Crank Yankers and the quiet heroism of customer-service people.

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June 13 2002 6:19 PM

Call and Response

Crank Yankers and the quiet heroism of customer-service people.

Hadassah Guberman
Hadassah Guberman

During the summer after third grade, my friend Megan and I made crank calls whenever my parents went out, using a black rotary phone on their bedside table. We called local numbers at random and staged Judy Blume-derived emergencies designed to get people talking about tampons and masturbation. For variety, we dialed 1-212-555-1212 to get numbers for Harrison Ford, Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Christopher Reeve. We'd plan these crank-calling binges for days, and I looked forward to them with a wicked excitement.

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That summer may have fallen within the heyday of "the lost art of crank calling"—as the promotional material for the new Comedy Central show Crank Yankers calls it. The mid-'70s were indeed bliss for stalkers and crank callers: no answering machines, voicemail, or caller ID. Via the telephone, you could dip, anonymously, into the life of almost anyone whose number you had. Sometimes you'd have to wait eight or nine exciting rings, but as your reward, you'd hear the amazingly good-natured minders of American telephones, mostly women at desks and in kitchens, deliver that optimistic, eager, maybe-this-time-I'll-win American "Hello?" Their expectancy and curiosity became an invitation to transform yourself into someone who would hold that unspoiled interest.

Crank Yankers brings back that juvenile feeling of nervous fun—and it's really a hilarious show. It's the creation of Jimmy Kimmel, Adam Carolla, and Daniel Kellison, the happy trio who turn out The Man Show (and who know a thing or two about playing mind games with callers). It's got that show's infectious confidence that it can do no wrong. And Crank Yankers may need that confidence to sell viewers on its elaborate concept. This is the best I can do by way of summary: It's a puppet show with a script based on the transcripts of actual crank calls. There's a city setting, Yankerville, and a repertory cast of puppet crank callers called the Yankers, who teletorture a changing cast of puppet marks (who seem, based on the frequent nose-face mismatches, to be made from pieces of earlier marks). The puppets look like seamy versions of Muppets; the show even makes the parallel explicit, featuring a lechy Kermit and a bitter Big Bird with a hacking cough. Generally, Yankerville and its inhabitants evoke the harsh, dirty comic worlds of BloomCounty, the Garbage Pail kids, and old-fashioned political cartoons in which candidates are drawn as outright monsters.

I have seen the first four episodes of the show, and I now have a changing list of my favorite calls. My first favorite call was placed by Hadassah Guberman, a lank-haired, fashiony Zionista with a room full of scented candles and a poster of Israel. She responds to a help-wanted ad for a nanny, and when the mother (of twins) answers the phone, Hadassah launches into a high-pitched list (in the famous Five Towns accent) of her own requirements for the job: a big TV, DVD, and a hot tub. "What do you need a hot tub for, if I've got twins?" the perplexed mother asks. "I don't know," Hadassah says, idly. "To wash them?"

Then she thinks for a minute. "I just get really stressed—I have high stress—and sometimes I need to soak." The way the pitch-perfect comic Sarah Silverman hits on the word "soak" is so unexpected; her voice falls at least an octave to a dark, almost villainous British accent. Silverman, like the best comics on Crank Yankers (Wanda Sykes, Kimmel himself), is tuned in to the fact that American accents may be less consistent than they were rendered in the golden age of mimicry, but their inconsistencies are themselves a source of humor.

In another call, large-living Spoonie Luv (voiced by Tracy Morgan) calls a flower shop and dictates a card to go with his bouquet. The female florist dutifully transcribes this love note (click here to see a video clip excerpt of the call):

Yo baby I love you
I love you more than you know
But you did me wrong
Give one dude a BJ shame on you
Give two dudes a BJ shame on me
If you think I can't get to you, you're wrong.
You ain't nothing but a stupid ho
You've always been a stupid ho
And you will always be a ho
Love always,
Your Teddy bear,

Spoonie

Spoonie Luv
Spoonie Luv 

When he's done, the sweet, accommodating florist inquires only, "S-P-O-O-N-Y?" Spoonie then tries to prod her into talking about BJs—he gets a little desperate to rope her in, a feeling I vividly recognized from my own crank days—but she refuses, meekly offering her suggestion for an alternative card that might read, "I'm sorry ... I love you."

Which brings me to what might be the show's greatest revelation: how astonishingly accommodating people in customer service can be! From the point of view of the show, cust-serv people are the perfect victims because they are paid to answer the phone and deal with problems. But they are also paid not to get emotionally involved. So the challenge for the actors becomes: Can they get a rise out of these people? Very often, the answer is no. The Yanker puppets dial up, telling a fast-food place that their chicken came with beaks in it ("I don't want it if it's going to be all beaky"); or a tow yard that their car has human shit in the back seat; or a tech help line that "I've got mail! I've got mail! I've got mail! I've got mail! I've got mail! YAY!!!" The service people are the model of composure—and even humor. Sometimes their subtle observations end up being the best parts of the skits, as is the tech guy's, "You got mail. Yes, you do."

It may be no surprise, then, that the very best call is one that—uncannily, almost suspiciously—came into the Crank Yankers writing headquarters. It's a wrong number dialed by someone looking for UPS. The Kimmel team kicks instantly into gear, trying to persuade the caller that a drunk, crack-smoking warehouse worker has burned up her package, which contained a diamond watch. Aghast, she gets passed around to various jokesters, who all play drunks on the job and who each keep telling her to relax. She can barely sputter out her anger. But only when she is silenced by one of the jokesters—"Don't be talking trash! Don't be talking trash! Don't be talking trash! I'm the supervisor"—does she totally lose it. She dresses the fake supervisor down with so much pure rage and precision of language that she steals the show back—for the people on the losing end of crank calls.