PHONE CALLS FROM HELL
After somehow obtaining a secret hot-line number reserved for top station personnel, one of the craftier Interceptors made a late-night call to the deejay manning the turntable at KBUZ, a now-defunct easy-listening station. Identifying himself as general manager of the station, the prankster informed the puzzled deejay that the station was changing format, then outlined a series of promos to be read over the next few hours. Ever the company man, the jock dutifully urged listeners to stay tuned for the new cosmic KBUZ, the sound of psychedelic soul."
WHAT I'VE FOUND most interesting about phone pranks is that there's no neutral ground," says John Trubee, one of the country's most vocal proponents of prank calls. People either love these calls and think they're hilariously funny, or else they see them as sophomoric or somehow feel threatened by them," says the call collector.
Now semiretired from active pranksterism, the 34-year-old North Hollywood, California, musician has an extensive collection of taped calls from around the country, including a number of the Phoenix pranks. He continues to collect taped pranks and has compiled a four-volume collection of Calls to Idiots" cassettes that he markets through the mail. (11438 Killion Street, Suite 4, North Hollywood CA 91601) In addition, he's included recordings of telephone pranks on several albums he's recorded with his band, The Ugly Janitors of America.
Like any responsible prankster, Trubee says he takes a dim view of prank calls that victimize the sick or elderly, causing them undue worry or hardship."
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The best kind of prank calls are when you get into social criticism, like when you call up businesses and make a mockery of them," says Trubee. Business people will usually stay on the line a lot longer because they're all trying to sell you something." That may explain the motivation behind one of the stranger calls in Trubee's collection: Perhaps hoping to make a killing selling her company's laxatives to the inquisitive proctologist" who's phoned her, a middle-aged Herbalife saleswoman gamely fields a barrage of scatological queries about the frequency, consistency, color and odor of her bowel movements.
Another Trubee favorite is confrontational surrealism. Like audio versions of Candid Camera, these telephone pranks suddenly catapult the person receiving the call into touch-tone Dada Land-like the prank call that tried to convince a Southern California supermarket manager to behead a diseased raccoon that had supposedly gotten loose in his store-after first basting the animal with cheese sauce.
Probably the most extreme example of this type of call was a remarkable tag-team-style stunt pulled off last fall by a couple of pranksters Trubee identifies as Demented Freaks From Seattle."
Unfolding like a soap opera from The Twilight Zone, this particular tape is notable not only for the monumental gullibility of the victims, but also because it features a female prankster-a rarity in the male-dominated phone-prank arena.
Using the name Persimmon," the female half of the team answers a classified ad for a limited-edition Swatch watch, offering to swap her 1986 Mazda for the $100 timepiece. During the first of two lengthy, late-night calls to the young couple who'd placed the ad, Persimmon accuses her male victim of offering to trade the watch for sex, then makes lesbian advances to the female victim and urges the woman to dump her boyfriend. Incredibly, this call ends on a hopeful note: The female victim agrees to meet Persimmon at a convenience store the next day to exchange the watch for the car.
Moments later, however, Persimmon's partner makes a follow-up call. Posing as Persimmon's indignant husband, he demands that the male victim apologize for making sexual advances to Persimmon, who's by now loudly sobbing in the background. Eager to get his hands on the Mazda, the male victim agrees, only to be berated by the wailing Persimmon, who now refuses to accept his apology. Then the phony husband inaugurates a screaming match with the male victim, accusing him of suggesting mate-swapping. The saga comes to a mind-boggling conclusion when the couples finally make peace and agree to meet in the morning.
People who are against prank calls always claim that they disturb people and are highly offensive," says Trubee. Well, the answer to that is, `Hang up the phone.' Yet it's amazing how seldom people do, even though these people are the same ones who later cry they're a `victim.' Until they hang up that phone, the call is somehow fulfilling a need, whether they know it or not-the need to argue back and try to win."
Pointless arguments with strangers are practically a prank genre unto themselves, says Trubee. In one example of touch-tone gestalt, a prankster calls a number at random and commands the victim: Hang up the damn phone!" Even though that is exactly how the telephone company suggests crank calls be handled, the victim refuses and the conversation degenerates into an obscene shouting match.
In another tape (attributed to Pittsburgh's Evil Mofos From Hell"), pranksters answer a want ad placed by a man running a trucking service. After the man explains that it's not worth his time to haul 50 pounds of dog shit" from the callers' lawn, the insults begin. Within minutes the callers have enraged the victim to the point that he threatens bodily harm before slamming down the phone. Under the guise of apologizing, the pranksters call back and bait the victim into another burst of vitriol, this one climaxing in threats of rape, murder and arson. Suddenly realizing he's plummeted off the deep end, the shaken victim hangs up.
What a sociologist might make of this is anyone's guess, because nobody except perhaps the victims take prank calls seriously.
