We’ve seen it a lot lately; bogus sites pretending to be real news outlets, reporting fake stories as if they were genuine. I’ve complained at length on Facebook about people reposting hoax stories from bogus sites, some of which are deliberately deceptive, while others are Onion wannabes trying to be funny but missing the mark.
As it happens, I know a little something about fake websites; way back in 2002, I had a bad habit of creating them. I’ve previously mentioned my site, Monkey Spit, the first home of my webcomic, The Fourth Wall. In order to beef up the site a little, we (“we” being myself and Craig Kemper, a lunatic who today creates fun games for your phone in order to pay for his kids’ college fund; so go buy one already) decided to create a fake website every week for as long as we could.
The first two sites actually existed before Monkey Spit was a thing. I created them both as pranks and put them up on Geocities. One was “The Bonsai Cow,” a restaurant that serves miniature cattle roasted whole, featuring a little corral in the middle of the place where the cows are kept until someone chooses one to have slaughtered and cooked. Despite some really bad Photoshop work, I still got regular emails from people who thought it was real and wanted to buy them as pets. This was not inspired by the classic Bonsai Kitten site; the origin was an article debunking an urban legend about such a restaurant that I read about in Cecil Adams’ “The Straight Dope” column a few years earlier.
The second was “PitA: Pains in the Ass,” a site that purports to provide the sort of paid protestors the President now claims actually exist. When I sent the link to a very smart friend, he responded “please tell me this isn’t real.” This one had its origin in a throwaway line in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant “Hamlet from the back” play, Rosecrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. At one point, the Player offers the heroes a performance: “Now for a handful of guilders, I happen to have a private and uncut performance of the Rape of the Sabine Women — or rather Woman — or rather Alfred — get your skirt on, Alfred! And for eight, you can participate. Taking either part, or both for ten… With encores.” That eventually worked its way around to become an organization of fake protestors who would picket both for and against a given topic for pay. Apparently I was 15 years early.
I learned two things from this enterprise. First, you can’t out-weird the weirdos. No matter how bizarre your hoax, there’s a real person out there doing something far weirder for real. Second, no matter how obvious and over-the-top you think you’re being, somebody will think it’s real. After we did the “Kitties gone Wild” page, I made the mistake of looking at the access logs and checked out one of the pages that linked to us. It was an actual site for zoophiles (people who do the nasty with animals); it was deeply disturbing and creepy as hell, and visiting it probably put me on a watch list somewhere. The “Chunk Light Manatee” page brought an email containing a link to an article about an illegal underground restaurant that actually serves manatee. The Partridge Family Tribute Band page resulted in an email from VH-1 wanting the band to appear on a reality show about hyper-obsessed fans.
I’m still really proud of some of these pages, so if you don’t mind a lot of really ugly turn-of-the-century web design, I’ll go ahead and share a few of my favorites and tell the story about how we came up with them.
Laser Conscience Removal
This one started with my elder daughter, who was a teen at the time. The current news stories were the Enron corruption scandal and Martha Stewart going to the slammer for insider trading. Ashley noted that obviously the way to get rich was to have your conscience removed, and suggested we should make a page for it, so we did.
Brutal Truth Storybooks
Back in the ’90s, I worked for a graphic design studio/typesetting company that did a lot of interesting things, ranging from infomercial product packaging to Hooked on Phonics; one of the things we did was typesetting for a series of books written by a therapist to help children in specific situations. These books, called “Real Life Storybooks,” dealt with issues like having an autistic sibling, being the victim of molestation, having a relative with HIV, and so on. As resources for their niche market, I have no doubt that they were extremely helpful and useful for counselors and social workers, but they struck me for the most part as kind of a horrifying to give to kids who weren’t involved in those situations. Being a terrible person, I started thinking about awful scenarios that would make ghastly children’s books. I kicked the idea to Craig and he went crazy with it. I actually want to write some of these some day.
This one had an odd origin. It started when I stumbled upon a site for members of tribute bands while looking for some unrelated thing. The guy who owned this site was in the habit of writing these long insane harangues about his social, political and ethical ideas; he called these rants “theories” for some reason, and since I like my lunatics barking mad, I completely enjoyed his site and decided to replicate it. I had recently installed a Photoshop add-on program called “Kai’s Power Goo” that allowed really fun warping and distortion of images, so I tortured actual cast photos from the Partridge Family to create the band members’ photos. The faked-up 1985 Toyota minivan painted like the Partridge Family bus was a lot of fun, and that was what made VH-1 want to come out and meet “Gordie,” but really it’s the long crazy “Philosophy” that’s the whole reason for the page’s existence. If only there were a way to make money writing crazy rants; apparently I have a knack for it.
