Long before the Yes Men satirized Exxon and Halliburton, and before Ashton Kutcher was born, Alan Abel was the undisputed king of media hoaxers. Abel rose to fame as the president of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), an organization that advocated clothing animals for the sake of decency. With the tagline, “a nude horse is a rude horse,” SINA lasted for more than three years, until it was exposed as a satirical commentary on censorship. He also started an organization to ban breastfeeding and a school to teach panhandling techniques.
The recent biopic Abel Raises Cain documents a side of Alan Abel not often shown by the media he pranked. Rather than the fast-talking Omar, teacher of panhandlers, the film—directed by his daughter Jenny—depicts an endearing father always who wanted to have a good time.
Many of Abel’s stunts were attempts to satirize the vapid media landscape of his time, especially the talk shows. The problem was that the pranks ended up pushing the media to new lows. His offensive talk show appearances displayed to networks that people wanted spectacle, with little more than a whiff of believability. The gags often had serious underlying political or social commentary, but the messages were often lost in the spectacle.
Although his pranks lacked the political edge of the Yes Men, Abel always showed commitment to a bit. Even after he was exposed publicly on television, he would often keep up the charade, and sometimes try the joke again on a different network. Speaking with Brooke Gladstone of WNYC’s On The Media, director Jenny Abel confesses, “sometimes I still wonder when my dad is falling in and out of character.”
Image from the film Abel Raises Cain.