It's sad that the people in academia, with some exceptions, ignore this stuff as being silly and frivolous because these calls show how people really are," says Nashville-based freelance writer Barry Alfonso, a longtime devotee of what he calls telephone experiments." This kind of absolute, down-to-the-bone, bottom-line, locker-room, man-to-man talk that comes out when people are mad reveals a lot about what some people really think but never say in proper conversation."
Many of the calls also reveal that some folks are a lot more gullible than they'd like to believe. People will believe things that they're told on the phone that they would probably never believe if someone told them in person," contends Alfonso, who outlined one of those calls in the 1987 book Pranks!, a collection of Devious Deeds and Mischievous Mirth": An experimenter" picks a name from the telephone book, dials that number, then tells the person who answers that he's found some keys with the victim's name and address on them.
If you start throwing out various facts and bits of information, they'll connect the dots for you," claims Alfonso. You say you've found some lost keys (that don't exist)-then mysteriously they have lost some keys... . You could say a meteor landed in your backyard, cracked open, and you found their name and address inside, and they would sooner believe that than realize you picked their name out of the phone book." Alfonso claims that calls like those he's described are, for the most part, relatively harmless." The worst thing you've done is make someone feel foolish," he says. And, considering what most people do to each other every day-they lie, they cheat, they cut each other off in traffic-that's not that terrible." Still, Alfonso claims many people feel far more threatened by an anonymous joke call than they would had the caller telephoned for perverse sexual purposes or tried to hoodwink them out of money.
That, people can understand," explains Alfonso. But the fact that someone would call them as an artistic humorous statement is a very subversive thought to a lot of people. Things that are outside of normal, rational activity are very disturbing to people."
John Trubee agrees. You can call up and tell anyone a bunch of nonsense, but if you tell them in a businesslike voice, in an adult manner, you can get most people to believe anything," he says. But later, when people find out they've been had, it really rattles their sense of reality because they can't understand the motivation behind the reality. Suddenly, they're forced to start questioning everything they see, hear and believe-particularly what they see and hear on TV and radio. And that's not a bad thing."
SEVENTEEN YEARS after the KDIL crew disconnected its telephone, prank calls continued to rock the Phoenix commercial-radio scene. But until recently, it was often the stations themselves that orchestrated the stunts.
KSLX radio morning personality Bob Boze Bell grimaces as he recalls a series of on-air prank calls, all of which backfired in a big way. In one particularly ill-advised stunt of a few years ago, a listener was told he'd receive free airline tickets if he'd call his ex-wife and pretend that he wanted to reconcile.
We thought we'd get a phone call where she'd just be cursing at him, really reading him the riot act," says Bell. Well, he calls her up and tells her he's changed his mind and that he's made a terrible mistake. And, much to our surprise, she says-live, on the air-00`This is kind of sudden. I didn't know this is how you really felt.' Suddenly, it became obvious that she was taking him up on his offer. When we cut in and told her it was just a gag to try to win some airline tickets, she started crying. It was so pathetic, it made your skin crawl."
Another KSLX telephone prank gone seriously awry was an April Fool's Day stunt inspired by an actual dispute over a proposed freeway to be built on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
We came on at six o'clock in the morning and told everyone who was up at that hour that we were going to play a joke on all the listeners who don't tune in until seven o'clock," explains Bell. Sort of a Native American version of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast, the gag required early risers to telephone the station with bogus eyewitness reports" of an Indian uprising on Pima Road.
We gave the listeners the premise and they took it to the moon," says Bell. We had people calling in, saying that they were on their way to work and had seen Indians on horseback squaring off against the police on Scottsdale Road. Someone else called in to warn everyone that classes at Scottsdale Community College had been canceled because Indians had surrounded the place. Then we got a call that ABCO was on fire."
Scottsdale police brought this simulated war party to a close when they charged into the station and ordered the station's morning team to can the scam. Alarmed listeners had reportedly melted" Scottsdale's 911 number.
Last year the KSLX morning team went over the top. Somebody got the bright idea to place a prank call to Scottsdale police, an act that's about as advisable as telling your flight attendant you're a terrorist.
According to Bell, radio partner John Giese telephoned the police station in an attempt to have Jeanne Sedello (the distaff side of the morning team) arrested for violating an archaic law forbidding cohabitation. The woman who answered the phone thought it was funny, but she turned the call over to an officer who did not think it was funny at all," Bell recalls. John wouldn't give up, though-he kept insisting that the police should be investigating Jeanne's living arrangement.
Finally, the cop said, `This is stupid. There are many laws we don't enforce.' John said, `Like what?' And the guy said, `Like the law that says you're supposed to tell somebody when they're on the radio.'
The cop reported us to the FCC."
Bell says that his contract with the station now forbids him from calling anyone on the air. It wound up costing us $10,000 in attorney's fees, plus the FCC fined the station $5,000."
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