[Ed: I'm a huge fan of Kembrew McLeod, a writer, nerdfighter, media theorist and hoopy frood. From epic pranks like Freedom of Expression (R) to genius analysis like Creative License, Kembrew always amazes. Here's an excerpt from his latest: Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, with an introduction just for us -Cory]
Since I was a kid, I have been fixated on trickery, which played a role in why I grew up to be an occasional prankster (my dad recalls that, as an adolescent, I would surprise him by placing my Sesame Street Ernie doll in grim situations, such leaving him in a noose hanging from a shower head or pinned to the kitchen wall with a knife). Now that I am an adult, I spend most of my time as a teacher and professor being a bit more serious -- enough to take the subject of pranking seriously, which is why I wrote Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, published by NYU Press on April 1 this year. The word prank is more often used today to describe stunts that make people look foolish and little more. I'm not interested in celebrating cruelty -- especially the sorts of mean-spirited practical jokes, hazing rituals, and reality television deceits that are all too common in today's popular culture. Although "good" pranks sometimes do ridicule their targets, they serve a higher purpose by sowing skepticism and speaking truth to power (or at least cracking jokes that expose fissures in power's facade). A prank a day keeps The Man away, I always say. Nevertheless, I should stress that this book is not solely about pranking. Many of the characters who populate its pages aren't driven by noble impulses, and even those who are more pure of heart can muddy the ethical waters with dubious tactics. With this in mind, Pranksters examines everything from political pranks, silly hoaxes, and con games to the sort of self-deception that fuels outlandish belief systems. The following is an excerpt from Chapter Nine of Pranksters, about the exploits of a married couple named Jeanne and Alan Abel who began as professional pranksters in the late 1950s, and are still at it today.
In 1955, "professional hoaxer" Alan Abel began a long career making mischief with media. Gleaning lessons from the PR world and P. T. Barnum, Abel staged a marriage of an Idi Amin impostor to a white American bride, launched a goofily lurid event named the International Sex Bowl, and founded Omar's School for Beggars, among many other things. It was a lively thirty-five-year career that was tragically cut short when he died of a heart attack in Sundance, Utah. "Alan Abel, Satirist Created Campaign to Clothe Animals," the New York Times obituary announced on January 2, 1980. It turned out that the report of his death was greatly exaggerated -- or, to be more accurate, fabricated. Three days later, the Miami Herald ran a front-page story with a very different banner: "Report of Death . . . ‘Fit to Print.'"
He who had tweaked America when he invented a nitwit organization called the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals and barnstormed the nation's talk-show circuit, earnestly urging citizens everywhere to clothe their pets. . . . He who had run a wholly fictitious Bronx housewife named Yetta Bronstein for the U.S. Presidency ("Vote for Yetta And Things Will Get Betta!"). He who, at the height of the Watergate frenzy, had called a Washington press conference, gravely declared himself to be the Deep Throat of the Woodward-Bernstein reportage, announced that he was about to disclose very important things and then suddenly collapsed on the spot, leaving assembled newsgathers agape.
It was the first time the New York Times had to retract an obituary. Abel tells me he got the idea to fake his death after overhearing a conversation between two Hollywood lawyers. He was negotiating the rights to his life story, and the attorneys -- unaware that the prankster was standing next to them in an elevator -- said that the studio should wait to purchase the rights until after he died, so that Universal could "get it for peanuts." An annoyed Abel then hired a tearful actress to pose as his widow, walk into the newspaper's offices, and deliver the news. Discussing a well-worn strategy, he says, "I decided to approach the Times because if they printed it, I knew others would pick it up." Alan gave his family and friends advance warning, though his longtime collaborator Jeanne Abel wanted nothing to do with this hoax. Alan had done a lot of crazy things over the years, but she worried that her husband was going too far. "I definitely wasn't for it," Jeanne tells me, laughing. The same year, in 1980, Alan Abel was introduced to Andy Kaufman. "We had a special kinship," he tells me, explaining how they bonded over their pranks. The comedian obsessed over the details of how he faked his death, and he pumped Abel for more information about how he pulled it off.
