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November 6, 2011 9:37 AM   Subscribe

A GRAVE JOKE ON UNDERTAKERS — Some malicious wag at Providence, R.I. has been playing a grave practical joke on the undertakers there, by summoning them over the telephone to bring freezers, candlesticks and coffin for persons alleged to be dead. In each case the denouement was highly farcical, and the reputed corpses are now hunting in a lively manner for that telephonist.
Paul Collins uncovers the birth of the prank call.

Photo of the notice in the Electrical World magazine from 1884.
Google books link for the full publication.
posted by Horace Rumpole (28 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
heh.. they did one of those jokes in The Wire.
posted by empath at 9:47 AM on November 6, 2011


Paul Collins is excellent at uncovering the story behind things I didn't know I needed to know. I'm a retired Prankcallologist and longtime aficionado of the art, but I've never really seen anything tracing it's roots.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:00 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well obviously the undertaker was looking for I. C. Weiner.
posted by Talez at 10:08 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow - the "Scream like a chicken" prank call bit was one of my favorite Dick Van Dyke Show scenes - I had no idea that it had prankster provenance.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:17 AM on November 6, 2011


No more could they dial the bowling alley to ask if they had 15-pound balls; never again would plaster contractors receive calls to fix a crack in the Mayyas household.

During sleepovers we'd call and ask the guy if he had big balls or small balls, and then of course collapse into a flurry of giggles.
posted by empatterson at 10:34 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know what would make the crank call relevant once again? Puppets.
posted by Naberius at 10:58 AM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


...the reputed corpses are now hunting in a lively manner for that telephonist.

"We have detemined the rascal is none other than a surgeon of note, one H. West"
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:01 AM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


I like the way the Chicago Zoo responded to the calls for Mr. Lyon -- they played a recording of a lion's roar. That seems to be more in the spirit of April 1st than just shutting off the phone, like the killjoy Bronx Zoo did....
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:06 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ok, I feel bad about how vague this is, but I know I've read or heard this story about some fine old-timey gent who bet another that he could get any address onto the front page of the paper in a week. The second guy accepted, and picked some random house somewhere. So the first guy goes and sets up hundreds of deliveries to arrive on the same day, like, piano tuners, and meat deliveries, and carpet cleaners, etc. etc. Which gets the place on the front page of the newspaper, and wins the bet.

I thought this was Victorian times, but I don't remember the story well enough to find where I heard it first.
posted by graventy at 11:42 AM on November 6, 2011


Obligatory List of Simpsons Prank Calls.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:01 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Graventy, you are thinking of the Berners Street Hoax.

which also would have been better with puppets
posted by Naberius at 12:09 PM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


Ah, thanks Naberius! I suppose that doesn't count as prank calls because of the lack of call, but I think the spirit is completely there.
posted by graventy at 12:13 PM on November 6, 2011


"Hello, this is Bell Telephone repair service. We're calling from on top a telephone pole in your neighborhood. If you could do us a big favor: it's really dangerous working so close to the power lines and if we're not careful, electricity could jump to the phone circuits and electrocute my partner and me. Whatever you do, don't answer your phone for at least the next hour. Okay? Thanks!"

(Call back 15 minutes later. When they answer, scream and make zapping noises)
posted by hal9k at 12:21 PM on November 6, 2011 [11 favorites]


never again would plaster contractors receive calls to fix a crack in the Mayyas household.

Can someone explain this one? Is Mayyas pronounced "my ass"?
posted by zamboni at 12:34 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is Mayyas pronounced "my ass"?

Something something butt of the joke. (Yes.)
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:48 PM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


What exactly would a "freezer" that an undertaker would bring be in 1884? I'd hazard a guess it's something that would help keep the body cold, but what would that actually be? I can't imagine portable refrigeration techonology to have been very advanced at that time, so, uh, would it be ice?

These are obviously important background details.
posted by tykky at 12:57 PM on November 6, 2011


Something something butt of the joke. (Yes.)

I think zamboni would have preferred a helpful and polite answer rather than a bit of cheek.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:23 PM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think zamboni would have preferred a helpful and polite answer rather than a bit of cheek.

It took us a while, but we are capable of putting a smart ass answer like that behind us.
posted by zamboni at 2:48 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can we talk about how the defunct magazine link is unreadable because of their insane flash format? It took me awhile before I even figured out that there was even anything to read.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 2:58 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was kind of hoping we wouldn't.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:04 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


It took us a while, but we are capable of putting a smart ass answer like that behind us.

Like a Wisconsin farm, this thread is getting a whiff of dairy air.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:18 PM on November 6, 2011


Like the wet plate triptych that went with the article, too bad they didn't give credit to the photographer.
posted by squeak at 4:44 PM on November 6, 2011


So, Providence gave the world the prank call, Cthulhu, and Yankee Doodle Dandy... good job, Providence!
posted by Kattullus at 4:54 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yankee Doodle Dandy

Well, only sort of....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:16 PM on November 6, 2011


I like the way the Chicago Zoo responded to the calls for Mr. Lyon -- they played a recording of a lion's roar.

The Como Park Zoo in St. Paul has a history of doing this on 4/1, too. Which is great, because I've gotten a lot of mileage ....I mean, people have gotten a lot of mileage out of this old gag over the years.

It works especially well when you have a Mr. Fox on staff where you work.
posted by gimonca at 5:19 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


too bad they didn't give credit to the photographer.

There's a Featured Artist link on the main page that credits Noah Doely.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:38 PM on November 6, 2011


Thanks Horace!

I searched, honest.
posted by squeak at 8:24 PM on November 6, 2011


The various Newton families in my local calling area could probably pick me out of a voice lineup based on our shared conversations many years ago. As could the proprietors of the various furniture stripping establishments. And the zoo. And the Zoo Bar. Prank calling was one of the few activities I and my siblings could do without fighting after 10 minutes.

Absolutely love the morbid turn these early prank calls took.
posted by Fezboy! at 3:26 PM on November 7, 2011


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