The Pop Life: Different Pranks In Different Eras
by Neil Strauss
January 2000, New York Times

On the CD ''Revenge on the Telemarketers, Round One'' a Kentucky jingle writer named Tom Mabe fulfills a fantasy lurking in the hearts of many Americans and turns the tables on the salespeople who incessantly call his home. In one revealing prank, Mr. Mabe tells a telemarketer trying to sell burial plots that he is on the verge of killing himself. After trying to dissuade Mr. Mabe, the telemarketer gives up and asks, ''If I got the paperwork out to you this afternoon, do you think you could maybe hold off until tomorrow?''

On ''Audio Visionaries: Street Pranks and Put-Ons,'' released this week on the Thirsty Ear label, two San Francisco radio hosts, Jim Coyle and Mal Sharpe, walk the streets subjecting passers-by to surreal interviews. In one recording (part of the Whitney Museum's current ''Sound Works'' exhibition), they pretend to be employers and offer a pedestrian a job working in a flame-filled pit designed as an artificial hell. They explain that the chances of dying are 98 percent, four maniacs will attack him, bats will swoop over his head, the pay is $46 a week, and he will be provided with one meal: a bat that he must cook in the flames. The man replies that he'd like to give the job a try, but he draws the line at preparing his own bat. ''As long as I didn't see it cooking, I think I'd devour it,'' he explains.

One difference between these two CD's is that Tom Mabe recorded his pranks in the late 90's; Coyle and Sharpe pulled theirs in the early 60's. In Coyle and Sharpe's time, the cold war era, anything scientific seems possible as they try to talk a couple into jumping off a high-rise building into a special fabric that they've invented. In Mr. Mabe's time, the talk show era, anything neurotic seems possible as he tells a telemarketer for the police that a preteenage Mabe has been sent out with Dad's driver's license to pick up beer.

Recently, two put-on men who are generations apart -- Mr. Mabe (whose CD is due Feb. 1 on Virgin Nashville) and Mr. Sharpe -- met for the first time by telephone to discuss pranking across the ages.

SHARPE: When we were standing on the street with a microphone in the early 60's, it was a rarity for someone to encounter street reporters. That's why we could get away with putting people on. We were well-dressed in suits, and people would stare at the microphone because they had never seen one before. Part of the reason that we could be con men was simply because we had a tape recorder. But today people will humiliate themselves to any degree to get themselves in the media.

MABE: I get away with it because these telemarketers are so happy that you're staying on the phone with them. They're bored. When I was told that I needed to get them to sign releases to put out my CD, I went back to this girl who was selling windows and called five or six times to get her on the phone. The last time I called, the telemarketing supervisor said, ''Sir, you have called here so many times today, you're starting to annoy us.'' Now, for my next record, I'm thinking of calling telemarketing companies and trying to sell them stuff like telemarketing supplies.

SHARPE: There's a lot of rage in your work. Coyle and I would paint these pictures that to us were pretty impossible: a guy working in a pit with bats and maniacs tearing at his feet. It was all very clean and coming out of the 60's. But when people call you, you have blood on the carpet or you're about to murder yourself or you're watching a porno movie. It's a very different picture. Your stuff is this other side of America where blood and serial killers and pornography has been uncovered.

MABE: I'm pretty much a clean-cut guy, but for me to be funny I have to get really risque and take the threshold as far as I can because you have to do that to get people's attention now. I was pretending to have phone sex with a telemarketer once, and she actually got so into it that she wanted me to pick her up from her work.

SHARPE: When I was with Coyle, we both felt like we were outsiders. There was a certain idea about getting even with the straight world or putting the straight world on. Because the world was pretty straight back then. We spent a lot of time in mortuaries. We would go into mortuaries with a microphone hidden in a briefcase and try to get people to bury Coyle alive, so we could dig him up and he could begin life anew.

MABE: Did they ever catch on?

SHARPE: Not very often. We were very convincing. But we did get arrested once.

MABE: Tell me about that. Because I would love to get arrested.

SHARPE: We were interviewing this guy and told him that we wanted to borrow his car for a few hours to go to a restaurant. He said, ''How do I know you're going to bring it back?'' We said that would be the great thing for him: We would bring it back and then he'd have more trust in human beings. And he called the police. We were down the street talking with someone else, and they came out with guns drawn. They threw us in the car, and they threw the briefcase with the tape recorder in the front seat. It recorded the whole arrest. Coyle and I had a rule about never getting into the concept of money, because that would inflame people. But that's what telemarketers do. Why do you think you need to get revenge on these people?

MABE: Initially it was just me fed up. I work out of my home, and every other call that I got was a telemarketer. I'd finally get the baby to sleep or sit down to dinner, and they'd call. It felt like people were dropping in unannounced, and they wouldn't take no for an answer.

SHARPE: I have to confess this, Tom. One of my early jobs when I was going to Boston University back in the 50's was selling The New York Times over the telephone.