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Old Reliables Keep Joke Shop Banking On The Lighter Side


March 31, 2009

Let us consider, on the eve of April Fool's Day, the state of the practical joke.

This time last year, tomfoolery was at a peak at least for prankster magnate Steve Walmpold, for whom business was never so good as during the Bush years.

People could not get enough gags poking fun at the 41st president. Partly as a result, Wampold expanded his empire, buying out competitors at increasing speed. He started out in 2001 with the Cromwell-based Prankplace.com, which has evolved into the larger Hartford-based Outrageous Ventures, which makes most of its sales over the Internet ( www.outrageousventures.com)

" George Bush was such an easy target," Wampold says. "I say that even though I'm a Republican."

It seemed the good times would continue when Hillary Clinton emerged as the front-runner in last year's presidential election.

"Hillary was a huge target; Hillary toilet paper we couldn't print it fast enough," Wampold says.

Then Barack Obama pulled ahead, muting the laughter significantly. There just isn't that much funny about him. McCain also failed to draw the yuks. For the first time, Wampold says, he has seen a downturn in business.

The recession, of course, has not helped.

"It's hard to be funny when the economy is struggling," he says.

Wampold says people aren't searching his business as much on the Internet. He surmises they're either out of the jobs where they once did their Web surfing or are fearing for their jobs enough that they're working instead.

Not that the recession has totally quashed shenanigans. Fake lottery tickets have long been a reliable, though unspectacular, seller. These days, they are among Wampold's most popular items. Convincing friends they've lucked into fortune seems a bit mean, but in these times, you take your laughs where you can get them.

Wampold's ancestral forebear is a man named S.S. Adams, and perhaps from his experiences Wampold can draw comfort. In 1906, Adams created and marketed sneezing powder. It was a hit, and by the time copycats had their own versions on the market, Adams had moved on to creating and hawking other novelty items. From Snakes in a Can to the Dribble Glass, Adams' portfolio reads like a greatest hits of mischief.

His Joy Buzzer hit the market just around the time the stock market crashed in 1929. You might think the Great Depression would doom the tricky handshake device to obscurity. Perhaps people needed some way to amuse themselves while standing in bread lines, but whatever the reason, Joy Buzzer sales continue to be strong.

Indeed, many of Wampold's big sellers are drawn from the golden age of the practical joke, and from Adams' bag of tricks in particular. Two-headed quarters are still popular, so is fake dog poop. Health-consciousness hasn't quashed the hilarity of the exploding cigar, another big seller.

"Ninety percent of it has been around for decades, or they're modern adaptations," Wampold says.

Though it was the Internet that allowed for Wampold's antic empire, his wares tend toward the low-tech. One of the few exceptions is the Covert Clicker, a device that can stealthily change TV channels. Use it at your own peril, he warns.

"Try going into Rookies and turning off the [ UConn basketball] game," Wampold says of the Cromwell bar. "I don't know if you'd make it out alive."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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