The guy on the phone is trying to buy a piano. It’s a 55-year-old man from Staten Island calling about an advertisement for a vintage grand piano. On call, he’s energetic, gregarious, and prone to laughter – which is good, as the salesman, joker Johnny Brennan of The Jerky Boys, has strayed from the topic, away from the thousand dollar instruments and towards what he calls his Course “Terminal Groove”: a hybrid of bikram and goat yoga, which involves stretching in 110-degree temperatures surrounded by warm goats in total silence. Loud voices or screams, he explains, can cause animals to collapse and cause cardiac arrest. “I’m an animal lover,” Brennan says. “But you know everyone has to make money. These goats must help a little. They must intervene.
It’s been almost seven years since Brennan made a joke, but more than 25 years since he really hit phones. In the 1990s, Brennan and her partner, Kamal Ahmed, made a living doing what Bart Simpson did for free: calling strangers in the New York area, posing as a small group of characters – caustic pseudo-gangster Frank Rizzo, the inane magician Tarbash, or in this case hypochondriac Sol Rosenberg – and chatting until the stranger hangs up, or they did, or both. For half a decade, the Jerky Boys have gone as far as cranking calls can get you. Howard Stern played their bootlegs; their first two albums went double platinum; they starred in a movie with Alan Arkin and Vincent Pastore. But in 2000, after some intra-Jerky Boy tension, Ahmed resigned. Everyone tried to go solo; nothing is stuck. The dot-com boom hack killed sales calls. The joke was more or less over.
At least until Black Friday, when Brennan released her first original prank calls album since 1999. The eponymous record arrived after a slight revival of interest in Jerky Boys’ work, which grew in part out of nostalgia. of the 90s, partly out of the ubiquity of YouTube. “The internet crushed the recording business 20 years ago,” Brennan said. “And now the internet is back and in a good way, broadcasting everything I have ever done.” Otherwise, not much in the Jerky Boy universe seems to have changed. The technology is different – Brennan had to rig a Samsung Note to record both sides of every call; and Ahmed, whom Brennan has not had contact with for decades, never appears. But aside from a few new characters, the album plays like a time capsule – picking up old personalities like they never left it. “Once you get there, it flows,” said Brennan. “I wasn’t looking to compete with myself. I just wanted to let the characters flow. “
Not everything in the 1990s translates into the 2020s, and some jokes seem dated to the contemporary ear. But if the call of the childhood farce call is being passed off as someone, Jerky Boys’ calls are mostly driven by the silliness and strength of their characters. Most of Brennan’s personalities are pastiches of her family members – Rizzo based on her father; Rosenberg comes from his mother; Veteran World War II singer Frank Kissel is modeled after his uncle Vinny – and perhaps it’s the intimate source material that gives them both an exaggerated cartoonish character and a sort of basic familiarity.
The best moments on the album don’t come from the fact that someone was duped, although that was part of it, but when Brennan let herself go long enough to convince them or exhaust them. In one piece, a chatty Frank Rizzo talks to a dental hygienist about his homemade braces – putting squares of wood and metal in his own mouth until he “tears shit in there” – demanding immediate help to “eliminate something”. When that doesn’t work, it starts with leg orthotics. The hygienist gives up the debate, in favor of a demented skepticism that infiltrates each remark: “Yes, okay sir. Sure. “In the goat yoga appeal, the affable future piano buyer cackles with Rosenberg’s account of his goat work practices.” You know what I call yoga? ” he laughs, “Stretching in pain.”
The album dropped just three weeks after the election, as the global pandemic entered its grim winter wave: two devastating events that seem to have touched every corner of culture. But Brennan ignores both. For the most part, the subject is simple and timeless – he riffs on pianos, hot tubs, mulch and balloons – subjects on which his interlocutors could have spoken in 1972 as easily as yesterday. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the calls that makes them feel timely. There is something satisfying about hearing two people, one normal, one crazy, talk about bathtubs. “There is so much in this world that needs to be depressed,” the Jerky Boys said in 1995, “we’re just trying to make people laugh.”
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