Joey Skaggs may have fooled more people than Frank Abagnale Jr., the subject of “Catch Me if You Can.” Mr. Skaggs, a New Yorker, founded something of an underground cottage industry in the ‘70s and ‘80s by successfully punking Gotham media into giving him airtime for such ludicrously false “causes” as a dog brothel, cockroach vitamins, street walking “etiquette,” holding a contest to rename the Brooklyn Bridge and a “Portofess,” a Catholic confessional on wheels driven around outside the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
Even more amazingly, he almost always got away with it, going on camera with an absolutely straight face to deliver his maddeningly inauthentic evangels to stunned newscasters. In the pre-internet, pre-Snopes age, it was much easier to fool the lemmings, but Mr. Skaggs has continued pranking the world even into the 21st century.
Mr. Skaggs now faces the camera in “Art of the Prank,” relating how he and a trusted troupe of scam artist actors and cohorts successfully duped the public year after year after year. (One could even say he was the forerunner of Captain Janks, Howard Stern’s favorite faux news source.)
So why now? Why offer his audience a peek behind the curtain to show how he manipulated the wizard in characters such as “Giuseppe Scaggioli” and “Dr. Joseph Gregor”?
“I gave director Andrea Marini access to my vast archive of video and print coverage over the years and told him to pretend I’m dead and have fun with it,” Mr. Skaggs told The Washington Times in a statement. “But he insisted he wanted to follow me doing something current in real time. Not one to pass up an opportunity, I obliged.”
Like magicians who show how the card in question winds up in their hands or professional wrestlers revealing how they telegraph the individual moves of a match, Mr. Skaggs takes us through the conception, maturation and eventual execution of the gag. He and his merry jokers then discuss what went wrong, what could be done next time and how long, they wonder, until they are found out.
In the film’s most meta sequence, Mr. Skaggs and Co. are seen fashioning a faux-documentary film called “Pandora’s Hope,” whose “subject” is interspecies genetically modified organisms.
Even more amazingly, the film played in several legitimate film festivals, with the organizers seemingly none the wiser.
“Technology is always challenging morality and this fascinates me,” Mr. Skaggs said, referencing such jokes as his “celebrity sperm bank” hoax from 1976. “But this time I decided to play with something I believe is at the forefront of our future: interspecies genetic modification. The ethical and legal questions this brings up are enormous.”
Whether or not Mr. Skaggs’ latest “crusade” is legitimate in its aim or in its desire to expose media hypocrisy, the fact is he remains the master of the gag, and has shown for decades how apt is the public to believe almost anything.
This could not be a more appropriate lesson in our times.
“Art of the Prank” is now available on demand.