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Remembering The Jerky Boys

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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 Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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