The last time Johnny Brennan picked up a phone to make a prank call, Apple was a decade away from releasing the iPhone. Hell, “texting” was virtually nonexistent. After a nearly 25-year hiatus from recording original material, the comedian and co-creator of The Jerky Boys is making a comeback with a new self-titled record featuring his classic characters.
Brennan’s return was in part inspired by a series of successful live shows over the past few years. The reverence fans showed for the crank call albums, including reciting back even the most obscure details from the recordings, convinced him it was time to dust off voice characters like Frank Rizzo, Sol Rosenberg, and Jack Tors. For years fans showed an appetite for new material. But the 59-year-old Brennan entered the studio again to make one person in particular laugh.
“You gotta do it for yourself,” Brennan tells Den of Geek about his desire to revive The Jerky Boys. “You can’t force anything. The people are absolutely loving it. They’re saying, ‘Johnny, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe how awesome the characters just flowed right into 2020.’ It’s a good feeling.”
The Jerky Boys started in 1989 with Brennan and his childhood friend Kamal Ahmed. The comedic group released four records from 1993 to 1997, and two additional records (1999’s Stop Staring At Me and 2001’s The Jerky Tapes) from previously recorded material. Ahmed officially left The Jerky Boys in 2000. Though Brennan became the sole steward of the Jerky Boys brand, it sat mostly dormant through the 2010s as he continued his voiceover work as the recurring character Mort Goldman on Family Guy.
The new record, titled The Jerky Boys, was released on Nov. 27 by Comedy Dynamics, a budding powerhouse in the comedy album business after earning all five Grammy nominations in the comedy category in 2019 (the company has 17 nominations and four wins overall). The landscape for releasing a record has changed in nearly every conceivable way since The Jerky Boys 4, and the release strategy for Brennan’s new set of calls reflects that. The album is available on Spotify and anywhere music can be streamed these days. Within a week of release, it hit No. 1 on the comedy charts on Apple Music and Amazon Music.
What hasn’t changed is Brennan’s commitment to the bits. Sol Rosenberg is the album’s MVP; standouts include an unfortunate mishap with a stair climber and his side hustle teaching yoga with goats. Jack Tors is in the market for an aggressively large kettle drum to get groovy and out-of-sight with. Bridge-and-tunnel New Yorker Frank Rizzo is a little beat up from base jumping and needs leg braces on the album’s opening track and looking for pipe bombs on another. Surprising no one, Rizzo seems to live his life constantly on the precipice of an expletive-laced tirade. Rizzo is seen orbiting in space on the album’s cover, which was illustrated by artist Sean Taggart, who’s produced artwork for every Jerky Boys record.
We spoke to Brennan about why he decided to make a comeback, how a throwaway track became a fan-favorite and the title of a Radiohead album, and what the Jerky Boys means to fans in 2020.
DEN OF GEEK: What inspired the first new Jerky Boys record in almost 25 years?
Johnny Brennan: The best way I can put it to people is you got to feel it. I know the record company over the last two years probably lost their patience because I announced it at a nightclub.
I’ve never done live shows before because I’m not a stand-up comedian. I said, “Fuck it.” I’d go out and do some live shows and get two or three hundred people in the room. It’s really nice because I can look at each person. I’ve done shows where there’s 5,000 people out in the audience. Actually, I did Woodstock where there were 500,000 people out there, but it’s nice when you do a small room because you get to make eye contact with pretty much everybody in the audience.
I would see the people know every single word of every single skit because we’d play six, maybe seven, skits during the show. Then it’s a bunch of back and forth, fucking with each other. And the audience members, they have tons of things that they want to ask me.
I said, “You know what? Let me do it.” I made the announcement on my birthday, it was December 1st at a club called The Kingsland in Brooklyn. I just thought about the fans and I thought about how much they really enjoy it and love it. The truth is, I haven’t done anything new in almost 25 years. I’m talking where you sit down and you actually do brand new calls where there’s nothing in the can. So these are all brand spanking new calls and the response has been absolutely amazing. I couldn’t ask for more, to be honest with you.
We could spend hours talking about how comedy has changed and evolved in the last 25 years, but why do you think the prank phone call format just continues to endure?
It’s odd because I was never really into prank phone calls and the whole idea of doing prank phone calls. I was more into actual live pranks or fucking with people or doing things that are real, in real life. But either way, what happened with my stuff is just an amazing thing that occurred. Let’s put it this way, I don’t listen to my own stuff. I don’t watch or listen to prank phone calling and prank phone callers and who’s doing what. I don’t pay any attention to that. That’s a good question though.
