Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You Yellow Rat Bastard (or Going Viral Back in the Analog Days):

I'm a big fan of the prank phone call humor (when done right). Jerky Boys, Crank Yankers and others. Even if you don't get it, there is something about the story of Louis "Red" Deutsch that might interest you.

For one, it illustrates the phenomena of "going viral" back in the analog days. Long story short. It's around 1975 and some young punks in a rock band, getting drunk and high all the time, have nothing better to do than make prank phone calls to Louis "Red" Deutsch's Tube Bar.

Red is pictured below with Rocky Marciano. Red was 6'2" 200lbs and a former boxer.

This was such an underground phenomena that a cult movie was made about these pranks with actor Lawrence Tierney of Reservoir Dogs fame almost perfectly cast as Red. (Too bad the movie, from what I remember sucked; I would have done a much better job as writer/director/producer.)

Red's Wiki page states the two pranksters

had passed by the bar several times as high school students, and had developed a long standing fascination with Red ever since they saw him beat a loitering drunk — literally hurling him through the front door of the bar by the seat of his pants and the collar of his shirt.

The Wiki page also states:

He became local color around New Jersey for his unorthodox methods of running his bar: there were no barstools, women were forbidden to enter until the 1970s, and anyone caught not drinking was subject to be beaten by Red and ejected by force.[3] Red, at 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) and over 200 pounds (91 kg),[4] was still an imposing physical presence even in his 80s and was famous for his unusual voice, described by one person as "a deep, guttural bark." He was also known for his charitable giving. Newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote about Red in a 1974 column, adding to Red’s already legendary status.

In other words, Red was the perfect victim for pranksters -- a guy you really shouldn't be messing with. And this was before the era before * 69 and call trace.

Eventually one friend gave the analog tape to another who made copies for their friends, and like a pyramid scheme we observe the phenomena of going viral the old fashion analog way.

Why is this even relevant? For one, much of pop culture has been touched by these tapes, unbeknownst to the general public unfamiliar with them. The classic "Mike Hunt" joke as seen in Porky's was first featured in these tapes. The pranksters invented a meme of taking funny phrases and rephrasing them as person's names. They would call Red and say things like is "Al" there? Last name Coholic? And then Red would shout out to crowd, "Al?" "Al Coholic?" And then when he found out he was duped would threaten the pranksters with grave bodily harm (and probably would have followed through.)

Wait a minute doesn't that sound like Bart pranking Moe the Bartender on The Simpsons? Yes. And the Red tapes predate The Simpsons by over a decade.

I've heard that Matt Groening admitted to lifting the idea from those tapes. But I don't think I need to do research for the smoking gun quote of his. Simply listen to the tapes and compare them to the joke on The Simpsons. There is more than enough "substantial similarity" to pass a copyright test.

And speaking of which, below I link to a Howard Stern interview with one of the original parties, thirty years later and Artie Lang asks about getting some $$ from The Simpsons for using the idea. I think the idea of "parody" as an uber-preferred element in the "fair use" test would defend The Simpsons. Perhaps some other intellectual property idea like "idea misappropriation," or even a nuisance lawsuit for a few million dollars in a settlement (that's what Artie Lang suggests).

As to the substance of the calls, they are all over the Internet. I will link to the four part Howard Stern interview on YouTube with Jim Davidson, one of the original pranksters. Parts one, two, three and four.

You can also visit the official prank phone call site.

Red was one of a kind; you couldn't make a guy like that up. He was the real deal, a real man of the old school variety.