Before Jackass, There Were the Jerky Boys
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we’ll rap your friggin’ head in with a ratchet if you don’t.
By Eugene S. Robinson
You know our rebellions generally come in packages now. Music, art, culture … all boiled down to shit shared or tweeted via this high-tech transfer medium of the Internet. But once upon a time long, long ago — the 1970s, to be exact — things used to just happen. Riots, platform shoes and, downhill from all that excitement — prank calls?
Yup. Before cell phones, caller ID and *69-ing, answering your phone was a Russian roulette of possibilities. You had no idea who was calling, or why, and so mystery, chance and surprise abounded.
Enter the Jerky Boys.
“I’d like to straighten out this funny little drinking problem I got.” The speaker calls himself Frank Rizzo, and he’s calling a rehab hotline. His accent is New York–thick and as he goes on to explain that “My temper’s always flaring like a pack of hemorrhoids,” you can hear the person on the other end bite and bite hard.
“You’re the key to it. Why don’t you go to an AA meeting?”
“I don’t think it’s my drinking so much. … I drink a bottle and a half of Jack Daniels a day and whack down a six pack at night. To calm my nerves.”
And on it goes. Feint, parry, fuck with and, just as soon as it’s started, it’s over and Johnny Brennan and his partner, Kamal Ahmed, move on to the next setup, the next set of characters. Just a couple of jerk-offs who you might have imagined were making these calls from their mom’s basements but then something strange happened: The calls that they recorded and made cassette tapes of started getting traded around. Ten years later, some of them found their way into the hands of fellow traveling radio DJ Howard Stern, and then came that crazy thing that underlies the American rags-to-riches narrative: They hit it big.
How big? When they finally did a record of their calls, The Jerky Boys, it rocketed up the charts in 1993 and, according to the RIAA, was certified double platinum. In very real numbers, that’s more than two million records sold back when people actually bought records. Their second record, The Jerky Boys 2? Also double platinum. Then, in short order, four more records. And let’s forget for a second their miserable 1995 bomb of a movie, The Jerky Boys: The Movie, and remember this: Guys who just screw with people for a living got to make a movie.
“Documenting weirdness has always been cool,” says Mean Dave, a YouTube show host and stand-up comedian. “And weirdness that surprises you? If it’s good? Usually totally golden.” So came the meteoric rise, as did the almost inevitable split between Brennan and Ahmed (who’s now a filmmaker), Brennan’s palatial estate in Upstate New York, the very probable joy at being name-checked by celebrities and — still retaining an agent at CAA — continued tries at striking lightning. Again.
“But I never really got into the Jerky Boys,” Mean Dave laughs. “I always respected the format of anonymous tormenting of strangers through the classic telephone medium, though.” Crazy, surprising, unexpected, anarchic? Exactly. Brennan still works on Jerky Boys websites, YouTube channels and in general being jerky, even if not a boy (Brennan is 54), because, well, he can.
“See you Monday, rubberneck!” Not if we see you first.