< Prank Calling

Transcript

Friday, March 28, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
This time last year, On the Media played something of an April Fool's joke, an interview about a new sitcom called Jihad to Be There, which we described as, quote, "a madcap romp through a terrorist training camp." [BOB LAUGHS]

We made the whole thing up, but it was just believable enough that some of you fell for it. And that kernel of truth is what most good practical jokers rely on, including, and especially, veteran hoaxer Alan Abel.

Abel has spent a lifetime conjuring up fictitious characters and causes and turning the joke on the media. Decades ago, he created a fast-talking character named Omar, who taught classes on panhandling. The news media ate it up.
[CLIPS]:
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Omar's intensive training course takes a week and costs $100. For that, students are taught gimmicks to suit their personalities and locations that Omar handpicks for maximum cash flow.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Aspiring beggars take five two-hour classes from this hustler. He says he's launched thousands of careers.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
So how do we know who is truly homeless and who is a con man?
[END OF CLIPS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
To carry out his hoaxes, Abel sometimes enlisted the help of his daughter, Jenny, who grew up with this madness and has preserved it for all to see in the documentary Abel Raises Cain, recently out on DVD. Both father and daughter join me now. Alan, welcome to the show.
ALAN ABEL:
Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And Jenny, welcome to you.
JENNY ABEL:
Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Let's start with Alan. Another one of your early hoaxes first got the attention of the press in the late 50s. It was an advocacy group called SINA, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals [LAUGHS]. And the actor Buck Henry played SINA spokesman G. Clifford Prout, and you played another SINA executive, and the mission of the group was – what?
ALAN ABEL:
Well, to clothe all naked animals for the sake of decency, mainly any animal that stands higher than four inches or longer than six inches. We wanted to put Bermuda shorts on horses, jumpsuits on cats, muumuus on cows. And a nude horse was a rude horse, in our estimation.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Now, you didn't have a larger message here, right? You were just having fun?
ALAN ABEL:
No, no, it was just against censorship. If we're going to censor books, records, films, 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. They take up smoking, drugs. And we have to stop that. So that was my message. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Okay. And it quickly gained a number of very serious adherents who didn't realize it was a joke.
ALAN ABEL:
Oh starting with Walter Cronkite - he did a full seven minutes on the CBS Network about 40 years ago, and he's still angry today. I heard this from a friend of a friend of Buck Henry's – Walter is still angry after all these years that he got fooled by that crazy campaign. He's not mad at Hitler, Mussolini or Saddam. He's mad at us for fooling him about clothing naked animals. [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now Jenny, as a kid watching your dad on TV playing these characters, what did you think he did for a living?
JENNY ABEL:
All I really knew of it was that my father was a performer. I wasn't really cognizant of the underlying message, if there was one. I just saw this guy wearing a black hood on television and my mom saying, oh Jennifer, there's Daddy on TV.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
That was when he was playing Omar, the teacher of panhandlers.

JENNY ABEL:
That's correct, yeah. I was a small child at that point.
[CLIP]
ALAN ABEL AS OMAR:
You've just been bashed from your job and you got to get something. You can't stay on $100 a week take-home pay, $74, $75. You're going to need more than that. You need $2, $3, $400, $5, $100 a week to live. Okay, you're going to get it, ‘cause this is what professional panhandling is all about.
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
When you saw your father on TV, wearing that black hood, it terrified you.
JENNY ABEL:
He just looked so frightening. And, in fact, I found the hood, just by itself, I think, in my dad's desk drawer, and I immediately leaped away from it. It was a scary revelation, or a realization, rather, to understand that that, in fact, was my dad underneath that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Your father gets subsumed so thoroughly into his characters. Did you think he was a different person?
JENNY ABEL:
[LAUGHING] In a sense, yes. And sometimes I still wonder when my dad is falling in and out of character.
[CLIP] [MUSIC]
JENNY ABEL:
When I was in elementary school, I remember the other kids asking me what my dad did for a living, and I would say, he's on TV, because I really thought that that was his job. But none of the kids believed me, and taunted me for being a liar. I didn't know how to explain to them that he was on TV but just never as himself.

