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One fall afternoon in the mid-‘60s, my best friend’s mom, Babs Kaufman, was sorting through the mail. There were, I imagine, a couple of bills, a personal letter or two, a bank statement, a Saks catalog, a newsletter from the temple sisterhood, a charity luncheon announcement, the pennysaver, a postcard from the local Jewish funeral home advertising a casket sale—

The flyer—featuring a jolly Santa and offering floor models, repossessions, and a choice of linings—was in spectacularly bad taste.

Wait, what?

The local Jewish funeral home was owned by her husband, Herb, and her father-in law. And this advertising postcard—featuring a jolly Santa and offering floor models, demos, repossessions (repossessions!), and a choice of linings—was in spectacularly bad taste.

She called the funeral home and asked for her husband. “What the hell is this postcard?” I imagine she demanded. “Is this supposed to be funny?”

“What postcard? What are you talking about?” Herb quickly convinced her he knew nothing about it.

Well then, where had it come from? Herb suspected one of the unions, with which the funeral home was currently in a dispute. Whoever sent it, it was a PR disaster. Had it gone out to the whole neighborhood? The whole Detroit area?

Babs hung up and called my mother down the block. “Did you get an advertising flyer from the Chapel?” My mom checked the mail. Yes, it was there. She called another friend, Ruth. She’d gotten it too.

What a catastrophe. The next few hours were spent in consternation as Herb tried simultaneously to limit the damage and track down the source. Until—

—until my father confessed that, working with a client who owned a print shop, he was the source. The flyer had not gone out to the whole Detroit area or even the neighborhood. It was sent only to a handful of friends and relatives—exactly the people Babs and Herb would be most likely to call to see if they had received it. He hadn’t even told my mother for fear she would spill the beans. The Kaufmans had been pranked.

Once they realized that no real harm had been done, Babs and Herb were able to laugh at the whole thing. No harm, no foul. The prank was actually pretty funny and perfectly executed. It burnished my father’s reputation as a wit. Herb even had the flyer reproduced and enlarged so he could mount it on the wall (as pictured in the featured photo, which his son sent me after Herb sadly passed away this year).

*

Several months later, we returned from a family vacation. We were sitting at the kitchen table finishing dinner when the phone rang.

One of us reached over to the kitchen counter and picked up the phone. Dial tone. But the phone was still ringing. Wait, what?

Finally we realized that the ringing was coming from one of the drawers underneath the counter. Someone opened it to find … another phone! They picked it up. “Hello?”

“Welcome home!” said Herb brightly. “How was your trip?”

It turned out that, while we were gone, Herb had used his emergency key to install another phone line. “We were tired of calling and getting a busy signal,” he explained. “With this phone, we can get through anytime we want.”

Good one! We’d been pranked.

For about a week, Herb refused to give us the number of our new line. Finally he relented—and for the rest of our time in that house, we made good use of both lines.

*

But if turnabout was fair play, for my father it was a declaration of war. He didn’t say much, just sat back and plotted his revenge.

It came, again, several months later when Babs and Herb went on a European vacation. A few days before their scheduled return, my father had an outhouse delivered to their front yard. This was not a Port-a-Potty or high-tech outhouse that construction workers might use. No, this was a ramshackle wooden half-moon-on-the-door outhouse like we’d seen on The Beverly Hillbillies, front and center next to their suburban driveway.

Outhouse

Not the outhouse, but very much like it.

We kids, predictably, couldn’t leave well enough alone. My siblings and I teamed with our three Kaufman counterparts to furnish the inside with framed pictures, a toilet paper stand, and a magazine rack. Since Babs and Herb would be coming home at night, we ran an extension cord out from the house and trained a floodlight on the structure. We put up a festive sign that read “Kaufman’s Kozy Komfort Kabana.” And we waited breathlessly for the Kaufmans to return.

On the night of, we all waited inside. Every time we heard a car approach, we’d run to the window to see if it was Babs and Herb. When they finally arrived, it was almost anticlimactic. Exhausted after traveling all day, they gave it a glance and a chuckle on their way to bed. I don’t think they even saw our furnishings until the next day.

As far as I know, that was the last battle in the prank war between our fathers. Herb retired gracefully from the battlefield and my father enjoyed the fruits of victory. I still remember it as a model of pranks that were truly creative, hurt or humiliated no one, and that all could laugh at in the moment—and years later.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect Media, Inc.


Comments

  1. Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau says:

    This is particularly funny for me, since I know all the players involved and can just imagine the hi-jinks in the neighborhood. These are rather elaborate tricks (a print run, sent to several people in the neighborhood; a private phone line; a constructed outhouse!) Having your own Kaufman-Zussman hotline I’m sure came in useful in those days with so much competition in the house for the main line, but it must have been surreal to hear the ringing at first. And so funny to think the “adults in the room” were coming up with these pranks, just a few doors down from each other. Well played, grown-ups!

  2. Wow! John! These are spectacular jokes, all out efforts, 100 percent ingenuity and flawless in their execution. I get the feeling from your elaborate tales and the forgiveness involved that the Kaufman, Zussman families shared an invaluable appreciation for humor. I loved the 100% solid plywood feature of the Kaufman Kaskets and the lyric ad copy “don’t delay! Face that dismal day with less to pay!” Sheer genius!

  3. Profile photo of Suzy Suzy says:

    I love these pranks! The casket clearance ad is absolutely brilliant, as Charlie points out in his comment. And the telephone in the kitchen drawer is the greatest response, especially when he wouldn’t tell you what the number was. I have so much admiration for people who could pull off such elaborate stunts. Growing up in that atmosphere, no wonder you came up with this prompt for Retrospect!

  4. Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy says:

    These were my kind of pranks. I love the funeral home postcard, complete with invented spellings and bargains. My experiences with Kaufman funeral homes were all sad and somber events. Good to have a laugh!

    • Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Laurie. Sad and somber, yes, but also somehow satisfying. They do a nice job. Now under the direction of Herb’s son-in-law David, they offer such modern touches as video advice about explaining death to children, yahrzeit reminders by email, and live streaming of funeral services. Last April I watched Herb’s funeral in real time and was quite moved.

  5. Profile photo of Marian Marian says:

    John, what a hoot, Santa as spokesperson for a casket sale! I love the creative and harmless pranks done here. A good week to have a smile.

  6. Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman says:

    Thank you all for your responses and kind words. As an addendum, I sent the story to my dad, who actually filled in a couple more details. Apparently Herb asked him how many flyers they had sent out and he advised that “the usual minimum is 3,000.” He also spoke with the police who gave Herb a 3-day notice to remove the outhouse. Talk about adding insult to injury! I hope my memory is as good as my dad’s when I turn 97. Hell, I hope I’m AROUND when I turn 97!

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