Inside Inside SINA: One of the Strangest Comedy Albums ever Recorded
Comedy albums are a funny thing (har har), and getting them right isn’t easy. I’m a big fan of stand up, but aside from George Carlin, Richard Pryor and a very few select others, I can’t think of many comedians whose albums I’d want to own. It would get old.
Sketch comedy albums are even trickier. Sure, Monty Python is hysterical, but how many times can one listen to the Parrot Sketch before even that becomes a bit boring. A comedy album really has to be unique to catch my attention and hold up to repeated listens.
And Inside SINA might be one of the most unique and unusual comedy albums I own, mostly because most people didn’t even know it was a comedy album when it was first released in 1962.
SINA stands for the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and their quest was to clothe every animal on the planet who stood higher than four inches or longer than six (because you’ve got to start somewhere).
Why? Well, for their own decency of course.
As soon as the group announced its goals in the late 1950s, they attracted national attention from media outlets everywhere, and nearly all were convinced that the group was for real, the machinations of one G. Clifford Prout Jr., moral madman bent on modesty for human and animal alike. SINA’s main spokesman was their Vice President Bruce Spencer, who toured the country spreading the group’s message of decency and modesty for the animal kingdom, much to the shocked bewilderment of everyone around him.
But Bruce Spencer wasn’t real. Neither was G. Clifford Prout. In reality, SINA was the creation of Alan Abel a professional “media provocateur.” SINA was his first prank, but far from his last. Since SINA was exposed in 1963 Prout has gone onto convince people that Yetta Bronstein, a Jewish grandmother from the Bronx, was running for president; that he was a former White House employee who had in his possession the missing 18 and a half minutes from the Watergate tapes (and held a press conference only to discover that his tape had been erased as well); and that a man named Omar the Beggar was holding a School for Beggars where panhandlers could refine their trade, and much more. But while Alan has crafted one genius prank after another, his SINA hoax remains the only one to have an album associated with it, or any kind of media at all.
Inside SINA was released on the now-defunct Charm Records in 1962. A live recording taken at Berkley, it features Abel in character as Spencer, preaching the SINA doctrine and then taking questions from a very amused, and incredibly confused, audience of college students. It’s one of the funniest comedy albums I own, and from the second I tracked it down I wanted to know more about its creator.Thankfully, Alan was very easy to get a hold of, and he agreed to speak with me over the phone, where he shared stories about SINA, other pranks in his past, and sending people off to sea to die.
Did the record company know what you were doing was a prank?
Actually, the record company wasn’t sure, and they didn’t want to know. You don’t want to tell somebody and spoil the movie. They just kind of kept tongue in cheek quiet and ran with it.
I remember the head of the company, I had been in the office talking to him after I recorded this in California We went down in the elevator because he had to go to a meeting, and he said “I want to put this out as an album, I don’t want you shopping this around so what do you want?” And I said, “Well I want $5,000 up front,” and that was a lot of money 50 years ago, so he takes out his checkbook and on this garbage can, he writes out this check for $5,000. And I stood there stunned while he grabbed a cab and took off. And I thought, “wow I made a deal,” if he offered me $1,000 I would have took it!
I would assume the label is now long gone?
Oh no, Charm no longer exists.
Have you ever tried to put it out as download or anything like that?
That’s something that should be done. I would like to see some income at this point in my life.
So the record company didn’t know the record was a hoax, did the audience you were performing in front of know? They sure are laughing a lot.
No, these were all college people. Actually in those early days before SINA was exposed by TIME magazine, I did a lot of lectures at colleges and universities. And these people, they thought I was just some kind of weird guy who got caught up in this weird thing. So they were doing their own little number of making fun, but they thought that I was for real and they thought that SINA was real.
Y’know this is long before John Stewart and Stephen Colbert and others, and I kept a straight face all the time. They thought I was for real, they were making fun of me in a kindly sort of way. They could have been very obnoxious and rabble rousing and annoying but they weren’t at all. Yes, they jumped into the spirit of it, but they were doing what they thought was a kind way to attack me to see how I reacted when they asked those questions about “how do you clothe a herd of naked cows?”
