Joey Skaggs: novelty silliness and well-packaged rebellion

Josh Lowe meets Joey Skaggs,the man who prides himself on being able to prank the media over and over again.


In July 1976, prankster and satirist Joey Skaggs, calling himself Giuseppe Scaggoli,  appeared before a rabid crowd, dressed in sharp-lapeled finery. He had some unfortunate news: that day’s planned auction of rock star sperm was cancelled due to a mysterious theft. All he could offer in the way of comfort were his assurances that more donations were to be sought as soon as possible. His business, the Celebrity Sperm Bank, only benefited from the publicity. It was inundated with calls from potential clients, and the story of one plucky capitalist’s mission to sell spunk “from the likes of Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney” was picked up by the music press and, ultimately, televised on cable and national TV. The only problem? The whole affair was faked. Skaggs, by this time a legend of the New York underground, chalked up another victory over the bullshitters.

Skaggs still looks every inch the guerrilla culture warrior when we meet. Decked out in a hefty leather waistcoat and black Levis and sporting a wild wizard’s beard, he greets me first with a handshake and then a hug, booming a hello in gravelly tones. Yet Skaggs is no spaced-out crusty. His welcome gift to me – a Joey Skaggs brand “Bullshit Detector” watch-cum-alarm – is a piece of novelty silliness designed by someone with a keen sense of the modern consumer’s appetite for well packaged rebellion. Skaggs’s work has been so successful because he understands the systems he exploits and is comfortable working within them.

This much should be obvious, in any case, from the reason behind Skaggs’s first major appearance in London since 1995 (when he hoaxed UK media in the guise of experimental therapist and self-styled “Lion King” Baba Wa Simba). This week, Skaggs will speak at ad industry conference Advertising Week Europe.

Skaggs is aware of the contradictory aspects of this. “It’s kinda interesting to be invited to this conference. I think Mark [Borkowski, a publicist instrumental in bringing him to the event] has the biggest pair of balls.” However, he isn’t interested in laying into the ad men and women he’ll be appearing before: “I can’t really say that I’m the fox in the henhouse, because I’m with some brilliant creative minds.” He says he doesn’t plan to preach to his audience, instead preferring to present them with “an entertaining history lesson” and wait and see what conclusions they draw.

Skaggs’s relative ease with the ad industry might stem from his belief in the value of propaganda as an artistic medium. “The reality is that what I am doing is selling something, because everyone is selling something. You’re selling a product, you’re selling a service. What I’m trying to sell is a way of looking at things.” The ideas he concocts are persistent in the way the best advertising is. Cleaning brand Vanish, for instance, recently ran into a dispute with Skaggs as to which of them had created the “world’s largest bra” after Skaggs challenged their record with a bra he hung across the US Treasury building on Wall St in 1969. What distinguishes Skaggs’s work, he says, is its intent. His performances are often political, and always intellectually provoking.

Yet he is uncompromising in other areas. Skaggs’s best known recent works are his annual April Fools’ Day Parades – chaotic affairs held in New York’s Washington Square park, where revellers crown a King of Fools from a parade of lookalikes. Last year, the crowd chose Mitt Romney, and figures appearing in this April’s parade will include Lil Wayne and Chuck Norris. His last parade took “Occupy Washington Square Park” as its theme, though he isn’t associated with the Occupy movement in any deeper sense than a sharing of certain ideals. “I’m all behind making the kind of changes that I think they represent, it’s just that I think organisationally they fight amongst themselves,” he says. “When I do a prank, I tell my volunteers... I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page, because I don’t want you to bring an agenda that is different from what I am attempting to do.”

The central function of the parade is to allow Skaggs to unleash his rage upon individuals. “During the course of the year I have my asshole file,” he says. “I either clip out articles or write notes or print something from the internet and stick it in the folder, and a month or so before it’s time for the parade I construct and organise what’s happening. I try to keep it limited to one page because it’s virtually impossible, there are so many assholes.”

In this, it is distinct from his media pranks, whose targets are systemic. Most of his stunts rely for their impact on the false and often hilarious press coverage they generate. The Baba Wa Simba stunt resulted in a particularly excellent piece on London Tonight in which a bespectacled ITV reporter finds himself splayed on the floor next to “Baba”, releasing his repressed trauma in a primal howl. It is a signature move of Skaggs’s to send imposters along to interviews, even where the resultant pieces are celebratory.

He talks about himself almost as a campaigner for accurate reportage. “If you make those kinds of stupid mistakes, you don’t do your job well, you fucked up,” he says. When I ask whether hoaxing has got harder in the age of Google, he unleashes a demonic cackle: “Is that really a serious question?” He is, however, dismissive of press regulation when I bring up Leveson. Those calling for press regulation, or alterations to the First Amendment in the US, “go into my asshole category. Gee, if I allow that to happen, they’re gonna throw me in jail.”

While I can’t help but feel that there is something a little too gleeful in his reaction to press mistakes, the uncertainty Skaggs sows, and the frantic fact checking it leads to, is powerful. To interview Skaggs is to be reminded of one’s personal responsibility to readers as distinct from the wider system in which one works, and that can be no bad thing.

As our interview draws to a close, Skaggs cagily suggests that he is planning a new prank for London. He is guarded on the details, but asks politely that the New Statesman not use a recent photo to illustrate this piece in order to keep his visual profile in the UK as low as possible. As for me, he has just one request. “If you recognise me... call me first, OK?” he says. His eyes twinkle as he fixes me with the full force of his jester’s grin: “I won’t fool you.”

Joey Staggs as Dr Josef Gregor, the world leading entomologist famed for his "discovery" of a cockroach hormone than can cure all common ailments known to man. Photograph: Joey Staggs Archive

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.