If elaborate pranks aren’t your style, you can’t go wrong with a good old-fashioned whoopee cushion. But before planting one, why not sit down (on a perfectly harmless chair) and enjoy these breezy tidbits?
1. A Roman emperor is said to have enjoyed using primitive whoopee cushions.
In 218 CE, 14-year-old Marcus Aurelius Antonius, also known as “Elgabalus," became the youngest emperor Rome had ever seen. Like many teens, he had a mischievous side. At dinner parties, Elgabalus supposedly slipped “air cushions” under his dinner guests, which produced embarrassing sounds.
2. The modern whoopee cushion was invented in Canada.
From peanut butter to the Wonderbra, many great things in modern life came from the great white north. Employees of Toronto’s JEM rubber company began tinkering around with tooting air sacs in 1930. Their earliest attempts featured wooden mouthpieces.
3. At first, the creator of Joy Buzzers didn’t think the whoopee cushion would sell.
Known as the “father of the novelty prank,” Soren Sorensen Adams is responsible for joy buzzers, sneezing powder, and the snake-in-the-can gag. By the time whoopee cushions came along, he’d established himself as the world’s pre-eminent prankster and founded the S.S. Adams novelty company. Clearly, if you had a practical joke idea, this was the man to see. But when JEM offered to sell Adams their flatulent baggies, he declined because, he said, "the whole idea seemed indelicate." Undaunted, the rubber company started mass-producing the toys without him. Once Adams saw how successful they were, he finally relented, contacted JEM, and started stocking up.
4. Early whoopee cushions were called “boop-boop a doops” and “poo-poo cushions.”
JEM used these monikers until finally going with whoopee cushions in 1932. (Whoopee is a word dating back to the 1860s that means "an exclamation of exuberant joy"; by the 1920s, the word also meant "exuberant or boisterous merry-making.") For the record, Adams marketed his as “razzberry cushions.”
5. Kilted kids were once printed on whoopee cushions.
According to Blame It on the Dog: A Modern History of the Fart, whoopee cushions manufactured by JEM in 1932 were decorated with the image of a smiling “Scottish kilt-clad boy wearing boots with spurs and carrying a rifle.”
6. The world’s biggest whoopee cushion was 25 feet in diameter.
Matt Funk and Lee Burgess of Covington, Georgia, claimed the Guinness world record in 2017.
7. The whoopee cushion inspired Whoopi Goldberg’s stage name.
After repeatedly passing gas backstage, actress Caryn Elaine Johnson’s friends compared her to a whoopee cushion. Amused, she rebranded herself “Whoopi” (and added the last name “Goldberg”).
8. Celebrity fans of whoopee cushions include Bob Saget and Leslie Nielsen.
“It’s frightening how much I know about [them],” Saget, who apparently has worn out 10 since his childhood, told The New York Times. Saget generally avoids flatulent humor onstage, but Leslie Nielsen—the star of such legendary satires as Airplane! (1980)—used to love triggering whoopee cushions during interviews and even in front of royalty. While on a golf course with Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Nielsen suddenly started waxing poetic. “It’s so beautiful here,” he declared, “the green of the fairway, the mountains ... It’s so beautiful, it actually does something to my insides.” Then, without missing a beat, he set off the whoopee cushion.
9. Your voice acts like a whoopee cushion.
According to acoustic engineering professor Trevor Cox, the whoopee cushion and the human voice have a lot in common. “What happens is the bits of rubber flap open and close, letting little pulses of air out," he says in the video above. "It’s actually just like your vocal folds, which open and close, letting little pulses of air out to make sound.”
10. One survey concluded that the funniest whoopee cushions emit “long and whiny” sounds.
In 2009, Cox helped orchestrate a massive poll to determine which phony farts got the biggest laughs. An astonishing 34,000 people voted for their favorite whoopee cushion audio clips. Based on their preferences, his team observed that longer-lasting beefs got higher ratings: The participants’ top choice raged on for a full seven seconds. Higher-pitched “whiny” butt trumpets also proved quite popular. And, interestingly, surveyed Europeans largely found whoopee cushion noises in general funnier than their American counterparts did.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.