Just when you thought it was safe to answer your cell phone, the Jerky Boys are back. “I just started thinking to myself, ‘You know, people have been asking me for decades,'” Johnny Brennan, the G.O.A.T. of prank callers, tells Rolling Stone of his decision to restart the 1990s comedy outfit after a two-decade hiatus. “It’s been a long, long time. I said to myself, ‘Let me do it.’ Let me put something else out there. My kids are growing up. And I feel there’s plenty great stuff left to put out there.”
Following Kamal Ahmed’s exit from the duo in 2000, Brennan remained caretaker of the Jerky Boys name, even as he hung up his telephone for good. During the Jerky Boys’ hiatus, Brennan kept busy with comedy gigs and voice acting – including the role of Mort Goldman on Family Guy, a character based on his Jerky Boys character Sol Rosenberg – but the past two decades haven’t quelled fans’ demands for new prank calls.
“While I’m in the studio in New York City doing Family Guy, Seth McFarlane would tell me in my headphones, ‘Johnny, please, you gotta get back into the studio. We’ve been through these records so many times, we’ve burned them up,'” Brennan says. On YouTube, old Jerky Boys pranks have racked up millions of views.
So Brennan went back to work: Armed with a “Jerky Boys-only” cell phone, Brennan reunited with the characters he created – tough-talkin’ Frank Rizzo, the flamboyant Jack Tors, Mike Derucki and Rosine the “Puerto Rican transvestite” – and got dialing. The result: The Jerky Boys’ first new album in over 20 years, which Comedy Dynamics will release later this year.
“This is the first time in all these years that I’ve been sitting down and dialing up a business and say, ‘Yeah, I’m calling about the job,’ just like I used to do,” Brennan says, adding that it took some practice getting back into each character’s mindset after all these years. “I did Rosine 30-plus years ago and I had that shit down,” he says of a recent prank. “But I’m in the call and I’m saying, ‘I don’t know if I sound that good. I don’t know if I’m nailing this character because I haven’t done it in so long.'”
In an excerpt from a track set to appear on the new Jerky Boys album, Brennan brings back Rizzo to torment an orthodontist office:
The album will see the return of the Jerky Boys’ beloved pranksters alongside a host of new characters; Brennan has a 16-year-old daughter, and the new characters are for millennials to grow up with, like Rizzo, Pico and Kissel were for kids in the Nineties.
Brennan’s other daughter, then a toddler, made a cameo on the bumper of 1997’s Jerky Boys 4; she’s now in her 20s. While neither of his daughters witnessed the Jerky Boys’ heyday, they’re often reminded of their father’s prank-calling legacy.
“If they go to shows with me, people will come up to them and say, ‘We love your dad so much, you don’t know.’ They look at them with a big smile, but if I look over at them, they’ll roll their eyes at me,” Brennan says. “They hear me in the shower, creating characters and doing what I do. They’re totally used to it. It’s very cool.”
“Everything I do now, for this record, is brand spanking new.”
On paper, it may appear like Jerky Boys have been semi-active in the 2000s after Ahmed’s exit: The Jerky Tapes arrived in 2001, followed by Sol’s Rusty Trombone in 2007. Brennan explains, however, that neither LP is a canonical Jerky Boys release: The former was “an experiment,” featuring nine assorted unreleased prank calls that stretched on as long as 12 minutes, while the latter, an almost-sound effects collection of 99 tracks, was a “thank you record” to fans in the ringtone era. “Those weren’t a sit-down, make-a-new-Jerky Boys record,” Brennan says. “Everything I do now, for this record, is brand spanking new.”
The new Jerky Boys album comes with significant backing: Comedy Dynamics, the label responsible for all five Grammy nominees in the Best Comedy Album category this year, will shepherd the release. The company’s CEO Brian Volk Weiss, a longtime fan of the group who committed the Nineties albums to memory in high school, tells Rolling Stone, “It was important to me to do this one as closely as possible to how it was done back in the Nineties.”
In an age where YouTube and streaming services are the lifeblood of artists and comedians, Volk Weiss is instead focused on recapturing what made the group so influential in the first place. “I wanted an old-school album that reminds the fans how they felt when they put the CD in the CD player 25 years ago,” Volk Weiss said.
Last year also marked the 25th anniversary of arguably Jerky Boys’ greatest non-comedy contribution: Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, the band’s 1993 debut LP that was named after a then bootleg-only Jerky Boys sketch. “They called me at my house in upstate New York and asked if they could use the name ‘Pablo Honey’ for the record,” Brennan recalls. “I said absolutely.”
In addition to the new album, Brennan has plans to bring Jerky Boys into the 21st century in the truest sense: as holograms. “I’m working with a company in Los Angeles, we’re doing a hologram. There’s gonna be a show that goes on the road where you see [the album] Jerky Boys 1 performed onstage by the actual Jerky Boys characters in hologram.” Brennan says he’s working with artist Sean Taggart, who drew the iconic characters on the early Jerky Boys album covers, on the holograms, and potentially the cover for the next Jerky Boys LP. Brennan also plans a more intimate “sit down and bullshit” tour of comedy clubs, like the Brooklyn Q&A he held for fans on his birthday in 2018.
Asked about the Blu-ray unavailability of The Jerky Boys: The Movie, Brennan says it’s in the works; the rights holder Touchstone is an offshoot of Disney, which has more pressing Marvel-and-Star Wars-and-live-action-cartoon matters than the 1995 critically panned cult favorite. “I heard some talk about me doing commentary,” Brennan says. “[The film] is getting more love now than when it first came out. And the soundtrack [featuring Green Day, Wu-Tang Clan, L7 and more] was off the charts.”
A 2014 Rolling Stone profile on Brennan detailed the Jerky Boys’ impact on modern comedy, with comedians like Amy Schumer and Scott Aukerman praising the duo’s Nineties classics.
“I’ve been around a long time, and the funny thing is I did a lot of stuff when I was very young that resonated with people,” Brennan says. “Many comedians back in the day, like Eddie Murphy, they said it such a breath of fresh air because it was like nothing that they’ve ever seen before. Many comedians, to this day, grew up on my stuff. They always thank me and they’re very gracious.”
Now, with a new album and big plans, Brennan is looking to inspire comedy’s next generation. “The Jerky Boys characters transcend time, and it’s hard to do that.”