There’s something nostalgic about prank phone calls. They’re the product of a bygone era, and if you were born before the invention of caller ID, they were likely a part of your childhood.
“Maybe there’s a nostalgic feel to them because you can’t do them anymore, says Jim Florentine, one of the stars of Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers and the voice of fan-favorite character Special Ed. “Now you get harassment charges. It’s really a lost art.”
It’s been 15 years since comedians Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel introduced the world to Crank Yankers, the hilariously offensive show where puppets, voiced by comedians, harass unsuspecting people with prank phone calls. The show was a huge hit, running for four seasons—three on Comedy Central and one on MTV 2.
Crank Yankers featured some of the biggest names in comedy, including Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, Tracy Morgan and Dane Cook (before he became a household name). Carolla, who produced the show with Kimmel, voiced Mr. Birchum, a crotchety Vietnam War veteran who berated anyone who spoke with him.
Paste spoke with Carolla and Florentine about Crank Yankers’s 15th anniversary, the art of the perfect prank call and the unaired calls that went too far.
Paste: How does it feel that the Crank Yankers debut was 15 years ago?
Florentine: Oh yeah, 15 years… Wow. I can’t believe it’s been 15 years. It’s funny, because Crank Yankers was my first TV job, and it was by far the best experience I’ve ever had in TV. I thought everything was going to be like that, and nothing has been since. They would fly us first-class to Las Vegas, they’d put us up in the Bellagio, I’d make prank calls for four hours, then go out to strip clubs in Vegas. And I got paid. It was amazing.
Paste: What was the process of doing a prank call?
Carolla: We would figure out what character we’d do, maybe me doing Mr. Birchum or Jim doing Special Ed. Then we’d think, “It would be funny if this guy was calling some business to apply for a job.” We’d get a list of businesses that we could call in various states that it was legal to call them in. Then we’d call from a pretty nondescript strip mall in Vegas and we’d start mowing through the businesses. We’d sit around in a circle with a dry erase board and hold up jokes during the calls.
Florentine: A lot of the calls were off the top of the head. You don’t know what the person on the other line would say, so you have to play off of them. We’d have an idea like, “Let’s pretend I’m giving my grandfather a bath and I drown him,” but other than that, I’d just listen to what they say.
Paste: Is there a certain strategy or approach that makes a call work well?
Carolla: Everyone had their own techniques from a tactical standpoint. A lot of it is keeping the person on the other line engaged and believing everything. My personal strategy was to try to set up a semi-believable scenario, set the hook and then start doing the jokes.
Florentine: My whole strategy is, “Hey, I’m just trying to get the information. I didn’t know I was wrong.” So they’re like, “OK, maybe there’s just something wrong with him, so I’ll stay on the line.” I’d be calling for a job interview, burping a lot, saying, “I have to burp. What am I supposed to do?”
Paste: How important was the reaction from the person on the other line?
Florentine: They’re the star of the call, because they have to create the tension. There’s a lot of calls where the other person’s like, “OK, sure. No problem,” to whatever you’re doing. Those aren’t good calls. You need someone to get mad.
Carolla: Sometimes you run into spun gold with the other person’s reaction, like when Dave Chappelle was calling the bed and breakfast asking if the Wu-Tang Clan could stay there. [The call’s recipient] had some great misunderstandings, and it was perfect. Then there’s stuff you can never plan, like when Jim was belching into the phone, and the guy on the phone was convinced it was someone in his workplace burping on the other line. We would never anticipate something like that. That kind of stuff is just found, that’s manna from heaven.
Paste: How hard was it to find people who would fall for the pranks?
Florentine: We noticed early on that if we called places on the East Coast, people had no patience and would hang up in two seconds. We had to call the South or the Midwest, where people were a little more patient and nice.
Paste: Would you call people back and tell them it was a joke?
Florentine: Yeah, but you wait, ‘cause the person’s pissed that you just messed with them. A lot of the time they’re mad, and they say, “No I won’t be on that show. Absolutely not.” Then they’d call back three days later after they told their friends about it and their friends all said, “Oh wow! That’s a great show!” Then they call us back and say they want to be on the show, they want to know what their puppet’s going to look like and all that stuff.
Paste: Special Ed was sort of the runaway star of Crank Yankers. How was that character created?
Florentine: I was messing with the telemarketers, and I said, “Let me see if I can act like Special Ed and still keep them on the phone.” And it was unbelievable. They would still try to sell me something even when I was acting like that. Special Ed was darker originally on my CDs. Comedy Central wanted him to be a little more happy-go-lucky, but it used to have darker stuff like, “My brother touched me!” But I would always say, “Yay!” I was roommates with Jim Norton at the time, and I would be doing these prank calls, and Jim would say, “That’s so catchy, that ‘Yay!’ That’s going to sweep the nation.” Cut to two years later, and they’re playing it in soccer stadiums after goals.
Paste: Where you at all concerned about people taking offense at the Special Ed character?
Florentine: That character could never have come out today. I’d be the most hated man in America. People would go crazy. But whatever, I was just messing around. In 2002 Comedy Central was still kind of nervous about the character.
Carolla: I can’t speak for everybody, but we were just trying to get laughs. Now everything has to be seen through some sort of prism of, “Who’s going to take this and turn it into something else, and what are they going to say?” Back then we were just there to make people laugh.
Paste: Was there anything on the show that made Comedy Central’s lawyers worry?
Carolla: The main thing with Comedy Central’s lawyers was that the show was originally supposed to be called “Prank Puppets,” but the lawyer said, “No. That suggests malice.” That’s insane. I don’t know what the fuck they were thinking. I would have thought I took peyote and dreamt the whole thing. Thank God Jimmy Kimmel was there to witness this. I remember being apoplectic, screaming into the phone at them.
Paste: The show had so many big names in comedy, many, like Dane Cook, were on it before they became huge.
Carolla: I got to work with a whole bunch of people before they were who they are today. I did Dane Cook’s prank call sessions, and it would be like, “Today, you’re working with David Allen Grier and Dane Cook.” And I was like, “Who’s Dane Cook?” I was in comedy and had no idea who he was when he was working with us. He was great.
Paste: Where there ever calls that went too far and couldn’t be aired?
Carolla: I had a guy at a moving company I was trying to convince about moving my fat wife, and he was laughing with his friend about picking my wife up in a pickup truck, and I got indignant. I got upset saying, “She has a medical condition. How dare you!” And he backed off and said, “No, no I get it. I have a 3-year-old daughter who breathes through a trach hole in her throat.” And I said, “Yeah, well that’s her fault ‘cause she was a smoker. My wife was a victim.” And the guy started screaming, “I’m gonna kill you!” That was about as pissed as anyone ever got. That never made it to air.
Jake Lauer is a New York-based writer and copywriter with bylines in Complex, Maxim, Uproxx and Splitsider. You can check out more of his writing here.