They just really figured i was some bumbling guy who was just doing for the money as a job, and probably believed what was going on at the same time, y’know, that a nude horse was a rude horse.
Would you compare the kind of people who would go to this performance back then to the kind of people who would listen to The Daily Show today?
Oh yes, these are the people who read The Onion today.
In fact, we had a magazine, a one-time issue called Inside SINA and it was 60 pages of nonsense. Crossword puzzles you could not solve. Cartoons that were not funny. Stories that dropped off and never finished. The ads were all fake. This is what The Onion might do today.
Was any of your performance ad-libbed, or was it all prepared?
Well, 50/50. I knew what I was going to do, and when somebody asked a question I would just wing it. I never got caught off guard or surprised where I would have to say “I don’t know.” I didn’t have to stall, I just kept rolling, just kept going forward.
And you seem to have good default answers if you can’t come up with anything, like “please write to SINA” and you just rattle off the address.
[That address] was actually a broom closet on 5th avenue in New York City. I knew a fella who leased the third floor of this building on 5th ave and they had cubicles there and they had a secretary there who answered the phone for all the cubicles. But they had one little closet for the cleaning people. So I rented that space for $5 a month and put the sign up on the door. And then I’d come up at the end of the day and I’d collect all the business cards that were shoved under the door. It was mostly reporters who would be up there asking for interviews. So I’d call them back and arrange to meet them on the street or at a restaurant and do the interview. And they all believed it. They believed this guy was seriously interested in putting pants on ponies, jumpsuits on cats, and moo moos on cows, of course.
It probably helped that you could do this all without cracking a smile or going out of character, how do you stay so deadpan?
Well, it’s not easy. I bit my lips many times. Many…many times I’ve bit my lips. In fact, one article about the animal campaign [the reporter] didn’t believe me. He said ‘there’s something about this, I don’t quite believe what’s going on with this organization.” But there was a penny on the sidewalk and I picked it up and put it in my pocket and he said, “okay now I believe you.” For some reason that made him buy into this character.
For a lot of your later pranks, like Omar the Beggar, you wore a mask, I assumed that helped a lot.
Oh yeah definitely.
How come you never put out an album for any of your other pranks, especially Omar? I think a recording of his panhandling class would have been amazing.
I could have done it, I would have done it. But I think people were turned off, I’d send out shotgun mailings and they’d say no. Omar particularly [upset people], the Wall Street Journal, one of the reporters attended a class with all my friends who pretended to be panhandlers learning, taking notes and everything. They ended up doing an editorial that castigated Omar the Beggar as being disgusting and being reprehensible.
That one seemed to piss people off more than anyone you did.
Well, yeah, that and the euthanasia cruises. That got people very upset and angry. The idea that 25 people a month were getting on this ship called the Last Supper, and after it got out into international waters the ship would make a hard turn, and the deck was greased, and the rail was released and they would slide on to Davy Jones’ Locker and the organist would play “Nearer My God To Thee.”
There was no boat, nothing, it was just all imaginary. But we got a lot of press on it. One reporter from New York, we went out to lunch and she wanted to write a story about the cruise and go on one of the voyages. And I told her well we only issue one way tickets. And she said, “no I wanna come back!” And I said, “oh sorry no round trips!”
Do you have something against the media? Why do this?
The media is my conduit to the public. It’s a performance to me. I started out as a performer, I did stand up in New York in the 50s and did the vaudeville circuit and hotels. But you don’t go anywhere. It’s a dead end.
So I wanted to get off that and I found out that I could do these hoax things after SINA took off, and it’s allowed me to do the performance that I enjoy doing. It’s really deadpan comedy, the kind of thing Stephen Wright would do and still does.
So the pranks are more of a creative outlet than trying to make some sort of point?
It was really just to perform and have fun. Laughter is the only tranquilizer without side effects. It releases endorphins in your immune system that protect your body. So it’s healthier for people to laugh rather than frown or get angry.
It’s much healthier to give ulcers than get them, every time.
For more information on Alan Abel, be sure to check out his official website, as well as Abel Raises Cain, an award-winning documentary about his life as a professional prankster made by his daughter Jennifer Abel.