Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Legend Of The Jerky Boys


n a frigid winter morning in 2013, Johnny Brennan stands in a midtown Manhattan office, shifting from side to side, ready to do something he hasn't done in nearly 20 years. It's something that once made him famous, something that made millions of people laugh. "I love pressure," he says, more than a hint of nervousness in his voice. He takes a sip from a bottle of water. "I love being under the gun." Brennan is here to make some calls; some very strange, very funny prank calls.
Back in the Nineties, under the moniker of the Jerky Boys, Brennan, along with his partner and co-conspirator Kamal Ahmed, regularly used to ring people up and assume the role of overbearing whiner, aggressive meathead, astoundingly flamboyant out-of-work actor or any number of other outlandish characters. The goal? To drive the dupes on the other end of the line into a rage, or confuse them or just keep them engaged in an absurd conversation – whatever it took to make people laugh. Collected on a series of albums, those calls resulted in platinum sales, a Hollywood movie based on the duo's life, and a legion of celebrity fans. Then they just sort of stopped.
"I wasn't feeling it" is Brennan's enigmatic way, nowadays, of explaining why he ceased prank calling. But if he wasn't feeling it, plenty of other people were. The influence of the Jerky Boys' improvisational hilarity and genius conversational jujitsu kept going, penetrating deep into the culture, and shaping the approach of the likes of Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, rising-star comedienne Amy Schumer and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, all of whom were inspired by Brennan and Ahmed's decidedly nonironic style. But for a big chunk of his adult life, prank calling was Brennan's reason for being. Starting in the late Seventies, he would lie on the floor of his middle-class parents' living room in Queens, New York, holding the phone receiver close to a clunky tape recorder with the lights turned down low, and start dialing.
"It's like meditation," he says about his old method. "If my eyes aren't distracted, I can see where [the call's] going to go." Even after getting a speakerphone – a mid-Eighties Christmas gift from his then-girlfriend, now-wife Allison – Brennan still made his calls on the floor, in the dark. In character, he'd talk circles around the pizza-parlor employees, construction-company foremen and other people unfortunate enough to answer their phone. It was a lot of "How do you say there, Bottlenose?"; "I need a lot of chickens"; "Bye bye, baby bitch."


Hey sizzlechests, Johnny Brennan returned to the roles that made him famous in these prank calls, recorded exclusive for Rolling Stone.



That was then. On this turn-back-the-clock day in late December, when Brennan is set to resume his pranking ways, things are very different. (The lights are all on, for one.) He's aged from a mullet-and-goatee-sporting outer-borough scamp into a clean-shaven, leather-jacket-wearing, 51-year-old dad who drives an SUV and owns a little dog named Taco. It's this man who's poised before a iPhone. It's this man who wants back in the game.
The phone rings. Brennan takes another quick gulp of water. A restaurant hostess has picked up. "Hi, how're you," whines Brennan, affecting a reedy, nebbishy voice. "This is Sol Rosenberg."
In less than two minutes, Brennan/Rosenberg has the hostess grasping for reasons why the restaurant had misplaced a photo of him that doesn't exist. "With all the remodeling this summer," she says, "it maybe got put into storage and not back up." He sure doesn't seem rusty.
"I was there during that remodeling," kvetches Sol. "I fell through the floorboards!"
After the confused hostess eventually hangs up, Brennan looks relieved. "I think we got something there," he says, reverting to his natural Queens drawl. "Let's make another call."
or a time, Brennan and Ahmed were as big as comedy got. The Jerky Boys – a.k.a. "a coupla' lowlifes from Queens," to quote 1995's The Jerky Boys: The Movie – are to prank calling what Steve Jobs and that other guy are to personal computing. They may not have come up with the idea for the thing that brought them success, but they pretty much perfected it.
Before phones became the text-based emoji-makers they are today, the Jerky Boys released five albums of recorded prank phone calls. Their 1993 self-titled debut reached Number One on Billboard'sHeatseekers list, besting Radiohead's Pablo Honey, which took its title from a Jerky Boys sketch. The 1995 follow-up, The Jerky Boys 2, went platinum and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Comedy Album. Cumulatively, the Jerky Boys' officially released albums have sold more than 3 million copies. Those are verifiable numbers. It's impossible to know how many bootlegged tapes of Jerkys calls were made and shared, but safe to assume that the figure is in the millions.
Johnny and Kamal worked as a team. One would place the call and claim to be a victim of vicious dental malpractice, or something like that. The other would stand by, holding back laughter and whispering funny lines. Brennan made the majority of the calls, and over the years established an arsenal of characters to unleash on unsuspecting phone-answerers. Frank Rizzo, blue-collar man-about-town with expertise in all manner of construction jobs and innovative insults like "assneck," "liver lips" and "sizzlechest." Sol Rosenberg, a sort of Woody Allen caricature with an anal-warts obsession. Jack Tors, sexual deviant and self-aggrandizing showman capable of pulling many large pieces of furniture out of his ass.


