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Raising Cain, Alan Abel-style
Jenny Abel and her father, Alan Abel, in front of the White House in 1980. Photo by Bob Pagani
GREENVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 9, 2011) — Before Stephen Colbert and Sacha Baron Cohen were even born, Alan Abel was straightfacedly urging TV newscasters that Americans needed to clothe their animals for morality’s sake.
The fictitious Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (tagline: “A nude horse is a rude horse”) launched Abel’s career as a media hoaxer and prankster who played upon societal hang-ups and ills. His pranks, which included a fictional school for beggars, a euthanasia cruise ship named “The Last Supper,” and a campaign to ban breast feeding, attracted earnest attention from mainstream media before the gags were ultimately exposed.
His daughter, Jenny Abel, and Jeff Hockett made a documentary about his life, “Abel Raises Cain” that’s part of the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers and screened at East Carolina University on Wednesday. Afterward, the man whom Slate in 2008 called “America’s greatest hoaxer” answered a few questions from ECU News Services:
ECU: Have people’s satire detectors gotten better over the years?
Absolutely. We’re surrounded with information. Reporters can Google you in two seconds. I think it’s very different nowadays. I’ve surmounted this problem by just waiting for some levity between ax murderers and serials killers and by coming up with an idea that sounds attractive.
Now with the economy, I’ve brought back the Omar School for Beggars for people who weren’t even born or didn’t know about it back in the 70s. It’s become a new way to get people aroused and interested an annoyed and angry. I have a friend in Holland who is passing out literature and doing work with the Omar School for Beggars.
How do you approach a hoax or prank differently now than you did even 20 years ago?
Now I give it a lot more thought and think about it maybe for quite a few weeks, but mostly I’ve been consulting for people. For example, Joe Vitale is a guru/motivationalist down in Texas, and he had a book, “The Attractor Factor,” about three years ago. He wanted me to do promotion for it. I figured out a way. The Powerball was up to $380 million, so we put someone up to say that he found the numbers in “The Attractor Factor.” It worked like a charm. The winning numbers were called in Lincoln, Neb. I had my team go out there and take over a restaurant and pay for everybody’s dinner. Within minutes, over 35 reporters from all over were looking for the winner of the $380 million. So we got great press on the wire services and all over for three days. And then the real winners, who were meatpackers in Lincoln, they came out of hiding and said they really had the winning. They were just as glad that we got all the [initial] publicity.”
Is there any hoax you wish you hadn’t done?
Probably landing the man from Mars. Bob Downey Sr. pretended to find somebody who came from a UFO and landed on the beach in New Jersey. He was naked and we painted him phosphorous and he was glowing. The sheriff was called, and they drove up on the boardwalk there with their searchlights. We were under the boardwalk filming. This was back in the early 70s. We heard one of the sheriff’s deputies say, ‘Ah, it’s probably just some drunken fairy,’ and they got in their cars and drove off. Here’s a guy who’s glowing in the dark and naked and he’s supposed to be an alien. And then the spaceship to be launched was a weather balloon with an audio track playing and lights flashing around it. It scared people on the beach but it didn’t work. We probably shouldn’t have done that — nothing happened.
Is there a topic that’s woefully under-satirized or you find hard to satirize?
It’s hard to satirize Afghanistan, Iraq and, now, this Cairo uprising. Even with that cartoon, they put a fatwa on his head. They tried to kill him. There are people who have no sense of humor, who won’t tolerate it. I’m careful about that, even though I made fun of the Ku Klux Klan by forming a KKK symphony.
Did you ever hearing anything from the Klan?
Only that David Duke [then running for president] was mad as hell. He was kicking the furniture when he found out that he was supposed to conduct a children’s concert and there’s no orchestra.
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