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“Let me just fill you in on a little detail here…this is a prank phone call, is what it is…” – The highs and lows of “Mark Knopfler”

July 30, 2010

“Please try to pay attention…” On a cool spring day in 1991, after thumbing through tapes at Recordsmith, I popped a brand-new copy of Out of Time into the cassette player of my parents’ minivan. While worthy of every 5-star review, R.E.M.’s genre-jumping epoch would only be the second-most significant recording to enter my collection that day. When one of my brother’s crazy pals, some dude named Tony, handed me a mysterious tape, I laughed it off. “Suuuure, these prank calls, I bet they are really funny, not.” I had no idea what awaited.

The protagonist called himself Mark Knopfler, although I knew that the author of “Sultans of Swing”, amongst other guitar workouts, was not likely to spend his leisure time asking an alphabetically-organized list of random strangers if he could store some “retroactive” waste in their basement. How could he find time to tell Linwood Wiley about his “erector set with Christmas tree lights all around it”, within his obligation to move refrigerators and color TVs? Obviously, the caller (in addition to almost every American) had no idea that Knopfler was British, and has an accent that sounds nothing like a drunken John Edwards (“…heeave her call me when she gets huuome…”). In order to separate the real Mark Knopfler from the wiseass, I will misspell his name “Knoffler” throughout this post.

Oh, I’m sorry. Perhaps I should fill you in on a few details here.

Sometime in the late 1980s, a couple of smooth-talkers decided to entertain themselves via telephone, one of which appropriated the identity of “Mark Knoffler”. If traded versions of poorly-dubbed crank-call tapes had a Robert Christgau or Lester Bangs, the Mark Knoffler Album would be viewed as the genre’s Exile on Main Street. For music aficionados in the pre-P2P era, tape trading was a fairly developed institution, especially concerning the bootlegged material of underground or “outlaw” artists. While recording one’s prank phone calls was fairly common, especially before the development of caller-ID and *69, a deep academic study of the pastime has yet to be undertaken (where’s the New England Journal of Medicine and Prank Calls when you need it?). Prior to Knoffler, crank calls were either

1. Some giggling idiot screaming expletives at the unlucky recipient, while another giggling idiot listens on another receiver within the home

2. Your drunk uncle asserting his latent racism by adopting the overplayed affectations of an ethnic stereotype, like Krusty the Clown’s stand-up comedy routines before becoming a Carlin/Hicks hybrid

3. Kids inquiring into the status of particular household appliances and/or cans of fruit extract

These three painful attempts at “humor” were usually followed by the recipient either offering a few words of frustration, or simply hanging up the phone. Yeah, it was pretty dreadful – Christmas with the Kranks dreadful.

Knoffler, eschewing the drunken novelty that poisoned the entire phenomenon, somehow transcended the prank-call paradox by building rapport with his victims, and maintained their participation with a casual conversational style that gave the recipients the impression that “I must know this guy”. This resulted in rather lengthy interactions that, logically, should have ended with a simple hang-up.

The Knoffler Album is unique because the real comedy is largely independent of the instigator(s). Most, if not all of the laughter, emanates from the reactions of the unfortunate souls on the other end of the phone. Knoffler is a wizard at exploiting our righteousness – we will go to any length to make sure that you understand what we have to say, even when we know that the effort is completely worthless. During the first listen, I could not stop thinking to myself, “Why are you still on the phone with this prankster?” During two separate calls, he openly tells the recipient “This is a prank phone call”, yet the thick-headed bastard still insists on continuing the conversation. One guy was determined to meet MK for a fight, despite Knoffler repeating “I expect you hang up, it’s just a prank, I don’t know your wife.”

Like a twisted precursor to the modern comedy that embraces the awkward pause (The Office UK and USA, Parks and Recreation, etc), Knoffler’s recordings feature several intensely-squirmy moments. Mark has a gift for orchestrating the emotional rise-and-fall of his victims, riling them from 0 to 60, and back down in seconds. His conversation with the husband of “Amanda White” slowly builds to full-on aggression, as expletives fly like gnats on derelict deviled-egg. But after a third reference to the lack of veracity in Mark’s initial statements, Mr. White drops his anger for petulance, asking “What do you expect me to feel like, with you calling and talking about my wife?”, and adding the weirdest resignation of his own frustration by saying “You must be a low-down dirtball.” Mark, after an almost-too-long pause, replies “Nope!… Guess again.” The call ends by Mark once-more declaring “It’s just a prank, just hang up.”

