Funny how April Fools' Day jokes often aren't.
Probably no one knows this better than campus newspaper readers. This time of year, college writers and editors put their figurative best feet forward -- only to wind up with them in their mouths.
Satiric newspaper parodies are a long-standing literary tradition in Great Britain, and you don't have to be Jonathan Swift to realize that the modest proposals put forth by campus publications each April 1 can have awful, unintended consequences.
The University of Pittsburgh's Pitt News and Duquesne's Duke have been writing April 1 papers for decades.
"I have a Google feed for anything that has the word 'satire' in it, and [when] this time of year rolls around I see the horror stories," said Leah Wescott, founder of the Cronk of Higher Education website (www.cronknews.com), itself a parody of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Ms. Wescott has worked at six universities and recently recorded an audio podcast she hoped would help college newspaper editors as they planned this week's editions.
"From my own campuses, I've seen things that were worse than what the AP wire picks up, so it isn't even the worst things that hit the news."
Last year, Boston University was dealing with a series of high-profile sexual assaults on campus. The Daily Free Press print-only April Fools' Day edition was remade into the "Disney Free Press" and showcased graphic, fairy tale-inspired stories few found amusing.
One began, "Seven frat dwarves were arrested last night after they allegedly drugged and gangbanged a female Boston University student." The victim was described as "fairest of them all" and incapacitated by drinking a "roofied" appletini.
Who would find gang rape hilarious? Ms. Wescott said the writers were going for social commentary.
"The journalists were feeling like the issue wasn't being handled seriously and unfortunately, they didn't have a background in writing satire. So the focus of the article became the attacks themselves, instead of focusing on the climate of the campus."
The newspaper's editor later apologized and resigned.
At the University of Missouri, the editor and assistant editor resigned last year after the school paper, The Maneater, came up with a variety of tasteless stories involving race and sex.
Some college papers receive funding from their schools, but many do not. Almost all have academic advisers but their involvement on a day-to-day basis is generally casual.
When done right, satire and parody combine brains with beauty, as in The Onion and on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
The gold standard for college humor is likely the Harvard Lampoon, which has been trading in satire since 1876. Notable staff members include George Plimpton, Lisa Henson, Fred Gwynne and Conan O'Brien.
"We definitely do our best to push boundaries where they need to be pushed, and satire can be one of the best ways to tackle serious issues, if done well. And if done poorly, it can be one of the worst," said Eric Brewster, Harvard Lampoon president.
Trying to get as many eyes as possible on a story is part of the publication's safety standards, he said. It also helps to have a healthy sense of self-awareness, plus a respect for moderation.
"With college kids, what sounds funny at 3 a.m. behind the printing press at deadline isn't necessarily funny when it gets printed 4,000 times and delivered to everyone's doorsteps the next morning."
The editors of campus newspapers "need to give [writers] some tough love," Ms. Wescott said. "You can write about any topic you want, you just have to be smart about it."
A "busting loose" mentality on April Fools' Day is understandable. It's a chance to be different, daring, clever. But the potential pitfalls are many.
"It's so easy to get it wrong and yet so tempting because everybody wants to be the funny guy and make the joke and get the laughs," Mr. Brewster said. "But a joke gone wrong is one of the quickest ways to alienate your publication and your readers."
The Lampoon doesn't produce an April Fools' edition, but once a year it does parody the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper. As for the Crimson, which doesn't do an April Fools' edition, "they're probably wary enough to realize they're only asking for trouble," Mr. Brewster said.
This year, Duquesne University did not write a special comedy edition because April 1 didn't fit into its publication schedule, said editor-in-chief Robyn Rudish-Laning. Point Park's Globe generally tries to sneak in a silly fake article or two but doesn't produce an entire issue.
"I think it started a couple of years ago when they tried to bring back the Point Park bison," said Kalea Hall, Globe news editor and an academic intern at the Post-Gazette. "We just had this goofy story about the bison."
At Pitt, the April Fools' Day issue is a tradition embracing humor, but not outrageous bad taste. Editor Amy Friedenberger said the student paper isn't likely to draw complaints other than ones from fans of puzzles.
"The only thing anyone complained about [last year] were the sudokus, which were fake and couldn't be finished," she said.
A story in the 2012 edition made fun of the Panthers' victory in the not-so-cool College Basketball Invitation tournament. It described a group of fans celebrating in the streets of Oakland chanting "We're mildly excited! We're mildly excited!"
At Allegheny College, The Campus school paper was in recent years The Compost. Addressing concerns at the time that the liberal arts school in Meadville lacked diversity, the April Fools' edition carried the story of a 14-month-old who was awarded "full-paid tuition and a motorized stroller, if still unable to walk."
"Allegheny is making a statement against age discrimination," was one quote.
And if there were any doubt to the authenticity of The Compost, yet another headline read, in all capital letters, "Reminder: These stories are all faux."
Maria Sciullo: email@example.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.