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Judge for yourself: click above to hear Joseph Boskin’s infamous April Fools’ Day tale. Would you have bought the kugel?
Setting your roommate’s clock ahead a few hours. Pouring food coloring into your housemate’s shampoo. Hoisting a car on top of a roof (if you’re an MIT student, that is).
These are fine tricks to pull on April Fools’ Day, but putting over a prank that fools the country is reserved for a very few. Joseph Boskin, a professor emeritus of history in the College of Arts & Sciences, managed it without really trying.
In 1983, BU’s public relations office gave Boskin a call, with a question: was it OK to pitch him, a historian and a purveyor of popular culture, as an expert on the history of April Fools’ Day?
Not giving the request much thought, he jokingly said yes.
That week, he headed to Los Angeles to meet with director Norman Lear. Boskin planned to write a history of Lear’s series All in the Family. The PR contact reached him there, asking him to talk to a reporter from the Associated Press.
The AP reporter asked Boskin about the origins and history of April Fools’ Day. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about the holiday, and I really can’t be of help to you,’” Boskin recalls. “The reporter said, ‘Don’t be so modest.’ When the reporter kept pushing, Boskin says, “I created a story.”
One of Boskin’s closest friends had always loved the Jewish noodle pudding kugel. That popped into his head, and he decided to tell a story about a jester who became king — King Kugel. One of Boskin’s fields was medieval history, so he concocted a convincing tale.
“Since I was calling New York, where kugel is famous, and it was April Fools’ Day, I figured he would catch on,” Boskin laughs. “Instead, he asked how to spell kugel.” As he was telling the outlandish story, he kept expecting the reporter to wise up to what he was doing, but all he heard was the clatter of a typewriter on the other end of the phone.
When AP published the story, Boskin got calls from the Today Show and other reputable news outlets asking him to go into more detail about the origins of King Kugel.
Back at BU, Boskin used the amusing scenario to show students in his Media and Social Change class how the media can suddenly pick up on a joke, a rumor, an innuendo, or a story and regard it as authentic. No matter what you hear, you must question, Boskin reminded his students.
Unbeknownst to him, the editor of the Daily Free Press was in his class. The next day, the Freep ran the headline, “Professor Fools AP.”
“The AP had a huge conniption when they read this,” Boskin says. “I got an immediate phone call from an editor there, who was furious, saying that I had ruined the career of a young reporter. He said I told a lie. ‘A lie?’ I asked, ‘I was telling an April Fools’ Day story.’
“The AP always, always checks on stories and for some reason this one fell through the cracks,” Boskin says. “It was their fault for not checking the story, and I embarrassed them. But I mean, really — kugel? What reporter from New York doesn’t know what that is?”
Fortunately for everyone, this April Fools’ story has a happy ending. Boskin’s prank did not ruin a young journalist’s career. Unintentionally, it might even have provided a little true-life case study for a wonderful teacher, because that young AP reporter was Fred Bayles, now an associate professor of journalism in the College of Communication.
"Be very, very wary of what someone, particularly someone talking about April Fools’ Day, tells you," Bayles now advises. "It also illustrates a professor’s responsibility not to screw around with someone’s career — and the integrity of a university."