I guess this isn’t really a “NYC History” post, as much as it’s another one of my “let me tell you about life before the internet” posts. The Jerky Boys are two goofballs from Astoria, Queens named Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed, and for one hot minute in the 90’s, they were very famous because of their prank phone calls.
I first heard the Jerky Boys prank calls when I was in 8th grade. This was before they had any CDs out. A friend of mine had a millionth generation cassette dub of a compilation of their calls that he had gotten from his older sister. Each successive dub had degraded the quality, so you had to fiddle with the EQ on your boombox for a couple minutes just to get the voices louder than the hiss. This was how the Jerky Boys got famous and got a record deal: by people all over the country passing that tape to each other, dub by dub. You can literally trace any copy of the Jerky Boys tape back to a tape made by the Jerky Boys themselves. It’s like a family tree made entirely of people with really juvenile senses of humor. As Johnny Brennan says, “The Jerky Boys was the first thing to come along that made people say, ‘I’ve got this tape. You’ve got to hear it.’ It was viral, even back then. People were making cassettes and giving them to their friends. The New York Times said it was the largest bootleg of all time.”
Before the Internet, things that were oddball and under-the-radar were hard work to find. To hear weird things, you had to have weird friends. If you didn’t know someone who had a copy of the Jerky Boys cassette, you weren’t hearing it. There were a lot of types of tapes being copied and circulated. There were tapes of celebrities swearing, tapes of crazy neighbors fighting, tapes of terrible amateur bands and, of course, tapes of prank phone calls. There were so many people into collecting these odd tapes that the loose network of people passing them around was known as “tape trading culture.” The documentary on the “Shut Up, Little Man” tapes contains a little bit of background info on this phenomenon.
The Jerky Boys tape itself was hilarious. It could not have fallen into my lap at a more perfect time, as I was in 8th grade, which should be the peak of your interest in prank phone calls. When you’re that age, you haven’t fully developed a conscience, so laughing as someone screams at some poor immigrant or sexually harasses a secretary seems perfectly ok.
The calls that made the most immediate effect were the ones that featured Johnny Brennan’s “Frank Rizzo” character.
The tape and all its characters became an inside joke for my circle of friends for about a year and we’d walk around calling each other “jerky” and “sizzle chest” at school. Then one day at CCD, a kid I knew starting reciting “Get Brett Weir, I said!” I asked him if he had a copy of that prank call tape, and he said no, he heard it on WBCN. The local rock station had been playing tracks of the new CD that had just come out.
Something that had been a word-of-mouth secret was now pressed up on CD for the world to hear. It became an overnight smash, selling 2 million copies. The CD was put out by a small label out of Florida called Detonator Records, run by a man named “Crazy” Joe Renda, whose previous claim to fame was working with a post-Kiss Ace Frehley. How Renda got a hold of the tape, found the Jerky Boys, and decided to put it out as a legit recording is unknown to me.
Riding the success of their CD’s, the Jerky Boys starred in a movie, which I saw in the theater. It was totally ridiculous, a throwback B-movie with a completely inane plot. However, it did feature things like this:
The entire movie is here if you want to kill some time:
Whenever I’d talk to people about the Jerky Boys, I’d bring up the calls I’d heard on that tape way back in the day. Some of those calls had become some of the most famous Jerky Boys calls (“Should I bring my shoes and my glasses?”), yet some of them no one seemed to know. Finally, I recently found these missing calls on Youtube. To those who remember that Jerky Boys underground tape, enjoy:
These calls basically sum up the Jerky Boys. The first call is Johnny and the second is Kamal. The idea that they would target one pizzeria with repeated calls about “bad pepperoni” is pure sophomoric genius. And, 20 years later, I admit, I am still laughing at such moronic statements as “I shit my pants, on the way home. I call you now, I just clean up.” It helps that they are talking to a total New York Italian stereotype on the other end. When Kamal says he is “gonna make a lotta fucking trouble for you,” the guy replies with a thick accent, “For Wha?” his tone of voice implying a shrug of the shoulders and an eyebrow raised about a foot high.
That is what makes this a NYC History post; the calls wouldn’t be anything without all the old school New Yorkers on the other end of the phone. Take this call about painters:
Johnny Brennan asks for a painting job, and when hearing none is forthcoming then asks the painter, “Whatya say we get together and paint each other up?”, to which the man replies, “Fuhgetaboutit” without missing a beat.
And the West Indian lady working at the auto body shop out in Flatbush seems like a match for Kamal: