The Prank Callers Who Went Viral Before the Web
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because internet trolls are the children of prank callers.
“Hello, is Al there?” a heavy Jersey accent asks over the phone. It sounds like a perfectly routine call. “Al (pause) Coholic?” The bartender’s gravelly voice gets muffled as he turns to his customers. He’s taken the bait — “Al Coholic?” he calls out multiple times. Sorry, he tells the caller, but no one is answering to that name. “Oh, OK, thank you,” the prankster politely says, hanging up.
In the mid-1970s, Jim Davidson and John Elmo dialed up and drove victims to distraction. Today, videos go viral, tweets spark protests and memes spread. But this duo’s Tube Bar prank tapes passed hand to hand, picking up steam by word of mouth to become an early example of file-sharing and virality, says Kembrew McLeod, author of Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World. The bulk of the calls were made between 1975 and 1976, and the first tapes were released for sale more than a decade later. But long before their official release, the prank calls caught fire underground.
“This guy would have killed us on the spot.”
You could even say Davidson and Elmo were an analog version of trolls. Modern-day equivalents to prank callers are the Loki, the (mostly) anonymous tricksters with little agenda, apart from a will to disrupt. Most of us have made a prank call and can remember the rush of choosing a number, hearing the target at the other end of the line, coming up with a fake pizza order or silly story and waiting for the sweet success that can only be measured by gullibility.
The ’70s pranks followed a popular formula. Young and mischievous, Davidson and Elmo called Red Deutsch’s bar in Jersey City after their band practices — asking for the likes of Ben Dover, Cole Kutz, Al Knockerup … you get the gist. When Deutsch realized what was happening, his responses were often fiery, if not X-rated. Sure, the miscreants called other places too, but Deutsch was their favorite target. Sometimes they’d even go drink beers at the bar to get a good look at Deutsch. “We had to go down there,” Davidson once said, admitting that the duo — who did not respond to OZY’s requests for comments — never fessed up to the blustery owner. “This guy would have killed us on the spot.”
If the pranks sound similar to The Simpsons’ running joke where Bart calls Moe’s Tavern, well, show creator Matt Groening has chalked it up before to “creative synchronicity.” But the ’70s calls are legendary in comedy circles. “In my opinion, Jim Davidson is a genius,” Howard Stern has said.
Prank calls were the underground fad of the late 20th century — more so than goldfish swallowing and telephone-box stuffing, but less well known than ’80s shoulder pads. They even bled into artistic culture: In 1983, for example, the Beastie Boys featured a prank call to Carvel in their song “Cooky Puss,” and Eminem often mixed pranks with music. Some comedians even got their starts with these mischievous tricks — the Jerky Boys became famous for their own pranks shortly after the Tube Bar tapes were released. And in 1992, Neil Hamburger released “Great Phone Calls,” later releasing his first stand-up album.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak loved prank calls — the latter even tried to trick the pope by pretending to be Henry Kissinger, but a bishop caught on to the hoax. A Florida radio station called Hugo Chavez, pretending to be Fidel Castro, and then they called Castro pretending to be Chavez. Back in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell filed for the telephone’s patent, and just eight years later, the first prank call was mentioned in The Electrical World. “A Grave Joke on Undertakers,” the author punned, calling the prankster a “malicious wag” for calling a funeral director to the homes of very alive Rhode Islanders.
But the prank call is now a dying art, thanks in large part to caller ID, McLeod says. Dialing *69 may sound like a porn game to younger readers, but it used to be how the prankees got back in touch with the pranksters — if their numbers were listed. And these days the number of those ringing often appears on telephone screens long before a call is answered.
In one recent case, a hoax call even turned deadly. Nurse Jacintha Saldanha committed suicide just days after falling for a radio stunt in which a caller pretended to be Queen Elizabeth II inquiring after the health of King Edward VII Hospital’s most famous pregnant patient, Duchess Kate. Believing the caller, Saldanha transferred the call to those looking after Prince William’s other half.
Long before this though, the Tube Bar pranks seemed like good, sorta clean fun. Today internet trolls are more common than pranksters with telephones. So while they may have swapped mediums, tricksters still know how to push plenty of buttons.