Fibbing to Make a Point
Alan Abel may not be a household name, but he ought to be. Unfortunately, it's a little hard to explain what he does in order to deserve this honor. In a new documentary film on his life and work, "Abel Raises Cain," Abel's daughter Jenny and co-director Jeff Hockett tackle that explanation and reveal that in simple terms, he is a prankster. But in wider terms, Abel was an important social critic with much to say about the gullibility of the masses and the fallibility of the media.
You may actually know Alan Abel and not realize it. He's appeared on television news shows and in newspapers and on radio hundreds and hundreds of times - just rarely as himself. He's behind dozens of high-profile and outrageous news stories that were revealed as fakes.
In the 1960s, his Society for Indecency to Naked Animals sought to clothe animals, with the slogan "A nude horse is a rude horse," while his fictitious creation Yetta Bronstein, a Jewish grandmother, ran for president in a few elections. Later Abel would cause a stir with his staged marriage of Idi Amin - a look-alike - to an American woman in order to gain citizenship.
One of his masterpieces involved a group fainting spell in the audience at Phil Donahue's live television debut. Lately, Abel has been masquerading as the leader of the activist group Citizens Against Breastfeeding, which claims that the act is both incestuous and a violation of the baby's civil rights. At one point, he even faked his own death - The New York Times ran a respectful obituary celebrating his calling.
Through the eyes of his daughter, Abel is the recipient of an affectionate portrait that reveals the guy behind the stunts as well as the one right in the middle of them. A former musician turned nightclub performer, Abel - along with his wife and partner in crime, Jeanne - had a radio show on which they pulled some pranks. His real early attention-getter was the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, an organization with an intentionally confusing name that tipped off not one member of the media that the whole movement was a hoax. Eventually Buck Henry took the role of the organization's president, and this taught Abel the most potent lesson of his career - give a credible, straight face to the most insane cause, and you can probably get some media attention that will give a platform to almost anything you do and say. Abel continued to prove that for over four decades and continues still.
In those four decades, the message from his work has not disappeared - in fact, it may be more important than ever. Too much careless reporting is born of single sources with no verification, sometimes mere parroting of officials spouting their agendas as inside information. While the stakes aren't that high when Abel pretends to be the leader of a hooded Ku Klux Klan orchestra, his point is well-taken - the power of the press demands a high level of caution and conscience.
Despite this heavy subtext, the film is far from gloomy - in fact, it's joyful. Abel's stunts are incredibly funny and his energy is infectious. His marriage is still strong and inspiring in its partnership, and Jenny Abel's understanding of her father - not just celebration, but real analysis and the ability to communicate that insight - has created a treasure of a portrait.
It is also a love letter to families that do not live in society's norm. As a unit of love, the Abel family shows that following ones' own heart and intellect, rather than society's, is often the path to real joy - and there is value in questioning the mainstream. Abel is a hero to weird dads everywhere. --By John E. Mitchell | North Adams Transcript | Fibbing to Make a Point
ORIGINAL HOAXER | Before Stephen Colbert, there was Alan Abel
The gullible and inattentive victims of Alan Abel's singularly newsworthy jokes say he's a dangerous nuisance.
Others call him the great pioneer of media hoaxes, the architect of the kind of "fake news" performance art practiced these days by millionaire TV mock-anchors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Abel is also the wicked originator of such very public "gotcha" stunts as the one Montreal radio pranksters Marc-Antoine Audette and Sebastien Trudel played on Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, when, just before the recent U.S. election, they managed to convince her she was on the phone with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and broadcast the inane conversation live on air.
For 40 years, the media, with its constant need for attention-grabbing sound bites and ratings-driven stories, has been both the target of Abel's wacky humor and his means of survival.
