Many recordings of prank phone calls hinge on the pleasures of impersonation. The telephone allowed the user into spaces and interactions that could or would not be broached in person. Even though people make most of their calls within the neighborhood in which they live, there still exists in the telephone the potential to transcend spatial boundaries within towns and neighborhoods and to interact with those who live “across the tracks.” That is, the phone can be used to infiltrate the spaces of economic or ethnic “Others.” The ability to cross social boundaries is taken up by phone pranksters who infiltrate the homes of people whose ethnicity, race or class might typically have prevented a face-to-face interaction. The infiltration of space on prank calls is often achieved through the vocal impersonation of ethnic, racial and class types. Impersonation was relatively easy to achieve on the telephone, a context where signs of class and background that would be obvious in face-to-face exchanges were, in Carolyn Marvin’s words, “disturbingly invisible.”
One prankster who utilizes gender impersonation is Brother Russell, whose victims are the hosts of ultra-conservative Christian radio call-in shows. Russell often impersonates an elderly Christian woman, and on a call titled “The Last Laugh,” he poses as an elderly woman named Emily and asks for a prayer for “her” wayward nephew. After the prayer is performed over the radio, she and the radio preacher exchange bursts of ecstatic laughter. The title of the track becomes clear when, just as the stirring background music swells, Emily’s laughter becomes both maniacal and clearly male.
Brother Russell subtly reveals his act of impersonation and the depth with which he was able to infiltrate the show’s religious proceedings. The call features a remarkable vocal “sleight of hand” when the impersonation is suddenly revealed. The sound-only environment of the telephone allows for this stunning technique, a performance somewhere between quick-change slapstick comedy and the digital morphing of 1990s cinema.
The play with morphing flexible identities through vocal performance suggests how telephone interaction might be compared to other recent media practices. Scholars writing about new digital media have often described how identity can become fluid and flexible in the virtual space of the Internet. Much of the academic analysis of race and gender on the Internet has stressed the virtual, fragmented nature of online identity. Examples of prank and obscene phone calling reveal how a similar flexibility existed in the virtual space of telephone talk. But race tends to assert its presence on the Internet nonetheless, in the language and graphic images users employ. Similarly, the fluidity of identity heard on prank calls is not used to eliminate social or racial hierarchies, but instead to bring them into even sharper focus.