Have you noticed there’s not a whole lot of fun in politics these days?
There is plenty of angst, but not much humour in Donald Trump’s Washington. In Canada, serious politicians make serious speeches about serious subjects – pipelines, climate change, immigration, border security, NAFTA, street crime, making pot legal, even the size of Toronto city council.
Aside from Doug Ford’s epic achievement – buck-a-beer for the “real” people of Ontario – there’s not much to laugh about.
I come to the question of fun in public life, albeit tangentially, as a consequence of an obituary in the New York Times last week of a man named Alan Abel. Abel was a professional hoaxer, an extremely successful one, who spent the better part of his long adult life injecting humour into public life.
In 1964, for example, when Barry Goldwater was battling Lyndon Johnson (not a lot of laughs in that election), Abel invented a presidential candidate – Yetta Bronstein, supposedly a Jewish grandmother from the Bronx. Her platform, as the Times recalled, included fluoridation, national bingo tournaments, and spiking the water in congressional drinking fountains with truth serum.
With her slogan, “Vote for Yetta and things will get betta,” she attracted crowds of eager believers.
During the 1970s recession, Abel created Omar’s School for Beggars to retrain recession victims. Posing in videos as the fictious Omar, he claimed to have graduated 200 Canadians and Americans in the fine art of panhandling. Many media outlets took him seriously.
Along the way, he created Females for Felons – society women volunteering to donate sex to prisoners – and Euthanasia Cruises, “for people who wanted to expire in luxury.”
Perhaps his most successful hoax was conceived in 1959 when he found himself in a traffic jam on a highway in Texas. “What had brought things to a standstill were a cow and a bull in the middle of the road, in the vigorous act of making a calf,” the Times reported. “As Mr. Abel studied the aghast faces of his fellow drivers, the seeds of SINA were sown.”
SINA was the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. Its object: “to clothe all naked animals that appear in public.”
SINA’s membership campaign was fronted by Abel’s friend Buck Henry, later a well-known actor, who posed as the society’s president, G. Clifford Prout. It was so successful that SINA chapters sprang up across the United States. In 1963, SINA organized a picket of the White House to demand that the president’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, start clothing her horses.
(Although money flowed in to buy clothes for naked animals, Abel returned all of it to the donors, as he did with his other hoaxes. He was in it for the fun, not the funds.)
SINA had a remarkably long life for a hoax. For four years, major news outlets treated it as a legitimate do-gooding organization, until it was finally exposed by Time magazine.
I did not know Abel, but from what I have read of his exploits, I suspect he would have been proudest of the hoax he pulled off in 1980 when he conned the New York Times into publishing an obituary on his life and death. According the obit, he had died of a heart attack at age 50 at Sundance, in Utah, while scouting a location for a film he planned to produce.
The Times, which prides itself on scrupulous fact-checking, was chagrinned when Abel rose from the grave, called a press conference and gleefully revealed the hoax. Gritting its teeth, the newspaper published a retraction.
This time, the Times took no chances. It interviewed his daughter, funeral director and the people at the hospice who had cared for him in his final days. Still, the headline was cautious: Alan Abel, hoaxer extraordinaire, is (on good authority) dead at 94.”
Yes, he’s surely dead this time, but not before he made millions laugh. Couldn’t we all use a few laughs to lighten these anxious days?