When fans come up to you at shows what are some of their favorite characters and calls?
Everybody’s got their own favorites. It’s literally thousands. Some people will come up to me and they’ll hit me with a line and I’ll have to be like, “Oh, shit.” It’s a little more obscure. It’s a little bit more like, “Oh, shit. I remember that, of course. Yes.”
But everybody has their favorites, just something as simple as Jim. The word Jim, the name Jim. They add a B to it, so it’s Jimb. I even have a t-shirt that says Jimb. Just something as simple as one name. The reason is because I spent a lot of time in the studio trying to get that B out of there because he said his last name and I don’t remember what it was but it began with a B, so I couldn’t get rid of the B so I just thought it was funny. I said, “Fuck it. Leave it.” So now, whenever people say, “Is Jim around?” They say, “Is Jimb around?”
You know what the most amazing thing is? I just did the new record and Rolling Stone teased people with a couple skits, and people are hitting me with catch phrases already from a brand new skit. It’s the most fascinating feeling.
What was it like sitting down and doing these calls in the studio all these years later? Did it take a few calls to get it to where you wanted it to be?
I intentionally said, “I’m not going to overthink this whole fucking thing because that’s when you get into trouble.” I’m going to put my mind in a setting, the same setting that it was in many moons ago, before the bootleg even hit the street, where I was just doing this for me.
If I sit down and do an auto mechanic or if I sit down and talk about selling cars, I’m doing it for me. I’m going to relax. I’m just going to let the phone ring or make the phone calls and just let the characters flow as it happens. That’s how I did it.
The way albums are released and promoted has changed dramatically since the last Jerky Boys record. What are you expecting in terms of how fans will engage with the material this time around?
I have to be honest, I’ve been out of the loop so long. I don’t even know how they do this today. I heard something about vinyl and Spotify and all this tons of stuff, but like I said, back in the day you used to get CDs and cassette tapes. Now today, I don’t really know how they do it, to be honest with you. It’s all out everywhere you can possibly get it. The more, the merrier, which is so interesting. It’s such a different dynamic.
On the new record, is there a standout track you think people are going to really gravitate toward?
The interviews that I’ve been doing, each of them has said, “Johnny, oh my god, I love this skit.” And they would give me one of the skits. I would say, “That’s so cool,” because it reminds me of many years ago.
For example, “Pablo Honey.”I didn’t put that on my first record because I didn’t think it had legs. A few people said to me, “John, I’m telling you, you should start off the second record. I’m telling you, ‘Pablo Honey’ is just killer.” I said, “It’s killer?” I said, “I kind of dig it, but…” And how wrong I was. I put it on my second record and it instantly became one of the all-time favorite skits. People to this day go nuts for “Pablo Honey.” All I’m doing is just telling Pablo to come down to Florida and [ask] if he is washing his ass, keeping his ass clean.
I got a call at my mom’s place years and years ago from a group of guys that were at the record label. They were asking, “Hey, Johnny, do you mind? Would it be okay if we used your track ‘Pablo Honey’ to name our debut album in America?” I said, “Absolutely. Have at it. Go ahead.” Little did I know that this was a band called Radiohead. Next thing you know, they charge me up the charts and it’s The Jerky Boys No. 1 in Billboard Magazine and Radiohead No. 2, with Pablo Honey.
That’s incredible. On this new record, which characters aged the best for 2020?
They’re all in perfect shape. It’s so funny. They all just roll right into everything that’s going on. Don’t forget, I’ve been obviously around for the last 20 years on Family Guy and doing little bits of whatnot here and there with my Jerky Boys characters as well, commercials and things like that. That’s why it’s so unique with this whole new album kind of deal. It’s nice to get fired up about it.
Of the previous CDs, which one do you feel is the pinnacle of The Jerky Boys?
They’re all like children. They’re all like babies. Jerky Boys 1 people were just completely mesmerized, blown away. Jerky Boys 2, same thing. Jerky Boys 2, that was pressure because they say in the record business, “It’s almost impossible to follow up.” But in my case, I was able to pull it off. Jerky Boys 2 is just incredible. Then you look at Jerky Boys 3. Jerky Boys 3 has so much incredible work and the album cover is the whole King Kong theme and I introduce five new characters on Jerky Boys 3. So, I can’t really pick one and say, “Oh, my god.” They’re all literally like your kids.