» LATEST FEATURES
LITERATURE» Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
MUSIC» The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
MUSIC» Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
After a few false starts at traditional work, Alan Abel began his career of entertaining people as the self-stylized Professor Paradiddle, a traveling drum teacher-slash-stand up comic who translated a lifelong love of percussion (he played with Glenn Miller's band in the military and was the founder of Ohio State University's jazz forum) into a job speaking at lodges and social clubs. But as much as Abel loved the drums, even his stint as Professor Paradiddle wouldn't last. As the legend goes, while en route to a Paradiddle performance Abel came upon a rural traffic jam, the result of two stubborn farm animals, a cow and a bull in the throws of biological attraction, blocking the road. Having taken more notice of how offended his fellow motorists were than of the animal coitus on the pavement, Abel struck upon an idea that would eventually lead to a decades-long string of public hoaxes. Although they could hardly be considered comedy in any traditional sense his creative schemes have never been short of hilarious, and Abel's deadpan style of pranking, detailed in the new documentary Abel Raises Cain, eclipses anything Stephen Colbert has done to date.
The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, know in the media as SINA, was Abel's first large-scale prank. Initially developed as satirical story for the Saturday Evening Post magazine, Abel realized he'd hit a nerve when the magazine rejected the piece because they considered its position - that "all animals should wear clothing for the sake of decency, namely horses, cows, dogs, cats and other domestic animals that stand higher than 4 inches or are longer than 6 inches" - as serious, in spite of the obvious contradiction in its title. What was initially an off-the-cuff spoof on the moralistic crusaders of conservative America soon ballooned into a national movement, with a number of media appearances by Abel and a few accomplices stoking the fire and individual chapters springing up across America of their own accord, one of which even built a parade float in a Midwestern town.
|Alan Abel holding a copy of the official magazine for the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (1964).|
Although his hoaxes run the gambit of topicality, there don't seem to be any ideological boundaries when it comes to Abel's quarry, at least beyond those who take themselves too seriously. Usually more absurd than racy, Abel's pranks would skirt the edges of indecency and invariably draw in people from all sides. His most recent campaign, which claims that "mothers are getting erotic experiences by breastfeeding," has elicited floods of commentary. In the film, as Abel sits by the telephone playing messages from his voicemail, emphatic denunciations come from what sounds like both backwoods car mechanics and irate liberal arts professors, and that reaction is balanced later in the documentary by the responses to an earlier appeal in the opposite direction: to accept pornography. When Abel urges society to let go of their inhibitions and let down their pants, he takes fire from all sides. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Abel staged a publicity run-up to his legitimate satirical film, Is There Sex After Death?, by promoting a non-existent "Sexual Olympics" in 1971, and event for which he further heightened the tension by recruiting fake protesters to picket outside the event. A few years before Abel had orchestrated a campaign to elect Yetta Bronstein, a fictitious Jewish grandmother from the Bronx, to the Presidency of the United States. Campaigning under the slogan "Vote for Yetta and things will get betta!," the candidacy of Bronstein, who was prevented from attending any rallies by such grandmotherly ailments as swollen ankles, was taken seriously enough to draw a note of well-wishing from Richard Nixon. One of Yetta's major platform positions was a plan for canceling the salaries of US Congressmen and instead "putting them on straight commission.
|An outraged taxpayer challenges Yetta Bronstein's campaign manager (Alan Abel) while supporters Mimi Miller, Jeanne Abel, and Bill Moran look on (1968).|
As it plays out in Abel Raises Cain, Alan Abel's story is both inspiring and at times a bit depressing. Anyone who has dared to live a life in persuit of their passions only to be met with hard times when their dreams, even when realized, fail to deliver much financial security can feel both a tinge of recognition and a hint of dread seeing Abel and his wife living out their golden years in a neighbor's basement after losing their own home. There are plenty of spinning newspaper headlines proclaiming "He makes a living as a practical joker," but Abel Raises Cain documents a comic performance artist, once ahead of his time and now too old for the game, just scraping by. To his credit, a lack of funds never discouraged Abel from pulling a fast one on society.
The documentary cuts old newspaper headlines, photographs and television appearances with snippets of Abel's current daily routine, from his faux-exercises (walking gingerly with a pair of five-pound weights) to his hotel room calls to radio stations as a moral activist decrying breast feeding. Both then and now, Abel comes across as a man a bit off-center. Sitting on the hotel bed, running through the mechanics of the "daily reminders" in his planner while wearing only a t-shirt and underpants (briefs unfortunately, not boxers), Abel doesn't seem that different from the average aging father, but when his wife Jeanne - a longtime hoax accomplice who provided the voice of Yetta Bronstein and who has also worked on Abel's two feature films - explains that he still insists on hand-washing his own underwear, there's a hint of his inner weirdo.
But it is that inner weirdo, the personality that could never quite fit into the 9-5 schedule of the mainstream workday, which allows Abel to do what he does. Though the term is often tossed about with an alarming degree of inaccuracy, Alan Abel is truly an "Andy Kaufman-type" comedic genius. In fact, considering that Abel's SINA prank took place in 1959, when Kaufman was only 10 years old, it might be more appropriate to label Kaufman as an Alan Abel-type comedic genius.
|Jenny Abel with her parents, Alan and Jeanne Abel, during the filming of Abel Raises Cain (2003).|
Abel Raises Cain highlights Abel's stunts and, along with a treasure trove of archival footage, contains interviews with both his accomplices and those he duped. From his beginnings with SINA to his low-key assault on the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 2000 -- where he marched through crowds with a miniature bullhorn and a "Ban Breast Feeding" t-shirt, claiming human nursing as an explanation for everything from the crack-cocaine epidemic to Monica Lewinsky's "oral fixation" -- Abel Raises Cain covers four decades of hoaxes and paints a fascinating picture of a fascinating character.
