It’s mid-March, just as Americans are becoming aware of a global pandemic making landfall in the U.S., and Margaret receives a call from a man named Cody Nonamesky, an official with her city’s “Department of Safety and Decontamination,” who explains that the neighborhood is being quarantined and a helicopter will be arriving at 8 a.m. the next morning to drop tents on all of the houses on her street. “They’re kinda these big plastic tarp things that cover the house to keep things healthy and safe and all that,” he politely explains.
Margaret expresses concern that she won’t be able to get in and out of her house, but Nonamesky assures her that won’t be a problem provided she passes through the decontamination station, described as “a high-powered shower” where “DECON officials” will hose her down whenever she enters and exits. “It’s just standard quarantine procedures,” he explains, much like the purifying gamma rays hitting her on all sides. She’ll also need to wear an ankle bracelet so they can track her at all times.
“But I have a husband in the hospital with a broken hip, and I have to spend every day there,” she points out.
“Oooh, yeah, I wouldn’t recommend entering any hospitals right now,” Nonamesky cautions. “Besides, he’ll be taken care of by medical professionals, so you should leave that to the pros.”
The call, of course, is a gag, obvious to everyone but Margaret, who finally calls bullshit when Nonamesky describes plans to gather everyone in her neighborhood “to sneeze in each other’s faces and build up a resistance to the virus.”
Nonamesky’s real name is Richard, a 36-year-old in Washington State, who is the creator and host of a podcast, Another Prank Call Show, with 10,000 monthly listeners. An engineering assistant with a utility company by day, Richard says goofing on naive rubes like Margaret is “just a hobby” and like “lightning in a bottle” when it works. “There’s an adrenaline rush when somebody goes off the rails,” he says. “I’ll quiet down and let them go, almost like they’re the star of the call. It’s a great feeling.”
Like many 1990s kids, he grew up listening to prank-call extraordinaires The Jerky Boys, who gained notoriety on The Howard Stern Show and whose first album went double platinum and topped the Billboard charts. When The Jerky Boys disbanded in 2000, Richard turned his attention to The Snow Plow Show hosted by Brad Carter, currently the most popular show among the prank-call community. “I listened to that for more than 10 years, until I decided to make calls myself,” he tells me.
Margaret’s is one of six calls on “Bonersode 44” (a combination of “bonus” and “episode,” Richard explains, adding that “anything related to a penis is just funny”). “How long does the tent have to stay on?!” wonders Penny, an exasperated senior who is nonplussed to learn that an end date for the program hasn’t been set. “But I have to take my labs out to potty and go tinkle,” she continues, to which Nonamesky replies that she will be receiving complimentary “doggie-shaped hazmat suits with detachable poop pouches.”
“Oh my god,” Penny groans. “Hazmat suits for my dogs?!?!”
“It’ll be easier for you,” he reassures, adding that the gamma rays aren’t really harmful to dogs. “It’s part of your civic duty, ma’am, and we all gotta do our part. This is the new world we live in until we get this dang virus wiped out. Besides, you’re gonna be home most of the time so you might as well keep yourself busy.”
Ethically speaking, prank calling during a pandemic is morally dubious, at best. Take the text message that went around last month with a link to “an important message,” allegedly from the CDC, in which an officially sounding robovoice informs recipients that they’ve been in direct contact with a person or persons who have tested positive for COVID-19. After 30 seconds, the message explains, “You are required to remain where you are in self-quarantine for 14 days, and possibly more due to your small weiner,” since “weiner size like yours could triple your quarantine time.”
Fuck, thought Bob Lohrmann, a 68-year-old stage director in Washington, D.C., who says he was “definitely scared” when he received the message because dozens of coronavirus cases had been reported in his city every day that week. “I figured the CDC was sending it out as part of the contact-tracing protocols. But then I thought, How does the government know I have a small dick?!”
Lohrmann reflexively forwarded the message to a dozen people before abruptly stopping, concerned that they, too, would be freaked out, especially if they didn’t make it to the small weiner part. So he wrote a second text explaining it was all a joke. “I realized it was irresponsible to send that kind of joke right now, even if it is hilarious,” he tells me.
The government is aware of the calls, but not terribly concerned. Will Wiquist, deputy press secretary with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), tells me that the FCC hasn’t received many complaints about COVID-19 prank calls, but coronavirus-related phone scams have cost Americans $13.4 million thus far.
Richard bristles at the comparison. “The morality of a prank call can be debated, sure. But phone scammers are actual criminals, hurting people financially, severely disrupting lives, and preying on elderly and non-English speaking people. I’m not asking for money or information. The difference is significant.”
“I’m definitely not a fan of panicking people,” explains Carter of The Snow Plow Show, who says prank calls eliciting fear violate his official rules of prank calling, namely, “Don’t make threats.” Threats scare people, and then they call the police, the 47-year-old Oregonian tells me, which breaks another of his cardinal rules: Don’t involve emergency services. “I’ve heard prank calls where people pretend to work at Domino’s and say, ‘We mistakenly sent you a pizza with AIDS on it,’ and people freak out because their kids are eating the pizza and call 911. The ‘small weiner’ prank falls along the same lines, making people think that they’re sick when they’re not.”
