Puppetry of the Pranksters

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Remember when you were a kid, when the height of hilarity was bathroom humor and prank phone calls? "Hey, mister, is your refrigerator running?" "Why, yes, it is." "Well, then, you better go catch it!" Ha, ha, ha, ha ha! Yes, those were the days, when all you needed to get a good laugh was a telephone, a silly set-up, and the phone number of an unsuspecting victim.

For many people, their sense of humor becomes more sophisticated as they grow older. But there are others -- Jimmy Kimmel, Adam Carolla and Daniel Kellison, for example -- who, though their bodies have matured over the years, have kept their sense of humor firmly entrenched in the antics of adolescence.

Kimmel, Carolla and Kellison are the co-creators of Crank Yankers, the hit Comedy Central show that takes real-life prank phone calls perpetrated by both well-known and lesser-known comics, and then actualizes those calls through the perverse puppet population of the fictional town of Yankerville. Some of the prankster comics and celebs who have jumped at the chance to goof on a gullible public include Tony Barbieri, Andy Dick, Jim Florentine, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Alan Grier, Lisa Kushell, Seth McFarlane, Kevin Nealon, Super Dave Osborne, Sarah Silverman, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and, of course, Kimmel and Carolla.

It was around 1997 when the co-creators first met. Comic commentator Jon Stewart invited his pal, Kellison, to a Los Angeles concert called The Weenie Roast. Kellison, who had recently moved to California from the east coast, went along, and Stewart introduced him to Kimmel and Carolla, who were part of the radio station presenting the show. The three quickly became fast friends, and their first collaboration was on the raunchy The Man Show, which was originally intended for ABC. But when they delivered the pilot, shocked network executives exclaimed, "No way!" and quickly dropped the show. Enter cable laffer outlet Comedy Central, who snapped it up and immediately ordered 22 episodes. The show ran for four seasons with Jimmy and Adam, and one season with Joe Rogan and Doug Stanhope.

It was after The Man Show became a success that Comedy Central came back to its creators to pick their brains for ideas for other programs. According to Kellison, Kimmel has had a love of prank calls his entire life, and pitched doing a show based on that concept. The challenge, though, was how to visualize the calls. The obvious answers seemed to be through either animation or puppetry. But since Comedy Central had already scored a huge animation hit with the outrageous South Park, puppetry then became the most intriguing possibility. Ironically, the first season of Crank Yankers premiered as the second highest rated program on Comedy Central -- right after South Park. Now, season three is set to debut on January 12th at 9pm.

"We were originally going to call the show Prank Puppets," Kellison recalls, "but there was something absurd with Comedy Central's legal department where they weren't going to let us use the word 'prank,' so we ended up using the word 'crank.' And we couldn't call them Crank Puppets, so one day Jimmy said, 'How about Crank Yankers?' That's how it began."

And here, now, is what it has led to: each 30-minute episode of Crank Yankers contains five or six calls lasting three or four minutes apiece, so a 22-episode season would end up with about 108 calls total. Kimmel, Carolla and Kellison make the final decision as to which of the 1000 or so calls that are made each season will actually end up on the air. And the entire process is extremely time-consuming: establishing the phone call set-ups, researching and making the calls, obtaining the releases, building the puppets, memorizing the audiotapes (the puppeteers must accurately mouth the phone call dialogue), and blocking, shooting and editing the segments can take anywhere from four-to-six months per call.

For a lot of people, the idea of being immortalized as a puppet on national television is what propels them to approve the use of their call. Some folks even send in photos to make sure the puppet resembles them -- otherwise, Funny Garbage, the company who builds the puppets, tends to base the look on the pranked person's voice. No one is immune, either. "Sometimes we have fun making the puppets look like people we know, just to goof around," admits Kellison, chuckling. "Super Dave Osborne did a call a while ago as a political candidate, and he was talking about this candidate, Kellison, who was slandering him everywhere, so now there's a puppet of me that's to be his rival!"