In one section of old film Abel, delivering a lecture as the head of Omar's School For Beggars, sits in a shoddy space with gaping holes in the drywall, a crude black hood hanging awkwardly over his face. His instruction on how to make quick money in the streets of New York falls on the ears of an attentive class, some of whom are also wearing masks. Later, during a sidewalk interview for the nightly news, Abel, in character as Omar, rattles off rapid-fire nonsense from beneath his black hood, implying that "professional panhandling" was legitimized by a 1970s Supreme Court ruling. When Abel appears as Omar on a television talk show, the hood still in place, it is with conviction that he explains how his intensive self-help course (which takes a week and costs $100) is ideal for the "PhDs and space engineers from Coco Beach who came up to New York and can't find work," and the scores of "over-trained college kids" with all manner of graduate degrees who are unwanted in the workplace. No matter how outlandish his schemes were, Abel was able to deliver them in a way that many people found believable, and Omar the master beggar was only one of many colorful characters in his repertoire.
|Alan Abel dressed as "Omar the Beggar," a man who taught people how to panhandle professionally (1975).|
The public file on Alan Abel's long tenure as America's greatest prankster is interesting enough on its own, but Abel Raises Cain also capitalizes on the deeply personal angle provided by the narration of Jenny Abel, the satirist's daughter and the director/producer behind the documentary. "I'd say it was normal," Jenny remarks on the inevitable questions about her childhood, though she's quick to point out that her parents made no attempts to conceal her father's antics. Her assessment of her childhood as "normal" is in large part due to the fact that her father's oddities weren't overly odd when taken in the context of the only life she had known, and generally those antics only intersected her life when she saw him on television. Sure, her father had used her as a cry-on-demand prop at a local zoning meeting about the railroad caboose he'd installed as her back yard tree house, but the caboose, like the partially-built Loch Ness Monster replica in the front yard, was just a part of Jenny's everyday life. (The back yard also featured the Public People Pooper, a portable outhouse used in a sidewalk protest against the Helmsley Palace, which once refused Jenny's father the use of their lavatory.) Little Jenny was even drawn into one prank in which Abel expounded on the nutritional qualities of human hair, although once on camera she refused to go along, leaving her father to bite into the prop "hairburger" himself.
Over the years Abel, with the help of friends, family, fellow jokers and out of work actors, pulled dozens of capers that invariably sucked people in. His looney campaigns made headlines in newspapers around the country, from the Los Angeles Times to the Denver Post to the New York Times, the latter of which was prompted to print its first ever obituary retraction when Abel faked his own death in 1980. As the modern age accelerated from newspapers to television newscasts, Abel kept pace with high-profile stunts that programs from "20/20" to "NBC Nightly News" with Tom Brokaw picked up on. There was the attractive and single female winner of a $35-million Powerball lottery who Abel landed on every television program imaginable. There was the elaborate "green card wedding" between the ruthless Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and a young American WASP. There was the Iranian weapons dealer wracked with guilt over the $6-million he made on the Iran-Contra arms scandal who wanted to give the money back to the American people. Perhaps best of all, Abel brought the New York debut of Phil Donahue's popular television show to a grinding halt when actors planted in the studio audience began fainting one-by-one (Donahue eventually finished the show alone, having cleared out the audience).
Needless to say, as charming and hilarious as they are in hindsight, the reaction to Abel's pranks weren't always so pleasant at the time. Most people simply do not like being put on. "You can poke holes in the ozone layer," Abel says while lying in bed next to his wife, a black sleeping mask covering his eyes. "But God forbid you poke holes in somebody's psyche and get them upset. That's a no-no."
It is hard to say if Abel's antics were best served in days passed or if they could be equally successful in the context of the modern media circus. There's a knee-jerk reaction to think that people today aren't as gullible as they once were, but every generation tends to think that the one before it was a bit intellectually primitive only to find out they're as capable of being hoodwinked as anyone. [Insert your own comment on WMDs and the invasion of Iraq here.] While newspaper and television reporters can certainly vet their stories much quicker and more thoroughly in the post-Google age, the media and the public are as susceptible as ever to being baited. And the luring is where Abel excels in his pranks. As one former accomplice points out, it was Abel's ability to read people and understand the often sensitive but sometimes vague emotional undercurrents in society, and exploit them, that made his outlandish hoaxes so successful, and that success could just as easily translate into the 21st century. It took but a matter of hours to learn the name and website address of Eliot Spitzer's call girl, but it took Oprah three months to challenge fraudulent memoirist James Frey, and one wouldn't think that a campaign for animal pants would ever have gone on long enough to involve an airplane. While most hot air is eventually cooled by the filter of a society's collective sense, sometimes things just take off and leave reason in the dust - it is why we have urban legends, the reason no amount of expert assurances could quell the mass fears of a Y2K digital apocalypse, and the reason intelligent leg-pullers like Alan Abel will always get their laughs.
With virtually nothing of its scope to compare to, Alan Abel's body of work as an artist - using the term "artist" is in itself a stretch from tradition - is hard to encapsulate or define. What exactly is a person who takes as much pleasure in misleading a small crowd as he does hoodwinking tens of thousands? A practical joker? A scam artist? An imposter? Towards the end of the film Abel summarizes his gags in much less specific terms, saying simply that "it's an opportunity to perform." SEE ALSO: www.abelraisescain.com
SEE ALSO: www.alanabel.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
» MEDIA DOWNLOADS
» GOT STICKERS?
--> Send an with $2 in PayPal funds to cover postage. Don't worry, we'll load you up with enough to cover your town. Then just be patient. They will arrive soon.