Before the days of wireless phones, Caller ID, and *69, prank calls were the perfect source of pre-cell phone entertainment. Imagine the chaos created when calling someone’s house or business on their landline and pretending to be someone else (or worse, hanging up on them). And there was no one better at prank calls than The Jerky Boys. Childhood friends Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed turned prank calls into an absolute art, recording real conversations with unsuspecting people on the other end of the line — often with hilarious results, thanks to the many characters that Brennan and Kamal both invented and voiced.
And what characters they are. From the unforgettable Rank Rizzo (who has somewhat sketchy car sales techniques) to fan favorite Sol Rosenberg (who always needs to bring his glasses and his shoes with him) and Tarbash, the Egyptian Magician, anyone who heard the prank calls (often on bootleg cassettes, FYI) was doubled over at the insane antics of the two guys who grew up in Queens, NY.
Now, 20-something years (and one The Jerky Boys: The Movie later), The Jerky Boys still continue to be one of the most celebrated comedians and have achieved a cult status among longtime fans. So we were especially excited to sit down with Johnny Brennan, who has gone from being a Jerky Boy to an awesome Family Guy — literally.
As a kid, I would always soak up all the cultures and the voices from the neighborhoods I lived in. Greek, Spanish, you name it. I remember really loving it as a kid. My father had a good friend, and he was a gay guy — my father took care of him and he was a super nice guy. I just thought that he sounded different and amazing so I would practice the voice.
It started as me loving sounds, from music to voices, and then copying it. I play guitar and it’s the same principle. I pick up all these things by ear.
Was your father’s friend the impetus for Jack Tors?
Yes. And the character Sol Rosenberg was the impetus for Mort Goldman on Family Guy. I say he’s the long-lost cousin.
It’s funny how you went from a Jerky Boy to a Family Guy.
That’s a funny story. I’ve been with Family Guy since day one. Seth McFarland is a great guy; he was a fan from when he was young. Sol was just perfect and then Mort is a little more amped up, like he’s had too much caffeine. [laughs] So the characters I do on Family Guy are Mort Goldman and Horace the Bartender. I own the bar and Mort Goldman owns the pharmacy. I’ll also do cops and a lot of gay characters. It’s fun.
I remember the first time I heard The Jerky Boys. It was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before.
It was raw. That’s why the New York Times said it was the largest bootleg ever. When The Jerky Boys hit, people said it was like nothing else. This was before reality TV; it was viral back then. It was just people making cassettes to hand out. You didn’t have the computer or Internet, so it was just word of mouth. It sold millions of records and it went multiplatinum. It’s amazing; it was the first and only comedy record to hit #1 in Billboard magazine.
After all these years, it just gets better and better. It was done so innocently, and people tried for the last 15 years to copy it and they can’t do it because it’s so original. The truth is, I had nothing to do with the prank phone call.
Had you ever pranked before?
Never interested in it. My sister had a life-sized dummy, and I would dress this thing in my football gear. I would take it to the roof of the building in Astoria and I would wait for a car to come up the block and I’d throw it out in front of a car! One day I was doing this, and there was an old woman across the street. The ambulance came and they rushed her to the hospital because she had a heart attack. To this day, we say I hope that wasn’t me that caused that because that dummy was falling in the street and then got hit by a car.
Ack! Did the woman survive?
No, she passed away from a heart attack.
Oh my God.
Funny enough, that’s how I met Kamal. He was just a little kid; he was down the block when it happened. Everybody’s screaming, “You gotta see what happened up the block! Somebody jumped off the roof!”
How old were you at the time?
I was 12 and Kamal was about 6. It was funny how things came to be.
But that was my idea of pranking. The phone seemed silly; everybody and their mother could make prank phone calls. It wasn’t until years later that my father got me a reel-to-reel player. It had 5-6 different heads, and I would take matchbooks, block off the heads, and make different sounds with it. I would make up all these different characters and do all these skits and sound effects. And my father was like, “What’s that bastard doing in there?”
It wasn’t until years later when I was looking for an old pickup truck and I had the buy lines out. I had the boombox out and I had a really old, dilapidated speaker phone. It had a thing where you could raise the volume with your thumb, so I taped a pencil eraser on it to keep the volume loud. That’s how the very first recordings were made because I had to make something up to keep the volume up. People think I had all this elaborate wiring, and I didn’t. It was always rough. So when you hear Frank Rizzo calling the auto mechanic, there was no doctoring. I hit the button on the speaker phone and what you’re hearing in the open air is being recorded on the boom box. And that’s how it was done.
That day, I was home from work, and I just started going to town. I call a number for the auto mechanic, and the guy was like, “I don’t think you should speak to me like that,” and I want to work for this guy, and I’m saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow with my fucking tools, Fuckface.” When you think about it, it’s classic.
That is one of the funniest calls ever.
These were the voices I was doing when I was a little kid. I always knew they’d be great characters. Years later, I got them interacting with people from numbers from wherever.