He’s especially critical of Pranknet, a Canadian-based prank-calling community responsible for $60,000 in damages, like when they call hotels to get them to break their lobby windows or urge fast-food restaurants to set off fire-suppression systems.
That said, Carter says he’s not above making some COVID-19 calls, which he likens to another form of improv comedy, and a virtuous one at that. “I get emails all the time from troops in the Middle East, recovering addicts in rehab and people suffering from depression who claim I get them through it all. It’s storytelling, and if you do it right, no one gets hurt.”
For example, during the early days of the pandemic, when toilet-paper shortages were in the news, he impersonated the mayor’s office, informing the voice on the other end of the line that due to rationing of toilet paper, they’d be confiscating residents’ supply. “I told people that the mayor himself was coming over to take a couple rolls for his own personal use,” he explains. “I also told them we were X-raying inside homes to detect toilet-paper hoarders and noticed they had an unusually large supply.”
Carter is also a fan of prankster dragonmere’s harmless COVID-19 content, like when he calls retail stores saying that he’ll be shopping later that day with “razor-blade hula hoops” to ensure social distancing.
Russell, the 30-year-old voice of Ownage Pranks, which markets itself as “Jerky Boys 2.0.,” tells me he’s received hundreds of requests from listeners to capitalize on coronavirus fears. Some ask that he trick a friend by saying that he is COVID-positive and recently shook their hand, which he’d never do. For others, though, he happily obliges, like when a listener said that his sister wasn’t taking social distancing seriously and asked him to call her as a concerned citizen. “It’s more light-hearted but also raising awareness,” Russell explains. “There’s a fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s not, given that a ton of people are dying. So pranks that capitalize on people’s fear are immoral.”
Another COVID-related prank text that’s been widely circulated informs the recipient of school closures and includes a link to a BBC story about coronavirus. Clicking on the link, though, results in a NSFW image of an African-American man with an enormous penis sitting on the edge of a bed. VICE was first to report the man’s real identity, porn star Wardy “Wood” Joubert III, who tragically passed away in 2016 after a heart attack. (Joubert’s family hadn’t finished paying off his $1,500 funeral expenses so a GoFundMe page was set up and able to raise $12,695.)
It’s no coincidence that many of these pranks involve an unsolicited dick pic, explains Tristan Bridges, an assistant professor in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who says humor is often about establishing relationships of dominance, and COVID-19 pranks involving unsolicited dicks certainly qualify. “Who gets to laugh when the prank’s been carried out, and who’s the mark?” he asks. “It’s like men sending unsolicited pictures of their genitals to women they don’t know. It’s a way of forcing someone to do something against their will and telling women that penises are here, so beware. And it feels like a form of gay-baiting when sent to men.”
Consider a separate context, Bridges suggests: Why are penises used in so much left-wing critique of the right? “When the University of Texas had campus carry laws, students started carrying dildos to make fun of students who felt they needed guns on campus. The left sent dildos in the mail to the Oregon militia when they wouldn’t stand down.” Many anti-Trump protests have involved penises, too, he adds, like the statue of a grotesquely fat POTUS depicted with a micropenis. Last week, too, someone removed the weapons carried by those protesting stay-at-home orders and replaced them with dildos. “It’s what [University of Oregon sociology professor] CJ Pascoe calls ‘fag discourse,’ just no one is daring to say ‘fag.’ The discourse is so deeply embedded in our society that very little needs to be done to invoke it.”
“There’s something timeless and universal about dick jokes, even though I try to avoid the low-hanging fruit of sexual humor in the show,” explains Richard of his “Bonersodes.” Still, Richard concedes that it is peculiar that an image of a vagina is considered obscene, while a penis is fair game. “I suspect it has to do with male dominance throughout history, religious demonization of women, puritanism and slut shaming.”
He much prefers “harmless” pranks, especially during the pandemic, like when he (in character as Cody Nonamesky) explains to Penny that all of the tents and DECON supplies are being donated by Amazon so it won’t cost the city a thing. “There’s a trade-off, though,” he adds, explaining that Amazon will be delivering “mostly books and sex toys” to her driveway along with packing material so she can ship them to customers. “You’re only gonna have a quota of 50 boxes per day, so it’s really not that much. This is the new world we just have to live with.”
“But I don’t even use Amazon,” Penny responds.
“Oh, you should,” Nonamesky parries back. “Especially in this day and age, you don’t wanna go out to stores where all the sick people are.”
Growing impatient, Penny declares that she isn’t responsible for Amazon products left on her property.
“Well, you are,” he corrects, explaining that the city council made it a law late last night, and if she doesn’t pack them up, she’ll be charged for the products because they’ve been assigned to her address.
A deep, troubled sigh from Penny then elicits a compassionate response from Nonamesky: “The good news is, as compensation, they’re offering you two free weeks of Amazon Prime.”