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The Prank Epistles, Vol. I: Farewell to the First Golden Era

A Conversation with Lou Minatti

by Deuce of Clubs

(June, 2007)


Lou Minatti may be familiar from a variety of contexts but readers of Deuce of Clubs will most likely know him from his interview in a book that ought to be in the library of every true voyager, the uber-seminal RE/Search book Pranks!
A few months ago I chatted with Lou on the occasion of the release of the Pranks! followup:


Lou Minatti: I lead a very sheltered life these days. Care to provide me with a personal assessment of Pranks! 2?

Doc: I will be posting a brief one tomorrow, but the capsule would be:

Among a certain crowd the standing of the original Pranks! book approaches as near to Holy Writ as can be among a crowd that largely recognizes no Holy Writ. "When the first Pranks! book came out, it was such a great, influential book for me," says Reverend Al of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society. "My copy is all dog-eared. It was like the Bible. I saw it in a bookstore next to the Book of the SubGenius and realized, "Oh, there are other paths." Pranks gave me models. There were helpful suggestions, inspiration—there were lots of laughs."

If Pranks was the Torah, sadly Pranks 2 is no New Testament. It's more of an Apocrypha—interesting in its own way, but lacking power.

LM: Pranks are a dying phenomenon. Technology has both made them impossible in the truest form (the classic prank call) and meaninglessly banal (YouTuberism). If only we could have kept Square Culture alive—without Mr. Wilson, there is no Dennis the Menace. Squares and wiseguys have a symbiotic relationship. Without people who obsess about the rules and proper conduct, the wiseguy and the prankster are reduced to playing handball without a wall to bounce off of.

Irony has rusted out everything. It is the rare and delicate poison that got in the water supply. A cure for Irony would win the Nobel Prank Prize. Pranks are an act of faith. They require sincere belief and intention to be committed properly—I don't mean the intention revealed to the victim; I mean a true intention within the perpetrator's heart. There is so much bad faith and false faith around these days that a valid prank can hardly be committed anymore. Every act seems to be committed for money or status and thus it doesn't MATTER if it's a prank or not. Most reality shows could fit the technical definition of pranks: but everyone is in on the game, including the audience, so it is meaningless. The Internet has leveled reality and falsehood to the degree that they are all but indistinguishable—a lie is now a consumer choice. We have lost a sense of the social, and thus the ANTI-social in its honest form has been lost as well. We have become a nation of people conning and bamboozling each other, the only form of productive activity, now that our manufacturing base is gone...

Doc: ". . . a true intention within the perpetrator's heart"—could that not make a prankster of an entire presidential administration?

LM: You've raised a troublesome psychological question. I think the prankster's mind is devilish, is evil in an impish sense, but it is a dispassionate form of evil that blossoms into the beauty of art. This kind of beauty does not emerge out of revenge—to me, the most fascinating pranks involve strangers or near-strangers. If we are talking about our current Administration, I sense no art there, though plenty of revenge. I also see no respect for the blossoming of chaos or a worship of change, just blind faith in a rigid sense of principles which have turned out to be profoundly stupid.

Doc: Yeah, I guess it's not motivated by any principle other than gain. George W. Bush as The Artful Dodger, anyone? Cheney as Fagin? "You've got to pick a pocket or two, boyyyyyyyys....!"

LM: Plus, artists—much less pranksters—should NEVER be given political power. Just look at T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Yeats, D. H. Lawrence and similar fascists. They must always constitute a chorus of cranky opposition. Artists have a yen for perfection, which usually hurts other people.

Doc: Especially in a realm of the monopoly of power, which is politics. Look at Knut Hamsun. And what happened to Plato in Syracuse. Plato could easily have gotten himself Socrates-ed.

LM: Knutson's Hunger is well worth reading. Weird, poignant and often hilarious. Captures the mentality of someone sucking on wood slivers to survive while trying to live the life of a genius. A prototype for Henry Miller's books, if that's any kind of an endorsement. Hunger is tinged with the prankster's mentality. Reading Hunger and then watching Ralf Harolde films will adjust one nicely.

Doc: I have Hunger. But I haven't read Hunger.

LM: You have to look far and wide to find pranks involving famous people these days. (I'm not talking about funny stickers on Karl Rove's car and bullshit like that.) Harpo Marx pretended to steal from a fancy jewelry store and was arrested. Apparently, he stuffed his pockets full of cheap costume jewelry, then walked into the jewelry store, started pawing the glass cases, then turned around and pretended to trip as he went out. The costume jewelry spilled out of his pockets and the store called the law. Imagine the confusion and chagrin that ensued. That is a prank, an artistic deed, and a political statement all in one.

