Gary Warne and the Suicide Club

Josh Clark

There was a guy named Gary Warne who, back in 1974, drew an important distinction between humor and sadism: Pranksters can dish it out, sadists don't laugh when it happens to them. Much like Ken Kesey had a decade or so before him tested the mettle of his own pranksters using Kool-Aid laden with LSD, Warne used whipped cream and pillow fights to sort out exactly who was a real prankster and who was just some jerk looking to smash some other guy in the face with a pillow. Harmless tools, yes, but when you storm out of a room covered in feathers and whipped cream, you've just done the leg work of sorting for the guy who's paying attention.

And much like Kesey and his Merry Pranksters a decade or so earlier, when the feathers were all still on the floor and the whip cream all fully spewed, those who remained -- those who were thrilled and high from the experience -- boarded a bus to set about pulling pranks. Thus began the Suicide Club, a secret society of San Franciscans (open to anyone who wanted to join, so not so secret -- more like word of mouth society).

Warne was a proponent of free higher education and the Suicide Club sprung (that night with the pillow and whipped cream fights) out of a Practical Jokes 101 class held at the Communiversity he helped found. He was also a true fan of freaking out the straights, which arguably led to the conception of flash mobs: One early prank involved assembling 30 pranksters within spitting distance of one another, all panhandling for change, yet pretending they weren't in any way associated. Today in San Francisco, that's pretty much par for the course, but one imagines that since Warne took the time to write it down it must have been a pretty good joke in 1974. The Suicide Club also gave rise to the famous Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, the Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt, and -- by way of daughter group the Cacophony Society -- Burning Man. Oh yeah, they also infiltrated the American Nazi Party and the Moonies, climbed the Golden Gate Bridge, rode storms out in San Francisco Bay and founded urban exploration. Research into the latter is where I came across Gary Warne and I just thought he deserved mentioning, being such an awesome human being and all.

More on HowStuffWorks.com: Did the CIA test LSD on unsuspecting Americans? What are urban explorers? How LSD Works