Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

UFO Phil, performance art, and insanity

Most people my age remember Andy Kaufman, the comedian and performance artist whose most famous role was the deadpan, heavily-accented foreigner Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi.  Kaufman was famous for publicity stunts that left people uncertain as to whether he was (1) the most brilliant comedian ever, (2) doing outrageous things just to prove that he could, or (3) insane.  An example is when, during a performance at Carnegie Hall,  he invited the entire audience out for milk and cookies - and called out for twenty buses, which duly arrived, bringing as many people as wished to a local bakery.  Afterwards, he said he was done for the evening, but would continue the performance the next morning on the Staten Island Ferry -- which he did.  On another occasion, he told an audience that he wasn't going to do any standup that night, he was going to read to them from The Great Gatsby.  After twenty minutes of reading, when people started to leave, he asked the audience if they'd prefer to hear a record -- when someone shouted "yes," he put on a record.  Which was a recording of him reading The Great Gatsby.

His blurring of the line between performance and reality was so complete that some of his fans believe he faked his own death (of a rare form of cancer, in 1984 at the age of 35), even claiming that he lost weight in order to make his illness look real.  And while I don't actually think this is true, it's not that far out of the realm of possibility, considering some of the other stuff he did.

In writing this blog, I often have to try to discern whether people are "for real" -- if they really, honestly, think that they have evidence for whatever damnfool thing they're claiming, or whether they're just trying to get attention... or if they're just insane.  Because, honestly, I'm only interested in the first one.  I don't want to play into something that's just a premeditated publicity stunt, nor put myself in the position of ridiculing someone who actually needs psychiatric help.  But just as in Kaufman's case, it's hard to tell, sometimes.

Enter "UFO Phil."

UFO Phil has spent the last fifteen years organizing events designed to create awareness about the aliens who, he claims, are visiting us all the time.  He is planning a "Live Concert for Extraterrestrials" on July 21, 2012, the day that the aliens will arrive "as predicted by the Mayans."  These will be the "good aliens" -- they're blue, he says, and bad aliens are red.  And far from heralding the end of the world, the blue aliens will bring "the secrets of advanced medicine, new technology, and a new calendar."

Thank heaven for the latter.  Because I hate it when your old calendar runs out and you don't have a replacement.

UFO Phil's latest stunt is that he wants to build a pyramid on Alcatraz Island as a refueling station for aliens.  Pyramids, he says, generate beams of energy, especially ones built using the "secret blueprints and schematics" he has, which were given to him by incredibly advanced beings from another galaxy.  He says that the pyramid has to be 755 feet across at the base, which will cause him to run into problems right from the get-go because Alcatraz Island is only 600 feet across.  No problem, says Phil; he's going to support the base of the pyramid with underwater pylons until he can "make the island bigger."

And given that you never know when you're gonna run out of gas, he wants to build another, smaller pyramid near the "Hollywood" sign in the hills above Los Angeles.

Government land management agencies who maintain the land around the sign say they know nothing about any such plans.  And the National Park Service, which oversees Alcatraz, didn't even bother to comment when contacted by reporters.

So, which is it?  Is UFO Phil a publicity hound, a nut who needs some psychiatric evaluation, or a true believer?  See what I mean about it being hard to tell?  It's especially hard with the latter two -- at what point does a belief in something bizarre cross the line into an actual psychological condition?

The cynical part of me tends to think that Phil is just a guy who likes to be in the spotlight, and has found a way to get notoriety by proposing ridiculous stuff.  But there's something about him that seems awfully... earnest.  Take a look at his website (here) -- although you might want to wear noise-cancelling headphones, because his homepage now has an automatically launched song of his called "Gravity," which might well rival Rebecca Black's "Friday" as being the most annoying song ever recorded.  Check out his various pages and links, and let me know what you think.  Is he a brilliant performance artist, or a nut?  Or like Andy Kaufman, someone for whom the lines are so blurred that it's impossible to tell?


  1. I'm going for peanut brittle, myself.

  2. "at what point does a belief in something bizarre cross the line into an actual psychological condition?"

    Its always a psychological condition, but its social acceptable if you join one of the established tax exempt ones.