What makes you want to be what you want to be when you grow up?
Like many a person with eclectic interests (writing, music, art, travel and, yes, cash) and the fuzzy liberal arts degree to prove it, I ventured off into the world of periadulthood with nary a clue as to what I would do to house and feed myself, much less the wonderful children I would be fortunate enough to have.
My professional calling didn’t arrive until my late mid-20s, after a few years spent bumming around the animation and video businesses, playing in rock bands and writing record reviews for freebie vinyl. That’s when I stumbled into the broad world that goes by the narrow moniker of “public relations.” This shift came courtesy of a recommendation put forth for my varied interests by that bible for career changers and flounders, What Color Is Your Parachute?
So what kind of hype have I plied in my three decades in this business, with 26 of those years as head of my own boutique gang of guerillas? It has been way more of the P.T. Barnum and John Waters spectacle variety than the barely-veiled liemanship of President George W. Bush’s smarmy spinmeister Ari Fleischer or his clueless acting successor, Dana Perino.
My often delightful daily grind has involved creating bagpipe festivals with metal and jazz bands and bus tours to rock and roll landmarks in the City of Angels. Undertaking searches to find the greatest “guitar face” in America, as well as the craziest late night TV advertising stars and most outrageous pet bird. I’ve overseen mass transformations of women into red heads in cities coast-to-coast and supervised the crafting of sand sculptures in the faces of America’s Most Wanted on our beautiful beaches and promoted Black Flag’s Roach Ender, the first “birth control spray for roaches.”
To make a dollar, I’ve marshaled a Zombie invasion of Manhattan and even a very elaborate political campaign to run one of undead for U.S. President. I’ve helped create faux organizations to prevent celebrity divorce and declare the music video an endangered species. Also the world’s largest Christmas tree … made entirely out of cannolis.
And, yes, I’ve also had my stints as spinning media mouthpiece. But this was not for some shady politico or corporate chieftain, but for beloved American eccentrics like Cheeta, Tarzan’s simian co-star and “Apestract” painter, and one of the globe’s most button-pushing fine artists, Andres “Piss Christ” Serrano.
So when it comes to what I chose to do with my life to fill my pockets and pass the years, I can say I’ve been blessed. I’ve been lucky to have clients with a sense of adventure and the vision to run our outlandish but strategically spot-on ideas up the corporate ladder. I’ve flourished for way more than a good long while in one of the so-called “creative professions.”
Naturally, it hasn’t all been of the fun and offbeat order above. The majority of it has been what we call the basic blocking and tackling – rolling out new consumer products, TV shows and the like, or promoting events that serve the client’s needs without the sublime creative spark that light my fire, that power me and my team through sometimes insanely long days and nights of labor.
So what, or more accurately who, gave me the idea that I could actually make a career doing these kind of things?
It was the sublimely subversive art of media prankster Joey Skaggs, which first tickled my brain sometime in the mid-Seventies, when I was in the sweet spot of my impressionable teens.
Skaggs’ work was (and still is) street theater designed to both upend our cultural and political cornerstones, and show how careless and gullible the media can sometimes be in their sprint to report the facts before the next guy.
When Midwesterners were taking bus tours of Haight-Ashbury to ogle hippies in 1968, Skaggs created a media-worthy mirror – a bus tour that took hippies through Archie Bunker territory – to gawk at the blue collar freaks and flag wavers in Queens, New York. A few years later, he convinced the press that he has was social architect of the world’s first Cat House for Dogs, a house of prostitution for Fidos. Way before actor/provocateur Vincent Gallo had the idea, Skaggs announced the creation of The Celebrity Sperm Bank, a clinic where women could bid for a bit of the seed of the biggest rock stars of the day, from McCartney to Dylan to the recently deceased Jimi Hendrix.
In 1981, posing as famed entomologist Dr. Josef Gregor, Skaggs even convinced the media – and the millions of unquestioning health-conscious minds exposed to the reporting – that he has bred a special radiation- and toxin-resistant cockroach. Naturally, the fictive doc had harnessed its hormones into a pill for humans that would cure everything from acne to menstrual cramps to cancer and the common cold.
With Hair, Ltd., Skaggs posed as a Native American entrepreneur who, playing to an awful stereotype, was marketing scalp transplants from cadavers as a cure for baldness. In the early 80s, he leaked a fake memo saying that New York City’s Mayor David Dinkins was attempting to close the budget gap by auctioning off the Brooklyn Bridge. This bit of falsehood went global in 24-hours well in advance of today’s viral world, thanks to coverage by Associated Press.
What was most astounding about Skaggs’ shtick is how the media ate it up, practically no questions asked. Associated Press, The New York Times, UPI, Reuters, The New York Daily News, NBC and ABC TV, the list goes on of the esteemed news organizations that reported his many oddball theatrical fictions as fact to millions before having to retract.
Skaggs’ first entered my brainpan in the mid-70s with the reporting of his Cat House for Dogs prank. At the Cataldi household, we were big radio (and lasagna) consumers, and I distinctly remember the reporting of this spectacle (as fact) as we listened during one carbo-blasted family dinner. This was followed by even more colorful reports on all the local TV news stations. Of course, the next day, when the cover was torn off the prank, I was even more impressed.
It wasn’t the pranking of the press or the political push of Skaggs’ work that has most piqued my interest. It is the pure conceptual fun and brilliance, the passion and playfulness of it. It set a conceptual hook that slept deep within my brain for many years, until I received the opportunity and the environment to exercise it. Skaggs’ theatrical brews were the purest and most direct flavor of performance art, before performance art became the bad punch line it is today.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that Skaggs’ work was a political-minded take on the ballyhoo unleashed years before by P.T. Barnum and B-movie producer, William Castle. These fellows, and for me at least Skaggs, have also informed the pranks-driven publicity deployed by many a pop culture purveyor that followed, from John Waters to Madonna to Lady Gaga.
Perhaps to his chagrin, left-leaning Skaggs has lived to see his sensibilities embraced over the past two decades by the corporate world. While they are furthered by a few politically-minded descendants like The Yes Men, they are more widely showcased in the many guerilla marketing campaigns marshaled by businesses today – to promote new films, TV shows, CDs, consumer products and the like. Yes, by guys like me.
Though I’ve never met him, I really do owe a debt to Joey Skaggs. There is something undeniably affirming about his work that somehow worked it way into my life and a long career – conjuring a crafty idea, one that you have a creative passion for, then seeing it projected by the media onto the front-page and into the minds of millions.
I understand Skaggs still lives and hatches new plans in New York’s East Village, the former radical arts home base that is the gentrification template for the universe. I wish his name would at least be known by young people, and even veterans, in my profession.
All too often, when I ask a young person on a job interview what they know about this business of public relations, they come up with horror show answers. I would advise them to drink in more Joey Skaggs and way less of Sex and the City’s Samantha.
[Ed. note: here’s a quick bio on Skaggs; forgive the lack of production values.]