My parents still don’t know why I turned out the way I did, but one man deserves at least 30 percent of the credit (or blame): Johnny Brennan, creator of the Jerky Boys.
In early 1994, I bought a copy of the now classic prank phone call album The Jerky Boys on cassette at the now sadly-defunct Just Music in Longview, Washington and when the album was done playing I was a changed young man. That evening during my nightly argument with my old man about my “attitude,” I had a secret weapon he didn’t know about: Frank Rizzo.
But the Jerky Boys were not only a good offense against the evil forces of Mommy and Daddy, they were the perfect brand of comedy for anyone who had a slightly anarchistic sense of humor. Brennan and his sidekick Kamal Ahmed elevated prank phone calls to the level of theater, thanks to such memorable characters as the neurotic Sol Rosenberg, the flamboyantly gay Jack Tors, crotchety old coot Kissel, and other misfits. This was hilarious shit and soon it was pure Jerkymania all across America.
Eventually the hype died down, Kamal (who voiced the characters Tarbash, Kissel, and a few others, such as the memorable Curly G.) left in the late 90s and Brennan focused more on doing voices for Family Guy. But you can’t keep a good prankster down and now Brennan and his characters are back and making brand new calls that will soon be released on The Jerky Boys website. Brennan has also kept the Jerky Boys brand going with a great podcast on iTunes, interacting with fans and discussing the background behind some of the classic Jerky calls. Brennan recently made one of his first live appearances at Gotham Comedy Club in Chelsea, dazzling rabid Jerky Boys fans with stories from behind the prank call trenches. I got him on the phone (naturally) and we discussed it all—the assnecks, the pissclams, chocolate juice, lamby nipple chops with minty pickled sour sauce; the whole enchilada, tough guy.
VICE: So you just did your first live gig last week? Tell me about that.
Johnny Brennan: Yeah, it was great. Doing it live, it’s a completely different form of comedy. I noticed when I started doing the podcast that the fans really enjoyed the behind the scenes stories from their favorite calls, like for example finding out who Brett Weir really was. The calls are so legendary now that people just really love finding out the stories behind them. So I just figured instead of doing a podcast from my studio at home, why not just go out and interact with people live? It’s really cool.
It’s hard to believe were coming up on the 20th anniversary of the release of the first album. The Jerky characters are now almost like best friends to fans.
Well, yeah, but remember the bootlegs had been around for years, going back to the late 70s, early 80s. Before it was released in 1993, it already had a long track record. The New York Times called it the largest bootleg in history, and then when the album came out it still sold millions and millions of copies. And I got direct from the horse’s mouth why that happened — people told me “Johnny, dude, we are so glad we can finally buy these calls on CD because our cassettes that we’ve passed around for eons are completely destroyed.” Back then all you had were cassettes and when I made some of those original cuts, CDs weren’t even invented yet. So people passed those tapes around for years and played the shit out of them so much that they were ruined, so when all those bootlegged calls like “Auto Mechanic” or “Sol’s Eyeglasses” were finally released on CD, people were just so freakin’ happy.
And now you’re releasing new calls on your website every month?
Right, they’re called the Jerky Boys Six-Pack. I tried to get the ball rolling in May but I had a couple of legal issues I had to take care of, but they’ll be coming. They will be five brand new calls and then one classic Jerky Boys call where I give commentary over it.
Do you remember the very first prank call you ever made?
You know, this is going to make some people perplexed and maybe even disappointed but I really never had any interest in making prank calls back then. My father was a building superintendent in Manhattan and all these wealthy people used to throw out really interesting shit. So one day my father comes up to me and gives me a reel-to-reel player that someone had thrown out. This is in 1973. I used to stuff these matchbook covers in there and then I could overlay all kinds of crap on there. I could do double, triple, quadruple voices, and mix the sounds. So I would have fun creating these skits and sketches on the reel-to-reel. Then I could pick up the phone that went to the lobby where the doorman was and fuck with him. But I never did any crap like making a prank call to some random schmo; none of that “Is your refrigerator running?” shit.
