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Digging Up Funny: Great Phone Calls

Digging Up Funny is a regular column in which Christopher Davies sifts through comedy of the past – TV, film, radio, literature, everything else between – and pays tribute to the ones that got away.

About a year ago, I was in the East London offices of a creative agency. A couple of the younger employees – the blissful side of 25, that golden age before life really starts to take delight in squeezing the hope out of you – were watching prank videos on YouTube: the likes of Jack Jones and Sam Pepper (two dullards who between them are roughly as thick as a dogshit milkshake) wandering the streets to hassle people in the godforsaken name of Banter.

No point was being made. No satire was to gleaned.

Look! Banter Lad just challenged a fat man to a fight! Look! Banter Lad stole someone’s cigarette! Look! Banter Lad is making thinly veiled rape threats at unsettled young women and should be arrested! A couple of prank phone calls were then thrown into the YouTube mix – and that’s when I pulled up “Hijinks”, one of the calls on Gregg Turkington’s 1992 album Great Phone Calls.

An Australian comic, artist and musician who relocated to California, Turkington would later become a sensation in the noughties (in small, slightly bitter circles of comedy writers, anyway) with his ongoing turn as Neil Hamburger – the best comic creation since Alan Partridge.

YAAAAS QUEEN SLAY!

Hamburger is a dervish: a foul-mouthed washed-up Catskills laugh-man who combines the glitzy waistcoat and oil-slick hair of a 1960s Johnny Carson guest with the sociopathic fury of Jeffrey Dahmer. The Hamburger act is often referred to as ‘anti-comedy’ or ‘surreal’ or ‘inaccessible’. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The reality is that – in a world in which 99% of modern stand-up consists of manchildren in graphic tees making Star Wars references (“maybe Donald Trump is, like, Darth Vader’s orange cousin, right guys????”) – anything with a hint of spice is going to seem ‘strange’. Don’t understand this trend? Don’t like it? Don’t know when exactly it started and why? Join the club. You’re getting old – and young people don’t care. Young people, for instance, like the ones who saw that ‘Hijinks’ video pop up – and then raised their eyebrows in alarm when the length-counter clocked in at a whopping 5 min 58 seconds.

Many an aspiring wit has indeed ventured into the Trump/ Vader mashup territory…

A film of sweat appeared on their foreheads. They were ACTUALLY going to have listen to someone speak for close to six minutes – no stupid multi-font Snapchat text peppering the screen, no quickfire editing like all those vloggers who CUT up THEIR SENTENCES like THIS FOR SOME stupid FUCKING reason. This experience was alien to them. The act of concentration left them sprawled like Bambi on ice.

They couldn’t do it. They couldn’t stick it out. They didn’t have the patience. The point of the sketch, the build-up of the joke, the callbacks, the references… it was lost on them. None of it was immediate enough. The slack-shouldered embryos lasted ninety seconds before drifting away to another monitor. (Because there’s always another monitor, isn’t there? Another screen, a superhero to rescue you from the horror of spending time with your thoughts). As they went away to watch something else – oh, I dunno, a looped gif of Beyoncé sipping a drink with the caption YASSSS SLAAAYY QUEEENN or something – ‘Hijinks’ continued to play. All six epic minutes of it.

The thing is: once you see a microscopic attention span like that in action, you can’t help but think. What’s next? Give it five years: will one minute be too long for the ADHD brigade to sit through? Thirty seconds? Fifteen? There was a critic for the Dallas News who – in 1925, when reviewing Gertrude Stein’s 1000-page doorstopper The Birth Of Americans – said “it will not be read by many; we are too impatient a people”. Fast-forward a mere ninety-three years and I’m now saying the same thing about a six-minute long prank call. Just think about that. I mean, seriously. Think. A prank call is now too long and winding for people to pay attention to. This is 2018, folks, and we deserve everything we’ve built.

Aaaaanyway – those kids really should have stuck around to listen to “Hijinks”. “Hijinks” is great. “Hijinks” is the Hamlet of prank calls.”Hijinks” involves Gregg Turkington pretending to be an automated cinema-listings machine in pursuit of a grand wind-up on an unsuspecting target. It’s one of the highlights of Great Phone Calls … … and it’s joined by many others. “Write My Name On The Toilet” – an early prototype of the Hamburger character trying to book stage time at a comedy club – is the Othello of prank calls. “I’m In Your Band” – an unhinged bassist replying to a “guitarist wanted” newspaper ad – is the Tempest of prank calls. And there’s more joy to be found. In fact, as an album – another long-form medium that the tail-end of 2010s is hell-bent on wiping out – Great Phone Calls is as cohesive as anything you’ll find topping the end-of-year poll at Pitchfork.

If it sounds weird to be treating some silly prank call recordings as a relic from a bygone, more considered age … it feels weird to making that case too. Rose-tinted glasses can be a hell of a drug, I know. But in age of sociopathic Logan Pauls and the clapping seals who enable them, there’s something oddly innocent about a guy giggling as he swears at a stranger down a landline. Funny how the most unexpected parts of the past resonant the most, isn’t it?

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You've got that wonderful off-your-meds glow about you.
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