When I was in high school, some of my friends started bands so they could cover songs by their favorite rockers. I started a gang so I could pull elaborate pranks like one of my idols, Alan Abel. With the help of confederates in the main office, I registered an imaginary person as a student in my high school. Then my friends and I organized a furtive campaign to get this non-entity elected as Vice President of the Junior Class.
Later, when I was in college, I encouraged an acquaintance to sign a scathing letter to the editor of the college newspaper, excoriating a campus play which I had directed myself.
This wasn’t just mischief. The political maneuver was a reaction to what I thought were listless campaigns being lodged for an apathetic student body. The play was a comedy with whose laughs obscured its strong social message; I wanted to ignite a debate, and did so.
Alan Abel appears tonight, Sept. 11 at 7 p.m., at New Haven’s Institute Library, 847 Chapel Street. He’s the special guest in the second installment of Joshua Foer and Jack Hitt’s discussion series Amateur Hour.
I’ve never met Abel, and as you can imagine, am in awe of him. His visit to New Haven gave me strength to interview him. When I emailed a request, he responded that he could talk on the phone any time between late afternoon and 1 a.m. We spoke at 11 p.m.
Abel’s biggest pranks involved New York and Hollywood, but he’s quietly lived in Fairfield County for most of the last half-century. As revealed in the documentary Abel Raises Cain—produced and narrated by his daughter Jennifer, who also co-wrote and co-directed the film (with Jeff Hockett)—Alan and his wife Jeanne lost their Westport home a few years ago. Happily, after a few years housesitting for friends, the couple has found a home to rent in Southbury.
The film makes much of the fact that Abel has rarely held down a steady job. But he certainly worked hard for a living. He told me he worked in advertising for a while when he was younger, and he continues to do consulting work and lecture tours today. For someone so adept at the machinations of mass media, however, it’s clear that his creative streak keeps him from sitting too long in an office situation.
Our conversation returned constantly to the topic of music. Abel appears to love jazz even more than hoaxing. As a college student in Ohio, he developed a popular jazz jam which filled auditoriums and attracted major touring musicians. He himself plays drums, and one of the longest jobs he ever held was in the pit of Radio City Music Hall—for one year as a steady member of the orchestra, and for decades as an occasional substitute player. He’s also done some conducting. He has a degree in Music.
His prank career, he says, “started with the Campaign to Clothe Naked Animals. The phony moralistic society gained national attention, including on the CBS Evening News. Abel claims that shortly before his death, anchorman Walter Cronkite was still expressing anger that he’d been deceived by Abel. “He was still pissed, 40 years later,” Abel marvels.
Some of his pranks have persisted even after he was outed as their perpetrator. That’s a comment on how diversified the media has become, and on who and what we choose to trust. Abel’s Society to Protest Birdwatchers, which he launched at demonstrations during the 2008 presidential conventions, was exposed by Smoking Gun, snopes.com and other sites. Abel notes that even many comments on the site came from those who assumed it was a joke. But it continued to stir up many people, angry at the society’s thesis that birdwatchers are voyeuristic and suspect.
When he staged his Euthanasia Cruises at the height of Kevorkianmania, Abel says “I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing” at some of the arguments he got into. But, with actorly focus, he refused to break, or smirk. Regarding the cruises, “what amazed me was how many people wanted to go on that trip.”
Abel was able to conduct his pranks, on a freelance writer’s budget, because he had a wealthy patron. Abel met Maxwell Sackheim, the direct-marketing genius who founded the Book-of-the-Month Club, on the New York subway one day when Sackheim was snickering at a “Crazy Ad” series Abel had sold to the transit system. These were joke ads used as fillers when the train’s ad space wasn’t full. Sackheim enjoyed Abel’s sense of humor, and personally bankrolled numerous stunts for decades, without seeking credit. The patronage ceased with Sackheim’s death in 1982.
He’d lost his satiric sugar daddy, but in the ‘80s and ‘90s, all Alan Abel had to do to get on TV and spout outrageous, polarizing pronouncements was to get himself booked on TV talk shows, which he did frequently. “Nowadays,” he says, “I’m taking it easy. I don’t have a backer.” He’s also in his 80s.
He loves to reminisce about his media-baiting triumphs, like when he staged a marriage between a man purported to be the bloodthirsty dictator Idi Amin and a nice WASO girl from New York. “I met a guy on a bus who looked like Idi Amin. I hired him to not say anything, just look mean.” Reporters could be skeptical, but Abel’s bullshit usually had some integrity to it; the Amin marriage was the swiftest way for the man to defect, he explained. “The reporters would say to me, ‘What’s the motivation otherwise?’”
Abel’s hoaxes aren’t generally mean-spirited, though they do work some folks into a froth. The media is sometimes a clear target, but more often it’s just the concept of extremism. The main joke Abel plays is in showing the limits of how much people really want to believe in things. (Compare this with Terry Southern’s novel The Magic Christian, in which philanthropist Guy Grand sets up vicious pranks by proving how far people will go for money.)
One thing stands out for me from my hour-long late-night chat with Alan Abel: his positivity. I don’t think of pranksters as mean cranks, or vindictive cretins, as a rule. But I certainly don’t expect them to be as excessively sunny and optimistic as Alan Abel appears to be. A lot of his hoaxing work is good clean fun. “Laughter is a great tranquilizer,” he told me, “only without the side effects.” He also said “the nice thing about what I do is you can use your mind. It’s fun to write and create imaginary people like Yetta Bronstein,” the ordinary housewife he ran for President of the United States in 1968.
I told Alan Abel I admired his gentle, positive nature. “I’ve always believed that there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” he told me. “Even if it could be an oncoming train.”