In the pre-internet age, the best prank calls and underground videos were passed hand-to-hand on cassette and VHS tapes, creating a subculture among comedians and musicians who relied on them to punch up endless, aimless stretches of time on the road, backstage, or in hotel rooms.
The digital revolution has mostly wiped out those (formerly) viral methods of transmission, but it’s also had the peculiar side effect of turning the material itself into artifact-worthy nostalgia. That helps explains why Chunklet Industries, the Atlanta-based purveyor of exquisitely snarky, aesthetically pleasing products such as Chunklet magazine (Full disclosure: I’ve written for Chunklet in the past) and numerous punk and indie-rock releases, decided to issue a long-out-of-print prank call as a luxurious but ultra-limited, one-sided vinyl 12-inch record in a deluxe Stoughton tip-on jacket.
The roughly seven-minute call, dubbed “The Corporate Office,” is the work of comedian Bob Schriner, who has a history of brilliantly inspired pranks and stunts – including causing a media circus by stealing a Ronald McDonald statue and attributing it to the work of a vegan terrorist group, or showing up for makeovers on TV talk shows. His sociopathy dovetails nicely with the interests of Chunklet founder Henry Owings, who was first given Schriner’s work by buddy John Schmersal (of the dearly departed Dayton, Ohio band Braniac) in 2002.
Owings, who tour-managed Patton Oswalt’s Comedians of Comedy tour, was immediately taken with the call, which was recorded in 1999 as Schriner called a Tempe, Arizona Wendy’s and posed as a manager from the chain’s corporate office. Soon, Owings was leading his mix CDs with the call and disseminating it to bands who crashed at his house when they played Atlanta. That eventually afforded the subtle, slow-to-build, undeniably pathological prank call an intense cult following.
If you’ve never heard it, we’re not going to give away the ending, but suffice to say it’s more along the lines of the relentless, straight-faced psychological manipulation of Earles and Jensen than the wacky voices and emotional abuse of The Jerky Boys. The payoff is exquisite and rewards repeat listens, prompting Buzzfeed last month to wonder, “Is this the greatest prank call of all time?”
We caught up with Schriner via phone to examine his techniques and pick apart why the call is, indeed, among the all-time greats.
How did this particular call come about?
It worked in some incarnation every time we tried it, just calling people at work and asking them to do some completely outlandish shit, but thankfully we happened to have recorded this one.
What are some other examples of calls like this?
I’d call Kinko’s and tell them I was from the security company or the alarm company, and I needed them to test the panic alarm. And then a cop would show up and I’d be like, “I want to talk to the officer and let him know everything’s okay. We have a security question which in this case is turkey hunt, but he said it was tornado,” so of course I told him I’d update the security question on our end. Things like that.
Was pretending to be an authority figure a theme across all these?
It was. You know something fucked up is probably going to happen, so it was definitely a factor in all the calls I did that weren’t recorded. For me, it’s a whole different experience as the person doing it as opposed to the person hearing it. As the person doing it, there were calls that were uncomfortable because people were willing to do outrageous shit or break things just because someone supposedly (in power) was asking them to, like those psychology experiments where they instructed participants to deliver electric shocks to people. But in terms of something that could be passed on for others to hear, this call is definitely in the 95th percentile or better.
There’s this exquisite tension as the fast-food worker goes from skeptical and confused to actually entertaining your demands, which include testing the temperature of the fryer oil with his forearm.
A lot of my other calls are like that, but I’m left wondering what happened and what the person ended up doing, because I’m not always there to hear the end result of the mischief. It’s just the punchline here that’s so brutal and funny. (Note: It’s not in the way readers might think).
How did you get that managerial-type voice down? There’s so much authority in there.
It’s an amalgam of things, really. I’ve always had a bit of a bassier tone, and ever since I was young I was always pushing things like that. As a kid I would use my register to pretend to be peoples’ parents to clear sleepovers. When I was a teenager I started doing things like food scams because my friends were just broke, derelict, skate-boarding punk kids who didn’t have a lot of money or resources. We’d call a place and say, “I was in there earlier and got the wrong the pizza,” and they’d buy it. So that was the roots of it. I also worked shitty jobs like selling newspapers door-to-door and we’d tell people we were raising money to get on Star Search, or just try to get them as mad as possible by lying to them and trying to provoke them to fight us. What I learned from it is that you can do the job, but it’s really fucking boring if you take it seriously. I wanted chaos so that was a really good outlet.
Sounds like perfect training for a prank caller.
Knocking on 50 to 100 doors per day for people who were really mad to see you was a fucking workshop. And my boss made so much money from us that she just let us run wild, despite the occasional complaints. So that was the first time I understood there are these corporate hierarchies where people exist and everyone knows their name, but not their voices.
Why release a prank call from 1999 in 2015?
We had talked about it for awhile, with people from different labels like French Kiss Records. Les Savvy Fav were big proponents of it and put it in a lot of peoples’ hands, but I just didn’t think much would come of it. Plus, someone might end up with some kind of prosecution because of the nature of this call and the fact that we were making money off of it, but I’m not worried about that happening anymore.
What really strikes me about this call is the patience in it. It’s such a slow build, and it’s really funny because of the overall concept and reactions – in addition to the punchline – and less about the moment-to-moment routine.
It’s definitely wacky. I’ve been listening to this call forever and so many people have told me over the years, “It’s this one little thing, this turn of phrase or whatever, that really gets me.” You catch yourself about to say one thing, like “heating element,” and you say “filament” instead. It’s just tiny little differences that can make you sound smarter than you are, and you don’t even realize you’re doing it. It’s just fucking accidental.
What do all good prank calls have in common?
I think it’s too subjective to say. Sometimes a funny voice or character is all people need to amuse themselves. I’ve been doing this a long time so my prank call needs are a bit more demanding. But I’m also willing to go out and satisfy them on my own.
Who are some of your favorites? I’m sure you’re familiar with subtler, weirder stuff like Longmont Potion Castle and Neil Hamburger’s early work.
I enjoy Longmont Potion Castle and Neil Hamburger intensely, but when I did prank calls I kind of wanted to be more of the straight person. So much of the concept is being a ridiculous person that’s unbelievable and the joke is how long people can take it. There’s mileage in that, but for me I don’t really want to be as funny in my verbiage straight-out. I want to be the straight man.
One of the best lines in “The Corporate Office” is, “There no way I’m reaching my hand in that oil, I’m telling you that right now.” What would you have done if he did it – which obviously would have been horrifying?
There’s nothing I really could have done except drive down there with some gauze and aloe vera. (Laughs). But the things you cook and fry with at restaurants have all these crazy warnings on them, so I knew a deep fryer, which is basically an open pool of murderously hot liquid, would have that on it.
You were betting against this guy’s stupidity, basically.
The whole premise is predicated on the idea that no one would possibly do what I’m asking him to do, no matter how much you’re afraid of your boss. It’s boiling hot oil! Even if you’re just near it, you can feel it. So I’m grateful, despite all of my confidence, that I was right. But it’s a bait and switch, really. If I had told the guy to do what he eventually and actually does, he might not have done it.