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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder