Like perhaps two-thirds of L.A., Junkyard Willie wants to be in movies. But unlike other aspiring egos, Willie isn’t even a real person. He‘s the audio-enhanced alter ego of a guy named RePete, who right now is standing in front of a microphone in his cavernous living room. He flips a switch on a Yamaha SPX-90II effects unit that’s patched into his phone line, and suddenly his white-boy tenor drops a couple of gravelly notes. Talking trash at Uzi speed, he sounds like Mr. T on antidepressants. Junkyard Willie‘s in the house.
On the other end of the phone line, an unsuspecting talent agent picks up. A prank call is in progress:
“I wanna be in movies,” Willie asserts. “Put me on the phone with Stephen Spielman.”
“There’s no Stephen Spielman here,” the woman answers, registering the jaded irritation of a veteran show-business gatekeeper.
“Listen, I work in a junkyard. I been shining hubcaps for 35 years. But the thing is, I wake up in the morning, I look in the mirror, it‘s like, ’Damn! I look good.‘ I am the Sexiest Man Alive!”
Sounds of protest are rendered inaudible by Willie’s booming baritone.
“I deserve to be in movies!”
“Bring us a picture,” the woman says.
“But I need to make myself some cash money so I can move to Beverly Hills, where I belong. I wanna be up there with Sandy Crawford and Tanya Banks, because they‘ll all be staring at my booty. I might be 200 pounds overweight and a belly that don’t quit, but I look good.”
Now she inevitably loses it:
“I don‘t give a shit how good you look! I don’t wanna handle you!”
Angry hang up.
Political correctness is obviously not an issue with RePete, which is clearly one reason why Howard Stern is a fan. RePete‘s four CDs of prank calls, recorded under his show-biz nom de plural, “Touchtone Terrorists,” have notched heavy airplay on Stern’s nationally syndicated broadcast. Comedy Central has also discovered the impolitic rantings of Junkyard Willie, incorporating some of his more hilarious bits into several episodes of Crank Yankers, a series that features puppet re-enactments of recorded prank calls.
This month, RePete released his fourth and latest CD, The Junkyard Willie Prank Call Tapes, through his independent label, Infestation Records. And he recently held auditions for an independent feature film he‘s written based on Willie’s prank-calling adventures.
“Pete‘s a demented genius,” says Daniel Kellison, co-creator of Crank Yankers. Kellison says he called Howard Stern producer Gary Dell A’Bate looking for advice on where to find great prank callers. RePete was at the top of the list. “Everyone has their calling in life — no pun intended,” Kellison says. “And Pete‘s is to make great prank phone calls. He’s the Picasso of prank callers.”
With endorsements like that, who needs “Stephen Spielman”?
When he‘s not haranguing talent agents as a junkyard ingenue or infuriating Bible Belt auto mechanics as Jim Bob, an inbred hillbilly from “Gator’s Creek, Georgia,” RePete is actually 37-year-old Pete Dzoghi, an audio engineer and Pacific Palisades homeowner. Standing under the open beams of his sparsely furnished house, wearing crisp black shorts and sneakers, he doesn‘t much resemble a “performance terrorist.” In fact, the only thing even remotely anti-Palisadian about him is the rocker hair — a holdover from his metal-guitar days in L.A. bar bands. Though he says he now cringes when he listens to the tapes of his old music, the period wasn’t a complete bust: It inspired another of his half-dozen phone personas, the perennially fried rock-star-wannabe, Blade (multiple vomit sound effects are programmed into his digital sampler).
RePete found his performance niche in the mid-1990s, after plugging away for a dozen years in various local bands. Inspired by the Tube Bar Tapes — an infamous series of prank-call assaults on a volatile bartender named Red — RePete bought a cheap Radio Shack recorder and went to work. “I was getting burnt out on music, and I had so many ideas for prank calls,” he says, doffing his earphones and switching off the rack-mounted audio equipment that dominates his living room. “I wanted to do prank calls with believable characters. So I came up with Willie. He started out as a kind of low-key, mellow guy, but then I figured, Willie‘s gotta have an attitude, like Don King, or Mr. T. I used to watch The A-Team, so I think some of Mr. T rubbed off on me.”
His alter egos may be comic stereotypes, but they’re drawn with elaborate detail and continuity — even interacting with one another in some calls, as when Willie alternately defends Jim Bob against angry callers or bashes his handicapped buddy‘s head with an airplane hubcap. That attention to character and detail is what sets RePete apart from better-known, albeit lesser, pranksters like the Jerky Boys. That and a degree of invention that pushes an admittedly adolescent art form to new levels of hysterics — or alarm, depending on which side of the phone you’re on. Take, for example, the “inbound prank call,” one of RePete‘s most amazing phone stunts.
“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.”
“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?”
“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!”