Day One Hundred and Four: "Phony Calls" from Bad Hair Day
One of the many reasons I love Al is because he is a historian and student, as well as a disseminator of what I like to call “The Old Jokes.” The wonderful “Waterfalls” parody “Phony Calls” is a loving tribute to the gloriously cheesy subset of The Old Jokes I like to call The Old Prank Call Gags.
The great thing about the old Prank Call Gags is that while technology and consumerism and society are constantly changing and evolving, the Old Prank Call Gags never do. As far as I know, there are no New Prank Call gags. No one is prank calling strangers these days asking them if their Internet is running and, should they answer affirmatively, suggesting that they go out and catch it. No, the Old Prank Call Gags are the same as they were in 1957 or 1967.
So while musically, “Phony Calls” is lush, state of the art R&B rooted in one of the best and most beloved pop songs of the past thirty years, comedically, it’s frozen in a pre-Jerky Boys conception of prank calling as innocent mischief.
In that respect, “Phony Calls” is a miniature encyclopedia of “classic” prank calls that were never funny, even once, ever, yet nevertheless endure because of corny dads like me and songs like “Phony Calls.”
I can’t say how old I was when I first learned of the outrageous phone gag where a wisenheimer calls up a store and asks if they have Prince Albert in a can, and should they answer affirmatively, quip, “You’d better let him out!” but I must have been five or six.
I knew of Prince Albert only as the basis for a popular (and hilarious!) prank call. I honestly didn’t even know what Prince Albert was, or even if its name was Prince Albert or Prince Albert in a Can. All I knew was that Prince Albert was a consumer product that came in a can and somewhat confusingly had a man’s name.
I suspect that if you were to call a store and ask if they have Prince Albert in a can these days, the clerk would just sigh and say they don’t know what you’re talking about, and also to please stop calling before they involve law enforcement.
I did not even know until recently that Prince Albert is a tobacco brand. You know what? It doesn’t really matter. I don’t love “Prince Albert in a can” gags, and Al’s use of them here, despite these geriatric bits of humor being corny and goofy and barely a joke: I love them because they’re so exquisitely sub-Dad joke in their humor.
“Phony Calls” is spectacularly, transcendently silly but Al’s vocals perfectly capture the moralistic, gently scolding tone of the original. “Waterfalls" was, and remains a fundamentally serious and important song about AIDS, drug addiction and resisting life’s many temptations. “Phony Calls” retains from “Waterfalls” the sense that the singer is dropping truth bombs about the right way to live your life. But where “Waterfalls” was about very Important Social Issues “Phony Calls” is about schoolyard mischief and mild pre-pubescent shenanigans.
Al even nails some of TLC's vocal tics and flourishes in a standout track that would probably make my top ten list for best Al parodies, even if the song never attained the popularity of his other parodies of songs that weren't just hits but rather anthems that helped define a time and place and sound. I wasn't even a particularly big TLC but something about hearing that signature groove invokes a warm flood of nostalgia. The same is true of hearing the "Prince Albert in a Can" phone gag resurrected for children of a new generation that, like me, knew the product referenced in it only as the inspiration for an ancient prank, if at all.
Like most of Al’s albums, Bad Hair Day closes strong and while I’m planning on taking the week between Christmas and New Year’s off, I am going to post the next entry here on December 25th, as we’ve reached “The Night Santa Went Crazy” and the timing is too perfect for me not to take advantage of it. And then when we return with Running with Scissors and “The Saga Begins”, a song about a film franchise y’all might be familiar with called Star Wars. Al’s genius for timing is so intense that it somehow even infects this shambling ramble through his life and times and songs.
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