I first caught this program on Comedy Central when they ran a mini-marathon of all previous episodes. I had seen the commercials for the show, but had dismissed it because I couldn’t imagine that puppets making prank phone calls could contain even one ounce of humor or entertainment value. Still, largely by accident, I watched with initial skepticism on that fateful day, and now I am convinced: this is one helluva show. For those not familiar with the premise, the show takes actual phone calls made by the show’s staff and acts them out with an assortment of strange puppets. The puppets are, quite frankly, the main reason to watch the show, for I doubt the calls would be as funny without them (try listening to the show with your eyes closed and you’ll see what I mean). These puppets are often grotesque caricatures of various racial and ethnic groups, but they are by no means “offensive” (whatever that means); they are, however, hilarious.
The puppets that place the phone calls are named Spoonie Love, Special Ed (yes, a retarded puppet who can only scream “Yeeeaaaa!” into the phone), Tony DeLoge, Dick Birchum, and others. They are voiced by Jimmy Kimmel, Adam Carolla, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan, and many more. Most of the calls are of the Jerky Boys variety (unreasonable customers, outraged clerks, etc.), but the calls are enhanced not only by the intricate detail of the puppets themselves, but also the background scenery. For example, in one call placed to a sex chat line, the cubicle of the “hostess” is lined with signs that say “Don’t forget to work the balls” and “Tell them how wet you are.” In a sexual products warehouse, dozens of dildos pass by on an assembly line without any reference made to them. A loud politician’s headquarters features a campaign poster that states “Putting minorities in their place,” while the campaign commercial that preceded the call talks of the Congressman’s support for “midgets as meat.” Highbrow humor it is not, but it does manage to be insensitive, bawdy, and politically incorrect, which is saying quite a bit in this age of safe, market-tested television.
In a way, it is fitting that the show act as a lead-in for South Park on Sunday evenings (Crank Yankers comes on at 10:00 PM Pacific Time), for both shows push the envelope of good taste and “appropriate” material for television. Perhaps I have not done the show justice, but I would recommend watching it at least a few times. This past Sunday (July 14) the show was not up to the standard set the previous week (actually, the laughs were noticeably absent), but don’t let one sub-par episode scare you away. When the show is mean and uncompromising (as it is whenever the calls are to a phony shipping company that callers believe is UPS), it is quite hysterical. It is also amazing to hear how unbelievably patient many callers are in the face of such rudeness and offensive language. While most unsuspecting victims fly into a rage and even threaten bodily harm, it is strange to see how many unflinchingly insist on doing their jobs (and maintaining a professional level of customer service in the process).
Once again, Crank Yankers will not revolutionize television, nor will it make any lists of the best shows on the air. It is by turns childish, inane, and crude. Still, it is fearless (the episode featuring a phone sex call from a deaf boy and his interpreter is as wild – and funny – as it gets) and is certainly a pleasurable way to spend thirty minutes once a week. I hope future episodes capture the madness of the initial run, and I will certainly ride out the remainder of the season. But when we have a show that openly and unapologetically mocks the retarded, the deaf, the elderly, as well as a host of “untouchable” racial groups, we might be onto something quite revolutionary – the ability to laugh at ourselves once again.