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Remembering The Jerky Boys

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bethom1 via eBay

Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed bonded over a dummy. It was the 1970s, and a teenaged Brennan had dressed a human-shaped sack in a football helmet and jersey before launching it off the roof of his parents’ Queens home and in front of oncoming traffic. Panic-stricken, drivers would swerve to avoid a collision while Brennan was in hysterics.

Ahmed, who was several years younger, found that he shared his neighbor’s questionable taste in humor. With Ahmed as a co-conspirator, Brennan would spend much of the 1980s and '90s making prank phone calls to businesses in various character guises, insulting employees or owners with belligerent requests for work. Though it started as a lark, The Jerky Boys would go on to sell millions of albums, star in a movie, and inspire a future generation of comedic talent like director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy). Spin magazine once declared them the “Hall & Oates of crank calling.”

There’s just one problem with that comparison: Hall & Oates stayed together.

Although phony phone calls have probably been around for as long as the telephone itself, it wasn’t until the 1960s that entertainers began using them as a premise for comedy. Jerry Lewis made calls using an expensive recording system he had Paramount build for him, releasing the back-and-forth on his albums. Steve Allen did the same, with compilations that came from his late-night talk show.

But it wasn’t until Jim Davidson and John Elmo, better known as the Bum Bar Bastards, decided to prank a salty old bar owner named Louis “Red” Deutsch in the mid-1970s that crank calls morphed into a raw, underground sensation. The two would call Deutsch at the Tube Bar and ask to speak to “Ben Dover” or another sophomoric patron.

Red, who seemed to have a zero-tolerance policy for humor, would escalate the situation rapidly.

“I’ll put a few bullets into you, yo muddaf*ckin’ bum!” he rasped. “Come over here and say these things!” Davidson and Elmo did not, but they did keep calling Red almost every weekend for two years straight.

The “Tube Bar tapes” proved there was an appetite for a garage-band level of prank callers. In 1986, Brennan started breaking up the monotony of his construction job by coming home and pranking New York businesses with a tape recorder running. Honing characters like the brusque Frank Rizzo or the withdrawn Sol Rosenberg, Brennan would rope unsuspecting civilians into his audio sketches, prompting outbursts of anger or resignation; Ahmed would sometimes whisper jokes into his ear.

Ahmed, who worked as a bouncer, gave one of their tapes to a club patron. Before long, the calls were being dubbed and circulated through small-press music ‘zines like Factsheet Five and aired on morning shows. Howard Stern started to recap the machinations of Frank Rizzo.

Calling an auto mechanic, “Rizzo” made his case for an open position.

“Are you applying for a job?”

“That’s right, tough guy. I’ve worked on race cars for 18 years … right now I had to leave an old job because of problems with my boss … I’ll come down there with my tools and start work tomorrow!”

“I have to hire you first, guy.”

“Well, I’m the best!”

Sensing opportunity, Brennan and Ahmed began selling their tapes through a 900 number. Their continued popularity got them signed for a full-fledged record release in 1993.

At the time, the team still didn’t have a name. When Brennan told his mother about the album deal, she suggested they call themselves The Jerky Boys.

Bolstered by airtime—and as a consequence, free advertising—on national radio programs, The Jerky Boys went double platinum, selling 500,000 copies. The Jerky Boys 2 followed in 1994, and sold the same number in its first two weeks of release. Brennan and Ahmed quit their day jobs, hired a manager, and devoted themselves full-time to the business of annoying people.

The boys didn’t bother with any legal details early on. Once success hit and the potential for lawsuits loomed, a crank call would typically be followed by a more reserved phone call from their manager, who would try to convince the offended party to sign a release form. Most would: Brennan once recalled that only one suit was ever filed as a result of his years as a telephone harassment specialist.

The success of the albums drew the attention of Hollywood. The kids of singer Tom Jones were reported to be big fans. In 1994, Brennan and Ahmed were courted by actors Tony Danza and Emilio Estevez, who executive produced The Jerky Boys movie in 1995. The film—in which the two played fictionalized versions of themselves—gave them unprecedented visibility but savage reviews. An unimpressed critic from The New York Times noted that:

“As telephone guerrillas puncturing institutional defenses with their rude crank phone calls, the Jerky Boys have touched a nerve. The comic flailings of these self-described ‘lowlifes from Queens’ are comic cries of anger from a social stratum that looks ahead and sees only dead ends. Adopting funny voices and taping phone calls that make fools of their frequently snippy recipients is as efficient a way as any of momentarily leveling the social landscape.”

Undeterred, the Boys released several more albums before Ahmed decided to call it quits to pursue a filmmaking career. The split seemed less than amicable, with Ahmed chastising Brennan for continuing what he felt was a juvenile pursuit and Brennan downplaying Ahmed’s contributions.

Brennan released two more albums in 2001 and 2007, but stayed largely silent. He told Rolling Stone in 2014 that the death of his father in 2000 diluted his passion for pranking: His dad had been an inspiration for the rough-hewn Frank Rizzo character.

While Brennan wasn’t producing much new material, his library of classics endured. Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, credited Brennan with helping to shape his sense of humor; so did Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, who felt inspired to commit to what people might consider “lowbrow” comedy in films like Bridesmaids.

Today, the 53-year-old Brennan operates The Jerky Boys's official website, which is home to sporadic new calls and a small line of gourmet foods. Although Ahmed is still absent, his business is still plural: Brennan has explained that the “Boys” of the name refers to his characters, not themselves.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
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To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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