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.

Photo: Getty
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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.