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The Merry Prankster 

How a performance terrorist found his calling

Wednesday, Sep 18 2002

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“You go and lease 800 numbers from the phone company,” he explains, “and point them to the same phone line. Come Monday morning the phone’s ringing off the hook with people dialing the wrong 800 number.” By the time RePete figures out which business the misdialers are (repeatedly) trying to reach, Willie, Jim Bob, Blade and company are ready to field the calls. And, naturally, the customer is always wrong, as in this exchange from the third CD, Customer Service Disasters:

“Yeah, this is Willie, can I help you?”

“Yes,” says a young-sounding woman. “I‘m trying to track a package that was supposed to be delivered to my sister.”

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“When was it supposed to get there?”

“It was supposed to get there on the 17th. But they didn’t make their first attempt until the 20th.”

“Yeah, well, whose fault is that?”

Stunned silence.

“Three days late,” Willie continues. “You shoulda sent it sooner.”

“I sent it on the 13th.”

“You shoulda sent it on the 10th, then. Now whose fault is that?”

“It‘s not my fault!”

“Oh, come on. That’s your fault, not ours. You dreamin‘ if you think it was gonna get there on the 13th. You shoulda sent it sooner.”

After being transferred several times to “Blade, the operator,” and “Jim Bob, the supervisor,” who adds fuel to the conversational burn by calling the customer “a dang varmint,” her now-furious husband gets on the line. The call plunges into the hilariously surreal when the husband -- himself nursing a south-of-Mason-Dixon accent -- informs Jim Bob that he is recording the call, and Jim Bob protests, saying, “I didn’t give you permission to tape me.” Of course, Jim BobRePete is already recording the call himself.

Amazingly, RePete later got permission from these unwitting collaborators to include their “performance” on CD. That particular call also turned up recently on Crank Yankers.

“I‘ve got a really good success rate getting permission from the angry callers,” he says. “I have a detective do a reverse telephone search for their address, and then I send them a letter explaining everything. Usually, about 60 percent of them respond.”

In return for permission to include the call on one of his CDs, RePete typically pays the deceived caller a fee. On the latest CD, the going rate was “no less than $200 per caller,” he says. “If they got really angry, I pay more. If they said anything about calling the police or ’I‘m gonna send my lawyer after you,’ that knocks it up another hundred dollars. Usually, they are relieved to find out it‘s just a joke.”

Others haven’t been so forgiving. Earlier this year, UPS sicced its lawyers on RePete. In a series of cease-and-desist letters, the King & Spalding law firm in New York demanded that the prankster stop “intercepting andor diverting phone calls intended for our client.” They also insisted that he yank two of his four CDs -- ones containing calls intended for UPS -- from the market and send them “to us for destruction.”

When asked about the letters, Thomas Curtin, an attorney at King & Spalding, told the L.A. Weekly, “Our firm will have no comment on that matter.”

Crank Yankers producer Kellison says Comedy Central isn‘t worried about having aired two of RePete’s shipping-company prank calls. “Our legal counsel at Comedy Central feels confident that, as parody, this is protected speech.”

After four CDs, RePete feels he‘s taken the art of the prank call as far as he can. Consequently, he says, he won’t be recording another CD. And, he adds, he isn‘t about to let UPS give his back catalog the Fahrenheit 451 treatment. “I’ll send them my CDs after they send me all their brown trucks so I can drive them off a cliff.”

In the meantime, RePete is refining a script for a movie he hopes to make based on Willie and Jim Bob‘s exploits at a fictional shipping company he calls “UPX.” He slips into Jim Bob’s costume -- a brown cap and shirt featuring the UPX logo and a pair of oversize Coke-bottle glasses -- then contorts his mouth into an Old Chicken--saturated scowl. “This four-eyed hillbilly gonna own Hollywood!” he sputters. “And Stephen Spielman can kiss my country ass!”

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