The Long Life (and Slow Death?) of the Prank Phone Call

The classic trick is almost as old as the phone itself, but it may have to make room for new technologies.

H. Armstrong Roberts / Corbis

Only a rube or possibly an alien would pick up an unknown phone call, hear the question “Is your refrigerator running?” and answer in the affirmative. And so only the luckiest of amateur mischief-makers would get the satisfaction of getting to drop the “Well, you better go catch it!” before cackling away into the sunset.

And yet, amazingly, this doesn’t seem to be the oldest trick in the book when it comes to telephone pranks. In her 1976 paper “Telephone Pranks: A Thriving Pastime,” Trudier Harris reports that people “over 50 years old” remembered the old refrigerator gag, which, if they pulled it as teens, means it could’ve been around in the 1930s or earlier.

But other corny jokes were also around before the ‘30s, according to another paper, ones like:

“This is May.”
“May who?”

Most middle-class families had home phones by the 1920s or so, according to Claude Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. And in the early days of the residential telephone, it was taken very seriously, as a tool for serious business, and so “children could trick unsuspecting adults fairly easily,” writes Marilyn Jorgensen in her paper “A Social-Interactional Analysis of Phone Pranks.”

And in an article for Defunct, Paul Collins writes about a prank from 1884 (just eight years after the first-ever telephone call), reportedly chronicled in Electric World magazine thusly:

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 coffins 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

From then to now, most people have tended to make prank calls during a brief window of adolescence. The few studies on prank calls that exist estimate that the pastime is most popular among kids from ages 11 to 14 or 15. In her 1973 paper “Telephone Pranks,” the folklorist Norine Dresser writes that the pranks “serve several social needs” for kids that age. The calls are almost always made in groups, her survey found, so there’s a bonding element, and “the caller becomes the center of attention among his peers.”

Dresser, Jorgensen, and Harris all note that a prank call also serves as a sort of low-stakes rebellion, a chance to embarrass the adults that usually have power over them. “Telephone pranks serve … as a means of releasing hostility and frustration with a minimum risk of retaliation,” Dresser writes.

There are several classic forms this can take. Perhaps the most well-known is the “catch question,” à la “Is your refrigerator running?” A few others:

“Hello. Is John in the house?”
“Where do you go then? In the sink?”

“Is Frank Walls there?”
“Is Pete Walls there?”
“Are there any Walls there?”
“Then what’s holding up the roof?”

[Calling a store:]

“Do you have pop?”
“Send him home; Mom wants him.”

These questions often rely on puns. “There is also a certain amount of linguistic delight in discovery,” Harris writes. “Pranksters become aware of the power of words in unusual or different contexts.”

In another common genre of phone prank, the caller pretends to be from the telephone company and tries to get the answerer to do something, like blow in the phone to “fix” it.

In one variation, the caller warns them not to answer the phone for 15 minutes “because if they do, the telephone repairman will receive a fatal shock,” as one survey respondent told Harris.  Then the prankster calls over and over again in the next 15 minutes, “and if they answer let go a blood curdling scream.”

“In executing the [telephone company] prank, he is able to assume a position of authority … make demands … and have the majority of these demands carried out,” Harris writes. This is probably particularly satisfying for kids, who usually carry out adults’ demands.

In fact, in the early days of the phone, the pranksters sometimes were telephone-company employees. When Bell Telephone first started back in 1878, the company hired teen boys to be its operators, thinking they’d make for cheap, energetic labor. And they did, but as my colleague Megan Garber wrote in 2014:

They also regularly played practical jokes on those customers. The boys disconnected calls as they were still taking place. They purposely crossed lines so that strangers would suddenly find themselves talking to each other. Bell's chief engineer ended up referring to the boys as "Wild Indians."

The boys were ultimately fired—this is partly why women ended up working as telephone operators in a time before it was common for them to work outside the home.

This is not to say adults never prank call. I’m thinking mostly of morning show radio hosts whose pranks are often curdled into meanness—trying to catch people in the act of cheating, and the like. Although it seems most such calls may be faked these days for legal reasons. (Even a fairly silly one—a contest promising “100 Grand” that ended with the winner receiving the candy bar instead of cash—ended in a lawsuit accusing the radio station of deception. Safer just to hire actors.) And some comedians such as the Jerky Boys and guests on the former Comedy Central show Crank Yankers have relied on the prank call for laughs.

But generally it seems as kids grow up, the needs these prank calls served tend to dissipate, and they leave the jokes behind for the next generation of puberty-flustered youngsters to discover.

“As the caller grows toward that adult world, his need to revile it diminishes, and as he becomes secure in his own identity, his need to have it affirmed by peers also diminishes,” Harris writes.

And if kids don’t realize they are part of a grand telephonic tradition, and think this is the first time anyone has ever come up with their particular brilliant scheme, they may not get the payoff they’re hoping for.

Apparently on April 1, 1982, phone operators in Apple Valley, Minnesota “finally got tired of all of those April Fool’s calls asking for Mr. Lyon or Mr. Wolfe or for one of their furry or feathered friends,” Jorgensen writes. “So switchboard operators at the Minnesota Zoological Garden handled such calls in the following manner: Requests to speak to Don Key were answered by, ‘Sorry, he joined a Republican Zoo.’ Calls for G. Raffe were responded to by saying he was ‘out necking,’ and for Buffy Lo the operators reported that he was indisposed while ‘making chips.’”

But by the 1980s, operators such as these were rare—most were “phased out by the 1960s,” Fischer says—and successful prank calls were likely easier to pull off without a middleman between prankster and victim. But a new middleman was soon to follow: Caller ID.

Caller ID rose to prominence in the ‘90s, at least if New York Times trend pieces are any indication, and nothing undermines a prank call like your parents’ names flashing on a screen by your target’s phone. There are ways for a determined prankster to get around caller ID; just Googling “caller ID prank call” brings up a plethora of websites promising to help you circumvent this problem. (I’ve said too much.) But having lived with caller ID as long as we now have, chances are if someone gets a prank call from an unknown number, they just won’t pick up.

“The advent of caller ID has certainly done a lot to reduce response rates for things like surveys,” says Keith Hampton, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers University. “So of course it would extend to something like this as well.”

There has also been talk about voice calling declining in popularity as a communication tool. In 2008, the number of texts overtook the number of voice calls people made in the U.S., and since then there have been several articles written about how people (young people especially) don’t like to call each other anymore. But Hampton says he doesn’t think there’s data to support that.

Certainly though, voice calling is now just one of many ways to contact someone instantly and at a distance. What this means for the art of the prank call is unclear. If it’s been weakened, it’s certainly not dead. (Just recently there was an odd constellation of prank calls to fast food restaurants convincing employees there was a gas leak and they had to break the windows to keep the buildings from exploding, though that’s a particularly extreme example.)

It’s possible that some of that mischievous youthful energy has been redirected to trolling in Internet comment sections, or tweeting “daddy” at celebrities. “Advances in technology apparently bring with them new possibilities for playfulness at someone else’s expense,” Jorgensen wrote in 1984, and no new technology has proved her wrong yet.

But there’s still something to be said for the visceral thrill of trying to fool someone voice to voice, it seems—even if you don’t quite pull it off.

“Not even two weeks ago my [11-year-old] son and two kids who live next door to us did a prank call through Skype to another neighbor girl,” Hampton says. “I'm like, ‘Are you kidding? Do you realize that your name is attached to that? The whole point of the prank call is that is anonymous!’”