Alan Abel said he never took money from the gullible, but he was still walking a fine line. Memories of charlatans were still fresh in the public's mind because scam artists had grown adept at using media to rip people off in the first half of the twentieth century. Shady figures such as John R. Brinkley sold the public fraudulent goods and services by using a massive radio station that broadcast at one million watts (today, the FCC limits FM stations to one hundred thousand watts). Just over the border in Mexico, XER saturated the Northern Hemisphere's airwaves with talk of Brinkley's world-famous "goat gland transplantation" breakthrough. Goat glands were sewn into a man's nether regions, a technique that often ended in infection, death, or, at the very least, a drained bank account. During this time, elaborate cons such as "the wire game" emptied people's pockets by using props and sets that looked like Western Union offices. Sharpers used these fake telegraph offices to convince marks they had access to horse-racing results moments before they were reported to the public. That way, suckers would place huge bets that didn't pay off. Media and fraud were so intertwined that Alan Abel needed to distance himself from these associations. He once returned a $40,000 donation check sent by a woman who fell for his most notorious prank: the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals.
SINA advocated dressing naked animals -- especially horses, cows, dogs, cats, and "other domestic animals that stand higher than 4 inches or are longer than 6 inches." Its motto? "Decency Today Means Morality Tomorrow." In 1958, Abel recruited Buck Henry to play SINA president G. Clifford Prout, Jr. (the writer and actor went on to a successful career penning screenplays for The Graduate and Catch-22 and hosting Saturday Night Live several times). The skinny, diminutive man with thinning hair and glasses was tailor-made for this role, especially because he could deliver surreal monologues without cracking a smile. "Well, during the days of the ancient Vikings," he soberly explained on one television broadcast, "in the great drinking halls where they held their feasts, they had huge dogs with long hair that were used as napkins." Henry/Prout made the rounds on programs such as NBC's Tonight Show and Today Show, where he delivered an impassioned ten-minute lecture. "There are naked animals everywhere! . . . And these animals are not grazing, they are hanging their heads in shame!" As the baffled Today host looked on, he concluded, "I am spending every single minute of every single day and every last dollar of my father's money to correct this evil."
It was around this time that Jeanne met Alan. "I guess you could say I was attracted to funny men," she tells me. "That was part of the appeal. So it wasn't long before I was writing material for SINA, licking stamps and stuffing envelopes, picketing various events with signs, and so on." It was the beginning of a creative partnership that has lasted over half a century (they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2009). Of the dozens of schemes they hatched, SINA remains the high-water mark of the couple's conceptual genius. "It didn't take much back then to get on national television," Jeanne recalls. "All we needed was a drawing of a clothed animal and a graph of some sort, and producers were more than willing to put SINA on the air." It also helped to have fancy stationery, an impressive-sounding address on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, charts and illustrations, and a memorable telephone number (Morality 1-1963). "It was a lot of work maintaining a nonexistent organization," Jeanne tells me. "There were numerous requests from media and people wanting SINA literature. It became a full-time occupation."
The Internet greatly accelerated the speed that hoaxes can be revealed, but back then Jeanne and Alan Abel were able to keep their ruse going. And going -- and going. In 1962, four years after the initial burst of press coverage, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page article about SINA. In one-inch-high letters, the headline announced a "‘war' against naked animals." The story was accompanied by an absurd photograph of SINA's president holding up a pair of pants in front of an elephant. While in San Francisco, the Abels dashed off a quick note with press clippings to CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite: "Just a quick note to say hello from San Francisco. This city is going crazy over these nuts who want to clothe animals. And they're serious! Might be something here for you. Expect to hit New York by Christmas. Will call if and when. Regards to you and your family, Bill." CBS Evening News took the bait and aired a seven-minute news story. Henry/Prout finished the interview by singing the SINA marching song while playing the ukulele. As a now-I've-seen-everything expression flashed across Cronkite's face, he signed off the air with a bemused "And that's the way it is."
