The Art of the Prank

It seems like you can't turn around these days without running into the term fake news. And while it's true that it is, paradoxically, even easier to fool people when basically all the information in the world is available on the nearest computer, the whole idea of fake news goes back a lot farther than the guy currently lazing around in the White House. But not all such fakes are created equal. Before Russian hackers and Twitter bots, before Romanian kids were hired to post made-up stories on Facebook, there was Joey Skaggs, the godfather of the media hoax. And in The Art of the Prank, nothing is too sacred to be made fun of.

This is a documentary overflowing with archival footage, of many TV reporters and personalities you'll recognize, who have one thing in common: they were all fooled by Skaggs. He's been offering up wild stories that hover somewhere between performance art and practical joke since the sixties. Also since the sixties, the news media has almost invariably accepted these stories at face value and passed them along to their viewers.

There was the sperm bank with 'deposits' from the famous and talented, robbed on the eve of its first ever auction. Then there was the "Portofess", a portable confessional wheeled around on the back of a bicycle by a priest ready to absolve anyone of their sins. And let's not forget the "Cockroach Vitamin Pill" that would prevent innumerable diseases. Skaggs did them all, taking on various personas during the course of the prank. How anyone didn't catch on when Dr. Josef Gregor was pushing a health program called Metamorphosis that involved cockroaches I'll never know, but I suppose not everyone had to read that story in school.

But the centerpiece of the film is Pandora's Hope, a short documentary about the Hawaiian island of Kauai and the research being performed there into things like genetically modified organisms. Yes, it's listed on IMDB, and yes, it was made entirely by Skaggs and a group of his friends. The beauty of it is that much of the film is true, detailing actual ways in which stem cells have benefited medical research, for example. Then Skaggs himself appears as part of a far-out story involving shark stem cells and all bets are off.

This is the heart of The Art of the Prank, watching this faux documentary come together bit by bit, with the crew not even sure at first what they're creating. It's a fascinating behind the scenes look at a practical joke in progress, and by the time they have a finished piece you feel almost as invested in it as the pranksters themselves. You want people to be fooled by this -- after all, you're in on the joke and we always like to think that other people are more credulous than we are. And as fake news goes, this is absolutely harmless and entertaining.

But now there's a far darker side to the notion that our media simply isn't being fact-checked anymore. We have so many news sources that any new story is often posted or aired instantly, without time for even the most basic fact-checking for fear that some other source will get the scoop. Every source has its loyal followers that will accept the story without question. Skaggs and his various co-conspirators, many of whom are interviewed here, have skilfully manipulated the media for decades, and this film is a masterful, 4.5 out of five star reveal of some of the tricks these magicians use. We can only hope that Skaggs and those he inspires might one day find themselves out of a job, though the way things are going, I doubt it.

Joey Skaggs and his Portofess. Would you confess your sins to this man?


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