I'm not sure what drives a person to create elaborate pranks. The reward of saying, "Ha! I gotcha!" seems small, almost childish. Sometimes, though, a good prank can border on a kind of performance art. Consider Joey Skaggs. During the 1970s and '80s he set up such infamous hoaxes as a brothel for dogs, or the time he posed as a scientist who had discovered a cure-all drug by experimenting with cockroaches. Broadcast news outlets, Entertainment Tonight, the New York Times, Geraldo Rivera, even Il Giornale, a conservative newspaper from Milan, fell for his every word. You'd think they might fact check when a guy advises you to inject roach enzymes into your bloodstream, but I guess not.
Art of the Prank, a likable, surprisingly watchable documentary from director Andrea Marini tells the story of Skaggs, a rascal who likes to trick the news media the way three-card Monte dealers rip off tourists. It is the sort of movie you watch and shake your head in disbelief, as time after time, Skaggs merrily bamboozles the press. And in Skaggs' hands, his pranks do come close to being art. He puts more thought into his hoaxes than the average indy filmmaker puts into a movie, which is why he succeeds.
At first the movie seems to be about Skaggs in retirement, since he long ago left the New York area for Hawaii and seems content. Yet, there's always one more idea percolating inside his mischievous brain; we learn that his pranking days are far from over.
Art of the Prank doesn't try to explain Skaggs, or serve as a biography. It's as if Skaggs had no childhood; he just seemed to appear in the 1970s, with a band of loyal sidekicks willing to participate in his brand of guerilla theater. If Skaggs had a message, it was that the media is made up of morons who would rather jump on a ridiculous story than take a moment to check its voracity. Members of the media who were stung by Skaggs appear in the film and are almost reverential about him. They seem honored to have fallen for his crap.
His latest prank, which involves a fake documentary about stem cell research, is astounding. In it, he plays a man who has lost his teeth, but submits to having shark cells injected into his jaw. He grows a new set of choppers - in real life Skaggs had a dentist create what look like shark teeth fitted for a human mouth - and lurks around the movie, a weird monstrosity that might, or might not, represent the future of stem cell tampering.
The rest of Art of the Prank involves Skaggs and his team trying to submit the stem cell documentary to film festivals. For a while it doesn't seem like Skaggs' latest prank will be accepted anywhere. It appears, albeit momentarily, that his best days of pranking may be behind him. Still, the prank film (cunningly titled Pandora's Hope,) eventually gets accepted to a few festivals, and then a few more. Skaggs has fun at the events, showing up with his fake shark teeth, playing the role of a stem cell advocate named Joe Howard. He sits in a dark corner of a cinema, watching the audience watch him on the screen. Some laugh at his shark-toothed smile. Some are repulsed.
As much as I liked the movie, I still wish we got to know a little more about Skaggs. A bit of rudimentary research informs us that he makes his living these days as a painter and lecturer, and also as a production assistant on a television program called Top Chef Jr. Pranking doesn't pay much, and Skaggs still has to make a buck. Would Art of the Prank be better if were learned more about Skaggs' personal life? Maybe not. And now I'm wondering if his work on Top Chef Jr is just part of another prank.
Skaggs, who is now in his 70s, came of age during the glory days of the counter culture. At times he reminded me of Robert Crumb, and also Andy Kaufman. I wonder why I'd never heard of him until now. He's certainly my kind of guy. Most touching of all, though, is the loyalty shown by his old cronies. One after another chimes in during the film, saying they'll do anything for Skaggs. All he has to do is call and they'll drop what they're doing, so intense is the relationship between Skaggs and his team. One of the women from his gang is interviewed now. Stately-looking and grey-haired, she reminisces about the days when Skaggs skewered the media on an almost yearly basis. She took part in a 1976 hoax about a celebrity sperm bank set up in Manhattan. In that one she played a hippie chick waiting for a sample of Bob Dylan's sperm. Those were the days, eh? Unfortunately, Art of the Prank was made just before the election of Donald Trump and the era of "fake news." What would Skaggs do in such a climate? And is he already doing it?