Sex, Lies and TV Talk

Tempe pranksters crash seven talk shows--and live to gab again

At first glance, the East Valley slackers who call themselves Timmy and Roberto wouldn't seem likely candidates to appear on a TV talk show. Both high school graduates, the young men apparently possess the normal number of chromosomes. As far as anyone knows, neither has been romantically involved with a blood relative. Furthermore, both are still equipped with the same genitalia with which they entered the world.

Despite these severe handicaps, the dysfunctionally challenged pair are nevertheless seasoned vets of TV's trash-talk trenches. Assisted by a rotating-stock company of duplicitous friends, the pranksters have successfully crashed the daytime-chat circuit, posing in such disparate roles as bickering gays, lowlife womanizers and peeping Toms.

Currently negotiating an appearance on a show that, for obvious reasons, must remain nameless, the intrepid impostors already have a collective seven shows under their belts. Over the past three years, they've lobbed their salacious--and totally spurious--grenades from such shock-talk outposts as Jenny Jones, Mark Walberg, Charles Perez and, most recently, on an episode of Carnie Wilson taped last fall.

"All my life I've amused myself by telling people pointless stories just to see how far I can carry them," reports Roberto. "Thanks to these shows, now there's a payoff. I'd never be able to afford to fly to New York or Chicago, stay in a fancy hotel and order $18 banana waffles from room service." In the process, he's creating McLuhanesque performance art--like the tape of his gay makeover on Mark Walberg; a surreal spectacular in which he flamboyantly flounces across the screen in lumberjack gear while a voice-over solicits phone calls from viewers who are "pregnant and battered."

But the curtain is fast falling on Timmy and Roberto's peculiar brand of guerrilla theatre. With the exception of Ricki Lake and a sprinkling of other survivors, there are few new beachheads to conquer. Plagued by scandals, lawsuits, gun-shy sponsors and an audience rapidly being talked to death, many talk-show ringmasters have folded their tents or, like Oprah, shifted to less exploitative topics.

Yet during their glory days of chat-show chicanery, Timmy and Roberto developed keen insights into the inner workings of TV's most-maligned genre, confirming what many viewers have long suspected.

"Most of these shows are complete and utter bullshit," says 24-year-old Roberto, a Tempe record-store clerk with a long history of pranks. "Practically anyone could con their way onto one of them."

"The level of trust is incredible," agrees Timmy, who is also 24, but won't say where he works because he'd like to keep his day job. "It's been my experience that the producers of these shows are pretty much willing to believe anything you tell them. If they didn't, I don't know how they'd ever find any guests."

Hard-core hoaxsters with chutzpah to spare, Timmy and Roberto probably underestimate the ease of crashing a syndicated talk show. According to Chicago-based host Jerry Springer, only one person in 150 who phones his program's guest hot line is ever flown to Chicago, limoed from the airport and put up at a luxury hotel at his program's expense.

In late 1994, Roberto found himself among those chosen few. It happened the same day he and friend Johnny were marveling over the jaw-dropping array of lower-echelon humanity assembled on an episode of Springer's program.

"We were watching the show, wondering what sort of freak detector the producers used to find these people, when they announced a phone number to call if you wanted to be a guest," recalls Roberto. "I figured, 'Why not?' How difficult could it be to copy the stuff you see on these shows--or even improve on it?"

Ringing up Springer's guest hot line (1-800-29JERRY), Roberto found himself listening to a prerecorded menu of touch-tone dysfunction: "If you have a wedding horror story, press 1. For 'Why did you turn gay on me?' press 2," and so forth.

Recognizing that a faked wedding horror story would mean producing catering bills, photos and home videos, Roberto kept listening until he heard a far simpler topic that just screamed to be scammed: "To get revenge on an ex, press 3"

Covering up the receiver, Roberto hollered, "Hey, Johnny--wanna be my ex?"
Then, on Springer's answering machine, Roberto outlined a totally fictitious scenario in which he would extract revenge on Johnny, a former gay lover who'd made his life miserable since their messy split. A spiteful sort, Johnny had broken into Roberto's house while he was at work, turned on all the faucets and flooded the two-story townhouse! Posing as an employee of a herpes clinic, the vindictive Johnny had also phoned a number of Roberto's friends and co-workers, informing them that he'd named them as possible sexual contacts! Was it any wonder that Roberto wanted to confront this monster on syndicated TV, announcing that he'd arranged to have him fired from his job in front of a live studio audience.

Less than a day later, a breathless Springer staffer phoned back and, according to Roberto, practically salivated over his fabricated tale.

"It immediately became apparent that I had 'em hooked," reports Roberto. "One of the first things she wanted to know was what airport I'd be flying out of if I were to come to Chicago to tape a show. Here she was, already making travel arrangements--and she hadn't even talked to Johnny yet. I knew we were home free."

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