Abel tells me that the anchor remained furious about the incident for decades. "Of all the things he could hold a grudge about," he laughs, " it was that?" The CBS Evening News appearance generated lots of hate mail, which was piling up in the Abels' residence. "It certainly takes a filthy and maladjusted mind to think evil (or believe that others may be erotically aroused) by the sight of an Animal in his God given furred, featured, or finned state," one letter writer fumed. "It would certainly be a sad commentary on the state of the nation's mental health if advocates of such a monstrous scheme are permitted to roam at large." Another man told Mr. Prout, "You sure make me mad enough to write anybody for the first time. Thank God we don't have your kind around here." Not all the letters were hostile. One writer explained that he was "currently writing a paper on a Freudian approach to the self sex education of younger children." The researcher wanted more information about SINA's studies and requested outlines of the procedures used to prevent anxiety complexes in children who viewed naked animals.
The couple stirred up more controversy in 1963 when the U.S. Postal Service declined to mail their literature. Their Inside SINA magazine -- "The Official Organ of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals" -- contained press clippings, anti-nude-animal crossword puzzles, manifestos, images of clothed animals, and nuggets of advice.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SEE A NAKED ANIMAL
1. Provide temporary covering for the animal using an overcoat, shawl or blanket.
2. If no immediate covering is available, lead animal gently to nearest shed or area hidden from public view.
3. Report the location, complete description of animal and any identifying marks by telephone to your nearest SINA headquarters.
Soon after they mailed it, a post office inspector told them that the materials had to be cleared through Washington. When they asked why, he responded, "Well, we found them to be questionable." Jeanne Abel -- who did the layout and much of the writing for the magazine -- points out, "Keep in mind, the only thing in the SINA magazine was pictures of clothed animals." Thumbing through Inside SINA today, it's difficult to conceive what could possibly have raised an objection, aside from its inherent weirdness. Government bureaucracies are not the best arbiters of reason, and when you add nonsense to the equation, life can get silly very quickly. The Abels sent out a press release voicing "a strong protest to Attorney General Robert Kennedy over the United States Post Office's seizure of SINA mail." They organized pickets in front of the White House and orchestrated altercations with post office officials until the magazine was finally deemed fit for public consumption. "We later met Jackie Kennedy's half brother, who was visiting the day we were picketing," Jeanne says. "He related that the president thought it was really funny, though Jackie -- well, not so much." Inspired, Jeanne ran for U.S. president in 1964 posing as a Bronx-based Jewish housewife. Yetta Bronstein's platform included dosing Congress's drinking fountains with truth serum and installing a "mental" detector in the entrance to the Senate.
Fun and frivolity drive the couple's exploits, but they are also quite serious about what they do. Alan's goal is to shake people up, "so they are able to suddenly stop and look at themselves and laugh more and to participate in life rather than just be passive bystanders." Jeanne adds, "With SINA, it was a comment on censorship. The purpose of satire is to get people to look at something again with a little more thoughtfulness." She then points out the most obvious clue that should have tipped everyone off: SINA's name! The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals explicitly made it clear that they were for indecency -- but no one seemed to notice. Jeanne and Alan Abel's career path never really paid the bills, but it was still rewarding. "It's fun to get people thinking, even if you're infuriating them in the process," Jeanne tells me. "And those endorphins that run through your body, it's better than any paycheck." Unlike many of the entertainers the Abels hung out with, they chose not to write for television. Alan says that TV satires are "viewed passively and then forgotten," which is why he wasn't interested in that line of work. "When I moved to New York, I wanted to be an actress," Jeanne recalls. "But when I met Alan, I realized that it was more fun to make people laugh and think. It hasn't always been very, shall we say, remunerative, but oh well." Rather than walking a straight and narrow path down the middle of the road, the Abels headed for the proverbial ditches. It was just more exciting down there.