Either way, the two seem content to simply enjoy, as Earles puts it, “the weirdness of communicating with a complete stranger, engaging them in this improvised script of your own making.” Which is to say nothing of the weirdness experienced by the stranger on the other end of the line.
Don’t be a jerk
Earles, a Memphis-based journalist, and Jensen, a Brooklyn artist/musician/director, met about a decade ago. But Earles had been pranking since high school, “harassing night managers at warehouses and whatnot,” effecting a small audience of his pals by “using the three-way calling feature until we had nine- or 10-way.”
Yes, they both listened to the Jerky Boys — Jensen even confesses that “I’m one of the few people who went to see their feature-length film in the theater.” But far more simpatico was 1992 cult classic Great Phone Calls by Gregg Turkington (a/k/a anti-comedian Neil Hamburger).
Because, while the Jerkys’ humor seemed designed “to get people angry,” says Jensen, he and Earles aimed to “do something opposite.” Instead of simply using the callees as foils, a hapless soundboard off of which to bounce a pre-scripted comedy bit, they try to engage them — to “build depressing little character studies out of the detritus of pop culture,” as Fluxblog’s Matthew Perpetua puts it, “and attempt to nudge them into someone else’s reality.”
“I always hope that the person who receives the phone call is the better for it,” explains Jensen. “Y’know, like has something to talk about afterward. I don’t wanna call and just be cruel, and say, ‘Hey sizzle-chest! I’m gonna hit you on the head with a fucking wrench!’ ”
Indeed, if the Jerky Boys could be mildly funny when, say, violently berating a pizza-shop employee, it’s a lot more rewarding to laugh along with the hospital receptionist cackling on the other end of the line when Earles calls in as “The Party Doctor,” a deliriously debauched MD who’s watched Stitches and the Fat Boys’ Disorderlies a few too many times. Or to bear audio witness to the manager of a Kansas City rib joint’s bemused reaction when Jensen, calling as Ed Asner’s personal assistant, requests that Asner’s photo be removed from its ignominious spot — next to the San Diego Chicken! — on the restaurant’s Wall of Fame.
Make my day, honky
Earles and Jensen’s most beloved recurring character is “Bleachy,” an allegedly roly-poly, four-foot-10-inch, 250-pound Southern black man, with a ceaseless craving for Hostess Zingers and Rally’s Big Buford burgers. We get to know him over seven calls on Just Farr a Laugh — Bleachy tries to join the army . . . Bleachy requests a birthday serenade at T.G.I. Friday’s . . . Bleachy phones a Best Buy in hopes of watching Murder, She Wrote in the TV department on Super Bowl Sunday.
A call from Bleachy makes for much mirth. Just ask the bartender Jensen called one afternoon — wheezing with hysterical laughter as Bleachy riffs about his plans to come to the bar that evening and “shake that big ol’ booty I got and spread some loooove, Memphis-style.”
Spankin’ that backside! Mmm! Turnin’ it around! Shakin’ it. Hustlin’. Doin’ the knee spin! Bleachy’s back in town, baby! Let everybody know! Call the newspapers! Wake up your friends!
That was the last of about “30 or 40” Bleachy calls the pair had done that day, says Earles. And a few hours after they hung up, they headed down to that very tavern. “Everyone in the bar was still talking about that phone call. The bartender had walked around the bar telling everybody about this call he’d just received. He was so excited about what had just happened to him on the phone. It just really made that guy’s day.”