Comics get to Crank Yankers in a variety of ways. Some, like Lisa Kushell and Tony Barbieri, had the advantage of inside connections. Kushell knew Carolla from her days at ACME Comedy Theatre, in Los Angeles, where she had impressed him with her youth and clear sense of life direction. "When Crank Yankers came up, I hadn't really talked to him for a couple of years," she explained in an email. "But he called me and said they were looking for someone to do the voice of a (blind) stripper... and he thought of me. I auditioned for Adam and Daniel over the phone and got the gig. I wish everything was that easy!"

Barbieri is known for his European-flavored characters, including British fussbudget Niles Standish and a French Concierge. He met Kimmel in the late 1990's when Kellison brought him along to a back yard b-b-q at Kimmel's house. They immediately bonded over stories of favorite prank phone calls they had made over the years. Barbieri eventually went on to work as a comedy writer on The Man Show, and from there it was a natural progression to Crank Yankers. Recently, Kimmel, Barbieri and another friend, Don Barris, wrote and produced a prank movie for Comedy Central called Windy City Heat, which aired last year. Barbieri describes the film as "a prank on one guy that was orchestrated by all three of us. It's the grandest prank of all time!"

But it's not always about who you know. Sometimes it really is about what you do and how you do it. Three years ago, Jim Florentine was doing stand-up and augmenting his $25 and $50 paychecks with the sales of CD's he self-produced, called Terrorizing the Telemarketers. He had taped actual telemarketing calls to his house, and played the salespeople as much as he could. "I'd torture them," Florentine laughs. "Try to keep them on the phone as long as possible, make their lives miserable. Busting people's balls -- I'm very good at that.

So I was selling the CD's after comedy shows, just for gas money and to get my name out there. My manager heard about a show that was looking for guys to do prank phone calls, so I mailed my stuff in and got the job. It was just from the stupid characters I was doing on my CD's, but it turned out to be a good training ground for Crank Yankers."

Florentine has two regular characters on the show -- the obnoxious Bobby Fletcher, and Special Ed, a rather dimwitted fellow who wears a helmet, constantly says 'Yeah!' and repeats things over and over and over. "Bobby Fletcher is just me being rude," Florentine says of creating the characters. "Special Ed is just somebody I made up to see how long the telemarketer would stay on the phone with a guy who's not too bright, just to see how pathetic he was trying to sell something."

"The funniest stuff is always the unexpected," Kellison says in explaining the appeal of prank phone calls. "It's the spontaneous moment captured. Crank Yankers is unscripted comedy, and for a lot of comedians, it's the purest form of comedy. They have no idea where it's going to go; it's a great exercise for them. And for famous comedian's, it's a way of doing it anonymously, and it's exciting. It's a fun way to test your own comedic abilities. That's the challenge and the excitement of it all. Plus, there's the unexpected moments when calls take turns. Keeping people on the phone is always a challenge. You push them as close to the edge of the cliff as you can, and you bring them back in, and then you push them out to the edge of the cliff again and bring them back in. When they're successful, people are at their breaking point and you can see the steam coming out of their ears! Then you say something nice to bring them back to where they're not going to hang up the phone. It's all silly fun. There's never anything malicious in it. And I think, in the end, that's why most people sign off on it. (Ed. Note: every person called must sign a release for the segment to be used.) It's all good-natured fun, and people become pretty capable of laughing at themselves."

Kushell agrees. "I think the appeal is just pure silliness. I made maybe one prank call in my entire life. I have a very guilty conscience, and I never would have been able to live with myself once I hung up the phone. Somehow it's different when I'm getting paid. (wink) It's fun to get reactions out of people by using these outrageous premises."

"I think when you're a kid you make prank phone calls to your principal and stuff like that because you're walking the danger zone tightrope," adds Barbieri. "I like to see how long I can keep someone who's really harried and upset on the phone and try and get them going and then bring them back, and get them going again and bring them back. It's as base and puerile and juvenile as it gets -- and it's a blast!"

It seems clear that the prank personality thrives in a lot of comics. Barbieri and Florentine both agree that they'd be making prank calls anyway, so why not get paid for it? And inviting high profile comics and actors on to the show who feel the same way is a good audience draw for the show, plus fun for them. "When Jeff Goldblum says, 'I love prank phone calls. I want to do that!' it's like, 'Great!' laughs Barbieri. "They're really good at it, too. But it's also the enthusiasm of the participants. It's not like we're asking them to do dog food commercials -- they really get into it. And then, when it's realized through the puppets...! The guys at Funny Garbage are hugely talented, and they're able to breathe this crazy kind of life into these foam rubber, foul-mouthed puppets; it really becomes believable when you're watching them. It's awesome!"