But you didn’t think to do anything with the characters beyond the calls?
Never. I was just doing it so my brothers could hear it. I have a bunch of brothers who are younger than me; I’m the oldest, so I thought they’d get a kick out of it.
I never repeated myself either, by the way. I only did one auto mechanic, Sol’s eyeglasses, and these characters proved to be very true, and very funny. It was good when I had a person on the other end of the phone where I could act out a scene.
It is. People always ask me, “How do you not burst out laughing?” So for example, when Sol fell out of his chair and broke his legs, Sol fell out of his chair and broke his legs. When I’m doing this, I’m bending over the speaker phone, and I close my eyes. Whatever that person is going to say is going to guide me down the next little avenue I want to go down. You gotta think on your feet. In my mind, I’m seeing Sol on the floor and his legs are busted. It’s that way for all the characters.
I know who my favorites are, but who would you say are the fan favorites?
Frank and Sol for sure. Seth McFarland likes Mike Derucki, the unemployed painter character. The character that screams all the time and he works in a truck yard. And he’s like, “Watch his fucking legs!” When he’s talking, he’s screaming out these orders for the truck drivers.
Which is your favorite character?
My favorite character to do is Jack Tors. It’s hard and cool to get into. In fact, I just did a movie called A Mind of Its Own, and I have a feature role in the film as a talking penis. It’s a college kid who is at all kinds of odds with himself and my name is Rocco and I’m his talking penis. The director is a huge fan of mine. The whole movie I’m going to be doing a Frank Rizzo kind of voice. We had a lot of fun doing it. We wrapped that up a few weeks ago.
Do you have a favorite phone call?
If I had to pick one, I think I would say where Sol gets up and is looking for the chainsaw, and as he gets up, he trips over the dog. I love that because I built that particular call from the ground up. All I had in the room was an aluminum baseball bat and I’m kneeling on the rug so as I go to make the fall, I actually did it. I threw the bat on the floor with me at the same time. I love that call because it took me three days to build it. But I also love the Auto Mechanic and Sol’s glasses.
And then there are the iPhone apps.
I just did two apps for the iPhone and they’re killer. My daughter shows me the apps and you play them for a couple of minutes, and you’re done with it. There’s a Jerky Boys Pinball game and you can play with Frank, Sol, or play with all of them at the same time. Every time you lose a ball, you’re not going to get the same soundbite. So like Jack will say, “Oh you stupid bastard! You keep losing all these balls and I’m not going to play anymore.” Or it’ll be Frank, and he’ll say, “What the fuck?! You just lost another ball!”
Are you still doing calls?
I haven’t in a while because I’ve been busy, it’s been over a decade. Fans want to hear new stuff, so we’ll put one new bit out each month.
So let’s talk about family.
I met my wife in 86 and we’ve been together ever since. It’s been busy; one minute you’re doing crazy shit, but you don’t have anyone else to worry about, so you can act like a jackass. Not to say that I don’t act like a jackass anymore because I’m sure my kids will say that I do. But there are other things you’ve got to get done and taken care of.
It’s funny that the original Jerky Boy has two daughters.
It’s wild. They’re good kids, and they have great senses of humor. They’re funny as hell. We’re not the kind of parents like, “Cover your ears!” but we’re careful. Sometimes they’ll watch for Daddy but a lot of times, I’ll take them to the studio where I record so they can sit on the session to see how the process goes. As far as language, obviously, if it’s way over the top, we steer them clear of it. But at the end of the day, they know what I do because it’s my job.
When I was young, I used to do paint and art. I really loved doing it but then I moved onto something else. You try to do as much as you can, and you want to give something a try. That’s what I tell the kids, to try. You give them an opportunity. Victoria plays on a couple of softball teams and my little one has been pitching for a couple of years now. She’s a real gamer — she’s never foggy. When she’s on the field, she’s ready to attack. Victoria is the sweetest sunshine and Samantha is a great kid but she’s a handful. She’ll run you ragged.
That’s comeuppance, my friend.
That’s what my mom always says. It’s amazing how I never did go to jail. I did some wacky stuff in my day. I’m slightly tamer now. But my kids know what I do; they live with me every day. My kids are very funny; they’re like goofballs in their own way. They have a great sense of humor. My little one completely likes to screw with people, setting them up and seeing their reaction. And it’s funny because that’s what I did when I was a little kid. I would set up a situation and see how the person would react.
And living in upstate New York.
It’s great for the kids and they love it. it’s nice and quiet. Plus they can go race around on the quads, or play on the machine. As you can see ,this is rough land, pretty rocky. So I had to get that machine to fix what goes on here when we get heavy duty floods or rain. I can only move the boulders with the machine. You can actually hear them moving. Or when trees go down. You gotta have a machine like that to live in this area. It’s a nice balance, though. I get to do what I love and then have time with my family, too.