Pranks by Proxy

Maybe it’s because I leave things lying around, but for some reason, the gag and joke items that I’ve collected over the years seem to work most effectively when I’m not there. These joy buzzers and rubber candies and squirting quarters go back to the 1930s and 1940s, and some of them still function as well as they did the day they left the factory. As long as I’m not around.dribbleglass

About a week before my wonderful wife, Laura, and I got married, my parents gave us an early wedding present: a new queen-size bed. It had to be delivered while I was at work, so I asked Laura’s mom, Shirley, if she might come to my apartment and make sure the delivery and setup went smoothly. This she did on the appointed day, watching as the delivery guys muscled the bed up three flights of stairs to the apartment.

As they were getting things squared away, one of the guys asked Shirley if he might have a glass of water. “Of course,” said my future mother-in-law, heading for the kitchen cabinet. She apparently grabbed the first glass that presented itself, filled it with water, and handed it to our unsuspecting friend. Shirley told us later that she watched the man drink from the glass as water dribbled down all over the front of his shirt. This struck her as very unusual—drinking from a glass generally being a skill mastered early on in life—but she said she didn’t say a word as the man finished the water (or what there was of it actually in the glass) and handed the glass back to her. “Thank you,” he said as he went back and finished his work with his partner.Gag radio

It was then that Shirley saw the slots cut into the decorative pattern on the outside of the glass, and realized she’d been had. My dribble glass had done its job perfectly and I wasn’t even there to enjoy it! Still, hearing Shirley recount what had happened—especially the part about the guy not saying a word as he irrigated his shirt—was hugely fun and of course has become something of a family legend.

This wasn’t the first time one of the pranks in my collection had done its dirty work in my absence. Check out my feature article, “How to Amuse Your Friends,” in the April 2014 issue of Antiques Roadshow Insider and learn how my friend Joel ran afoul of my exploding pen at exactly the wrong moment.

And if you want to have lots of laughs along with a great history lesson, get a copy of Kirk Demarais’s book, Life of the Party. It’s a history of the S.S. Adams Company, which has been the gold standard of gag and joke makers for more than 100 years. Check it out at

Douglas R. Kelly keeps trying to pull the classic “Nail Through Finger” gag on his wife, but she’s got his number.


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