The success of stand-up comics on network television -- Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, and Ray Romano for example -- has also helped to reshape television comedy, and created the opportunity for other shows, like Crank Yankers, to expand upon the format. But making the transition from the live stage to the sound stage can also involve a commitment to acting and auditioning.

Florentine has taken acting classes, but he's never studied comedy or stand-up. "I just figured either you're funny or you're not," he says. "They might be able to tell you how to structure a joke, but I just like being out there in the trenches and doing it." He does stand-up full time now, and has worked his way out of the cheap bar circuit to make it the rounds in more well-respected comedy clubs, like the Improv. But the experience of those early years really helped prepare him, he says, for the rigors of auditioning for comedy television.

"Stand-up is a great way to get started in comedy," he says, "because the industry will come out and see you on stage. And it really helps when you go on auditions, because you're fearless. When you get up in front of 20 drunk people on a Tuesday night, and the bar you're playing doesn't want to shut the TV's off because there's sports fans in there they don't want to lose, and the game is going on behind you, and you're trying to get people's attention and they want nothing to do with you...then, when you walk into an audition and there's just two people staring at you, you're fearless. You're like, if I just handled that last night, then I can handle anything!"

Kellison also got his comic start in stand-up, but in a very different form. As a college student, he was enrolled in NYU's dramatic writing program. But he soon dropped his plan to be a playwright because, "I couldn't reasonably expect to make a living that way." Instead, he applied for an internship on The David Letterman Show, and was accepted. Recalls Kellison, "I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was determined to get a job out of it. Initially I was a researcher, then I became a talent booker, then a segment producer. When I finally left, it was as a producer. It was a great boot camp."

Kellison remembers his late-night boss as "extremely discerning. There was a lot of funny stuff that he wouldn't do for a variety of reasons, like bathroom humor or sexual humor or anything like that. On the very first episode of The Man Show, we had an explosive you would put in dog excrement so you wouldn't have to pick it up. And I said, 'Really? We're doing exploding dog poop on the first show?' And Jimmy said, 'Listen, if it's funny and it makes people laugh, that's all I care about.' So the rules were a little different!

"Letterman always seemed overly particular to me, but in hindsight, I think having those kinds of stringent standards serve you well in comedy. What I learned from him was to keep pushing yourself, and never be satisfied until you seize upon the exact right moment."

Kushell has some additional advice for anyone looking to break into the funny business. "Really go for it," she writes. "There's no half-stepping in this business. You're going to go through a lot of rejection and a lot of people who think you're not good enough. Just keep going. But, if you suck you should probably just be honest with yourself and get the f**k out. (wink)"

Wars, terrorism, prejudice, corruption at every turn -- yes, it's a big bad world out there, and it may seem, at times, that life has become so serious that we, as a people, are in danger of losing our sense of humor. So it helps to have a place to go where silliness still reigns supreme.

"If you can't laugh at things, you're done," observes Kushell. "With everything going on right now, the divisiveness in this country, if we could laugh at it a little, maybe we could find some common ground. Believe me, I know it's not that simple. But, if I can make a little fun of you, and you can make a little fun of me, it diffuses some of the B.S. and at least we can have a conversation. I mean, come on. We're all idiots. We might as well laugh about it."

"I think the decision-makers are losing their sense of humor," stresses Kellison. "They're a joyless bunch, quite frankly, and it's the kind of thing where they see other people having a good time, and they're not having a good time so they don't want other people to have a good time, either, whether consciously or unconsciously. And, there's a powerful religious right out there, and they see entertainment as the enemy in many regards; all we're really trying to do is poke a little fun at ourselves and others, and have a laugh in this tense world we live in.

"Comedy provides more than a little relief from the day-to-day struggles of their lives. It's a great thing to do, for half an hour every evening, to get somebody to laugh. There's a lot of pressure in this world, and if you can make somebody forget about it for half an hour, that's a real gift."