Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020
The Jerky Boys’ Johnny Brennan on Crank Calls, Howard Stern, Seth MacFarlane, and His New Record
Dec 23, 2020
By Jake Uitti
If you throw on any one of the early tapes from The Jerky Boys, odds are you’re going to have several immediate reactions. The original pioneers of crank phone calls, first, are brash, shocking and, yet, funny. At other times, though, you may bristle or find yourself putting your hand over your mouth in astonishment. The tapes, which were created by the loud-talking comedian, Johnny Brennan, do create surprise and alarm. But not always in the ways you might assume. If you listen closely, Brennan is often being self-deprecating. The joke is on him or his character (which, admittedly, gets a bit murkier). But while the tapes aren’t necessarily for everyone, they sure have been popular over the decades ever since The Jerky Boys’ first official release in 1993. Ever since, The Jerky Boys have sold millions of records. We caught up with Brennan to talk about creating the idea, the many characters that appear in his skits, and what it was like making his first Jerky Boys album in two-plus decades, The Jerky Boys: Balloon Animals, which came out in November.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): Do you remember your first prank and what motivated it? Were you a trickster or edgy or even angry as a kid?
Johnny Brennan: I don’t remember my first, per se. I mean, I was always a ball-buster. And that’s kind of how it started. My personality was always one—since I was just a small child, I just loved fucking with people and doing things to get reactions out of people. So, that was always my M.O. Always just being a wise-ass and being a prankster kind of thing. But it was more physical stuff [at first]. It was never really—you know, the phone thing, it was just a happy miracle, you could say. Or a happy accident. But that was really not what I was into. But it was perfect for what I was doing.
When I was a kid in, like, middle school, I would get “class clown” or “best sense of humor. So, I know what that impulse or tendency is like.
Yes, yes. And actually in all my yearbooks, all the way down to when you’re just a little kid in grade school, they always said, Johnny Brennan is comedy. You know, I always got the class clown, the class cut-up, you know?
Do you have a favorite character from your career? And I know you’ve voiced Mort in Family Guy. But is there a favorite character or persona you do?
Yes, I do. I love doing all my characters. But really I enjoy, it’s really very enjoyable when I do Jack Tors, my gay character. That is probably one of my favorite characters to actually do. Because he’s so colorful. Jack is so colorful and I get to be lots of things all wrapped up in one, you know? You get to be a whole bunch of different things. So it’s a very interesting character to do.
What was it like for you to be discovered and featured by Howard Stern early on in your career?
Howard was actually very instrumental in catapulting the whole Jerky Boys. My tapes were on the streets for years, you know? Going back to the ’70s, ’80s. It was about somewhere about in the mid-’80s. Maybe ’84 or ’85 that Howard Stern got a hold of the tapes and started playing them. He said, “This is the funniest thing I ever heard in my life, if anybody knows who this Frank Rizzo guy is, please, call into the show! I got to know who this guy is!” And Howard started playing the shit out of it and it was his favorite thing to listen to. And I actually did Howard’s show three or four times. And Howard was great. He was a big fan and he loved, just loved it. He thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. As a matter of fact, Howard still plays my stuff on a daily basis.
Did you ever hear it? Were you ever in a taxi and heard him play you on the radio?
Yeah, that happened a lot. I mean, I didn’t even know it until people started telling me. People started saying things. It was at a family reunion up in Wurtsboro, New York. And it was about 1985 and my cousins are all coming up to me and they’re like, “Johnny, man, that stuff that you’re doing for Joey and Anthony and Jason.” Those were my brothers—I was doing a lot of this stuff inside for the family. And on the weekends we’d play it and we’d have fun with it. You know, that’s going way, way, way back. And I said, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “Oh, at my college, at my college!” Some of them were in college in Buffalo and some of them were in college in Florida. And they’re like, “Johnny, your stuff is all over the place!” And that’s when I started to be more aware and pay attention and then I heard it on the radio all the time.
Do you ever feel remorse for making someone feel flustered or giving them the wrong impression of reality?
No, not at all. You see, if you listen carefully through my stuff all down through the years, I’ve never, ever gone into this with a mean-spirited attitude. I’m not mean-spirited, I’m not a mean-spirited person. I don’t want to hurt people for no reason. What you’re getting is my character—let’s say, Frank Rizzo, okay? And Frank Rizzo is just very, very brash. He comes off—he’s always talking, he’s like a dragon, he’s always spittin’ fire. But if you listen closely, Frank Rizzo is more about shit that’s going on with him and stuff that he wants and stuff that he needs. And he’s not really there to hurt the person on the other end of the phone. More or less, I’d say he’s there to shock them.
You’ve sold tons of albums along the way. What does that success and that response from your fans mean to you?
All I can think about with that is that it’s something that definitely changed the world, as far as comedy goes. As far as comedy goes, it’s like nothing that ever happened before. Because it’s a very different form of comedy. It’s more like shock, it’s fun. It’s like voyeurism, you get to listen in to somebody getting their ass handed to them. And it’s not always the case. A lot of times—here, I get a doctor on the phone, an eye-doctor. And it’s [my character talking] Sol Rosenberg and people just enjoy listening to this poor little fucker, you know, his eyes are going crazy. And he’s trying to tell the doctor. Or he’s at a basketball game and he asked somebody to sit down because he couldn’t see and they beat the shit out of him and he’s laying in a puddle of his own blood and piss. So, you know, the stories are self-deprecating and that’s where my sense of humor comes, when the characters just go on and on about silliness and absurdity. I think the fans have grown over the years to love and enjoy that wacky absurdness.
The Jerky Boys did change comedy. And given that, what is your relationship to other shows like Crank Yankers or Punk’d?
