Pranks for Nothin', Pal

"Hello?""Yeah, is Hal there?""Who?""Hal. Hal Ja-like-a-kick.""Why you cocksuckuh muddufuckuh ... "That's an exchange from just one of the acknowledged classics of phone pranking -- the infamous "Red" tapes. Made into a short film and re-mastered in digital sound, the Red tapes surfaced years ago -- no one's exactly sure when -- in the tape-trading underground. And they swiftly gained legendary status as some of the funniest phone pranks anyone ever pulled. The two guys responsible, the Bum Bar Bastards -- John Elmo and Jim Davidson -- now live in Florida, have an official web site, and have released a new album of calls.And they're hardly alone.Phone pranking is no longer the exclusive province of bored adolescents. Thanks to the creative work of some seriously funny artists out there, phone pranking has elevated itself into a pop art all its own, with its own legends, stars, fans, inspirations, techniques, and internal debates.But no one knows for certain how it all began.Uncertain Beginnings"Prank calls have been made since Alexander Bell invented the telephone and they will probably always be around," says Blackout, one of the best phone pranksters out there today.Indeed, it's likely that not long after Bell spilled acid on himself and alerted Watson of his immediate quandary, someone pulled a prank on the nascent invention called the telephone -- maybe even on Bell himself.After all, who could resist?The new technology revolutionized the world, of course. But as with every form of mass communication, it cried out for someone to ridicule it.And somewhere along the line, someone called up a butcher with the tried-and-true "Do you have pig feet? Wear shoes and no one will notice" call, or badgered some housewife with the "Is your refrigerator running?"query, or even phoned the local tobacconist to inquire, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can? Better let him out."What is sure is that phone pranking never went away. At times, the underground art even acquired a certain cachet in the above-ground popular media. Witness the success of Bob Newhart's early one-man phone-call comic performances, and you get a sense that everyone finds this sort of thing funny, even if they won't admit it.Even Sammy Petrillo -- one-half of the Duke Mitchell/Sammy Petrillo comedy team that picked up where Martin & Lewis left off -- released an album of his prank calls back in the late '50s.But the real renaissance came in the late '60s and early '70s, when the spirit of youth rebellion spilled over into the telephone, one of the oldest pranking media around. Such phone-call luminaries as "Captain Crunch" made the telephone their weapon in the confrontation with technology's authority that is phone pranking.A Good ConnectionTracing the history of a largely undocumented art is itself something of an art. The nature of phone pranking -- the presumed anonymity of the caller, the conflict inherent in the act, and the potential danger to the caller -- preclude official discussion. The underground itself has largely been built around private tape collections and trading.Many phone pranksters get into the craft on their own, without influences."I never really had any favorite phone prank people because it was one of those things that I just started doing for myself and for the people who were listening to me on the radio show," says Blackout. "Prank calls are great for what they are É one person is an actor and the other person believes the situation to be real."With the advent of the Internet as a powerful mass-communication tool, phone pranks are getting their due. Dedicated web pages abound -- Blackout has one of the most popular himself -- often with audio downloads for those who want to hear for themselves.It is on the web that one of the most fascinating chronicles of this always-re-emerging art thrives. Prantagonize is an online zine published by a prank caller of considerable gifts named Nate.Prantagonize's premiere issue appeared in August of 1997. It features a wealth of info on some of the luminaries -- including the Bum Bar Bastards and Captain Janks -- and the up-and-comers in the nebulous world of phone pranking. Also covered are the ethical issues surrounding phone use and call recording, as well as the basics of performance.Pranking Goes "Pop" -- Jerky StyleOf course, what put phone pranking on the map were the Jerky Boys, two New York zanies whose peculiar (yet strangely viable) set-ups and characterizations were perfectly suited to their "victims." Originally, the Jerky Boys calls circulated as an underground tape; by the time the duo hit it big with their CD, they were already well-known in the underground.The Jerky calls are fun, but they aren't the best. The Jerky Boys were in the right place at the right time, and enjoyed the fruits of happenstance.CDs, a major motion picture, and the requisite 15 minutes of fame followed.Although the Jerkys' sudden popularity was a surprise to prank fans, it actually detracted from their underground credibility. For many pranking