Click to hear their funniest classic pranks.
There are some non-ass-specific characters too, but Brennan stuck mainly to the aforementioned three, all of whom were based on people he knew. "My father is Frank Rizzo," offers Brennan. "My dad was a strict, strict guy. That belt would come off and he'd whip my fucking ass – you're talking old-school." Sol, with his knack for complaining about the most insignificant of problems, is a lot like Brennan's mother. He tells me that while most boys received a cheery, "Good morning, honey, what would you like for breakfast?" Mrs. Brennan woke her son with wails of, "Oh, my back, oh, Jesus Christ." Jack Tors is based on a down-on-his-luck gay man Brennan's father took into their home when Brennan was about five years old.
There are easy, broadly stereotypical jokes to make using these guys, but Brennan and Ahmed rooted Sol and Co. in a recognizable and sympathetic motivation: These characters just wanted someone to talk to. The Jerky Boys' Venn diagram of comedy, where the outrageously foulmouthed overlaps with the flawed and fundamentally human, is the laughter-inducing sweet spot thatArrested Development and Judd Apatow films continued to aim for.

"He has this Jackie Gleason-esque set of characters," says Seth MacFarlane about Brennan's work, "and they clearly come from a place in his life. There's more to the characters than just a funny voice. They all come from a very honest place. That's why it's so easy for him to roll with any situation and stay in character."
That also helps account for why the Jerky Boys' continued impact – and potential resurgence – is not simply due to rampant Nineties nostalgia. It's part prescience, part appreciation and partly because some of their biggest fans have become captains of pop-culture industry. In addition to Radiohead's titular nod, Jay Z name-checked Frank Rizzo in a 2001 verse he dropped on a Michael Jackson remix. Mariah Carey had Brennan riff in her video for "Honey." Sheryl Crow told him that the Jerky Boys were her favorite thing to listen to while traveling on tour, and Russell Crowe's personal assistant relayed praise from the star. Tobey Maguire has snuck multiple Jerky Boys references into his movies, including Spiderman, in which Spidey says he has to "beat an old lady with a stick" – a variation on a classic Jerky Boys-ism. MacFarlane went even further in tribute, hiring Brennan to provide the voice for the very Sol Rosenberg-ian Family Guy character Mort Goldberg.
These moments of cultural infiltration are not lost on Johnny Brennan, and he likes to bring them up, repeatedly, in conversation. And in e-mails. And texts. And tweets. Understandably, Brennan tends to gloss over the down times. The Jerky Boys movie flopped, and probably deservedly. The group soldiered on with three more albums before Ahmed split in 1997 to pursue a career as an independent filmmaker. Even more troubling for Brennan was his father's death, in 2000. "We were very, very close," he says. "Losing my dad, who was the inspiration for Frank Rizzo, was like getting punched in the gut." He stopped making new calls soon after.
Brennan, who owns the rights to the Jerky Boys name, released a collection of previously unheard calls as The Jerky Tapes in 2001, grouped snippets as ringtones on Sol's Rusty Trombone in 2007 and also put out two Best-ofs in between. None sold remotely close to heyday numbers. Brennan then tried podcasting for about six months starting in late 2011, airing some of those Jerky Tapes calls and responding to fan questions.
But off to the side, through all of this, there was a whole Rudy slow-build chant going on. The Jerky Boys may not have been raking in residuals, but YouTube videos of their calls earned millions of views. The industry noticed. Chris Mazzilli, the owner of Manhattan's respected Gotham Comedy Club, had partnered up with Levity Entertainment (a management company that produces comedy specials for stars like Bill Cosby) to get into artist management. Aware of the online interest in the Jerky Boys, he sought out Brennan.
"The Jerky Boys is one of the most undervalued brands in comedy," says the trim, low-key Mazzilli. "Very few people you talk to don't know the Jerky Boys." He encouraged Johnny to try making new prank calls. And along with Brennan's CAA agent, he's pitching around an animated Jerky Boys show. It would be set in Queens and provide a new vehicle for Brennan's many characters.
"[The Jerky Boys] are perennially hilarious," reasons MacFarlane. "They don't sound like they were recorded years ago. It's not even really about the shock value, you want to hear what they're going to say next. Brennan could release another album of those calls and people would still eat them up."
he international headquarters of is conveniently located off the main entrance of Brennan's Cornwall, New York, home. It's sort of a multipurpose room, holding all the abandoned toy-kitchen sets and playhouses his two daughters had growing up – one's 18 years old, the other's 10. There's a computer in the corner with a fancy microphone next to it. Elsewhere in this really pretty house is a series of really pretty rooster tchotchkes Brennan's wife, the aforementioned Allison, a day-care worker, has collected over the years. This is the same woman who gifted Brennan with the speakerphone, and in the Nineties watched as avid female Jerky Boys fans asked her husband to sign their breasts.
On the day I visit, a coffin-size Tupperware container is open and memorabilia is all over the floor of Brennan's workspace. There are relics here from the Jerky Boys' humble beginnings: The unwieldy cassette recorder used to tape calls, and the original speakerphone upon which said calls were made. Brennan eagerly shows me everything, treating a fan-made drawing of Frank Rizzo with the same reverence and exuberance as his platinum-album-certification plaque.