Yes, well it’s very clear to see over the years everybody and their mother who are biting off The Jerky Boys and all these shows that you got on TV, you know, Practical Jokers and all these guys. These are all people, they’re all—it’s been going on for decades. Radio DJs all over the country biting off The Jerky Boys. Howard Stern said it best, he said, “There never will be another Jerky Boys. That’s a once in a lifetime deal.” And I totally agree with him, I totally agree with him. Funny enough, Jimmy Kimmel actually called me at my house many years ago and asked me to be part of Crank Yankers. And he actually wanted me to take that whole thing and make it kind of like a Jerky Boys deal. But it was not the same. It’s not The Jerky Boys, it’s not—you know, a lot of it, they bring in guys to read. And it’s all bull crap. So, I said, “Well, jeez, if I do that—you know, I don’t want ever to look back and my fans to say, well, is that what he did with The Jerky Boys, too?” So I said no, no. So, The Jerky Boys, it stands on it’s own. And [Family Guy creator] Seth MacFarlane said it best. He said, “Johnny, I’ll tell you. I was listening today on the way into work and the guy in the car next to me must have thought I was fucking nuts. I was literally pissing myself in the car. I’m telling you right now, this is the funniest thing I ever heard in my life. It’s fucking timeless!”
How do you go about keeping a call going or know when to hang up? How many calls does it take to get a keeper track for a record?
Well, I’ve told this story over all these years and I’ve been very lucky. When I set out to make a record, I sit down—the one that comes to mind very quickly is The Jerky Boys 2. I just remember the record company said, “Look, we gotta go! We gotta go! We got to follow up number one, we need another record!” So, I remember just sitting down and I needed to get probably about fifteen or twenty calls. And I just did fifteen or twenty calls. And that’s it. There might have been a few left over. I might have put them on The Jerky Boys 3. But for the most part I just did what I needed when I needed it and that’s it, it went onto the record.
Another good example—this is what I’m talking about. When I signed with Comedy Dynamics, this new record label I’m on for the brand new record, when I signed with these guys, I didn’t have a single track in the can. Not one. Over all these years, I didn’t have a single track that I could use. So, I didn’t have a single track, period. So, I had to create all these tracks. That’s why I said it’s the first album in almost twenty-five years where I had to sit down like a traditional Jerky Boys record. It didn’t exist before hand. So, I had to make it. That’s what this brand new album is. The Jerky Boys: Balloon Animals. It’s funny, the title’s not on the record because I didn’t want to ruin Sean Taggart’s artwork. If you look at the cover, it’s fucking brilliant. He always does a phenomenal job. A famous artist. Just a great guy.
Why did you release this album 20 years later? And are prank calls harder today than when you started?
To answer the second question, absolutely. Definitely harder, much harder. Because today everybody and their fucking mother is waiting around to be pranked. Because, you see, they flooded the market with all these idiotic prank shows and all these dopey-ass, half-ass, you know, prank this and prank that. Quite honestly, it gets annoying to just hear the word “prank.” Because they just flooded the shit out of everything. So, it’s much harder and it was just long overdue. I’ve had so many people over the years asking me, “Johnny, please, man. We’re dying for more material. We’re dying for another record.” Even Seth MacFarlane has been asking me over the last couple of decades, “Johnny, man. It would be great if you’d just get in studio, we’d love to hear it, oh my god!” Because Seth used to take my records into the writer’s room at Family Guy. They’d play the shit out of my records and it would inspire and they’d come up with anecdotes and a lot of good stuff.
What does New York City mean to you today, as a lifelong resident?
You know, New York City will always bounce back. It always has. It always has and it always will. You get people who come in and try to destroy it and do whatever they do and—you know, but again, New York is very resilient. It’s going through some changes right now but it will always be the great town that it is. That’s where I was born and raised, in New York City. You know, it’s my home. But, like I said, it’s still a place that l love. I’ve been around a while and I’ve seen it go through lots of changes and it always gets right back up on its feet.
What is your relationship with The Jerky Boys co-founder, Kamal Ahmed?
Well, there is no co-founder. I created The Jerky Boys. The Jerky Boys was always—it’s something that I created when I was a little kid. Kamal joined and came with me back in 1992-93-ish when we went on to make records for Atlantic. And he quit not long after. He split in ’97 and didn’t want any part of it. So, there was nothing that I could do. We’re grown men. There is nothing that I could do. He wanted to go make movies and write and be a director and stuff. So, I’m not going to stop him and that’s what he wanted to do. So, I wished him all the best. That was his choice.
What have you learned about yourself from being on the phone so often?
It’s funny, I never liked listening to my voice back or liked listening to skits or the things that I did back. I’m sure a lot of people feel that. It’s always funny to hear your own voice or watch yourself on film. You kind of feel uncomfortable. But I’ve learned to overcome that. Because I’ve seen how much it means to the fans. I started doing these live shows now. I’m doing one on this Friday, a live virtual show in Gotham Comedy Club in New York. But like I said, I’ve been doing these live shows now right before COVID, at least, with 200-300 people in a room. And I see how much they really enjoy when I do the characters and when I do play the skits and they listen to the skits in front of me. Just not long ago, a few years back, I raced cars and stuff like that and we’d be at the race tracks and friends or other race drivers would be playing my skits in their trailers. And if I walked by it was, “Johnny, come on in, let’s grab a beer, we’re listening to your stuff!” But I’d be very, very uncomfortable. I used to feel uncomfortable. But now when I do these live shows, I see what it means to people and it means the world to them. So, I started to learn to just be more comfortable with it. It’s something I created, it’s something that I did. And millions of people around the world love it. So, why—so, I’m starting after all these years to accept it and just relax and enjoy it.