aficionados, the Jerkys have fallen from grace; to most pranksters and fans their second release was nothing short of terrible. Still, the Jerky phenomenon put pranking squarely on the public's mindset. And as Blackout points out, there are some classics on the Jerky's first disc.Straight Into the Tube BarAnd then there are The Bum Bar Bastards -- John Elmo and Jim Davidson. This demented duo got started in 1968/69 when they were in their early 20s, according to an interview in Prantagonize. The Bastards began calling taverns in and around Hoboken, N.J., their home. Among their more celebrated series of calls from this period were the calls to "Freddy," "Tom," and "Judy," all of which continued for years.But the most famous are the celebrated Tube Bar calls to a bartender named Louis "Red" Deutsch. A gravel-voiced, city-toughened barkeep, Red grew so furious over the Bastards' repeated phone requests for juvenile-sounding fake names -- we're talking Pepe Roni and Sal Ami, but also more imaginative fare, like Hal Jalikeakick -- that he berated the Bastards. At one point he even offered money to the caller to come to the bar for a fistfight.The tapes circulated for years -- without the Bastards ever releasing it to anyone. In the Prantagonize interview, Davidson comments, "We didn't pass 'em to nobody, near as we can figure. We let a lot of people listen to 'em and somebody got that bootleg thing."As great as the calls are, it's Red who makes the tape riotously funny. On the tape, his volcanic temper produces extreme responses to the light-hearted prompts of the Bastards; his insults include "cocksuckah muthafuckah" to "I've fucked your mother several times." No wonder that the short film about the calls was itself called Red, featuring boozy, brawling acting legend Lawrence Tierney as the mercurial bartender. The calls inspired even more sub-referencing, including a direct tribute via Bart Simpson's calls to Moe's Tavern on The Simpsons.The Bum Bar Bastards are famous for more than just the "Red" calls, however. Their new CD incorporates calls they made through the '70s and '80s, all of which display their caustic style.More Underground HijinksAbout the same time the Red tapes were making the underground rounds, so too were a number of other classics: the "Mark Knopfler" tape, the "Neil Hamburger/bass player" calls, the "Park Grubbs" tape, John Trubee, and the always-unpredictable Fightsters. And these are but a few.All of these featured absolute classics of prank calling, following the elements that distinguish duds from the gems: a planned, rehearsed approach; strong voice characterization; an ability to ad lib with impunity (to keep people on the line); and just enough of a sane, logical underpinning to carry the tone beautifully.Judging from location references, "Knopfler" was probably based in Texas; he called people at home, feigned familiarity with the person on the other end (or someone that person knows), and played it out for as long as it went. The responses ranged from befuddlement to rage and are uniformly funny.Ditto the Grubbs tape. All calls are placed to small-town Oklahomans. Grubbs maintains just enough composure that when he offers to "bathe your family," it comes right out of the blue. There's nothing particularly outlandish about his set-ups; it's his vague suggestiveness that keeps people on the line.John Trubee has enjoyed a longtime reputation as a phone prankster par excellence; his "A Blind Man's Penis" was even released on Enigma! Today, Trubee sells a vast catalog called Space & Time of excellent prank recordings. See the resources section for details about these and others available for purchase.The Modern EraLike Nate, a number of pranksters are making their names today. For instance, Blackout, an actor and singer, masterfully eggs businesses on with uncanny impersonations of his bizarre -- yet all-too-believable -- characters. "When I was a kid, I used to do it, and then when I was in high school I got into acting and radio," Blackout explains. "I had a radio show and would do bits and sketches on the show." His first CD of his best calls is now available and his web site is an essential repository of phone pranking hysteria.A particularly ripe target for inspired phone prankers are call-in TV and radio shows. Any Howard Stern listener can tell you about Captain Janks, the guy who has made a name for himself harassing Larry King and celebrity guests with peculiar mentions of Stern's name in the midst of a call. Janks also did a cellular call to a radio self-help show where he feigned a serious automobile accident, using the "wreck" effects from the KISS song "Detroit Rock City."Naturally, phone pranksters can't resist TV preachers, who are sitting ducks for this kind of thing. SubGenius member Janor kept one occupied during the entire course of his show with such gambits as, "Isn't Jesus like a vampire, because he rose from the dead and all his followers are supposed to drink blood and eat flesh?" Brother Randall and other members of the Methodistas, a top-notch culture-jamming