Saturday, 14 March 2009

“Most people will believe nearly anything”

Those are the words of professional hoaxer Alan Abel, one of my childhood heroes – who, I’m happy to report, is still going strong today. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s hard at work right now, devising some new way to render the valuable public service of giving people what he calls “a kick in the intellect”.

If Alan Abel didn’t exist, he would probably have invented himself as a publicity stunt. In the distinguished tradition of the fool of antiquity, “Abel challenges the obvious and utters the outrageous”, to quote the New York Times. And they should know: in January 1980 he managed to get that same newspaper to publish a report of his own death which proved to be, let’s say, less than totally accurate in certain material respects.

His book Yours For Decency (originally published in the US in 1966 as The Great American Hoax) is one of the funniest books I have ever read. I enjoy a good laugh, but I have a very low tolerance threshold when it comes to suspension of disbelief. So when I know the story being recounted is real rather than fictitious, I find the whole enterprise vastly more amusing.

In 1959, Abel (an ad man who once floated the concept of renting out advertising space on bald men’s heads), dreamed up a tongue-in-cheek crusade, spearheaded by an imaginary character named G. Clifford Prout Jr., dedicated to clothing cats, dogs, cows and other animals in the name of public decency. His satirical send-up of censorship and hypocrisy in contemporary American society was widely perceived as a serious undertaking. Somehow he managed to keep a straight face (in public) in his superbly deadpan role as “Vice President” of the ironically named Society for Indecency to Naked Animals [sic].

SINA had a prestigious New York mailing address and telephone number. But its “office” actually consisted of a locked broom cupboard with a nameplate on the door. For nearly six years, Abel, his wife Jeanne, and actor Buck Henry in the role of “President” G. Clifford Prout Jr. attracted media attention, some enthusiastic support, and quite a bit of outraged hostility.

Buck Henry and Alan Abel field questions about the SINA hoax during a press conference in New York City (1962).
Photo by Kelly Hart, © Alan Abel.

Alan Abel holding a copy of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals official magazine (1964).
Photo by Sasch Rubenstein, © Alan Abel.

SINA was just one of a number of hoaxes that Abel has perpetrated on an unsuspecting American public over the years. His success speaks volumes about the media’s readiness to carelessly accept sensational stories at face value, and the hoaxes make illuminating case studies in human gullibility.

Abel’s daughter Jenny has made a film – Abel Raises Cain – as a personal account of her father’s life and work. I haven’t seen it yet, but a reviewer writing in the STAR-TRIBUNE describes it like this: “An affectionate portrait of a gadfly dedicated to lampooning American society’s foibles, the laziness of the media and the tendency in all of us to swallow what we really want to believe but shouldn’t”.

The movie has been screened at film festivals in the US, Canada, New Zealand and other countries, and, as you might have guessed, I’m planning to buy the DVD. You can find out more about Abel Raises Cain here.

1 comment:

Tom Mahon said...

I enjoy a good laugh myself, and think it is right and proper to poke fun at people who take themselves seriously, but if leaving "Armstrongism" means allocating time and space for the bizarre, then I am staying where I am!

Perhaps breathing in the political atmosphere of Brussels is affecting your ability to set sensible priorities, and use your time wisely?