Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett's documentary about her father, professional hoaxer Alan Abel, is rich with clips of Abel's various media pranks, but falls short as either serious biography or rigorous examination of the function of philosophically driven media hoaxing.
Raised in one of seven Jewish families living in tiny Coshocton, Ohio, Abel's first passion was playing the drums — drafted at age 18, he was assigned to Glenn Miller's Army Airforce Band, founded a jazz society at Ohio State University, and later toured as "Professor Paradiddle," delivering a history of drumming along with dry comic asides. In 1957, Abel wrote a satirical essay inspired by the experience of being stuck in a scrum of dismayed motorists by a bull mating in the middle of the road. The Saturday Evening Post failed to appreciate the humor of Abel's modest proposal to clothe bare-assed beasts in the name of SINA — the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. But Abel got a five-year run out of flogging the society's puritanical aims to credulous print and TV journalists — even recruiting unemployed actor Buck Henry to impersonate SINA head G. Clifford Prout — before being unmasked by Life magazine. Abel's intent to shine a satirical light on "moral maniacs" appears to have been largely lost amid photos of fawns, housecats and horses wearing shorts. Abel went on to sucker reporters into covering his training school for beggars, the efforts of Citizens Against Breast Feeding to prohibit the practice as psychologically destructive and unnatural, and the presidential campaigns of Bronx housewife Mrs. Yetta Bronstein ("Vote for Yetta and Things Will Get Betta"), whose platform included installing "mental detectors" in government buildings and taking congressmen off salary in favor of commissions. Abel's ever-game and conspicuously WASP wife, Jeanne, was drafted to provide Yetta's voice. Since Abel's pranks weren't scams, they were unrenumerative — newspaper headlines declaring "He Makes a Living as a Hoaxer" erred on the side of optimism, and when the film opens, he and Jeanne are living in a friend's basement, their possessions and a lifetime of memorabilia in storage.
All of which is interesting without being seriously informative: Jenny Abel fails to ask her father the obvious questions, including whether or not his hoaxes actually did anything other than amuse him and foment misguided outrage. But there's no denying that Alan Abel is a character, and any glimpse behind the schemes is better than none, especially when it includes graphically funny clips from the "Sex Olympics" section of his 1971 mockumentary IS THERE SEX AFTER DEATH?
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