collective, have scored their own hits doing the same thing. The Brother Randall calls are available on CD. His latest is reviewed in our Undergroundnewz section.The Phone Losers of America, a Chicago collective, demonstrate the techniques of weaving between believability and outlandishness as well as anyone. In one call to a karate instructor, the caller peppers the teacher with one silly question -- "Like Monday I'll come in and you'll give me a big karate spanking?" -- after another.The Ethics of PrankingEthics in pranking sounds like an oxymoron, but to serious phone pranksters, there are boundaries. "It's important not to step over the lines, legally or morally," Nate says. "The idea isn't to harass people, but to create a situation -- a believable situation -- where the potential for humor is great, and no one gets hurt."There is another concern for pranksters: the possible interpretation of racist intent in doing a voice characterization. Many pranksters do foreign voices to add a level of peculiarity, particularly in calls to businesses."Like a lot of people, I do an 'Indian' voice, sort of like Apu on The Simpsons," Nate says. "Of course, I mean no disrespect toward the Indian people or culture. But what makes it work is the typically stereotyped reaction you get from people, which sort of underscores the whole point about stereotypes. It's like holding a mirror up to our society in the midst of a prank."Nate also has a marked preference for calls to businesses as opposed to individuals. "They get crazy calls all day, so they're more apt to stay on the line with you," he explains. "Besides, you don't want to bother people at home if you can help it."The advent of the "star-69" call-back option has also changed things."Basically, my guiding principle is don't do anything you wouldn't be willing to back up if you were confronted," Nate says. The importance of that advice can't be underscored.There are legal ramifications, too, that vary from state to state.Pranksters should research their state's laws on the subjects of pranking and recording calls because the consequences can be severe. In December, the Supreme Court heard arguments surrounding the case of the "mad laugher," a federal employee at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing plant who anonymously called colleagues, laughed maniacally, then hung up. He was fired for lying about it, but appealed all the way to the top. The High Court was unimpressed.It's All in Your HeadBut at least the mad laugher gets an "A" for novelty. "I think the only guideline to follow is to be creative and original," urges Blackout. "No one wants to hear tired old jokes and unoriginal ideas."Without a doubt, we are in the midst of boom years for outstanding phone pranking. Many private collections number in the thousands now, with the relatively well-known and absolutely unknown alike represented.The prank artists mentioned here are but a small sampling of what's out there. There are countless other deserving talents, both young and old, on tapes that continue circulating. If you want to get in on the excitement, do some exploring. Nate's Prantagonize is a great place to start, but it's hardly the only one. Keep looking -- it's well worth the search.After all, you never know what you'll find on the other end of the phone.Sam Gaines answers phones in Greensboro, NCSidebar OneResources* The RE/Search No. 11, Pranks!, is the perfect place to start. Featuring all manner of pranking -- phone pranks included -- this book gives a great overview and incisive look at the spirit and nature of pranking in every incarnation. Order it through Atomic Books. www.atomicbooks.com* Nate is a top-drawer prankster, and Prantagonize reflects his passion for the subject. Interviews in the first issue include Captain Janks, the Bum Bar Bastards, Dial M for Moron, and the Redneck Pranksters, as well as thoughtful articles on technique and call-back, and even reviews. www.franksworld.com/prantagonize* John Trubee's catalogue Space & Time received an outstanding write-up in the most recent Factsheet Five. Trubee's calls are themselves legendary and are available through the catalogue, as are calls from Jerky Boys and Fightsters. Space & Time World Enterprises, PO Box 4921, Santa Rosa, CA 95402. His web page is at www.rlabs.com/spacetime/, but we had trouble logging on.* Naturally, the WFMU Catalogue of Curiosities sells prank recordings, too. Currently the Park Grubbs calls, the "Neil Hamburger" recording, and several other audio oddity compilations are available. PO Box 1568, Montclair, NJ 07042; www.wfmu.org* Check out The King of All Media web page, with plenty of calls worth a listen. www.koam.com* Black-out's Box is always in demand. He now has a CD for sale of his best calls. Well worth checking out. www.blackout.comOther great prank links:* Phone Losers of America: http://pla.kracked.com/* Phone Bastards: www.geocities. com/Hollywood/ Lot/5770* Check out the Bum Bar Bastards at www.cyberstreet.com/users/dougb /bbb.htm

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