Friday, 22 August 2008

Cohen ‘Phones For a ‘Phone

This is the first of two entries on recordings of prank phone calls: a fascinating amateur comedy entertainment based on secret recording.

Though anxieties about telephone misuse existed at the turn of the century, anonymous prank calling would have been difficult in an era of operator switchboards and party lines. During the first decades of the century, telephone service involved routing calls to a central office where the caller would speak to an operator who would manually connect the two parties. Operator switching made anonymous calling difficult if not impossible since the operator knew the source of any incoming call. Further, it was widely believed that operators eavesdropped on conversations. Operator switching would also have made evident the way in which the phone exchange represented a modern technological and social network or what Tom Gunning, in his analysis of how the telephone functions in the films of Fritz Lang, describes as a “technological web”.
A genre of popular phonograph records recorded in the first decades of the twentieth century illustrate some ways in which the social and technological network of the phone was experienced at this time. “Cohen on the Telephone” was a popular comedy skit that was recorded by numerous performers and record labels between 1910 and 1930. “Cohen” records are an example of the ethnic stereotyping typical of the Vaudeville stage and heard on much of the early output of the phonograph industry. Cohen is a Jewish immigrant whose comic monologs are motivated by telephone conversations in which he is unable to accomplish his goals, most often due to misunderstandings based on his thick European accent. On the majority of Cohen records, we hear only Cohen’s side of the conversation: a technique for motivating a comedic monolog employed more recently by performers such as Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart and Lily Tomlin. An interesting variation on that form can be heard on a record featuring Joe Hayman, a performer credited as the originator of the Cohen character. Note how, on “Cohen ‘Phones for a ‘Phone” (Columbia), we are presented with a more complex range of characters in order to suggest the “technological web” of the telephone network.

The expanded cast is used to represent the social network of the telephone as tangled, confusing, and overwhelming. We laugh at Cohen’s difficulty in navigating through a bureaucratic telephonic space where visual cues are absent and standards of social status and decorum become uncertain.
Cohen makes clear how not to behave on the telephone, demonstrating Jonathan Sterne’s assertion that “early telephone conversation was a learned skill,” and enacting a cautionary tale for an immigrant population struggling to learn the codes of modernity. But Cohen is not presented solely for ridicule: after all, he has the best lines and his sardonic wisecracks and asides work to forge a sense of camaraderie with the listener. Indeed, part of the popularity of these sketches, presumably with immigrants very similar to the hapless Cohen, can be traced to the way in which Cohen’s failures can be due as much to the deficiencies of the telephone as to his inability to cope with modernity. Either way, the Cohen sketches demonstrate how telephone service with operator switching was experienced as an entry point to, and reflection of, larger social networks of the modern city: the phone is Cohen’s connection to his landlord, the phone company, the plumber, the health department, and the gas company. “Cohen ‘Phones for a ‘Phone” also illustrates another reason why anonymous calling would have been difficult at this time: party lines. One might never be sure when “some guy on the wire” might “butt in,” or simply listen in to a personal conversation. Cohen records represent telephonic space as a confusing urban grid as well as a crowded modern street.

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