his is how Kamal Ahmed responds when I tell him, via Facebook, that I'd like to talk about Johnny Brennan: "He's still doing the same thing like a 51-year-old idiot and I make independent movies that deal with the struggles of man . . . I went on to more meaningful things."
There's clearly some unresolved bad blood in the 17 years since Ahmed left the group, slipping a "goodbye" note to the guys' then-manager. But their initial partnering wasn't nearly as passive. Brennan was pulling a classic "Johnny" when he decided one day, as a 12-year-old kid, to take his sister's life-size doll, strap a bunch of football gear onto it, head to the roof of his Astoria, Queens, apartment building, wait for a car to drive by, then . . .
"Bam!" Brennan recalls. "Next thing you hear, the car skids, hits the doll and everybody's fucking screaming and yelling. I liked to do pranks that people looked at and went, 'This kid's out of his fucking mind.' The lady across the street had a heart attack."
Ahmed, five years younger than Brennan, was present at the scene of the accident, and immediately drawn to the latter's, let's call it moxie. The two were fast friends. In the late Eighties, Brennan was working odd construction jobs in New York that had him up incredibly early in the morning, spreading hot tar across apartment building roofs. (Tarbash, the name for Ahmed's best-known character, an Egyptian magician, is a nickname Brennan and his brothers would throw around while tarring: "Hey, Tarbash, get more tar!" That kind of thing.) He lived in Middle Village, Queens, and would stay up all night making prank calls to entertain friends. Ahmed would come by really late, after finishing gigs as a Lower East Side bouncer or playing bass in a band. They would record the calls and laugh their asses off.
"When we first started, it was just fun," Ahmed says. "There's stuff on the first two albums that we were together [where] you would hear some good interaction between us."
One day, Ahmed had an idea. He started passing out copies of these tapes within the music community and to people who came by the club. The consensus was unanimous: They loved the Jerky Boys before they were even called the Jerky Boys (Brennan's mom christened the group with its name just before its 1993 debut album). Through a kind of audio samizdat those tapes were bootlegged and spread throughout the country. Having heard them became a measure of comedy cool. "It felt very pure and raw, like you were in on a secret," says Schumer, star of the hit Comedy Central sketch show Inside Amy Schumer. "I was blown the fuck away by [the Jerky Boys], because it was people fucking with real people – no giving a shit about consequences."
Once they began to earn recognition, says Ahmed, his relationship with Brennan started to sour. Ahmed claims that his and Johnny's management team kept telling him to be happy as a sidekick, and that they even tried, on multiple occasions, to have him replaced. But Ahmed stuck around because he had fond memories of staying up late at night, goofing around, doing those calls for nobody but themselves. "The best was when there was no money, nothing, when we just used to hang out and do it as a complete good," he says wistfully.
Well, there was also the fact that his father guilt-tripped him into sticking it out. "In 1991, I went with my father to Bangladesh, where he's from," says Ahmed, "and right when I was telling a story saying I was going to quit, we saw children so poor that they were eating garbage from the street. [Ahmed's father] stopped the car and said, 'You see that? That's how people got to live in the world. In most of the world, that's how people live. If you quit something where you could make a couple of dollars, I'll disown you.' "
Ahmed made it until 1997 before leaving for good. Post-Jerky Boys, he pursued filmmaking. He's directed three features and is working on editing his fourth, Laugh Killer Laugh, which he says is a "a neo-film noir about a jewel thief/hitman for the Mob who awakens from a coma with a changed personality after being a milquetoast."
Talking with Ahmed, its easy to get the sense that he believes there's a grand back-and-forth between the two founding Jerky Boys – a real he-said, he-said beef. But Brennan doesn't speak ill of Ahmed. He respects the guy for branching out into film, and acknowledges that the group wouldn't be where it is without Ahmed distributing the tapes and inventing his own characters. "Kamal is responsible for getting these tapes out, and before you know it, I was getting phone calls from cousins that were up in school in Buffalo and they were like, 'John, your stuff that you did is everywhere,' " says Brennan. "The next step, Howard Stern, all the biggest DJs in the country are playing my stuff."
