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Whatever Happened To The Jerky Boys?

The following contains offensive language, broken friendships, and uncontrollable belly laughs.

Photo: Touchstone Pictures / Everett Collection | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Johnny Brennan remembers the best meatloaf he ever tasted. It was tender, not too dry, and he ate it the one time he was nominated for a Grammy.

It was March 1995, and Johnny and Kamal Ahmed, together known as the Jerky Boys, were at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, up for Best Comedy Album. In a few short years—long before Napster, Facebook, or YouTube—bootleg cassettes of their hilarious and vulgar prank phone calls turned into platinum-selling albums. Without really trying, they’d created a market for phony calls and legitimized them as a comedic genre.

One month earlier they’d starred in their own feature film, The Jerky Boys: The Movie, a semi-biographical tale about two “lowlifes” from Queens who crank the wrong mobster. The Jerky Boys 2—their prank call pièce de résistance—debuted at No. 12 on Billboard’s pop chart and was up for a Grammy that night. During the movie’s advertising blitz, two Jerky Boys albums (including the movie soundtrack) appeared on the Billboard charts at the same time. Jim Carrey, Steven Seagal, and Radiohead (who named their debut album, Pablo Honey, after a Jerky Boys call) were all big fans. Life was good.

Get more Jerky Boys! Click each character to hear their soundboard! 
Frank Rizzo                    Jack Tors                        Tarbash                  Sol Rosenberg
As they sat eating the best meatloaf ever, Kamal released a wild scream, pretended he was stabbed, and flung his food in every direction. “He was fucking with everybody. Security was going to throw him out,” recalls Johnny, now 51 and looking more like the reserved father he is than the shaggy prankster of his heyday. “When people realized Kamal was OK, they burst out laughing.”

Even though they were the center of attention, Sam Kinison won the Grammy posthumously for Live From Hell. Kamal went immediately to the bar; Johnny said he felt they’d been “stiffed.” Still the night wasn’t a total bummer. Sheryl Crow told Johnny she played his tapes on her tour bus, and Kamal hung out with Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe. It wasn’t all bad. Until it was.

By 1999 arguments over money dis­connected the Jerky Boys’ phone line for good. Kamal quit the group to pursue filmmaking, and Johnny went solo, becoming the voice of Mort Goldman on Family Guy. (Not surprisingly, Seth MacFarlane—like legions of other current power players—was a huge fan.) The Boys haven’t seen each other since 1999. They haven’t chatted on the phone since 2009, when Kamal says Johnny reneged on a deal to create a Jerky Boys cartoon. Today Johnny doesn’t mention Kamal on the Jerky Boys Web site, claiming his old friend was basically just a “hired gun” and that anyone could have voiced his characters.
Nonetheless the Jerky Boys left their mark. “The baby boomer generation can say where they were when they heard Kennedy got shot,” says comedian and radio personality Artie Lange. “My buddies knew where they were when they first heard the Jerky Boys.” 

Origin Story
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

[Check out the Sol Rosenberg Soundboard here!]

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.” 

Hollywood Shuffle

Shyness, however, would not get in the way of Munao’s plan for a feature movie. Translating the Jerky Boys’ brand of humor to film was a challenge, but capitalizing on their popularity was a no-brainer to studio executives. Munao says Johnny and Kamal met with 12 studios before signing with Touchstone. The duo split $1 million and were pegged to become even bigger stars. “It was a real hot project,” recalls journeyman actor James Lorinz, who played wannabe gangster Brett Weir in the film. “My agent kept saying it was going to be another Wayne’s World.” 
The Jerky Boys’ movie had an $8 million budget and was shot in the spring of 1994 on the Queens streets they grew up on. On set Johnny and Kamal were distant, often arguing or not speaking at all for long stretches. During downtime Kamal escaped to play Wiffle Ball with local kids while Johnny signed autographs. 
Released on February 3, 1995, the movie flopped. The guys’ on-camera awkwardness and the lack of chemistry splashed across the big screen did not a hit make. The plot was vapid and the script watered-down—Lorinz remembers reading a raunchier script during casting. Opening-week numbers were middling, but a snowstorm hit the Northeast soon after, and the movie was buried. “Word got out immediately that the movie was not good,” says then-New York Daily News gossip columnist A. J. Benza. “It didn’t portray at all how funny these guys were. I don’t know if a movie could.”

