BOB GARFIELD: It's certainly true that new technology is invariably accompanied by new ways to annoy people. The telephone for example. Yes, it's saved lives, but can you even calculate the number of times that high-pitched screech has made your flesh crawl?
BOB GARFIELD: And how many times you've made a fool of yourself on the line. Sometimes on purpose! I've done it. You've done it. It's the quintessential "kid crime" - the phony phone call. On the Media's Rex Doane offers this brief history of what happens when the prank call is taken out of the hands of minors.
WOMAN: Hello. What number do you want?
MAN: Hello is this the hearing aid company?
MAN: Oh. I'd like to find out about a hearing aid please.
WOMAN: Yeah, what do you want to know?
MAN: What' say?
WOMAN: What do you want to know?
MAN: Oh. I can't hear - hardly hear a damn thing, you know?
REX DOANE: The history of the prank phone call is murky, to say the least. Like the classic fly in the ice cube gag or the mirth-provoking whoopee cushion, no one seems to be willing to stand forward and claim credit for its origins. There are however several high profile prank populizers. The late Steve Allen frequently featured prank phone calls on the Tonite Show back in the 1950s, and by doing so introduced the nation at large to this less than venerable art form.
STEVE ALLEN: Here's one: Girl Wanted to Share Rent.
[PHONE RINGING] [WHISPERING] Never know what the heck I'm going to say to these people! [LAUGHTER]
Till it's too late.
WOMAN: Hello? [BEEP]
STEVE ALLEN: Hello?! [LAUGHTER] Is this-- I'm down at the Ranch Market, and I, I have a little cold - pardon me - I see your ad here - Girl Wanted to Share Rent with Two Nice Working Girls.
WOMAN: Yes! [LAUGHTER] [BEEP] What's the little "Beep!" in the background?
STEVE ALLEN: That's my roommate! [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]
REX DOANE: Brooklyn-born Bob Smith who is better known as Wolfman Jack took a decidedly less genteel approach to the prank call. During the 1960s Wolfman broadcast his show from XERB -- a radio station that held little regard for the FCC limit of 50,000 watts. As such the station often blanketed most of North America west of the Mississippi and gave Wolfman an audience of unimaginable size. [MUSIC] Wolfman and his calls were eventually immortalized in George Lucas's 1973 film American Graffiti.
WOLFMAN JACK: All right, baby! Here we go with another call out of the station - can you dig it? [PHONE RINGING] Answer the phone, dummy! [PHONE RINGING]
MAN: Spanky's Pizza.
WOLFMAN JACK: Yeah, listen - you got any more of those secret agent sky scopes?
MAN: It's right on a stethoscope.
WOLFMAN JACK: No, no the secret agent spy scope man that pulls in the moon and the stars, the planets and the satellites and the little bitty space men.
MAN: You must have the wrong number, partner.
REX DOANE: While crank phone calls in the traditional sense are still heard frequently on commercial radio, the proliferation of call-in shows has allowed the public to strike back. Rush Limbaugh has been an unfriendly recipient on more than one occasion.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have -- Rush Limbaugh with my real own radio program! Lansing, Michigan - Chris -glad you waited - you're next on the EIB Network.
CALLER: Yes, hello! How are you doing.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Good, thanks.
CALLER: I'm calling you because my house is being torn apart. My wife recently went to one of these feminist movements down by the capital, and she is now buying all these books and what not about the-- the feminist movement, and she now thinks that she is in charge of the household and she can open up all my mail and things like--
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Now, now, now wait - Chris - are you making this up? How long you been married?
CALLER: I've been married about two years, and well -it also brings me to my question -- did you cry when the Dunkin' Donuts man retired?
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Now that question makes me disp-- curious about everything that you have just said!
CALLER: Right. Right.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Well you know what I would do if I were you?
RUSH LIMBAUGH: I'd go out and get a brain transplant for yourself and then ask your wife to give you a divorce.
REX DOANE: Kudos to you, Rush. Despite moments of high profile exposure, the prank phone call is still best understood as an underground phenomenon. Over the years dozens of homemade tapes have made the rounds. The most notorious of all are undoubtedly the series of calls made to Jersey City's Tube Bar in the mid-1980s. Simpson's creator Matt Groening is among the many fans of these calls, and he has used them liberally in his hit series. [PHONE RINGING]
MAN: Hello, Phil! Still there?
MAN: Who you want to talk to?
MAN: Phil De Graves.
MAN: Phil De Gray?
MAN: Phil is not here.
MAN: De Gray?
MAN: What are you trying to do - make a jerk out of yourself?!
MAN: Who you talking to?
MAN: Who you want to talk to?!
MAN: He's not, he's not here!
MAN: Not the one that [....?....] - De Graves!
MAN: Why don't you go and drop dead?
REX DOANE: The breakout success of a pair of pranksters known as the Jerkie Boys took the prank phone call to even greater heights or depths as some might claim. Billing themselves accurately as Two Low-Lifes from Queens, the Jerkie Boys parlayed their craft into a couple of platinum albums and their own feature-length film, executive-produced by Tony Danza and Emilio Estevez. The film, with its constant stream of profanity, proved to be just distinguished enough to make the Siskel & Ebert Worst Film of the Year List for 1995. [PHONE RINGING]
WOMAN: Medical office.
MAN: Can I get-- laser treatment? I got hemorrhoids bad.
MAN: My ass is killing me! I need help. Ohhhhhh!
REX DOANE: One might think that the increased use of call screening and caller I.D. has curbed such foul-mouthed phone assaults, but apparently not. The Internet has emerged as the new means of archiving and disseminating prank calls, and the phone lines have never been busier. Sites such as touchtoneterrace, prank.net and dialmformoron offer assurance that as long as there are the puerile and the gullible among us and a phone to bring the two together, the prank phone call will flourish forever. [MUSIC]
REX DOANE: For On the Media in New York, I'm Rex Doane. [SONG COME ON BABY ANSWER YOUR TELEPHONE]