Tonight, Alan Abel is a 78-year-old man who has scheduled an interview to take place in the middle of the night. The interview has been arranged by Abel’s friend and publicist Bruce Spencer, who in my mind serves as the Dr. Gonzo to Abel’s Raoul Duke. It has been a busy week for Abel, Spencer reports, with the interview following an appearance on the nationally syndicated NPR show, On The Media. When I reach Abel, he is affable and loquacious, and immediately jumps into the story of why Walter Cronkite hates him.
“Laughter is the only tranquilizer without side effects. It’s better to give ulcers than to get ulcers.”
“Forty years ago, [Cronkite] did seven minutes on CBS about this crazy guy who wanted to put pants on ponies,” Abel explains. “And he’s still angry after all these years. A friend of mine, [actor] Buck Henry, had dinner with Walter Cronkite, and he said, ‘You know, Walter’s still mad at you. He’s been retired for 10 years, and he’s not mad at Hitler or Mussolini, or Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro; he’s mad at you guys because you pulled the wool over his eyes.’ And I think that says a lot about humanity.”
The “crazy guy who wanted to put pants on ponies” is obviously Abel, and refers to his first campaign that gained widespread media exposure, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA). The primary interest of SINA, formed in 1959, was to raise awareness of the indecency of unclothed animals and lobby lawmakers to pass and enforce laws requiring all animals to wear clothing. Its slogan was, “A nude horse is a rude horse.” The SINA operation continued for over four years, during which Abel and his loyal friend Henrywho posed as SINA president G. Clifford Proutpleaded their case in hundreds of interviews, including appearances on The Tonight Show, The Today Show, and, of course, CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. When Time Magazine finally blew the whistle on their hoax in 1963, Abel was hailed as a comic genius, a jokester who had manipulated the burgeoning mass media to have a laugh at everyone else’s expense. While he was certainly laughing about the whole ordeal, Abel remains concerned that many people may have missed the point.
“It was about censorship,” he explains. “If we’re going to censor books, records and films,” Abel says, drifting into character, “Why not censor those naked animals out there? How do you explain to a three-year-old child why Rover the dog is naked, and mom and dad aren’t? You can’t. So he or she grows up with a double standard; they run away from home, they get pregnant, and they take up smoking, drugs, and we have to stop that.”
Such hyperbole is common amongst Abel’s characters, and perhaps that’s a major reason for their effectiveness. In 2000, a new Abel creation, Jim Rogers, began making the rounds on the media circuit, demanding legislation that would abolish breastfeeding in public, an act that Rogers considered “an immoral act of perversion." Rogers would be the subject of hundreds of televised debates and interviews between 2000 and 2005, taunting those who opposed him with claims that breastfeeding was "perverse and incestuous," even going so far as to say that women were using their suckling infants as a means of sexual gratification. Abel’s generous use of hyperbole would seem to be a direct parallel of real-life media zealots such as Bill O’Reilly and Pat Robertson, who regularlyand casuallymake statements no less ridiculous than Jim Rogers’s assertion that breastfeeding leads to homosexuality.
“I got eight inches of space, which was two inches more than the guy who invented the six-pack, who died the same day,” Abel remembers, “and he didn’t come back.” Abel’s death was, needless to say, a hoax, and is perhaps his favorite exploit to date. “That’s your importance in life. There’s something about getting into the New York Times’s index when you die; that means that you have arrived at the Pearly Gates in style. It’s a good feeling to stand in the snow in New York, reading my own obituary [in an early edition of the paper] the night before it came out. And I remember thinking, ‘My God, we made it.’ ”
As a story in People magazine surmised in a piece about the Times hoax, “It is said that every man wishes to be immortal, and Alan Abel was willing to die to achieve that goal. That is, Abel arranged to appear to be dead because he enjoys having a laugh at the world’s expense even more than he desires lasting fame.”
Such sentiment, as well as the dark nature of Abel’s hoax, invites comparison to America’s other famous comedic deceptionist, the late Andy Kaufman. Kaufman’s most famous bits involved blurring the lines between life and performance, similar to the dedication that Abel demonstrates when staying in character for several years at a time in order to perpetuate whatever scam he’s running. When asked about Kaufman, Abel fondly reminisces about the friendship the two shared in the early 1980s: “We used to walk down Broadway, and he’d stop and talk to everybody and anybody. I used to tease Andy that he was making 10 grand a week doing Taxi, and he was mud-wrestling with women and doing all kinds of nutty things, and I said, ‘But you’re not really doing anything for society, you’re just having fun.’ ”
Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Abel a few questions about how he supports himself. This subject is the only one which he's vague about in the interview. He mentions I am probably better off watching his daughter’s recent documentary about himAbel Raises Cainto ascertain the details of his day-to-day affairs, but says he works as a consultant, and then gives some examples of the kind of consultations he’s done in the past. Rather than traditional consulting jobs in which one is brought in to advise on business or personal matters, all three of Abel’s stories involve tracking down people or money in cross-country adventures, leaving me with the idea that perhaps Alan Abel is some sort of vigilante mystery-solver, a cross between Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction and Encyclopedia Brown. As for securing funding for his hoaxes, Abel is similarly ambiguous, attributing his financial backing to an anonymous millionaire from Florida.
Even after 60 years in the prank business, Abel is still hard at work. (His newest project seems to involve agitating for a five-dollar-per-pound body tax to replace the current US tax system.) “Laughter is the only tranquilizer without side effects,” Abel philosophizes after being asked about his devotion to his craft. “It’s better to give ulcers than to get ulcers.” The idea of a joke giving somebody an ulcer takes on new meaning coming from the guy who snuck into Super Bowl XVII, planted his own referee on the field, and didn’t leave until the referee was chased off the field by a police officerafter having called four plays. The icing on the cake, naturally, was that Abel planted the police officer, as well.
(You can hear Abel, agit-pop artist Ron English, and Steve Lambert, founder of the Anti-Advertising Agency, talk about their work at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, April 24, in New York's Lower East Side.)