When Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in March 1876, he could have little envisaged the comedic uses that his long distance communication device would be put to. For with the coming of the telephone, from the very first days of its existence, arose the phenomenon that is the crank call, beloved of pranksters and practical jokers the world over.
For those with a sense of fun and mischief making, the telephone presented a world of possibilities, for what could provide more potential for amusement than phoning someone, while pretending to be someone else? The anonymity afforded the caller ensured the telephone soon became an instrument of devious intent, in addition to its more practical uses.
From the 1950s onwards, when telephone ownership increased dramatically in the United States, the crank call became something of a cultural phenomenon. Making crank calls, especially to well-known personalities, became part of mainstream comic routine, and a number of artists gained renown for their ability to outwit and non-plus unsuspecting victims.
Comedian and entertainer Jerry Lewis was well known among celebrity pranksters, and recordings of his crank calls became “must hear” items. In one memorable conversation he managed to convince an unsuspecting member of the public that he had won big in a competition he hadn’t even entered, while on another occasion, to the bemusement of a drug store employee, he played a hilariously inept telephone engineer.
Over the years, no one, it seems, has been immune to crank-callers. John Lennon, Bill Clinton, and even Queen Elizabeth II have all fallen foul of the crank callers’ art. One of the most notorious crank calls in history was made on 18 June 2003, when Joe Ferrero and Enrique Santos of radio station WXDJ-FM El Zol, Miami, successfully got through to Cuban president Fidel Castro.
The radio hosts had to negotiate their way through several conversations with advisors and undersecretaries, in order to get Castro on the line. They employed an ingenious technique, interspersing their own voices with that of real recordings of Hugo Chavez, leading Castro to believe he was conversing with the Venezuelan president. Just months before, the radio presenters had pulled the very same stunt on Chavez while pretending to be Castro.
Ferrero and Santos talked across one another and used repetition to great comic effect, deliberately confusing and disconcerting Castro. With Fidel sufficiently off guard, the disc jockeys then came out of character, asking the president if he agreed that he turned Cuba “to shit.” Castro immediately understood that he was the victim of a practical joke, and began a tirade of abuse against his tormentors.
The conversation, though short, has become legend among crank callers, and momentarily at least, propelled the two practical jokers to worldwide fame. For broadcasting the call, and instigating a scenario which resulted in airing bad language, Radio Zol picked up a $4000 fine: perhaps a price worth paying for an informal chat with one of the world’s last communist dictators.