Purina Bachelor Chow
Everyone assumes this was a ripoff of a gag from Futurama. It wasn’t. It was actually a ripoff of a gag from a 1986 newspaper comic strip called Downstown. I actually hadn’t seen Futurama at this point and didn’t know they had also stolen the same joke, and I figured nobody else remembered Downstown (a really funny strip), so I was in the clear to swipe it. I also swiped the actual Purina website of the time and reworked it into this page.
Ivory: The Magazine of White Culture
This is another one that my daughter Ashley came up with. I gave the idea to Greg Hatcher, and his response: “THIS one I was born to do. I spent my childhood in Lake Oswego, Oregon, which is the WHITEST PLACE ON EARTH. We had a Town Negro, honest to God. The Manatee thing and Alcoholics Unanimous I’m blanking on, sorry. But IVORY… my God, I could riff on that for hours.” He delivered the perfect text, and my collection of stock photography CDs provided the images. The Miracle Whip ad is real, I swear. Greg also provided great text for Jerry Springer’s Love Line and TV Time: Me and the Dinosaur, which was our first attempt at an outright hoax; a fake site about a fake TV show, partly based on my little brother’s time as a kid actor in the ’70s, but mostly inspired by seeing grown-up former kid stars in the “Hall of Has-Beens” at Comic-Con.
My late and much-missed friend Benny Mallory was one of those quiet guys with a droll sense of humor, always watching everything and occasionally dropping devastating observations. On one occasion, he said “golf courses and cemeteries both need huge tracts of green landscaping; why not combine them?” Of course, it was almost impossible to find any images larger than about 500 pixels wide online back in 2002, so the photoshopped images are pretty terrible, but the idea and copy are still pretty solid. It was good enough for the Weekly World News to rip it off a year or so later.
Klingon Interpretive Dance Instruction
I’m kind of a jerk. For example, if you were to ask me to acquire a “convention exclusive” item at Comic-Con and mail it to you, you can rest assured that when the package arrives (ideally at your office), the return label will be from “Lingerie for Him” or “Inflate-a-Date” or some other awful thing. And fortunately, I can make those labels look real. I usually get an email back with a message like “Bastard! You will PAY!” and that makes me all warm and happy. On one occasion, I needed to ship something to my good friend and fellow GeekDad, Mordechai. Naturally, he was going to need a special label, and since he was then employed at an Orthodox Jewish college, I knew it couldn’t be too off-color. I settled on “Fanboy Enterprises,” with text and images indicating that the enclosed contents were video tapes to teach traditional Klingon dances. I even found somebody online who could translate “Macarena”, “The Hustle” and “Electric Slide” into Klingon (though they had to change Hustle to “hurry dance” and Electric Slide to “buzz jump” due to vocabulary limitations. The stuff you learn in the hoax racket. But I digress.) Once the package was in the mail, I kicked the idea to Craig and we made it into a site. I thought the package label would be embarrassing for Morts but relatively harmless, but he got some heat for it anyway, because the Klingon dancer whose photo I used was showing too much skin according to the Jewish rules about modesty. He was able to talk his way out of trouble, but I’m still waiting (with some trepidation) for his revenge.
Be a God!
“Be a God” came about as a result of a horrific tragedy; in June 2001, crown prince Dipendra of Nepal went on a shooting spree and killed the entire royal family because he didn’t want to go through with an arranged marriage. In the aftermath, the media reported an odd story about his time as a student in England some years earlier. People Magazine reported, “As a student at Eton a decade ago, Prince Dipendra of Nepal was excused from attending chapel. Officials at the venerable British boarding school reportedly decided that since Dipendra, heir to the royal throne of Nepal, had been proclaimed a deity in his home country at the age of 18, going to church was probably unnecessary.” I heard this story on the radio while driving to work, followed by an ad for the Star Registry, one of the most successful scams in history, and the idea for this page was born. For this particular site, I went one better; I made it a real thing. The order form and PayPal link actually work. I even sold a couple. Some time after this page went up, I bought the domain be-a-god.com and made it a separate site, but I never really promoted it. I’ve kept the site active all these years, and I sell a couple Certificates of Deity every year or so. I’d really love for this one to go viral; if I could sell a few thousand of these, it would really come in handy about now. Tell your friends! Why bother with an online ordination when you can be a God?
After keeping these shenanigans going for about six months, Craig and I got busy with other stuff; the company I worked for went out of business literally overnight and I had to scramble to find freelance gigs for a while. I had a few proposed sites still in the hopper, which I may eventually get around to doing some day. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed this little exploration of my career as a source of fake news and hoaxes. Check out the rest of them. And be sure to order your Certificate of Deity!