Old trickster

At age 78, able-bodied Alan Abel’s life is still one big joke
By IAN SANDS  |  October 9, 2008

HOAX-US POCUS: Alan Abel posing as Jim Rogers, founder of a group that sought to abolish breast-feeding, calling it incestuous and responsible for many of society’s ills

On New Year’s Day 1980, telegrams sent from Utah arrived at the New York Times and the Daily News announcing that 50-year-old media hoaxter Alan Abel had suffered a heart attack at a ski resort near Orem, Utah. He left behind a wife, Jeanne, and daughter, Jennifer.

It seemed like a tragedy, to be sure.

In the obituary published the next day, the Times wrote, “Mr. Abel . . . made a point in his work of challenging the obvious and uttering the outrageous.”

News of Abel’s fate sparked an outpouring of tribute. Mourners sent more than 100 letters to his old house in Westport, Connecticut, bemoaning the loss; several dozen orders for flower arrangements were placed with a florist.

Only thing was, Abel wasn’t dead.

He’d been holed up at a friend’s apartment in New York City.

The whole thing started when, during negotiations with a movie studio for rights to his life story, he overheard two lawyers in an elevator saying they should wait until the prankster died, then “buy the rights for peanuts from his estate.” So Abel decided to oblige them.

A few days after the obits ran, a second flock of telegrams went out to the press reading, REPORTS OF MY DEATH HAVE BEEN GROSSLY EXAGGERATED. THERE WILL BE A NEWS CONFERENCE TOMORROW AT 12 NOON AT THE BILTMORE HOTEL.

It would be the first time the Paper of Record would have to retract an obituary.

Modest beginning
Abel, bless his heart, has been pulling shit like that for nearly 50 years. In 1959, he embarked on his first high-profile hoax, a tongue-in-cheek crusade to clothe naked animals “for modesty’s sake” under the banner of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), a stunt that landed him and SINA’s “president” (actor/writer/friend Buck Henry) guest appearances to explain their position in character on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and the Today Show. The campaign was an attempt to poke fun at the professional moralists of the ’50s, do-gooders who were, according to a write-up on Abel’s Web site, “busy censoring bikini-clad women, outspoken books and films, and classic statues.”

Since the SINA gag, Abel has baited media into covering a fictitious Jewish grandmother’s presidential campaign (1964); his very own “Omar’s School for Beggars” (1975), which he says was “a satirical commentary on the rise of unemployment and homelessness in America”; a sham wedding he threw for former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and a WASP (1979); and a campaign to ban breast-feeding (2000).

For these and other exploits too numerous to mention, Abel is considered a giant in the contemporary pranking community.

“He’s really the first to successfully turn pranking into not just sociopolitical commentary, but dare I say even an art form,” writes James Cobalt of the Boston Society of Spontaneity in an e-mail. “[H]e is to pranking as Andy Warhol is to modern art.”

“He’s my comedy Yoda,” gushes celebrated Boston prankster and comedy writer John Hargrave (who, himself, once tried to fake his own death).

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