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The Jerky Boys, Beavis, and Butt-head have brought pranks into the public spotlight. Now, the hypermarketing of a traditionally clandestine activity has destroyed the unspoken tenets of pranks. The new prank practitioners consciously attempt to embarrass, humiliate, and degrade their victims, rather than simply entertain themselves and their co-conspirators, the audience.

Enter Drop Us a Line…Sucker (Carroll & Graf, 165 pp., $8.95, paper), in which brothers James and Stuart Wade share a capricious correspondence with corporations all over the world. The Wades never gripe about goods and services; their modus operandi is to praise a company, then ask it a ridiculous question. They write to Old Spice about deodorant addiction, and helpfully tell investors how a discussion of baseball could make a voice-operated car go haywire.

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Drop Us a Line proves far less caustic than Abbie Hoffman’s classic Fuck the System, Steal This Book or similar publications from Loompanics Press. Instead of attempting to scam free products, the brothers simply test the limits of outlandishness, à la Laszlo Toth/Don Novello’s pioneering efforts. Their innocuous notes are a welcome departure from the usual harassment; their joy doesn’t come from wounding someone’s pride or even getting a certificate for a free bag of Utz chips, but from seeing the written reaction to their absurdity. Arranged side-by-side, their communiqués and the deadpan responses serve as a testament to the imagination, and offer insight into corporate machinations.

Because the Wades target businesses on both sides of the Atlantic, the letters they receive demonstrate the disparity between American and European customer service. American businesses strive to please, no matter how weird the request: The customer is always right. Conversely, Europeans emphasize the product, not the purchaser. The Wades’ inquiry to U.S.-based Listerine Antiseptic Mouthwash, regarding a recipe for Listerine-based hollandaise sauce, garnered a respectful form letter; a note to England’s Winchester Cathedral, requesting the church for the funeral of a reindeer, was answered with a suggestion to have the service in Rome because “the presence of the Pope would obviously add a special touch of splendour to the occasion.”

Drop Us a Line also serves as a reminder of how corporate letters are composed. Imagine a lowly intern typing polite replies to complaints from angry folks who didn’t get enough toffee chips in their ice cream or can’t get a twist cap off their soda. When the intern receives a letter from the Wades, momentary confusion results. What if this request for a correspondence course in karate is real? Out goes a humorless response, like the others before it. Due to the fear of retaliation from an overly litigious society, the brothers’ humor typically goes unacknowledged.

Occasionally, though, a target company calls the Wades’ bluff. After seeing an advertisement for 15-minute summaries of business books, the brothers inquired whether they might purchase a condensed dictionary. The response: “We intend to tackle Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary right after completing one of our more difficult projects to date: an eight page summary of The Encyclopedia Britannica.” This rare show of bravado renews faith in the American sense of humor. The Wades might be getting through to people after all. CP