Ever since I was a kid I was always doing tons of characters. I always lived in tons of neighborhoods; you name it, I lived there. And I remember being five or six years old and just soaking in what I could hear. I heard Spanish voices, Indian voices, Greek voices, Middle Eastern voices, and I remember wanting to copy them immediately. My ear was good for picking shit up so I was doing characters since I was a little boy. When I got older, I loved doing shit for my brothers and family and they loved the characters I would do and then, boom, it hit me. I had the characters who I could use to fuck with with people, I had a boom box to record with and then we were off to the races. I think the reason why my shit was so successful is because I had no intention of prank phone calling. That sounds odd, but my intent was to bring forth these incredible characters that I’d grown up with, because my house was a fucking nuthouse. I love my mother to death but if you spent five minutes with her, you’d be like “Holy Jesus! Get me the fuck out of here!” Sol Rosenberg is based on my mom. Every normal little kid in America has a mom who comes in their room in the morning and says “Good morning, honey! Wake up! What would you like for breakfast?” You know what I heard every morning? My mom would come in and go (in Sol Rosenberg voice) “Oh God! Oh my back! Oh my fucking feet!” And she was a young woman! But I remember saying to myself even as a little kid—“That is some funny shit.” And my dad is Frank Rizzo. When my dad would get pissed off, he was Frank Rizzo. (In Rizzo voice) “C’mere, you little son of a bitch! I’ll rap your fuckin’ head in with a ratchet!” You can imagine growing up in a house like that. It was wonderful and I love my parents but they were the real deal. All of the characters are based on real people and I had no intention of doing prank phone calls to get famous. It’s just one of those happy miracles. I did a few calls on tapes just to make my brothers laugh. That was it. And then it exploded like a powder keg.
Over the years, were you ever sued for any of the phone calls?
Yeah, but there’s really nothing to that. Back in 93, supposedly the “Piano Tuner” guy, Eric the Buttnut, came forward and said (in Sol voice) “That’s me on the tape there” and then the record label gave him something like $1500 and then he’s all (in Sol voice) “Oh thank you! Thank you!” And that was the end of that. Most of the clearances, we would just make a donation to a foundation or a charity, something like that.
At the height of Jerky Boys-mania, there was a movie, ad campaigns, an MTV special. What was going through your mind at that time in the early 90s when the Jerky Boys were literally the hottest comedy act in the country?
Well, I was a really grounded person. I never got caught up in that whole Hollywood thing. Don’t get me wrong—I knew it was a good thing and a good way to make people happy. But I wasn’t 18. I wasn’t some kid. I had just gotten married and was like 31-years old and before I went on my honeymoon to Ireland, CAA (Creative Artists Agency) called me and told me the Walt Disney Company wanted to make a Jerky Boys movie. I just said “Great!” They were all excited, saying “As soon as you get back from your honeymoon, we’re gonna get you started working.” And I thought it was awesome. It was the American Dream, but I kept my feet on the ground. And today, people still love that movie. It’s become a real Rocky Horror Picture Show cult film. Last week at the comedy club, people were just quoting it to me constantly and saying how much they love it. The critics looked at that movie and just went (in Sol voice) “Oh, God, gee, I don’t know.” But we intentionally put together the goofiest Mafia movie we could, so the critics just aren’t going to get it. But the fans, man, they love it.
You also starred in the Insane Clown Posse movie Big Money Hustlas. What was it like working with ICP?
Oh, man, they were just the nicest guys. Joe (aka Violent J) writes funny shit and it was great to work with them. I had to be in makeup for like three or four hours each day and get in this fat suit. One day we were shooting in this really hot room and I was sweating so much I got dehydrated and then I had to wear these prosthetics on my face, these fake cheeks, and then my daughter came on the set and saw me in the makeup and the fake moustache and everything and she didn’t even recognize me until I started to talk. And that freaked her out. But yeah, it was a lot of fun making that movie.
