In today’s “Do Not Call” legislated world, comedian Jim Florentine is an anomaly: He actually hopes to get calls from telemarketers.
“It’s pretty sad when you wait for hours and hours for the phone to ring and when it finally does, you’re actually disappointed to find out it’s your friend calling you instead of a telemarketer,” Florentine explains.
Sad, unless much of your livelihood comes from those otherwise unwanted telephone solicitations. An accomplished stand-up best known for his voice characterizations of Bobby Fletcher and Special Ed on the cable TV hit Crank Yankers, Florentine first gained fame from a series of CDs called Terrorizing Telemarketers.
“It started as a goof,” says Florentine. “When I was a kid, I was always grounded and stuck at home, so I’d make prank calls. As a comedian, I worked nights, so I was home during the day, getting these calls, people trying to sell me stuff. They’ll stay on the phone no matter what. So I started messing with them, hoping to get a good reaction.”
As time went on, Florentine began honing his technique. “I started using different voices, like Special Ed ... talking about nonsense, repeating things. They’re trying to sell me some timeshare, and I’m telling them about how I have a lemonade stand as a source of income.
“Ironically, I’d probably be a good telemarketer,” he notes.
Soon, he began recording the calls to share his exploits with friends and fellow comedians—and to fuel his main vices. “I figured, if I sell 10 CDs after a standup gig, that means I get two lap dances and a couple of beers,” Florentine says. “I love beer and strippers.”
As Florentine gained notoriety for his everyman’s revenge on telemarketers, he caught the attention of Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carrolla, who at the time were just developing their own prank-call-based concept for Comedy Central, Crank Yankers. Comedians would record their pranks calls, which would then be dramatically interpreted using Muppet-like characters. “They heard my stuff and thought I’d be perfect for the show, so we went from there,” he says.
Florentine is quick to point out that creating prank call magic isn’t as easy as it might seem. “We never know the direction the call might go, so it’s mostly ad-lib. We keep going for hours and hours; we just keep dialing until we get it right. It’s all about them and their reaction.” And of course, heavy reliance on *67 and out-of-area calls to thwart caller ID.
As the show gets more popular and its characters more familiar, is there concern that the intended victims will already be in on the joke? “Luckily, we have the South. That’s why we call Alabama so much. ... Some guy too busy trying to get in his sister’s pants to catch our show or even have cable. I guess you can say we really target the rednecks and the white trash to get most of our material.”
Unlike recording incoming telemarketing calls, each Crank Yankers episode requires the permission of the prank victims before their footage can be aired. Not a problem, according to Florentine.
“We call them back to get their permission, letting them in on the joke, offer them a T-shirt. They usually say no. But then we call them back a few days later after they talk to their friends who tell them about the show. Then about 85 percent of them say they want to be on the show—even send pics so we can get their puppet character right.”
As for his stand-up act, Florentine assures would-be audiences he’s just as comfortable messing with people in person as he is on the phone.
“I’m not a so-called ‘crowd pleaser’ who plays it safe with the tired ‘Hey ladies, aren’t guys stupid? Who’s with me?’ kind of act,” Florentine says. “I like creating scenarios, making people uncomfortable. I’m edgy. And I’m looking forward to a Utah audience.
“But I’m leaving the puppet at home.”
JIM FLORENTINE Wiseguys Comedy Café 3500 S. 2200 West Sunday, Oct. 17 8 p.m 463-2909