June 17, 2013
Before the platinum albums, Johnny Brennan was a construction worker with little ambition beyond playing guitar in cover bands. In the mid-’80s, he moved in with his best friend, Tony Galgan, and they both had tons of free time. They’d spend countless lazy afternoons and boozy nights combing through newspaper classifieds in search of suckers to prank call. Johnny got a speakerphone, improving the quality of the recordings they were making on a boom box. Soon after, Kamal, a friend of Tony’s younger brother, started coming over with food from his father’s Indian restaurant to make calls with Johnny.
By the late ’80s, tapes known as the “Jerky Tapes” or “Auto Mechanic Tapes” spread nationwide. By most accounts, a friend of Kamal’s, Gaetano Valic, created the master bootleg of 10 calls. “I made six copies,” Valic says. “In three months it became known in the tristate area. Everyone was making copies of copies.”
Illustrated by Sean Taggart | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013
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The secret of their success was Johnny and Kamal’s ability to keep people on the line. They called businesses with legitimate-sounding requests and slowly clowned their marks. But it was their characters that had fans howling. There was Sol Rosenberg, a neurotic New Yorker; Frank Rizzo, a vile auto mechanic who vowed he’d “work circles around you”; and Frank Kissel, an elderly World War II veteran who accuses a plumber of killing his Uncle Freddie.
Johnny and Kamal unceremoniously dropped Tony (“I’d have loved to go on that ride with them, but I wasn’t offered,” says the now-tenured N.Y.C. Dept. of Transportation employee) and in 1991 began working with “Uncle” Lou Gatanas, a local guitar collector and entrepreneur who invested time and money in them.
Gatanas launched a national 900 number to showcase the pranks and, because he hadn’t received clearance from the victims, had to convince the phone company the calls were rehearsed skits made by actors. 1-900-A-U-JERKY provided full-length listens and generated the first income from their material. At one point it made $6,000–$8,000 a month. Most of the profits went to advertising the hotline on The Howard Stern Show.
Around 1993 “Crazy” Joe Renda, a retired rock promoter in St. Petersburg, Florida and a fan of the tapes, created Detonator Records to market them. But the tapes still had no official name. That’s when Johnny’s mother suggested calling it the Jerky Boys, referencing Frank Rizzo’s go-to nickname for people. Newly christened, the Jerky Boys’ first 3,000 cassettes were printed at a Christian record factory in St. Pete’s. It was a good start, but demand quickly outgrew Renda’s resources.
Johnny and Kamal started to outgrow each other, too, arguing about everything from who was funnier and more recognizable to who came up with what and what lawyers to hire. They had agreed on a 50-50 split of the money, but Johnny gave Kamal a smaller percentage from the start, Kamal says. Kamal also felt like Johnny’s ego was stroked by handlers and hangers-on. “He went from a humble guy to thinking he was Elvis,” Kamal says. “I used to say, ‘John, I don’t know who you think we are.’” Their relationship became even more strained when Gatanas attempted to replace Kamal by mimicking his Indian-accented character.
Photographed by Ben Goldstein | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013
Renda was pushed aside when Fred Munao of Select Records stepped in and bought the Jerky Boys’ contract for $100,000. Select’s distribution and promotional resources catapulted the pranksters to superstardom, but what Munao really wanted to do was sell a movie.
The trouble with that plan was that Johnny and Kamal weren’t actors…or even stand-ups. Though he’d mastered crank calls, Johnny was slightly agoraphobic and suffered from stage fright. He recorded later albums while sitting in darkness and passed on offers for the Jerky Boys to appear on SNL and Mad TV. He turned down David Letterman twice, opting instead to phone in a prank. When they did appear on television, both Johnny and Kamal would freeze or tell awkward jokes. The Jerky Boys were also offered morning radio gigs; even a sitcom was kicked around. “I was a little bit shy,” Johnny admits today. “I would have handled it better now than I did then.”