by Kathy M. Newman

The newest offering from Comedy Central this summer, Crank Yankers, is a show about an underworld of raunchy puppets that looks like a cross between Sesame Street and inner-city Detroit. The puppets have foul tempers, sex addictions and hearing problems, but, most important, they like to make (and receive) crank calls.

Crank Yankers is the latest production of "Jackhole Industries," a TV production company owned in part by The Man Show mastermind Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel used to make prank calls as a kid, and then again when he worked as a DJ in Tampa (WQYK-FM). On Crank Yankers the calls are "real" in the sense that real comedians call real unsuspecting people and the calls are recorded. The callees must give their permission for the call to be used on the show, and, once it is granted the calls are "re-enacted" by puppets.

Sample calls include one in which a woman complains to a tow-company that she found a giant turd on her back seat after she picked up her car. This was one of the best calls on the show; the tow-manager, who was irate at first, started to relish the absurdity of the accusation. Towards the end of the call he asked her to bring her car back so they could compare the turds of the different tow-truck drivers and catch the culprit.

In a call with more of a political edge the comedian Tracy Morgan (from Saturday Night Live) called a private country club in the character of "Spoonie Luv" -- a smooth-talking R & amp; B kind of brother. He tries to get a "tee time" to play golf. The club manager tells him he has to be a member to play golf there. Spoonie Luv then tries to become a member, and the club manager tells him that he must be sponsored by a member. After several calls like this Spoonie Luv calls back using a "white" voice and gets treated better -- but only marginally. Spoonie Luv then tells the club manager "I got you, I got you." The club manager, who probably was a racist but did not necessarily come across as one during the call, replies, "You do?"

One of the most compelling aspects of Crank Yankers is that the ordinary people on whom the jokes are being played -- auto mechanics, secretaries, phone-sex operators, hotel managers, etc. -- are usually incredibly nice, even when the prank callers are vomiting, using profanity and screaming about giant turds. The ultimate nice guy was a sex-shop clerk who pretended to work in a pizza place when the caller's mother picked up the phone and said she was hungry for Italian.

With the anachronistic Saturday morning cartoon setting, the prank calls on Crank Yankers seem to belong to another, weirdly more innocent era. Prank phone calls did not enter into the popular discourse until the 1950s when hepcat radio DJs like Wolfman Jack made prank calls over the air, and Steve Allen made them from his television show. In the 1980s, the Jerkie Boys became one of the more infamous crank call teams, and, today, because it is still largely an underground phenomenon, recordings of cranks calls circulate around the world with the help of the Internet and an online magazine devoted to the topic called Prantagonize.

There is something clearly hostile about the prank call; it is a joke literally at the expense of another person. But it is too easy to dismiss Crank Yankers as contributing to what The New York Times has called the new "culture of meanness." The underground world of crank call fanatics is uniquely generous and connected. At another level the crank call is such an old-fashioned, almost harmless prank, that it is hard to get worked up about crank calls when the real pranksters -- companies like MCI World Com and Enron -- are engaging in high level hi-jinks that are costing ordinary Americans their jobs, their pensions and their trust in the economy.

Which leads me to my last point. Crank Yankers actually reveals a new "culture of kindness." The service workers who receive the calls made by Crank Yankers are remarkably helpful. These calls, ironically, serve as a reminder that the desire to help people and do a good job is still alive and well in America -- at least when it comes to the little people. Crank Yankers is uniquely democratic; while the joke is on the little people, it is one of the few shows on TV in which the little people are represented at all. n

Crank Yankers shows on Comedy Central on Wednesdays and Sundays at 10:30 pm.

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