Yet for all the sharp media savvy and mischievous chicanery that has drawn, in equal amounts, the wrath and the grudging admiration of his prey - that includes the venerable New York Times, which was taken in by one of Abel's stunts and published his obituary prematurely, then, admitting to a historical precedent, ran an embarrassed retraction a few days later - Abel remains an enigma, an impoverished imp on the fringes of the powerful culture he has so often manipulated and debased with his grand and elaborate schemes.
"We laugh a lot around here," the 78-year-old prankster, raconteur, writer, lecturer, musician, mockumentary filmmaker and media circus ring master said over the phone earlier this week from his new home in Wilton, Conn., about 10 minutes outside of Westport.
Abel and his wife, Jeanne, the subjects of Abel Raises Cain, a loving and insightful documentary written, directed and edited by their Los Angeles-based daughter, Jennifer, and her boyfriend, Jeff Hockett, found a way to laugh even as their longtime home in Westport was being taken from them in 1998.
"We've always lived hand-to-mouth, and we got behind with the banks, we found ourselves surrounded by police cars and bailiffs' trucks," Abel said. "Even though I'd filed for bankruptcy, the police tore up the papers. Westport had had enough of the Abels. They'd made up their minds we had to go. We were being evicted by a dictatorship, exiled. We had to laugh."
The film, an audience favorite at this year's Hot Docs Festival and a prime award winner at several major U.S. film festivals, is an intimate, humorous and compelling portrait of one of America's most compulsively and constructively annoying eccentrics.
--By Greg Quill | Toronto Star | Before Stephen Colbert, there was Alan Abel
In Search of the Next Great Hoax
Approximately halfway through Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett's "Abel Raises Cain," the documentary starts spinning.
How is it, we wonder, that the documentary's quiet and humble subject ever pulled off such astonishing lies? And as we grapple with just who Alan Abel is and the scope of what he was able to accomplish, one can't help but start guessing what mind-blowing fact will come out next. It ceases being a movie and starts to become a guessing game - a game that directors Jenny Abel and Hockett win over and over again.
Alan Abel is, for lack of a better term, a hoaxer. For almost all his life, he has fooled the media, creating lies to highlight both the hypocrisy and silliness of the general American public as well as the shallowness of those in the national media.
He created a fake organization that demanded animals wear pants, in an attempt to mock the country's moral crusaders. He posed as the founder and organizer of a "school for beggars" to show how gullible the media will be in finding that next great story. He launched a wave of protests opposing breast-feeding and received an onslaught of shocked and offended phone calls.
And just when we think we have his modus operandi figured out, he socks us right in the stomach. His obituary, according to the documentary, was the only one The New York Times ever had to retract.
All along the way, he graced the front page of the nation's major newspapers, appeared on the cover of Time magazine and earned both the ire and admiration of news reporters who saw him as both a menace to their careers and an essential element to their profession.
In many ways, his cons exposed the flaws in the priorities of both broadcast and print media. Maybe he even helped keep some journalists on their toes.
Hockett and Jenny Abel deserve recognition, though, for their approach to the material. It would have been so easy, particularly for Jenny Abel as Alan Abel's daughter, to get bogged down in the cons themselves and to reduce this documentary to a simple overview of his "career."
Instead, they open the film up to scrutiny and analysis, Jenny Abel's own narration detailing her parents' financial struggles and their commitment to keep doing what they've been doing. She looks closely at their marriage and digs deeper into not only what her dad did, but why he remained committed to his cause for so long and at so great a cost.
The result is a more complete profile of incredible intimacy, where these remarkably successful hoaxes are made even more amazing because we come to fully understand who was conning behind that mask and posing as that spokesman.
It's an impressive debut, featuring a story that's almost too perfect to be true. Here's a fascinating life that deserves recognition, discussed in a way that enriches and deepens the conversation.
This is a heartfelt, interesting and, above all, entertaining film leaving the viewer bewildered as to whether you've heard of this man before. The film can keep you talking, telling others about this hilarious old man who's still pulling the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting media.
--By Steven Snyder | Minnesota Daily | In Search of the Next Great Hoax