Sunday, June 22, 2014

A requiem for the prank phone call

The Boston Globe printed a short essay by Kate Levin about how modern communication technology has destroyed the tradition of a good prank call. Everyone has caller ID and cell phones have made phone books less useful for getting everyday people to pick up at home. It's not the same world anymore.

I share her lamentations.

I never made prank calls to strangers, but I was an enthusiastic follower of the Jerky Boys. My prank calls were always directed to friends and they took two forms.

Around 2000 the first soundboard pranks went online. Someone took a series of voice clips from Arnold Schwarzenegger, mostly Kindergarten Cop, and phoned up a drunk over and over again, making him increasingly frustrated and vulgar as he was forced into a conversation with the same 15 clips of audio.

The raw audio clips were free for the taking online. Today they are available in the form of soundboards, which let a user click a button on a webpage to play the clip and easily manage a pile of different options, but back then I had to open a formation of WAV. files and play them into a phone.

The high point was when my friend's sister Jaime answered the phone and I played the clip of Arnold pleading "Jaime, please!"

Soundboards are still available with many, many different voices to choose from. Users all learn the hard way that it's only funny when the mark talks, and one has to suppress their urges to fill in pauses with multiple clicks in a row. The humor is in the reaction.

After that I graduated to making my own calls using my own voice. It was the classic approach, but with a twist. I called the homes of my friends and left impossible messages for them with their family members. The messages would sound reasonable to the family member, but prove impossible when presented.

Here's an example.

Hi, this is Edward, I'm in a class with Jordan. I let him borrow my biology textbook and I really need it back. He has my number, could you please tell him to return it.

The friend would get the message, but they were never in a biology class and would be completely bewildered.

This one actually backfired on me one time. I wouldn't try to disguise my voice and apparently the message one friend got from his sister was "Some gay guy called you about his textbook."

The best one I ever did, by far, was to a friend named Nate, who was in high school at the time. Two of us called when he wasn't home and left on the answering machine:

Hey Nate, we really need you to get the bibliography for the group project done by Monday. Please, please get on this. We can't miss another deadline, this is super important and it's starting to hurt our grades. 
Yeah man, we're really behind the 8-ball here.

Nate's dad heard the message and confronted him about it, accusing him of slacking at school. That made it even better than we had hoped.

Prank calls certainly have a mean streak to them, but for me, a good prank ends with a debriefing and allows the target a chance to laugh along with the prankster.

As Levin wrote in her piece, online high jinks really aren't on the same floor as phone calls. I think there's still a future for prank calls, but caller ID has changed everything. It's not simply enough that one can block caller ID, because displaying the call as an anonymous number automatically makes the target suspicious.

It's a different world and the golden age of prank calls has certainly passed.


  1. Not True,

  2. This person uses fake phone numbers everytime.