Who might be qualified to briefly comment on the genre of underground prank phone calls may be a grey area in the world of pop cultural criticism. I qualify for no actual good reason, aside from once being 17 and drunk in a parked car when someone played the notorious ?Mark Knopfler? crank calls – recordings that surfaced on shitty cassettes and circumnavigated the South in the late-80?s and early-90?s through an unconscious network of high school and college students with double tape decks. For worse or worser, this jumpstarted a terminal romance with collection and blind absorption of the form. As some of you know, I also co-created Just Farr A Laugh: The Greatest Prank Phone Call CD Ever!
I?m not in the position to claim whether or not these are ?good? reasons.
While the crank phone call as comedy device peaked in worldwide exposure with The Jerky Boys, and later, Comedy Central?s Crank Yankers, it?s a safe wager that an eight disc boxed set was unprecedented treatment until the this year?s release of Longmont Potion Castle?s Longbox Option Package. The two former mainstream examples are fallacious (and legal) examples of an art steeped in decades of surreptitious execution and release by folks too geographically or chronologically disparate to be considered a ?community.? Though the Jerky Boys began life as a grossly obscure, vinyl-only document, the tracks that ended in five (!!) major label CD?s (and the source material for one of the worst comedies to ever be filmed) did so via permission (and one must suspect?an honorarium of some sort) of the victims. And it?s been said that the calls on Crank Yankers are heard through the alleged comedy-neutering gauze of overdubs and celebrity voiceovers. Rumors abound that a literal call center of pranksters hammer through pranks until the perfect one is attained before the golden voice of, say, Sarah Silverman is introduced to the situation. I have no idea, nor do I care. The end result is rarely all that gut-busting, and diligently serves the funny bones of chatty ho-hums that one might run into at a relative?s wedding.
Longmont Potion Castle brings up the rear, giving the world of underground crank calls the ultimate, flawed epic, complete with filler, excessiveness, and hilarity. In various formats, this wisely anonymous cranker has released aural hi-jinks since the late-80?s. If the man were a character actor, he?d be the genre?s Michael Madsen. It must be noted that ?genre? is the only appropriate term to describe the (mostly) one-off larks that span decades, surfacing on cassette, vinyl, and CD, consistently buried under the radar for the entire ride. Along with Gregg Turkington, the pseudonymous Mark Knopfler, the ?Comfort? calls, Al Cashew, ?Calls to Oakies,? and the late John Bean, the Longmont Potion Castle name is relative legend amongst whoever might comprise the underground prank call fanbase.
Now in his mid-thirties, LPC, as we?ll call him, has always been based in Denver. The first few years of calls (honored by discs 1, 2, and 5) are short, juvenile, and below-the-belt funny (if funny at all). Devoid of concept, unless thematic repetition can be considered conceptual, LPC never established a clever rapport with the victim, throwing silly anti-punch lines and phrases just to elicit response. Take the numerous calls to meat packers, in which the requests for processed wasp meat or eel bowels result in more aborted connections than interesting exchanges. Also omnipresent on the early discs are audio collages (of caller reactions) and calls that LPC is edited out of, creating disorienting and sometimes riotous recordings of only the caller?s reactions. Though played down in interviews, LPC is, or at least, was, a man obsessed. Victims often say, ?you?re the guy that?s been bothering me for two weeks,? or, in some cases, ?this is the one that?s been calling all day.?
Through this long audio commitment, you witness a prankster growing up. Like any inherently funny person, the wit and weaponry are sharpened as the 20?s and 30?s are traversed. This is how discs 3, 4, and 6 shine. LPC nurtures an insatiable hard-on for certain establishments: UPS, Orange Julius, records stores, and Radio Shack. A reliable hat trick finds our man posing as a UPS representative, trying to deliver goods that were not ordered?usually thousands of insects.
The calls are longer, and though LPC often remains a guy that impulsively picks up the phone and riffs without notes or solid ideas, he is a much funnier guy; a funnier guy with an advantageous day job at his disposal: Running a recording studio. Calls are punctuated, or rather, annihilated, with sound affects and vocal pitch shifting. LPC will call into a radio talk show, play it straight for a minute, and then slow his voice down to a subterranean growl, causing the host to lose composure (?This is going out over the air!!?). Writing about prank calls will have its obligatory trappings, most glaring of which is that the jokes are lost in translation. Please believe that the sucker-punch of these simple calls had me laughing like a maniac, and they had the same effect on the nine-year-old daughter of a friend. I naturally recommend screening any Longmont Potion Castle before a child hears it, but the good clean calls are a testament to the wide-ranging power of simple, perfect comedy. Find it juvenile? It is, and that?s your problem.
Please know that earlier calls were previously self-released on cassette and CD (as was this boxed set, under the D. U. Records imprint), while much of the material on discs 3, 4, and 6 was originally released by legitimate indie labels. Southern California?s Vinyl Communications issued two ?best of? CD?s, and to keep things quasi-legal, the discs included a disclaimer that the recordings were found in the trash. Last year, Baltimore?s Reptilian Records released Longmont Potion Castle Volume 5 (this is disc 6 of the set). Logistical information aside, this sort of progression points out, at the very least, that the man has fans, and on some scale, distribution. Vinyl Communications accessorized their titles with a VHS collection of calls to public access talk shows, and video of calls to record stores made with a camera hidden in a duffle bag. When audio is cued up to a store clerk dealing with LPC, the sum is golden. Not to worry, this footage is compiled disc 8, the ?bonus features? DVD.
A poignant curiosity in LPC?s ?career? is the arc of technology and its impact on the prank call. The older calls have victims leveling laughable threats like ?I?m going to have this call traced!? or the promise of a call to the police (you can be sure that this happened). Up until the mid-to-late 80?s, phone harassment had to reach a dangerous or extreme degree for law enforcement or the phone company to get involved. It may seem that LPC accomplished the extreme part, but not quite, and he never came off as dangerous or creepy. In the years since, the game has obviously changed drastically with the advent of caller ID and the eventual extinction of the landline. Is LPC?s drop in activity or his rumored retirement the result of advances in gadgetry? Probably not. In an online interview conducted a couple of years back, LPC admits, ?prank calling does not get any easier as you get older.? This is a guy that developed relationships with a couple of victims; one man even asks how the CD is coming along, and another puts forth the offer of allowing LPC to kick his ass if he promises to never call again. Bless his devious heart, and heart is what differentiates LPC from many of his crueler colleagues. Longbox Option Package, in its proverbial girth, does hint at finality in regards to the prank call. There is something else, however, something ill-defined that nonetheless tells me that the game is far from over.