Telephone Trespassing : Think only kids make prank calls? Now grown-ups are dialing, baiting their prey and taping what follows. And thousands collect the recordings.
Against a backdrop of tension among some Anglos and Asians in Garden Grove, a man feigns a “Vietnamese accent” and telephones residents. The caller says he’s collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to change the name of Garden Grove to New Saigon, eliciting rage from many of those he calls. On the East Coast, callers harass a New Jersey bartender, asking for fictitious customers named Stu Pid and Sal Ammy. Again, the response is rage and off-colorlanguage.
A furniture salesman in Redondo Beach is badgered on the phone by “Don,” who says he lives in Lakewood. Don asks the salesman for outrageous services such as bringing a cheap, secondhand sofa across town for his scrutiny.
If you think these kinds of telephone calls are still the exclusive domain of bored adolescents, think again. Thousands of people nationwide can--and do--listen to these or other, similar calls on audio- or videotape or CDs. Although many would condemn the callers and the listeners, in some circles, the tapes and discs are considered entertainment. The New Jersey and Garden Grove calls are particular favorites of connoisseurs of a phenomenon some have dubbed audio verite.
Taped prank calls and other illicit recordings have been circulating underground for at least a decade. Made with the help of a telephone-taping device available at electronics stores for about $2, they are now surfacing in the mainstream.
“What’s so astonishing about the tapes is how many people have heard them,” says Barry Alfonso, a former Angeleno and Nashville-based songwriter whose collection exceeds 50 hours of calls.
Some of the tapes, previously home-duplicated and circulated by word of mouth, are now being sold by mail order and via 900 numbers. One series of calls is even out on a commercially released CD. But, not surprisingly, most of the commerce remains underground.
The calls frequently constitute harassment, which is illegal under state and federal law. In addition, taping calls without the knowledge of both parties is banned in many states, including California, although law enforcement and telephone companies don’t appear to regard the taped prank calls as a problem.
Pacific Bell has received no complaints about this type of prank calls. Nor has the California attorney general received any filings of cases regarding phone calls taped and circulated for entertainment.
In the lingo of the prank-call underground, the Garden Grove calls are “fightsters.” The most famous fightsters and probably the most popular of all recorded phone pranks--the tapes generally credited with starting the craze--are a series of calls to the Tube Bar in Jersey City. The tapes surfaced in the early ‘80s and chronicle a wave of calls to a short-fused bartender.
“Can I speak to Al?” goes a typical call. “Last name, Koholic.” Sometimes the bartender falls for it, hoarsely calling out for a patron named Cole Kutz or Sal Ammy. More often, he recognizes his tormentors and uncorks a stream of expletives.
Fans of “The Simpsons” may recognize the similarity to Bart’s calls to Moe’s Tavern. “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening confesses to being a fan of prank tapes. The New Saigon calls, he says, are his favorites--although he prefers to characterize the similarity between the Moe’s Tavern calls and the Tube Bar tapes as “creative synchronicity.”
Alfonso is partial to a series known as the “Benny Garrick Calls,” which are most widely circulated in the South. The late Benny Garrick was a used-car salesman at Al White Motors in Manchester, Tenn. Audio verite fans make pilgrimages to Al White Motors, as they do to the Tube Bar.
In the series of calls, a fellow salesman would call Garrick and assume the voice of “Arnie” or Arnie’s brother “Barney.” The calls stretch out over years, during which a long, twisted narrative unfolds.
While Arnie/Barney’s identity is not publicly known and Garrick never admitted to knowing his nemesis, some people know. Despite the annoying nature of the calls, a number of country-music stars admired the prankster so much that they once threw a party for him in Nashville.
Musicians and people in the music business are major purveyors of tapes, Alfonso says. “They have the means to make a lot of copies of them, and musicians tend to be outsiders, so they admire the people who make the calls.”
Most collectors acquire not only tapes of prank calls, but other bootlegged tidbits of audio verite. Among famous tapes in this category is a recording allegedly made on Buddy Rich’s tour bus of the drummer in a sputtering rage, screaming curses at his band.
Equally renowned is “Shut Up Little Man,” a tape of the acrid exchanges between two old, bitter alcoholic roommates surreptitiously recorded by a downstairs neighbor in San Francisco.
“Shut Up Little Man,” has been illustrated for a comic book, issued on a recording sold by Tedium House in San Francisco, and performed on stage in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It will be revived here Aug. 26-29 at the Kim Light Gallery here.
One group of callers seems poised to take the phenomenon to the bank. They are the New York-based Jerky Boys, so named because they call their prey “jerky.” Over the past six years, the Boys have developed a panoply of characters who answer classified ads.
After seeing their tapes circulate via bootlegging for several years, the Boys began marketing their tapes in 1992 through a 900 line.
Typical of their work: Jerky Boy Johnny B phones a personal-injury attorney. He says he drove his motorcycle up on the sidewalk and injured some pedestrians. The lawyer refuses the case. “Well, can I sue you?” Johnny B asks, to keep him on the line.
The lawyer snatches the bait. “Sue me?” Why do you want to sue me?” The lawyer remains on the line as Johnny B vows, “The people you handle, I will sue them, too.”
In April, Select Records, a division of Atlantic, released a Jerky Boys CD. The disc rocketed into the mainstream, selling 75,000 copies in the first month.
It is legal to tape telephone calls without the consent of the other party in New York, but the issue of harassment remains. Asked why a mainstream record company would release an album of what many would call victimization by telephone, Wyatt Cheek, Select vice president of promotion and marketing, says: “The notion that people don’t like it and find it repellent is hypothetical.
“I have not experienced that, and the Jerky Boys have not experienced that,” he says. “This has been called by some the most-copied underground tape ever. When you have that kind of response, it doesn’t suggest that people find it irritating and abusive. It suggests that it’s something people enjoy and want to be a part of.”
According to Prof. Mark F. Grady, who teaches intellectual property and torts law at UCLA School of Law, victims of pranksters who find their voices being sold in record stores probably don’t have any legal redress.
“I’m not optimistic that people who had the pranks played on them could sue,” Grady says. “It would be difficult to argue that there would be a copyright infringement, because it would be hard for them to assert copyright on their informal remarks.”
Norma Bell, an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission, says federal law allows the taping of phone conversations with the consent of only one party. California and 14 other states require prior consent by both parties or alerting both parties with a beep tone every 15 seconds.
Despite the proliferation of tapes, harassment by pranksters seems to have flown beneath law-enforcement and phone-company radar.
“It hasn’t come up, to my knowledge,” says Denise Davis, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office. “We would have to review a case before making a determination as to whether it’s in our scope of authority to move forward.”
Pacific Bell spokeswoman Linda Bonniksen said she has never heard of the circulation of prank tapes. Mike Murray of GTE says his company, too, is unaware of any tapes.
While hanging up is the recommended first line of defense, new telephone technologies may frustrate pranksters.
“In the last couple of years, there’s been technology developed that would allow customers to block calls from (certain) telephone numbers,” says Bonniksen. Customers may also be able to order services that identify the numbers of callers or call the numbers back. One service can send a caller’s telephone number to a sealed data base that local police can access if a customer files a complaint.
“There will always be ways to get around things,” responds one prankster. “As long as there are telephones and stupid people, there will always be prank phone calls.”