Unfortunately, Mark’s comedic instincts appear to be heavily influenced by the recipient of his calls. When he speaks with women, he falls into the pervert-douche trap that could politely be called “hardcore sexual harassment.” His 2 Live Crew antics when calling “Pam White” result in his just dessert, as her male companion tells him, politely to “eat shit and die, man!”, then places the phone to an all-the-way-to-11 cranking of “Kiss” by Prince. A conversation with Charlie Knighton goes deeper into the sad psyche of MK, as he destroys all possibilities of comedy by dropping the n-word a few times. Oddly, the Knighton call references a previous conversation where Charlie had offered to tape the Goodwill Games for this stranger. Knighton’s offer of generosity quickly escalates into Mark’s indecent proposal, and the resulting fervor one would expect. As an older Black gentleman in a mid-southern state, he had obviously witnessed far more adversity than some punk with a telephone, and in a similar manner to Mr. White, his anger dissipates along with Mark’s, almost yawning through a repetition of “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” It is frustrating that Mark, after such laugh riots of “Margaret”, “George and Marie”, and “Bee Williamson”, resorts to “Drunkle”-style asshattery.

Like anything with a cult following in the 1990s, there are several web-pages dedicated to these phone calls. Thanks to Phone Losers of America, one no longer has to brave the garish, erector-set style flashing lights to hear the original calls. (The last names have been given the “Dr. Dre 2010” reversal treatment). If you feel like wasting 30 minutes, scroll through the user comments describing fraudulent anecdotes of Knoffler’s origin. “I was there, I remember when my friend made these calls – in fact, you can hear me laughing in the background!” A sampling of my favorite comments, with all spelling and grammar unchanged:

From Pete on May 26th, 2007 at 11:23 am:

I got these tapes back in the late ’60s. Long before they were cool.

Which “1960s” had Prince, the Goodwill Games, and automatic redial?

From Murray State on November 24th, 2008 at 11:26 pm:

I’m pretty sure that these calls were made in the fall of 1988 at Murray State University in Western Kentucky. MK was a freshman, and as stated above he was in fact tripping on acid during many of the pranks.

When MK said “ride’em fishboy,” he was actually referencing a nickname given to him by one of the fraternities at MSU. He was given the nickname “fishoy” after saving a tank full of fish that kept dying in the fraternities big aquarium.

This sounds convoluted enough to almost be true. But his detailed understanding of Delaware geography, like “the putty division, just north of Odessa, it’s right there on Federalsburg Street”, sounds like no college freshman I’ve ever met.

From Drew on May 12th, 2008 at 9:03 am:

I had this tape in college back in 1987 and heard the guy was a friend of a friend of mine and was attenting VMI and was arrested in his Junior year. Don’t really know how true this is but he is damn funny. Thanks for the reunion!

“Heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend who…” I love the REO Speedwagon defense. Always wins ’em over…

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5 Comments
  1. July 30, 2010 3:35 pm

    Wow.

    Your account of how you came across Knoffler is almost to the letter precisely how I myself was indoctrinated into the joke as well. A beat up, ratty tape with no label, scuffed and worn, shared with a group of teenagers huddled around it in awe. It was absurd and strange and you couldn’t take your ears off it. I hadn’t thought of this guy in years, though I still almost weekly toss out one of the very bon mots on that recording, without fail to the same exact effect as it occurred on the tape.

    “Pret-ty clever, eeehhhh lit-tle chum?”

    “Huh?”

    “I said ‘Pret-ty clever, eeehhhh lit-tle chum?'”

    How something can be such a profoundly shared experience while simultaneously being an obscurely underground piece of work is amazing. Kudos.

  2. rbcp permalink
    July 30, 2010 10:10 pm

    Nice writeup on Mark! I’ve been enjoying his pranks since I received a copy of the tape in 1997.

  3. January 6, 2012 4:47 am

    The Mark Knopfler prank phone calls have been recently restored – uncut & uncensored – and available for FREE download at http://www.beforethejerkyboy.com/downloads

    They are also available – uncut & uncensored – on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/OldSchoolPrankCalls

    Enjoy!

  4. Anonymous permalink
    September 17, 2012 6:55 pm

    Typo in previous post – calls can be downloaded in .MP# format HERE – http://www.beforethejerkyboys.com/downloads/

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