[MUSIC IN BACKGROUND]

He would appear under different aliases, like Dr. Harrison T. Rogers, Bruce Spencer or Count Von Blitzstein or Martin Ostracher or Rufus Thunderberg or Martin Swagg Jr.
JENNY ABEL:
When he's deadpanning, he just spews BS [BROOKE LAUGHS] and you get trapped inside of this weirdness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Your father is nodding.
JENNY ABEL:
[LAUGHS]
ALAN ABEL:
But most people don't get the message, Brooke. I don't think hardly anyone saw that SINA, the Society to Clothe Naked Animals, was a satire on censorship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I don't think so either, which raises the question, why bother?
ALAN ABEL:
It's fun. I mean, ideas like euthanasia cruises, when Dr. Kevorkian was hot in the news, it made newspaper stories all over the country, the idea of going out for three days from Fort Lauderdale - fun, food, sex, whatever you wanted. Then the deck is greased, the railing is taken away and you slide down into Davy Jones' locker - for people who have nothing left to live for.

Now, I did interview after interview after interview, reporters who wanted go aboard The Last Supper - that was the name of the ship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Why a spoof about some bimbo winning the lottery?
ALAN ABEL:
Well, this young lady came to me – Lee Chirillo - she's a fine actress, and she said, you know, I don't know whether to wake up in the morning and brush my teeth or take an overdose. You know, I'm so despondent. I go to these cattle calls as an actress and they want me for my body, rather than my brains. I need some stardom. How am I going to get it?

So I thought about it and thought about it. At that point, the lottery was up to, I think, $35 million, one of the biggest ever, back in 1990. And I said why don't you pretend to win the lottery, and you'll be a darling on the front page of newspapers – maybe, if the Giants don't win.
[CLIPS]
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Thirty-year-old Charlie Taylor has probably given her last manicure and facial. The Dobb's Ferry cosmetologist is the lucky winner of last night's $35 million lottery.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
There is a woman from Dobb's Ferry, New York, who may be the luckiest person in the state tonight. The 30-year-old cosmetologist is the single winner of the $35 million lottery jackpot.
[END OF CLIPS]
ALAN ABEL:
It was that Sunday. The Giants did not win. Lee made the front page of the New York Post, The Daily News and all of the other newspapers all over the world, because here she is, a beautiful young lady who is single, who has $35 million. How can you as an editor in any newspaper ignore that as a headline? You can't!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You have spent your entire career gulling, fooling and humiliating the media. What's your opinion of the news?
ALAN ABEL:
Well, you're looking for perversions and calamities. Really, you want obscene, offbeat stories. When I was at the 2000 Convention – Republicans – all the reporters were there. They were looking for someone to interview, and they're all in caucus, they're all in meetings. There was nobody there, except a few pigeons and rabbits – and Citizens Against Breastfeeding.
[CLIP]
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
Should women be allowed to breastfeed in public? One of our guests tonight says, absolutely not. Jim Rogers is the East Coast spokesman for Citizens Against Breastfeeding, and Leslie Burby is the vice-president of ProMoM.

So, Jim, let's start with you. What's wrong with breastfeeding in the open? Is it too sexy?
[END OF CLIP]
ALAN ABEL:
I did 200 interviews following that stint there in Philadelphia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Jenny?
JENNY ABEL:
Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You narrate throughout the documentary. You talk about both your mom and dad as a kind of curiosity, even to you, even now. When you look over the totality of your parents' life, how do you see it?
JENNY ABEL:
Well, I do believe that my dad - he is an activist in his own weird way. I don't know. I don't want to say that my dad has changed the world [LAUGHS], but I do think that he's – he’s changed the way people think. And maybe that's more valuable, I'm not sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Jenny Abel, thank you very much.
JENNY ABEL:
Thank you, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Jenny Abel is co-director of the documentary Abel Raises Cain, about her father Alan Abel, a lifetime media hoaxer. Alan, thank you, too.
ALAN ABEL:
You're welcome. My pleasure.
[CLIP]
ALAN ABEL AS JIM ROGERS:
Our position is, after 22,000 respondents have been interviewed, using primarily the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Profile, mothers are getting erotic experiences by breastfeeding. Also, we've found in a number of cases – and this is only a two-year study so it's just a warning flag – many youngsters grow up to become, shall we say, antisocial.