In 1990, Crayola announced the retirement of eight classic colors from its 64-count box, to be replaced by a team of zippier hues more befitting those neon times. A Peter Pan-haired Katie Couric declared the changeover not "as divisive as the flag-burning issue or as compelling as the baseball pennant race," but a "revolution" nonetheless.
In search of a dissenting voice, some overworked producer must have thought they hit pay dirt with Bob Pagani, a middle-aged bellyacher disproportionately distressed about minor updates in children's art supplies.
"That's one eighth of the whole box just...gone," a chagrined Pagani told Today Show viewers, his voice rich with disgust. "I wasn't asked. I don't know anyone else who was asked, either."
In truth, Pagani didn't give a crap about Crayola, crayons or classic colors. The segment was just one more notch in an already lengthy belt of elaborate pranking accomplishments, spanning subjects from wrestling to winning lottery tickets.
These days you might call him a "troll," a prankster whose idea of success is duping journalists and an outrage-ready public into thinking his hijinks are authentic. The internet has heralded a new era of trolling, one where human-sized hamster wheels are dropped on Craigslist and performance artists bathe in kiddie pools filled with milk. As journalists, we're trained early to sense that if something seems too good to be true—it probably is.
But sometimes, we lower our guards: Whether it's the lust for web traffic or the desperate, clinging hope that a kernel of genuine eccentricity is still alive in a world sodden with corporate viral marketing stunts. And that's when Pagani strikes.
Bob Pagani grew up at the end of the D train in the Bronx. By his own admission, he was "an odd kid."
"I went to Catholic school, and in Catholic school, everything is very 'thou shalt' and 'thou shalt not,'" he told me on the phone last week. His father, though, was more of a cynic—an appliance repairman who hated his job, the elder Pagani was "sick of big corporations long before it was cool."
"I used to go with him sometimes on Saturdays when I was a kid, mostly in Queens, and people would say, 'Oh! You're showing your boy what line of work to get into?' And he would say, 'I'm showing him what line of work not to get into!'"
The dichotomy had an impact. Pagani passed his time reading quack medicine books and idolized professional prankster Alan Abel, who was known for such stunts as hiring an actor to pose as Deep Throat for a well-attended New York City press conference following the Watergate scandal.
"I would think, 'You just make up a story? And you say it with a straight face and they put you on the news? That's not how it's supposed to be!'" he said. "That had a lot of appeal to me."
In 1965, when he was 13, Pagani had what he considers his first good idea. He'd read a feature in Reader's Digest about the old cars depicted on the back of $10 bills—surely someone could interpret that as Cold War propaganda, right?
"I wasn't serious thinking that, but you know they could tell people, 'Look at the Americans! You think they're so great? They're driving around in Model Ts, it's right on their money.'" He came up for the SFTRCFTTDB, or the Society for the Removal of Cars from the Ten Dollar Bill. He sent his idea off to an erstwhile youth column that ran in the Daily News, and was surprised and delighted to see it picked up.
Fast forward to the '70s, when Pagani was taking a writing class at the New School. Alan Abel, Pagani's childhood idol, was scheduled to appear as a guest. The two struck up a conversation, and Pagani mentioned that he worked as a security guard at Madison Square Garden.
"You have a cop uniform?" Abel asked, the wheels clearly turning in his head.
"Yeah," Pagani replied.
"Do you know what Omar is?" Abel asked.
Omar's School for Beggars, a fake panhandling school, was one of Abel's most noted projects, responsible for duping reputable journalists into thinking such an institution existed. Of course Pagani knew it. Did he want a job as Omar's body guard? What a stupid question, Abel.
Pagani likes to say that his whole life has been a series of hard-to-believe anecdotes. He's not wrong.
Take, for instance, the way he became friends with comedic roustabout Andy Kaufman. It was 1981, and Pagani had a late night cable access show that wasn't getting quite the attention he thought it deserved. The solution, he reasoned, would be to get a big name appear—and who better for the job then Andy Kaufman, who at the time was working on the ABC sitcom Taxi. There being no internet, Pagani wrote a letter to ABC and hoped for the best.
The next day, less than an hour before showtime, Pagani found Kaufman standing below the 23rd Street studio, getting out of a cab with his parents. It turns out he'd been invited to another show filming in the time slot before Pagani's—and it being past 10 p.m., one that'd he'd apparently already missed.
"I'm standing there like, 'this is one in a billion. He is not leaving without being on the show with us,'" Pagani said.
"And he goes, 'Can my parents come on the show too?' And I said, 'Yeah!' I didn't care if he had Greyhound buses full of homeless guys. It didn't matter."
The two met at 10:15 p.m. By 11 p.m., they were live.
Pagani doesn't think the internet has ruined hoaxing, but he does acknowledge that it's changed the game.
"With the internet, it's a lot easier to hoax, but it's also easier to get caught," he said. "I guess on the one hand it took more commitment because now there's a whole paper trail. People can Google you. There were fewer outlets to con your way past back then, but getting those outlets to believe you was a challenge."
But, he said, everyone gets caught at some point—a winning hoax has people fooled for a long time. A less impressive feat gets caught early on; see below:
"We kind of got caught," he said. "But it worked well enough—it worked for 24 hours!"
His favorite hoaxes, though, pertain to New York City's homelessness problem. That was the conceit behind Asleep at the Wheel, in which Pagani pretended to be the general manager of a business that contracted out homeless people to sleep in residents' cars overnight.
"Ideally, it makes everyone examine their beliefs," he said. "If it's on the homeless, it makes liberals go, 'I don't know.' I'm for guns, but...Everyone lost their shit over that one."
And it never fails to amuse Pagani how often people express earnest appreciation for his harebrained schemes—several, in fact, told him they found the idea of paying homeless people to sleep in cars genuinely worthwhile. "I'm like, you're fucking lying, no it's not! Think it through."
Now 63, Pagani lives in Oregon with his wife, but he hasn't retired from hoaxing—it's just not the sort of thing you ever really quit, he said. In fact, he's been chipping away on a project—a web series, of sorts—for more than a year. He refuses to disclose its content or where it can be found, other than to say that it's "satirical, and really weird. It involves life." Episode 68 went up last week.
"The longevity is what's going to sell it. People are going to say, 'no one would keep this going for this long!,"' he said.
"It's so funny to me. I just keep going. Someday someone is going to find it and think it's legit."