in Biography

The Lost Art of the Crank Call

In these times of strife and tumult, I lament the fact that my own children are growing up in a world where caller ID has effectively destroyed the art of the prank phone call.

We called them “crank calls,” although “prank” is a more accurate but less alliterative description. I began with the old standards: “Is your refrigerator running?” and “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” (It was years later when I finally learned that Prince Albert is a chewing tobacco. This call was usually less than successful, but crank call etiquette demanded that you at least make the attempt.)

I was satisfied with my Prince Albert-level crank skills until about the 6th grade, when I met An Esteemed Colleague who showed me the true potential for the havoc you could wreak with a simple phone call. Under his expert tutelage, I helped my My Esteemed Colleague hound an innocent man into utter madness, ultimately destroying him – or, at least, forcing him to change his phone number.

His crime? He answered the phone with a cheerful “Howwwwdy!” It was funny.

We called him Joe Howdy. We never spoke when we called, although My Esteemed Colleague once taped Joe Howdy and played his own words back to him, so that he could say “Howwwdy!” to himself. High comedy. When Joe finally changed his number after we had called him umpteen times and hung up, we combed the phone book trying to find out what the new number was. The problem was that he wasn’t listed as Joe Howdy, so we had to find his number, match it with his real name, and then call information to find out what it was. We even tried calling information to backwards engineer the process, yet no operator was willing to tell us the name of a person if we could only provide a phone number. We’re lucky we weren’t slapped with a restraining order.

Our other methods were less harassing. My Esteemed Colleague would call people and tell them there was a problem with their phone system and demand that they scream their phone numbers into the receiver to calibrate the sound. Other times, he would call and ask if the household received their gift subscription to Reader’s Digest. If they hadn’t, My Esteemed Colleague would profusely apologize. Then, to make sure they didn’t miss out on the latest issue, he would read it to them over the phone until they got bored and hung up.

As phone technology improved, so did the crank calling methods. Conference calling allowed us to call two random people simultaneously and listen in as they argued between themselves, sometimes fiercely, as to who called whom. This didn’t work very often, because it required both parties to answer the phone at almost exactly the same time. But when it did work, boy howdy! (Not to be confused with “Joe Howdy.”)

You would think that puberty would have taken care of the crank call fetish, but it only expanded our ambitions – and My Esteemed Colleague was always several steps ahead of me. He once called right-wing loon Wally George’s talk show to expound upon the “wheat substitute” called “hosla” being developed by UCLA scientists. George hung up on him quickly, but only after berating him mightily and triggering a loud explosion sound over the radio.

He later called a radio program called Loveline to complain about his girlfriend, who was too “stiff” and “unyielding.” He kept the pseudo-psychologists on the phone for a solid two or three minutes before confessing that his girlfriend was, in fact, a cardboard box. He then yelled the word “Scrotum!!!” into the phone, but the tape delay dumped it before it got on the air.

When I went to USC and he went to Dartmouth, we had limited resources to speak to each other, because long distance calls were expensive, and the Internet was only a crazy dream. So, as a cheap means of communication and/or entertainment, he would call me collect every so often, but never with his own name. Back then, collect calls weren’t automated, so I would receive a call from an operator saying something like “Collect call from “Rat In A Box Nuggets,” will you accept?” As we had arranged in advance, I would always decline, but I’d do so with a chuckle. My favorite was the collect call I received from “Frog Hopkins Joe Joe Joe Joe.” Ahhh, good times. Those are joys my own children will never know.

I shouldn’t complain. The Internet allows a new outlet for anonymous stupidity, and it’s one I have used to great effect. Still, even the Internet has gotten more sophisticated. Once upon a time, my sister used to go into lesbian chat rooms on AOL and write stuff like “I think women should stay home and take orders from men,” and then sit back and watch the flames commence. Now such boorishness gets ignored or filtered out. Yet, incredibly, there are still ways to annoy, to bother, and to waste time. As one door closes, another door opens.

It’s just tragic that, on the telephone, Prince Albert has finally been let out of his can.

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  1. Feminist chat rooms. Not lesbian ones.I don’t remember when I’ve laughed so hard. This post was hilarious.

  2. My first job was at a plant in Gloucester, MA. The security guard on duty would page people (outside call). Imagine Archie Bunker on the intercom. The production floor would prank call him.One day it happened. I am in purchasing asking the admin a question. (BTW she was so beautiful that it was physically difficult to complete sentences.) While I am taking to her he comes over the intercom.“Would Mike Hunt please call extension 662. Would Mike Hunt…is Mike Hunt here today…” Absolute silence fills the admin area while there is a maelstrom of laughing from the production floor.

  3. *69 is callback*67 if dialed in before you dial a phone number, will mask your identification on the callee’s caller ID displayI did not say this.I was not here.

  4. Back in the rotary days, wasn’t there a number you could dial that would make you own phone ring.I remember dialing it as a kid to prank my parents.The pranks never went well, but it was cool to make your own phone ring…

  5. I enjoyed this post thoroughly, but can’t get over the fact that you have the word “moist” in your blog name. Still, the post was hilarious.

  6. This really made me laugh – we used to crank call a lady just to listen to her answer the phone too – she answered it with “Praise the Lord” – we would just laugh and hang up. So mean!!

  7. The word “Moist” may be offputting, but if you give it a chance, its silliness quotient more than makes up for it.

  8. When I was in junior high, a friend (from a different school) and I got together to prank call someone…we decided to call the guy I had a crush on (since of course I had his phone number memorized). She dialed and asked for Jon. When Jon answered, she pretended that she had dialed a random number and asked for a random name and was delighted to talk to Jon! They proceeded to have a very interesting discussion, through which I found out juicy details about this guy such as what he had decorating his bedroom and his favorite bands…

  9. With caller ID I now never answer the telephone unless I know who it is and unless it’s someone I want to talk with.Makes life a lot easier.

  10. This post reminded me of some of my telephone escapades. < HREF="" REL="nofollow">I wrote about some here<>.

  11. You should try giving the “rejection number” to anyone who asks for your phone number. A deep voice will answer and console the caller for being completely and utterly rejected. Funny stuff.


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