was made in an effort to respect our own boundaries and put our best foot forward on issues of diversity going forward.”
“The whole thing about the joke is that it’s plausible but almost impossible,” said Stefani Kuo ’17, who most recently appeared in the Dramat’s Spring Ex “Strange Flesh.”
While the organization does not plan to formally respond to the email, Dramat President Collin Bentley ’19 confirmed that “Dreamgirls” will remain the fall mainstage musical, and he noted that the choice was made in part due to overwhelming community support. However, he recognized the fraught history of the Dramat, noting how he hoped to revise that legacy.
“Satire has a way of pulling back things and revealing a sort of truth,” said Hershel Holiday ’18, vice president of the Dramat. “And this certainly points toward an undercurrent of discontent that we have been dealing with on the exec[utive] board having chosen ‘Dreamgirls.’”
To some extent, even the “BareFOOT” prank critiques the establishment by poking fun at a ritualistic in-group on campus. Indeed, the camp games, camp songs, camp rituals, while harmless and fun to the group’s members, can alienate nonparticipants. By adding the naked element, BareFOOT hyperbolizes the exclusive atmosphere.
Any good FOOTie could tell you about the tradition used to begin each day’s hike. First, you clasp hands on each other’s backs, then slowly pulsate as a group and communally chant “Oomkala, oomkala, oomkala po” until it grows into a vigorous undulation and full-chested scream. And the ceremony is repeated again once the new freshmen return to Old Campus for move-in day, confusing any parents and non-FOOTies in the process. Capitalizing on this ritualistic chant, the video on BareFOOT’s website showcases a woman’s bare feet as she meanders onward, with a fuzzy reddish hue overlaying the video, underscored by the ritual “oomkala” chant, eerily and breathily whispered.
But despite their anti-elitist attitude, the Pundits belong more to the establishment than they attempt to appear. Firstly, how can the Pundits exist as an anti-elitist organization when the educational institution to which they belong has wielded its power for centuries? For decades before the Yale was coed, the group’s members were exclusively white men, in keeping with the rest of the student population.
Also, despite their Pundit affiliation, its members can still choose to be part of the establishment institutions of our society. According to Oppenheimer’s article, McGeorge Bundy ’40 was a Pundit alumnus. Later in life, Bundy served as the National Security Advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, most remembered for his involvement in the escalation of the Vietnam War.
The group’s exclusivity additionally clashes with its anti-establishment rhetoric. A junior cannot simply apply to join the group; instead, you must be “pre-tapped,” which only happens if you’re deemed funny enough by current members.
Still, Pundit pranks (and pranks by pre-tapped juniors) hold a distinct value. Despite their best efforts, the Pundits cannot totally avoid perpetuating the oppression inherent in being a selective group on Yale’s campus, and their pranks at times are merely superficial, but nonetheless hilarious. However, their pranks can — and often do — catalyze conversation about the problems with exclusivity and intellectualism on campus in an astute manner, perhaps due to their academic audience. Their brand of critique, comedy, has the power to be particularly effective. Humor can act as a social corrective, and especially on a campus inundated with logical argumentation, it can cause people to see the absurdity in systems of injustice where they otherwise might not.
When asked for an interview, the Pundits declined to comment. Instead the few I contacted each replied to my email with this message, ending with a Mariah Carey meme:
“Thank you for your email. I have not yet returned from Spring Break. If you need to reach me, I am in Cabo San Lucas at the No Comment Hotel. I will be out of the office until further notice.”