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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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The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
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Columbia/TriStar

If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

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The Scariest 25 Minutes on U.S. Television
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ABC

On March 4, 1975, ABC affiliate Channel 10 in Miami announced to viewers that the network’s debut of a made-for-TV suspense film titled Trilogy of Terror would not be airing as scheduled. The reason, according to the station, was that the movie was too unsettling for the 8:30 p.m. hour. They would show another movie instead, and push Trilogy of Terror into the 11:30 p.m. time slot.

In West Palm Beach, Channel 12 aired it in primetime, but made sure to offer a disclaimer that it might be disturbing for younger viewers.

In a culture that had recently been shaken by the 1973 release of The Exorcist and a resulting glut of occult fiction, it seemed unlikely that a modestly-budgeted network Movie of the Week could rattle station managers to the point that they were concerned for their viewers' welfare. And for two-thirds of its modest 90-minute slot, Trilogy of Terror bordered on the forgettable. Actress Karen Black, who had earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, played multiple roles in the anthology, with the first two—about a seductive teacher and vengeful twin sister—little more than stock fare.

The third, “Amelia,” was very different. In essentially a one-woman play, Black portrays a character hoping to impress her anthropologist boyfriend by gifting him with an African “Zuni fetish doll,” a fearsome-looking warrior cast in wood and grasping a spear. Alone in her apartment, Black finds that the doll is more spirited than your typical toy. As he hacks and slashes at her feet and hides behind furniture, it’s not quite clear whether Black will conquer her tiny terror, go mad, or both.

In the more than 40 years since its original airing, “Amelia” has seared itself into the public consciousness, with viewers genuinely riveted by Black’s plight against the fanged terror. Prior to her death in 2013, Black said she was approached by fans to talk about her fight with a killer doll more than all of her other roles combined; when writer Richard Matheson went in for meetings, he was often approached by executives who admitted to wetting themselves watching the film as a child. Channels 10 and 12 may have been on to something.

The concept for “Amelia” had been hatched over a decade earlier, when Matheson was working on The Twilight Zone. Pitching a script titled “Devil Doll” to series creator Rod Serling, the draft was deemed too grim for 1960s broadcast standards. Matheson tweaked the idea slightly for “The Invaders,” about an isolated, mute woman (Agnes Moorehead) who is terrorized by a tiny fleet of miniature alien explorers. (Another classic episode, “Talky Tina,” about a doll who threatens her owner’s abusive stepfather, had no overt connection with Matheson.)

Years later, Matheson found himself in frequent collaboration with director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Dark Shadows). The two came up with the idea for Trilogy of Terror and pitched it to ABC. Writer William F. Nolan scripted two Matheson stories; Matheson himself scripted the third installment based on “Prey,” a short story he had written based on his abandoned Twilight Zone idea, which first appeared in a 1969 issue of Playboy.

Matheson figured “Amelia” would be the standout, and admitted he was selfish to keep it for himself to script. But the network and Curtis felt the stunt of casting Black in all three stories—for a total of four roles, including the second installment’s twins—would be the hook. Black was not initially interested in the material, agreeing to star only when her manager was able to secure a role for her then-husband, Robert Burton.

Shooting “Amelia” necessitated three puppets, which proved problematic to operate. In interviews, Black said that the crew sometimes resorted to simply throwing the doll at her in order to simulate movement; its head or arm tended to fall off during simulated running.

Deprived of the production’s gaffes, viewers didn’t find a lot to laugh about. The final third of Trilogy of Terror is largely silent, with Black being browbeaten by her overbearing mother (appearing offscreen via telephone) and hoping to calm herself with a shower. With the doll springing to life, she uses everything within reach—a suitcase, an ice pick, an oven—to combat whatever evil force she has awakened in the creature. In the closing moments, it becomes clear that the seemingly-vanquished doll isn’t done claiming victims.

The VHS box art for an early video release of the Zuni doll segment
MPI Home Video

Trilogy of Terror was repeated on ABC over the years and came to the home videocassette market in the early 1980s under the title Terror of the Doll. A combination of its being difficult to screen and people's fleeting recollections of the violent little savage led the movie to develop a cult following.

Don Mancini, who wrote the Child’s Play series—a seventh entry, Cult of Chucky, is due in October—and Child’s Play director Tom Holland have spoken about the influence Trilogy of Terror had on their iconic killer doll; a 1996 Trilogy of Terror sequel brought the Zuni doll back for an encore, although it didn't generate nearly as much interest as the original.

When it finally received wide distribution with a 1999 home video re-release, Black bemoaned that people seemed to have remembered Trilogy of Terror at the expense of the rest of her career. “I wish they said, ‘That wonderful movie you did for Robert Altman,’ but they don’t,” she said. “They say, ‘That little doll.’”

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