The father of fake news on naked animals and other hoaxes.
On his way to a jazz drumming gig in the late ’50s, prankster Alan Abel found himself stuck in a Texas traffic jam. The source of the gridlock: bovines consummating a love connection in the middle of the road. The sight inspired Abel to spawn the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (with a spokesman named Buck Henry and the slogan “A nude horse is a rude horse”). An instant media sensation, this tongue-in-cheek protest against censorship culminated in Abel’s star turn on the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” Over the years, Abel also sabotaged the “Phil Donahue Show,” married off a green card–seeking Idi Amin to a young WASP, tricked his way into writing a syndicated column, and finagled an HBO interview to reveal that he has the world’s smallest, er, endowment. Recently, I called Abel at his home in Southbury, Conn.
Paul Kilduff: Your pranks have been grabbing media attention for decades. Today’s ballyhooed 24-hour news cycle—does that give you more opportunity to fool people, or less?
Alan Abel: The Internet has become a bit of a snakepit in the sense that you’ve got Snopes and Smoking Gun and all these online newspapers and magazines, and they’re all looking to get a scoop. I fought that. I’ve had for the last three years a hoax on the Internet that was constantly running and no one has discovered it. The website got so many hits every day that finally the server had to take it down.
PK: So wait a minute. Too many people are competing on the Internet to check out what you’re doing. So you can’t even be found out. So nobody gets the joke.
AA: The Internet poses a problem because there’s instant, shall we say, research. In two seconds, you can get one million responses. It’s like having a Smithsonian in your living room. Now, who are the elves and the midgets or whoever, the slaves, who put all that information in there? I could see them, down in the hole growing beards and being forced to do all this work.
PK: We’re living in the age of what Jon Stewart calls fake news. How do you feel about that?
AA: I think it’s a great thing to see. I call them copycats, because I was doing this many years before them. Many years before the Onion I was putting out a fake newspaper occasionally. I gave a lecture once at U.C. there in Berkeley in 1962, I believe it was, talking about the society to clothe all naked animals for the sake of decency. There [were] about 1,500 students. I spoke for about an hour and they believed I was just a certified nut. And it’s the hardest thing to keep [from] laughing myself.
PK: Nobody caught on that it was a joke?
AA: No, they had no clue. And they laughed, of course, at everything I was saying and that was my intention, of course. To keep them amused. The underlying common denominator of all my hoaxes is to amuse and perhaps educate, give people sort of a kick in the intellect. It’s really deadpan comedy.
PK: One of the things that I find intriguing is that you were on the “Mike Douglas Show,” one of the greatest talk shows ever, in various characters. Was Douglas in on it?
AA: Not at first. But after a while, [he was]. I would return as different characters in different dress, as Omar the Beggar, for example—I had the dark glasses—and during the commercial break he says, “I know you’re Alan Abel, but we’ll play it straight.” He never dropped the ball or exposed it. Don Rickles was on the show, too, and he was buffaloed by it.
PK: You don’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story. What you’re doing sells newspapers, right?
AA: That’s exactly what it’s all about. Even Walter Cronkite fell for the campaign against naked animals. He did seven minutes on the full network and, my goodness, when he found out . . . he was furious. And I heard from a friend of a friend of Buck Henry’s, about a month before Walter died, that he was out to dinner and said he was so angry at having been spoofed. He wasn’t mad at Hussein or Hitler or Mussolini, but he had that chip on his shoulder.
PK: Walter Cronkite went to his grave ticked off at you.
AA: Exactly. He carried it with him and I’m sorry about that.
PK: What about Phil Donahue? Is he still ticked off at you?
AA: His ratings went off the charts. He came to New York from Chicago and presented the first week of live shows. And then on the second day, when he was going to talk about gay senior citizens, I planted eight of my people in the audience. Whenever Phil held out the mic, they fainted, or pretended to. It made banner headlines in a number of papers. He claimed he thought it was Legionnaires’ disease.
PK: You did have a quasi-legitimate job in journalism with your column “The Secret Life of Bunker C. Hill.” Now, what was that all about?
AA: In the late ’60s I sent out samples to 100 daily newspapers around the country and they all rejected it. I thought, I’ll start a third newspaper in San Francisco called the San Francisco Times. Scott Newhall [the executive editor of the combined Sunday Chronicle and Examiner] called me to have lunch. I finally “confessed” that my backer had gone bankrupt and there would not be a third newspaper but I was stuck because I . . . had signed up a columnist called Professor Bunker C. Hill for a year’s contract. [He] said, “Well, do you have any samples?” I gave them half a dozen. Every week I had an 800- to 1,200-word column by midnight Thursday, and they never changed a single word. I was going to drain San Francisco Bay, and put up low-cost housing—and people would get so outraged.
PK: How do you keep the hoaxing enterprise going?
AA: I consult with people who want to have fun, who have maybe deep pockets. They’ll hire me for a couple of weeks . . . to pull off a prank, sometimes for a book or some product. Joe Vitale, a motivational speaker, had a book come out called There’s a Customer Born Every Minute. I suggested he have a canine concert for dogs only, and the music played on such a high frequency only the dogs can hear it. Soon he had a park loaded with dogs and people. [The band] played for 20 minutes with no sound. [After] each song, secret whistle-blowers with a high-frequency whistle behind the curtain would blow their whistles and the dogs would jump up and bark and carry on like they enjoyed the song. It was a great success. He sold a lot of books.
For more Kilduff, visit the “Kilduff File Super Fan Page” on Facebook.
Age: I only admit to being 80.
Birthplace: Coshocton, Ohio.
Astrological sign: Born on Aug. 2, whatever that is.
Motto: It’s better to give ulcers than to get them.