Tag Archives: practical joke

R2D2 “Hack” at MIT

Text: In May 1999, MIT students pulled a prank that involved making a building resemble R2D2.

Minor Genre: Prank, Practical Joke


When the Phantom Menace opened in May of 1999, students on the MIT campus colored fabric panels to make a building resemble R2D2, a beloved droid from the Star Wars universe. According to L, who witnessed the building, “MIT is very proud of its prank culture.” Such pranks were common on campus and encouraged among students. They were dubbed “hacks” among those involved, and “hack culture” was widespread at MIT. Part of hack culture was to “do no damage,” which is a potential reason why the administration allowed for such a mischievous culture to thrive.

When the R2D2 “hack” took place, L described that “campus was buzzing. It was the kind of feeling like ‘it’s cool that I go to a school where people do stuff like this thing.’” The prank made national news because it happened at a time when “everyone was going crazy about the Phantom Menace.”


“Interesting Hacks To Fascinate People: The MIT Gallery of Hacks” is a website created by those involved in “hack culture” intended to document the history of pranks at MIT. The website describes the meaning of the word: “the word hack at MIT usually refers to a clever, benign, and ‘ethical’ prank or practical joke, which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community (and sometimes even the rest of the world!).” (https://hacks.mit.edu/) Although hacks are not officially sanctioned by the university, the culture built on clever practical jokes has had a significant impact on broader MIT student culture.

The R2D2 hack described by my mother is officially catalogued on the MIT Gallery of Hacks as the “Great Droid.” It stood in place from May 17th through the 18th in 1999 on the Great Dome building. The “Great Droid” is a prime example of how pranks can utilize popular culture to inspire excitement and a sense of unity within a community. It also provides insight into the values of MIT as a whole; due to its overall high level of safety, the hack received praise from an MIT security officer and the administration initially declared they would allow it to remain in place for three days. The MIT “hack culture,” therefore, was based on intellectual and thorough planning to create large-scale, harmless pranks.

Icup Joke

Text: “Spell Icup”

Context: I guess I use it with friends to say “gotcha.” I probably learned it on the playground in the first grade or so from another kid saying it to me. The goal is to get someone to say “I see you pee” and then you can kinda laugh at them. I don’t really use it anymore just when I was a kid. I guess it’s kinda funny in a stupid way. If I ever used it now it would be ironic not really an actual joke.

Analysis: This phrase is an example of a catch/practical joke or “dupe.” It is an innocent and unassuming way to be able to laugh at someone and somewhat insult them without being subject to criticism for being rude. This joke also coincides with Freud’s Theory of Humor which claims humor begins with repression, where people must “swallow” emotions such as aggression or sexuality because they are not socially acceptable. Repression is followed by sublimation where people release this repressed energy often through humor because joking about these things is seen as more acceptable. This specific joke is possibly an example of sublimating repressed anger or insecurity towards someone else through insulting them or embarrassing them.

John’s Mom Riddle

Text: John’s mom has four kids: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. What was the name of the fourth? (Answer: John)

Context: I would tell this if one of my peers asked me to tell a riddle. I learned in like elementary school, maybe fourth grade. I’ve seen it on Instagram before. The hope would be that whoever you’re telling it to says Thursday, and you would say “Ha! You’re wrong.” I feel accomplished when I use it.

Analysis: This riddle is an example of a “joke” or “catch” riddle because it is like a practical joke that has an expected response. This riddle was popular with kids because it empowers kids to have knowledge over others in this area, since they don’t have the upper hand of knowledge in most other areas. This riddle also correlates with the “rule of three” in American and Western culture which explains how many ideas and entities in folklore come in groups of three. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday is a clean and matching group of three, and when John is added to make four, it seems illogical and unexpected.

Secret Finger Jutsu


LP reports that in elementary and middle school it was popular to prank fellow classmates with the “secret finger jutsu,” typically learned from the anime, “Naruto.” This involves folding both hands together with the index and middle finger out, sneaking up behind someone, and stabbing their buttocks with the extended fingers.


LP is a college graduate who grew up in Beverly Hills, CA, attending the public schools in the area.

Here, LP was describing what pranks he would witness in elementary and middle school. He recalls that after one boy, who had watched “Naruto” and learned the behavior from the show, started doing it, the prank was adapted several other members of the group, even those who had not watched the show and did not know its origin. This was practiced exclusively by boys to other boys, LP reports. While he did not take part in the prank itself, he says that he was wary of situations where he might be vulnerable to those who do, especially climbing stairways.


The “secret finger jutsu” is directly linked to the influence of the anime, “Naruto,” meaning it comes from an official source. However, its implementation into the social dynamic of American school children was largely unstructured. Its spread and adoption by other members of the group underscores the rapid transmission of folk behaviors within a peer group and the pressure to be aware of these fluid changes. The gender specificity of this prank suggests certain expectations within this community about which behaviors are acceptable among boys and which may cross the line when it comes to girls. In accordance to Freud’s theory of repression and sublimation, boys in this peer group were using the shared humor learned by this TV program to act on aggressive urges in a way that simultaneously relieved them of said urges and affirmed their standing in the social order.

Bloody Mary

Text: “I don’t know, I think I was like eight or something and my brothers and sisters are older than me so they would try to scare me and stuff–so my brother was like ‘oh, I dare you to do this,’ and as a kid that’s whatever. And so I went into the bathroom, and usually the whole thing is like ‘oh say Bloody Mary three times and it’ll pop up.’ I did it, nothing happened, and then I wasn’t as scared of it after that. I guess it’s just a legend.”

Context: My informant, KB, relayed this experience to me during allotted class time to share folklore. She explained that she heard the legend from her siblings when she was about eight years old, an era in which she was especially prone to being manipulated by her older siblings. It does not appear that she thought too deeply into the legend of Bloody Mary itself, but was instead more occupied with the pressure of the dare. She harbored more fear for Bloody Mary before her experience in the mirror, and walked away as less of a believer, perhaps initiating her transition from target audience to active bearer. 

Analysis: I interpret this legend of Bloody Mary as a test of courage for youth–until you work up the courage to face Bloody Mary in the mirror and find out that it is not real, you have not come of the age to actively bear the folklore and scare the next generation. Thus I view it as a rite of passage and bit of children’s folklore, passed down by older children to younger children in a practical joke format as a means of initiation (van Gennep). Within this scope, I believe my informant relayed a classic experience of youth in which she bore the burden of being a younger child in an older group and was forced to take a risk in order to obtain something the group desired, in this case knowledge. Ultimately, legends offer insights to how a certain group views the world–I see KB’s experience with this legend as an expression of her childhood, in which legends such as Bloody Mary can easily generate fear and are often forced upon the powerless or youngest in the group to explore. Her experience also connects to a child’s inexperience with the physical world, which could result in false beliefs about the feasibility of something like Bloody Mary being real. Further, paralleling Oring’s take on children’s folklore, the legend and its associated actions reflect the childhood urge to explore the forbidden, occult, or taboo, especially in rebellious sentiment. KB’s experience features this drive as well as the power dynamics of young children.