Longform

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."

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.

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Dewey Webb