Brennan has a lingering memory of the last time he saw his old partner. It was at a Jerky Boys record-store-signing session, held shortly before Ahmed quit. There, Ahmed gently and unexpectedly held Brennan's infant daughter in the air, so that the assembled adoring fans could see the beautiful Jerky baby. When the signing was over, the two went their separate ways, and haven't been in the same room since.
"We were better together than apart," says Ahmed matter-of-factly, "that's for sure."
hough there's little chance of a Jerky Boys reunion, the brand's standing in the comedy world has never been stronger. "They were creating these worlds," says Scott Aukerman, host of the popular Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and IFC television show. "These characters resided in them, so the people on the other end of the line don't realize they're in the middle of a sketch. The Jerky Boys transcended messing around with someone."
Schumer remembers how she set out in middle school to emulate the Jerky Boys. She took an empty camera, and, pretending to be a yearbook photographer, asked classmates to pose for a series of embarrassing shots. (She'd never even loaded the camera with film.) Today, her show's woman-on-the-street interview segments are shot with the Jerkys' quick-witted audacity. "Just that unapologetic committing to it," she says, "and having the person just look into my eyes to see if I'm fucking with them. That's a lot of Jerky Boys."
Paul Feig, who in addition to Bridesmaids directed the Melissa McCarthy/Sandra Bullock film The Heat and was the creator of the much loved TV show Freaks and Geeks, took other lessons. "I was visiting my parents in Michigan when I saw the Jerky Boys' movie," he remembers. "They were so aggressive, languagewise. Some people get their angst out by playing first-person shooter games. To me, because I like being so polite, [The Jerky Boys] was such a release."
Feig was in such awe of the Jerky Boys' gift for dirty language that he's since always strived to incorporate as much ribald humor as possible into his work. Directing McCarthy in The Heat, for example, he felt comfortable pushing her toward the same cackling catharsis he felt as a kid at that theater in Michigan. "When a swear word comes in, it's going to make something funnier if it's at a smartly inappropriate moment," he says. Referring to the Jerky Boys, he says, "The idea of calling up a guy trying to get a job, and you're just swearing a lot is inherently funny – it's just like a clueless guy, or a guy who can't control himself, or a guy who doesn't know how to exist in the real world. Anarchy is always funny."
What anarchy is not, though, is ironic. Today's biggest comedy stars – Louis C.K., Tina Fey and Amy Poehler leap to mind – are not afraid to ramble about how they feel; they're more interested in throwing emotional wrenches in the machine than snark or sarcasm. The Jerky Boys inadvertently predicted this cultural shift, away from the ironic 2000s and toward the purity that captivated Aukerman and Schumer.
Even during the 2000s, though, there were pockets of Jerkys humor. The natural successor to the prank-adjacent throne was Johnny Knoxville's Jackass series of films; it shares the Jerky Boys DNA of stripping humor down to unscripted authenticity. Crank Yankers, which ran on Comedy Central from 2002 to 2005 and featured prank calls that were then enacted by puppets, was Jerky Boys to the core. Same with MTV's timeless punching bag Punk'd.
"[The Jerky Boys] captured that the simplest ideas are the best," says Sal Vulcano, one of the stars of TruTV's Impractical Jokers, a show where four Staten Island boys prank one another. "There have been prank shows that have been really elaborate," he continues, "setting up fake car accidents and burglars. For us, we wanted to strip it down completely, didn't want to do anything that someone else couldn't do – a lot like the Jerky Boys."
There's influence, and then there's access: The Jerky Boys have never been easier to hear. Though Brennan and his team are working to wrangle all the YouTube videos under one channel, they're not terribly worried about the potential adverse affects of piracy. In fact, it's quite the opposite. "YouTube has been great exposure," Brennan says. "A whole new generation of people is discovering the Jerky Boys."
They found them at the perfect moment. Brennan has untested characters he wants to try. He has unreleased calls he wants to release. He wants to show that the Jerky Boys are not something that happened once, long ago. They're here, grinding and relevant. Standing in that Manhattan office and getting on the phone, inhabiting Sol Rosenberg and Frank Rizzo and Jack Tors for the first time in so many years, has given Brennan renewed hope for wreaking phone havoc.
"It was kind of magical," he wrote to me in an e-mail after undertaking the new prank calls. "Everything culminated in this last piece of the puzzle. I left there that day feeling awesome. It was like someone was guiding these pieces into place."
In other words, keep an eye on your caller ID, liver lips.

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