International Trickster Day is January 17!

This year, we observe the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on January 17th. May that transcendent leader for civil rights and spiritual growth continue to inspire. But EVERY year, January 17th is International Trickster Day (I hereby declare). No less than five of history’s great tricksters were born on this day, so “Happy Birthday” to…

Muhammad Ali (1942-2016), the three-time champion and greatest boxer of all time. Ali was that very rarest of people who personified the warrior and the hero, of course, but also the trickster. Even Sports Illustrated would write: “His legacy as a global personality owes more to that glint in his eye, to his capacity for tomfoolery, to his playfulness. He was a born prankster, giddy in his eagerness to surprise, and the world won’t soon forget his insistence upon fun.”[i]

Emmy Hennings (1885-1945), the puppeteer, dancer, and outrageous, shrill singer of cutting-edge brothel poetry and folk songs. As the only woman among the gang of six who comprised Cabaret Voltaire, she and this creative group of antiwar pranksters put dada on the map in 1915 Zurich. Boycotting World War I in this neutral country, a typical(?) performance was thus described: Total pandemonium. The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos, and miaowing of medieval Bruitists. Tzara is wriggling his behind like the belly of an oriental dancer, Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits.[ii]

Harpo Marx (1888-1964), the voiceless and musically talented dynamo powering the comic genius of the Marx Brothers. He was an envoy from film’s recent past, projecting the unique talents of the silent screen into talkies. Self-taught on the harp, yet a virtuoso.   He makes escapes on toy trains and puppeteers a Punch & Judy performance. He sucks in air and blows his face up to look like he’s painted on a balloon. He’s silly and innocent like a child but then paradoxically menacing and thieving, and like a Trickster demigod, impetuously drawn to women and sex. His id-like behavior signified incorrigible playfulness.

Andy Kaufman (1949-1984), the anti-comedian. Kaufman’s performance art gained a huge audience, whom he challenged to question the premises of entertainment and the implied social contracts between audience and performer. Kaufman will be remembered for the high satire of offensive characters like Tony Clifton and his campaign to become the Intergender Wrestling Champion of the World. And as the only major entertainer who took his entire Carnegie Hall audience out for milk and cookies.

Mack Sennett (1880-1960), one of slapstick’s first directors and studio heads, known as the King of Comedy. This Canadian opened Hollywood’s first fully enclosed film studio, Keystone. As in his creation, the Keystone Cops. But he also needs to be remembered for inventing the trickster’s sacred act—in both entertainment and politics—throwing the pie-in-the-face.

Read about these five tricksters and many more in Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture, and coming May 31st, Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love: How Tricksters through History have Changed the World.

[i]     Richard Hoffer, “Introduction,” Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali 1942-2016: The Tribute (New York: Sports Illustrated Books/Time, June 6, 2016), 9.

[ii]     Hans Arp, Dadaland, In Robert Short, Dada and Surrealism (Chartwell Books: Secaucus, New Jersey, 1980, p. 32.

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