The life and times of America's greatest hoaxer.

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Feb. 26 2008 11:11 AM

Would You Like a Hair Sandwich?

The life and times of America's greatest hoaxer.

Abel Raises Cain.

Like all good stories, this one begins with a bull humping a cow in the middle of the road. In 1957, Alan Abel, a lecturer and jazz drummer who occasionally went by the name "Professor Paradiddle," was on his way to a performance in Denton, Texas, when he found himself caught in a traffic jam caused by the aforementioned beasts. "My father sat there studying the appalled expressions on the faces of the other motorists," recalls Abel's daughter Jenny. "He suddenly had an idea."

The idea was to write a satire about a group called "The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals," or SINA, which would call for animals to be clothed for the sake of decency. Abel submitted his story to the Saturday Evening Post, but when the editors missed the joke and angrily rejected it, he got an even better idea and founded SINA for real in 1959. The agenda: to get Bermuda shorts on horses, dogs, and any animal taller than 4 inches or longer than 6. The battle cry: "A nude horse is a rude horse!"

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Thus was launched the career of America's greatest living hoaxer. Abel's story is chronicled in Abel Raises Cain, a documentary directed by Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett and now available on DVD. The filmmakers have been tirelessly promoting the film along the festival circuit and recently inked a deal with a Canadian distributor. They're still self-distributing in the United States.

If Abel Raises Cain is a little thin at points—we never learn exactly how Abel was able to make a living for so long as a not-for-profit hoaxer, nor where the funding for his more elaborate ruses came from—it's also an invigorating and often hysterical look at a gifted comic and the nation of dupes he continues to use as his medium.

The SINA hoax would never have worked were it not for Abel's timing, media savvy, and performer's instincts—assets that would prove indispensable over his long career. Eisenhower-era moralists were forever squalling about the filth corrupting the nation's children, and the media, then as now, loved stories about weird individuals that encapsulated the larger weirdness of their time. Abel, together with accomplice Buck Henry (who went on to write screenplays for The Graduate and Catch 22), played the role to the hilt, portraying a pair of stern, if slightly demented, moral majoritarians. SINA (they had a dedicated phone line, staff, and stationery) quickly drew attention from national media—including Walter Cronkite, who covered the crusade. A few CBS staffers recognized Henry after the Cronkite segment aired and blew the whistle, but by then the damage had been done.

SINA worked because it seemed plausible to a substantial number of Americans that their more pious peers believed a child's morals could be completely unspooled by the merest glimpse of horse cock. As it happened, some Americans actually did agree with Abel. According to the film, independent SINA chapters formed across the country, a SINA float turned up in a parade in the Midwest, and one lady even sent in a check for 40 grand so that SINA could continue God's work. (Abel appreciated the gesture, but says he never cashed the check.)

With SINA, Abel had found his vocation. He came to regard his hoaxes as performance art, a form of moral commentary, and a way to inject a bit of fun into what he saw as an irritatingly self-serious national scene. While his hoaxes varied in scale and message, the quality of execution was always sterling. When a broke and crime-ridden New York City teetered on the verge of collapse in the 1970s,Abel launched "Omar's School for Beggars," which supposedly taught unemployed professionals tactics for successful panhandling. When the uproar surrounding Dr. Kevorkian was reaching fever pitch in the '90s, Abel created a fake company that specialized in "euthanasia cruises." A ship with a greased deck would venture a few hundred miles offshore and then tip slightly, dumping its disconsolate human cargo into the ocean.