Like a lot of people, I’ve seen a lot of things on the internet. Probably too much. I don’t mean “too much” in the sense of “I’m desensitised to sex and violence what is becoming of 21st century humanity wahhhhh,” I just mean that I don’t usually come across anything that strikes me as particularly weird. These days, a subreddit filled with pictures of cartoon horses having lesbian sex will make it to Buzzfeed in no time; obscure corners of the internet get light thrown on them by mainstream sites all the time. Nothing stays undiscovered for long any more.
That said, Grandma Party Hotline is one of the odder websites I’ve visited. It’s basically just a phone number – no ads, no links, no indication of authorship. When you call the number on the site (559-492-6238), it goes straight to the voicemail inbox of what sounds like a nice old lady. “It’s so good to hear from you! I’ve missed you so much! Leave me a message, or sing me a song!” she says. The messages, which are compiled on the site (there are nearly 500 of them) range from people who are confused by the message to children singing songs to “grandma” to people who describe what they’d like to do to grandma in graphic, sexual detail.
The proprietor of the site (who wants to go only by “Grandma”) emailed me a couple of weeks ago to show me the site, and naturally, I ended up calling him up to ask, basically, what the hell it was.
VICE: So how did this website start?
Grandma: I’ll quickly take you through the basic timeline. During my college days in Orlando, Florida, around 2005, there was a very Elephant 6-y art scene. Everyone was getting high all the time and we started calling our weed “grandma”. It would be like, “Did you pick up grandma?” “Where’s grandma?” Eventually everyone just started calling each other grandma. There’d be events that would be held, like parties, and even these bigger, bazaar-type events. They’d be called “Grandma Party” and “Grandma Party Bazaar”. If you google “Grandma Party Bazaar” you’ll find a bunch of weird videos, some of which I made. I remember there were teepees, balloons, dog animals and then weird downtown Orlando bands playing all day.
Anyway, I was sort of involved in that scene, and I had watched that documentary about They Might Be Giants, where they explain that Dial-A-Song thing they did.You would call their house, and they had an answering machine that would play you a new song every day. I wanted to do that in reverse, where people call and leave songs. It naturally clicked with the grandma stuff going on to have a Grandma Party Hotline. It would be a grandma that wanted to hear a song from you. At first, what I mostly heard is my friends and friends of friends. It was that close-knit Grandma Party community goofing off with each other.
So it was pretty isolated at first?
There was only so many ways to promote it. We’d have flyers around town at the Grandma Party events. But then everyone moved away: I moved to New York, other people moved to Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon – the three places Orlando people move to after they finish college. I noticed I started getting a lot of calls from drunk Austin people. Then I started putting ads in the Village Voice and on Craigslist. That’s when I started to get all the perverts, people who genuinely wanted to fuck a grandma, and also people just genuinely confused about what it was.
I was confused too when I called, but I just hung up.
Most of them are hang ups, but some go with it. Some belt out songs, and others have conversations with their grandmas, or talk about licking Grandma’s butthole. They’re all Grandma’s children.
A lot of the callers sound really young, like 12-year-olds or something. How did that happen?
I guess we started showing up on ChaCha. I don’t know what ChaCha is. I think it’s a question and answer site. I would get all these calls that said, “ChaCha sent me.” I didn’t know what that was. I thought it was some really tough, drug dealer guy. Then I googled it, and it turned out somebody had asked, “What’s a good party line?” Somebody responded, “This one looks fun. Tell them ChaCha sent you.”
That’s funny because it’s not a party hotline at all. It’s just a voicemail inbox.
It’s not. But now the site is on the first page of search results for party hotlines. That’s when all the tweens started coming. I remember when I was a tween, you would goof off on payphones and call sex numbers and say stupid shit, and I guess this is a similar idea.
Who did the original voice?
It was a real grandma. I had a friend – another one of the "grandmas" – who had a friend who had a grandma who would do it.
How would you sum up this project?
At its core, it’s a universal grandma for all people. At the highest end of it achieving its goal is people treating it like calling a grandma. Anyone who feels like they’re in need of someone to talk to late at night. I imagine it’s taken the place of drunk-dials. Call Grandma. She’ll listen to you. Everything is going to be OK. I’m hoping that happens, people taking advantage instead of calling people they shouldn’t be calling.
Follow Harry on Twitter: @HCheadle
Getting old? Read The VICE Guide to Adulthood. There's nothing in there about making prank phone calls.