I’d like to ask about a few specific calls that I know the hardcore fans love. On the “Big Hock” call on Stop Staring At Me! do you know if that guy who played for the Bayside Raiders ever made it to the NFL?
I have no idea. All I can tell you is that that call was a perfect example of how I was able to adjust on a dime. I was playing Silverman on that call, who’s a real attack dog like Rizzo. So when this guy called, he was such a character I had to back the fuck off and just let him go. And he was perfect.
I heard a rumor that the woman on the “Flower Lady” calls got so angry that she attacked either you or (Johnny’s ex-manager) Harry Getzov with a knife. Is that true?
Isn’t it wild how these rumors get created? That’s not true, thank God. I know that was a pretty expensive clearance to get because she really was angry. I think it cost us like $4,500 but it was totally worth it.
You also pranked the late great music promoter Juggy Gales on the “Hucklebuck” track. How’d that come about?
Well, a few calls were inside jobs, meaning there was a guy who knew this guy who could get me this person’s number. “Sol’s Nude Beach” was a call like that and so wasn’t the call to Juggy Gales. Juggy was a monster in the music business. He was a hell of a promoter and music guy and that’s why I brought up all those old references in that call—(in Frank Rizzo voice) “That fuck Sinatra owes me a lot of money! Remember the old days in the Brill Building?”And I had him going for a long time and it was great. The New York Times mentioned in his obituary that he was pranked by the Jerky Boys, so I was really honored. I loved when I was talking about the “Hucklebuck” with Juggy. The “Hucklebuck” had been on The Jackie Gleason Show and Juggy was responsible for making that happen, so I kept saying that this other guy was trying to take credit for it and that’s where you kept getting Juggy going “He had nothing to do with the Hucklebuck!” It was great.
I don’t want to really discuss Kamal leaving the project because you’ve talked about that many times, but why is there no mention of Kamal in the official Jerky Boys history or bio?
Well, because the history comes from my family, my characters and my phone calls. Tarbash (who Kamal voiced) was my brother Anthony’s nickname. I had a waterproofing company called Viking Waterproofing and we would slap hot tar around on roofs with hot mops and that’s where the name came from and then I realized that Tarbash would be a great name for an Indian character. I urged Kamal to do it but he didn’t want to at first because he thought it might insult his father, but finally he relented and he did a great job voicing the character. Kissel is another example. He was based on my Uncle Vinnie; I dedicated the Stop Staring At Me! album to him after he died. All that stuff Kissel says, (in Kissel voice) “When you gonna come down and fix my sink?,” that was how Uncle Vinnie was. Kamal used to go over and spend time with him and bullshit with him and Kamal could do his voice good. But the Jerky Boys is owned completely by John Brennan. The franchise, the characters, all of that is under my roof. Kamal wanted to leave the group back in 1997. There’s a picture of us around that time where were at a record signing and he’s holding my daughter, who was 10-months old. Now she’s a senior in high school. So I haven’t seen him in years. He told the manager he didn’t want to do it anymore and he’s a grown man so that was that. But he went off to do documentaries and make films and he’s done great. His movie God Has A Rap Sheet got a lot of heat from Martin Scorsese. So I give him props and I wish him nothing but the best.
Final question: Do you currently have all of your shoes and glasses with you?
Absolutely. I take them everywhere I go. Everybody always says that to me and I always get emails where people will say something like “OK, Johnny, I’ll see you at the show on Saturday and I’ll bring all my shoes and glasses with me. So I have them.” It’s a great feeling when you have something that people still love after all these years. A while back when I was doing a “Family Guy” episode, Seth McFarlane said to me, “Johnny, I was driving in today and listening to the Jerky Boys again and it’s still as funny as it ever was. This shit is timeless. It’s just as funny as it was when I was a kid.” So when you can do something that can touch the world in a positive way like that, it’s a really special feeling.