Lessons from America’s Greatest Prankster
Hoax master Alan Abel has been fooling reporters and hoodwinking the public for more than 50 years. Here, he reveals a few of his tricks.
Most careers aren’t launched by the sight of a cow and a bull copulating in the middle of a road. But Alan Abel doesn’t have a typical gig. One day in 1957, the aspiring jazz drummer was driving to a show in Texas when he got caught in a rural traffic jam. The cause of the snarl: a cow and a bull engaging in some very public relations. Abel didn’t think twice about the bovine display, but the expression of moral outrage on other motorists’ faces fascinated him.
By the time Abel reached his destination, he’d decided to launch the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. Under the war cry “A nude horse is a rude horse,” SINA strove to create a more moral society through clothing mammals. Two years later, with the help of actor Buck Henry (who posed as the group’s president), Abel bamboozled the media into thinking SINA was a real activist group. Even the networks were fooled -Walter Cronkite covered the story for CBS News.
SINA was just the first of Abel’s many stunts. For the past half century, the prankster has made a career out of giving Americans “a kick in the intellect.” And he’s done a lot of kicking. From 1975 to 1988, Abel posed as Omar, founder of Omar’s School for Beggars, a long-running hoax that brough attention to unemployment and homelessness. In 1979, Abel paraded an imposter “Idi Amin” around New York City and staged an elaborate green card wedding with a young WASP to spotlight the State Department’s coddling of the genocidal dictator. In 1985, during one of the first live tapings of The Phil Donohue Show, Abel stocked the audience with fainting women as a protest against bad television. And when David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana in 1991, Abel released music from the fictitious Ku Klux Klan Symphony, guest-conducted by Duke, to highlight the politician’s former Klan ties.
With such a creative mind, Abel might have made millions in advertising or television, but he’s never held a “real” job. For many years, Harry Scherman, the late founder of the Book of the Month Club, was Abel’s benefactor, underwriting projects such as the Idi Amin caper. What little Abel makes comes out of his prank’s budgets. You might say he lives hoax to hoax.
Financial uncertainty has never deterred him, though. Even at 81, Abel is still cooking up capers. However, these days he’s so easily recognized -especially after his daughter Jenny’s 2005 biodoc, Abel raises Cain- that he has to stay hidden in the background. Mental_floss asked Abel to share a few pointers with aspiring hoaxsters.
* Use Current Events
“When I saw Dr. Kevorkian’s [1990s] campaign to assist suicide, I realized their should be a cruise line for suicide. There’s a cruise line for everybody -for golfers, for the AARP- so why not a cruise for those who want to terminate?
“The Last Supper sailed from Ft. Lauderdale once a week with 25 people. Three days of sex, fun, food, dancing, and singing. And then the schooner would tilt. The rail would be taken off one side, the deck was greased, [and] all 25 people would go down into Davy Jones’s Locker!”
* Play to the Press
“[The media] wants to believe. For example, the color code with Homeland Security doesn’t take into consideration those people who are color-blind. Two million are going to be unprotected. I brought that up as a campaign last year, and that got some attention.”
* Cast Real People
“Actors like to act. I’ve always liked to use non-actors. I found a guy on the subway that looked like Idi Amin, about 6-foot-6, weighed 275. He was unemployed, and for $500 he said, ‘Sure, I can look mean and not speak.’ I worked at Radio City Music Hall as a drummer and I had a lot of friends in the orchestra. The tuba player, one of the cellists -I had these guys posing as private guards, and it worked out fine.”
* Let the Media Come to You
“The day before the [Idi Amin wedding] ceremony, we went over to Tiffany’s with our entourage, and they gave him the royal treatment. People were crowding around the windows on Fifth Avenue, trying to figure out what was going on. the hotel was barraged with calls from the media. The rumors were spreading like wildfire. The next day we had over 105 reporters!”
* Water the Grassroots
“[For SINA] I had leaflets printed up explaining our philosophy that all animals must wear clothing. I probably had 10,000. I’d leave them everywhere. If I was going to a men’s room, I’d leave one in there. In the library, we’d put them in books… but only in serious books! Buck [Henry] and me and some of our followers went out to the San Francisco Zoo and declared it a moral disaster area.”
* Never Break Character
“It’s not easy. This gal from CBS came along to interview Zev, an actor friend of mine. We had dinner at Morton’s in New York. Zev was pretending that he was going on The Last Supper in a week [to] end his life. She got very emotional and started to cry. The place is filled with mostly media people -nobody’s talking; everyone’s listening. I couldn’t laugh or smile, or then it would all be over. She says, ‘Let me go along with Zev.’ I was Dr. Rogers. I said, ‘We only sell one-way tickets.’ I bit down so hard on my lip it was actually bleeding.”
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