Illustrated by Sean Taggart | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

[Check out the Jack Tors Soundboard here!]

Despite being littered with “Jerky­isms”—“sizzle chest,” “liver lips,” and, of course, “squeaky balls”—fans never embraced the film. Critics were even tougher; The New York Times called the film “virtually jokeless.” Nor has it aged well. The film has a 3.9 out of 10 IMDb user rating, and Disney, which owns Touchstone, never released it on DVD. “We were trying to make a film everyone could see,” says the director, James Melkonian. “I think since it was already R-rated, we could have pushed that more.” 

Soon after, Munao sold the Jerky Boys to Mercury Records, but talent agency CAA dropped them as clients. “It ended our careers,” Kamal says. “It was all John’s fault, because Warner Bros. wanted us, and we could have made a rougher movie. But he wanted to go with Disney.” Johnny agrees that it was indeed his choice. “At the end of the day, I did decide to go with Disney.” 

Down for the Count

Despite their personal conflicts and a de­cline in sales and, almost as important, hype, the Jerky Boys released four more albums after the movie. They improved their tactics, adding incoming pranks and emphasizing recurring characters. But by the time Jerky Boys 3 hit stores in August 1996, the Internet had made their entire library available for free. “I’m at a liquor store, and the owner says, ‘I’m a longtime fan, and I ripped all your shit from the Web,” Johnny recalls. “I felt like saying, ‘Do you understand what you’re telling me?’ ”

Illustrated by Sean Taggart | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

[Check out the Frank Rizzo Soundboard here!]

Other comedians stepped into the lane they’d created. Johnny says Jimmy Kimmel approached him about working on his then-developing prank-call puppet show, Crank Yankers. Johnny declined, feeling the concept was too similar to his own. Needless to say, the show was a huge success without him. Prank calls soon became a staple of morning radio shows everywhere, and the Jerky Boys were ripped off, both directly and indirectly. One of the few things Johnny and Kamal do agree on nowadays is that they both find “Achmed,” the Middle Eastern terrorist puppet voiced by comedian Jeff Dunham, to be too close to Kamal’s last name. Achmed’s catchphrase “I kill you” is also nearly identical to Kamal’s line from an early prank called Terrorist Pizza.
They last worked together in 2000 on Big Money Hustlas, a low-budget flick by Insane Clown Posse. But by that point their friendship was so fractured they didn’t share any scenes. 

King of Queens

It’s Friday, December 30, 2011, and the last day the Palace Diner in Flushing, Queens, a local favorite for nearly four decades, will be open for business. As the staff boxes up silverware, Kamal pushes a large bacon cheeseburger past his wide smile. He left the Jerky Boys over a decade ago but still enjoys some perks. “I’ve gotten crew and actors to work cheap because they remembered me,” says Kamal, a 6'3" bear of a dude whose dark hair is now tinged with gray. “One guy donated 40,000 feet of film.”

What angers Kamal the most is that Johnny calls himself the “sole creator of the Jerky Boys,” even going so far as to say that he created Kamal’s char­acters based on various family members and friends in his life. 

Since the split Johnny has released two Jerky Boys iPhone apps. He also revives the Rizzo and Rosenberg voices on radio appearances and on his podcast. He believes the material still has legs and is eager to repurpose the Jerky Boys for an animated series, most likely without Kamal. “I’ve been holding the torch,” Johnny says. “I gave Kamal props for spreading the tapes out, but the whole franchise, I have to keep it going.”

Illustrated by Sean Taggart | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

[Check out the Tarbash Soundboard here!]
Kamal says he buried the hatchet when he and Johnny last spoke back in 2009. Johnny says they just “touched base.” They also have different takes on another significant moment in their history. 

At the 1995 Grammys, Johnny and Kamal walked what felt like a mile of red carpet, past the hordes of paparazzi and photographers. “You know how people slow down to make sure their picture is snapped?” says Johnny. “We just kept walking, like a Three Stooges thing.” 

Kamal laughs. He remembers it a little bit differently. “When we were nominated for the Grammy and the limo dropped us off, we walked past every photographer, and not one took a picture of us,” he says. “I asked John, ‘Do you still think we’re as important as you believe we are?’”

“He said nothing.” 

Want more funny stuff? Check out Comedian Trevor Noah and Spain's Answer to the Dog Poop Problem.