A Serious Look at a Practical Joker

Dozens of people filed into the Pollak Theater for Abel Raises Cain, the latest installment of the On Screen, In Person series on Thursday, March 14. The audience was varied, but due to some nu­dity, sensitive viewers and minors were encouraged to use discretion when deciding to attend.

The event began at 7:30 pm with a brief introduction from Matthew Lawrence, specialist professor of communication, followed by Jen­ny Abel, one of the co-directors, giving a short discussion of what the film would be about.

Abel Raises Cain portrays the life of Alan Abel, described as a “professional hoaxer,” who made a career out of pulling large-scale pranks on both the media and the public. However, the film didn’t just showcase his work. It also went into detail about what in­spired him, his financial hardships and his life today. Some of his major works were highlighted, in­cluding a satirical film he worked called Is There Sex After Death? Most of the nudity was confined to this portion of the documentary.

“If anyone gets aroused,” Abel said, “they need psychotherapy, immediately. It is satirical, not pornographic.”

The movie began with a scene featuring a masked man, iden­tifying him as Omar “The Beg­gar” Bookford, who was alleged to have opened a school teaching people how to beg more skillfully. He emphasized “the permissible lie,” saying that as long as you could concoct a believable story, you could be paid for it. Thus, the stage was set to discuss the life of Alan Abel, whose entire working life centered on that one idea.

This segued into clips showing Alan and Jeanne Abel, both of whom are now elderly, going about their morning routine. Jenny, who narrated the film, talked about the difficulties they faced in attempting to retire, namely that they had lost their house five years prior and were living out of a basement apartment in a friend’s house. At the time, Alan earned money through writing and lecturing on “using your wits to win” while Jeanne made miniature figurines to sell.

To preface the focus on his career, the scene then shifted to show vari­ous television and radio personali­ties deriding Alan as a “menace to the media,” a “scam artist” and a “phony.”

Despite this, Jenny said (while narrating), “Thank God he never got stuck in a 9 to 5 job.”

His career truly began in 1957 when he wrote a satirical comedy about an organization petitioning to have animals clothed for the pro­tection of society’s moral integrity. Called the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), he con­ceived it as a joke, but only saw its full potential when people began to take it as a serious movement to clothe animals.

At that point, he hired a friend to pretend to be a spokesperson for the company, who would then go on the radio or TV to purport their intention of clothing animals. Alan himself would picket various gov­ernment buildings, send out letters and go on TV as well. The public believed this scheme for nearly four years before a New York Times ar­ticle exposed it as a farce.

He enlisted his wife’s assistance in these endeavors. Though, at first, Jeanne’s role was more secretarial (sealing and sending letters, an­swering phone calls and other such things), they soon became a comedy writing team, with Jeanne getting directly involved in both creating the hoaxes and playing parts for the public, including a figure known as Yetta Bronstein, a Jewish grand­mother running for President.

“With very few props and a straight face,” Alan commented, “you can convince America and the media of just about anything.”

After this came Alan’s collabo­ration with Robert Downey Senior to create the satirical documentary Is There Sex After Death? Meant to highlight the prominence of the sexual revolution, they soon found that newspapers wouldn’t reference the film, and if they did, they would not say the full title, with the pre­sumption being that it was too lewd for publication. Alan circumvented this by reporting that a “Sex Bowl,” the Olympic Games of sexual inter­course, were about to take place (no such event occurred, of course).

Other hijinks perpetrated throughout the years include: a spoof film about Nixon’s disgraced presidency, in which “Nixon” talked about prostitution being too expen­sive; a “Females for Felons” pro­gram, where inmates would be al­lowed sexual gratification; a KKK symphonic orchestra; and a man who wanted to sell a kidney or a lung for twenty-five thousand dol­lars apiece to pay off loans and es­cape poverty.

One of his later pranks was in­spired by overhearing two lawyers saying it would be better if he died so that they could purchase the film rights to his life for a low price.

He was reported as having died of a heart attack shortly thereafter, and when the company that was originally going to produce a film approached Alan for the rights for a second time, he refused.

After the screening, Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett, her co-director, were available for a Q&A.

When asked if the filming pro­cess shed any new light on her par­ents, Abel responded, “If anything, I already knew too much.” She later added, “The more I learned, the more I respected them.”

Hockett, in response to the same question, said that while he’d been familiar with Alan, “It wasn’t until we started the process that I really got to know [him].”

The film’s starring characters, Alan and Jeanne Abel, were in the audience that night and were ready to answer questions as well.

In reference to how Jenny met Hockett, Alan said, “I introduced her to this guy when I was in New York posing as a plastic surgeon for pets. They avoided calling each other for months.”

Hockett was not without a quick retort. “When I first met you,” he said to Alan, “you answered the door in your underwear, then after­wards asked me if I was single.”

Jeanne spoke briefly about the difficulties of living a life of grand-scale pranking. “I think a lot of people got involved because it was fun,” she said, “but we got a lot of hate mail. Even had our lives threatened a couple of times.”

Jenny ended the session by commenting, “Laughter is the only tranquilizer without any side effects.” She added that books on Alan’s work were for sale in the lobby.

On Screen, In Person is one of the few event series that can put the audience directly in touch with the artists, writers, film mak­ers and other professionals in the media today. Be sure to attend the next and final screening of this season, which will be What We Need is the Impossible! show­ing in the Wilson Auditorium on April 22.