Doc: Harpo is said to have smuggled secret documents out of the Soviet Union when he visited as Exapno Mapcase.

LM: I'm starting to sound like Ross Perot or perhaps a Carl Hayden on stimulants. I think you get my drift.

Doc: I think it should still be perfectly within the realm of possibility to make good books about pranks of Xmas past.

Was John Wilkes Booth a prankster?

LM: Czolgosz fits the model better, although it isn't funny to shoot a chocolate eclair.

Doc: How about if one shoots a "Berliner"?

LM: Princip, 1914. Or close enough.

Doc: Now if one of those surrealists actually had gone out into the street and shot someone at random. . . ?

LM: When I hear the word culture, I reach for my whoopee cushion.

I regret that I didn't know about the Al White Motors prank call saga when I did those Re/Search interviews. The Arnie vs. Binny calls are absolutely priceless as folklore and psychologically fascinating. Like something out of Mark Twain with an E.A. Poe sensibility. Or Kafka as interpreted by Jerry Clower. I have wondered many times how many such troves of telephone experiences may have been taped and are sitting in shoe boxes in storage lockers in places like Kansas, Nebraska or upper Idaho. I have what I would term a "Shoebox Theory" of American culture. An example of every missing item of historic value—be it the tablets of a new religion or the handwritten confession of D.B. Cooper—is sitting in a shoebox in an attic somewhere.

Doc: My cousin's basement in Portland was our prank call headquarters in the seventies & I wish we'd had the wherewithal to tape them. My favorite, too, is the Binny ouvre. That was the mode we favored, even as children: long-term, serial calling, where you would build scenarios and see how long they would go on, and who would tire of them first, you or your partner—that is, the receiving party. Our longest-running favorites were conducted by a missionary kid on furlough from the Phillipines who would cajole people (in a perfect Filipino accent) into being his pone-pal—"like a pen pal," he would explain in halting English, "but over the pone." He'd get them to agree to a weekly phone call to help him adjust to his new life in America, and tp assist him with advice and instruction as to what America was all about. If they didn't call him the following week—hardly anyone ever did—he'd call and berate them, breaking down in tears until they were shamed into apologizing and promising to do better. We considered projects like that extra daring because we gave them our phone number. God. Good times.

I have found, though, in playing prank calls to people over the years, that the Binny tapes are not well appreciated. Most people don't want to build, precept upon precept. They want the fucking pyramids in a day.

LM: Well, of course the Arnie vs. Binny tapes violate my stricture against personal-grudge calls—except, of course, Arnie wasn't acting out of revenge in pestering Binny. He liked Binny! They used to go out fishing together. The nature of the obsession behind the calls is hard to fathom. I got to know Arnie a little in the 1990s and I still can't quite explain it. . . .

The greatest invention I can think of (at the moment) would be x-ray goggles so that I could look through the metal doors of storage lockers as I drive past them in the Great American Heartland and see if there are boxes of prank call tapes inside...

Doc: Probably nothing in them storage lockers but Paris Hilton's vanity porn.

LM: Don't forget those Malcolm X papers!

Doc: I used to buy tons of cassettes at thrift stores, but never found a prank call tape. Have you?

LM: My friend John Trubee sent me a copy of a Christmas-from-the-family tape that had some remarks by Grandma on it about how she'd like to shoot her son-in-law in the face. The fact that the tape had been sold at a yard sale constitutes a prank in itself. But that's as close as I've come.

Doc: Wow. That is sugar-sweet. But the intent would determine its status as a prank?

LM: Well, no, it would be really stretching it to say that this tape was a prank. But there is an element of accident there, or at least randomness. RANDOM, in fact, would be a fine name for a publication or website that tracks the improbable path of certain pieces of human communication into the minds of unlikely recipients. It's remarkable how little the randomness principle seems to guide use of the Internet. People want to find others who share their interests and form incredibly narrow communities. The real miracle of the internet is how, with search engines and other methods, you can bring in totally random elements into your life. You could actually LIVE INSIDE a prank if you wanted to. But most people are not ready for that.

On the theme of randomness—and forgive me if I've mentioned this before—years ago, I saw a message written on a dirty rear windshield of a car or pickup truck; THE RANCH IS SERENITY. This is too specific a message to be a silly or haphazard combination of words. Potentially dozens if not hundreds of people read this message. I may be the only one who took note of it and have been mildly obsessed with it for a good seven or eight years.

Now, this reminds me of an actual prank that was supposed to be included in one of the RE/Search interviews but ended up on Vale and Andrea's cutting room floor (I think). Our old friends Tim and Tom Griswold used to get up early in the morning in their family home at the top of a long hill in Ocean Beach, California. They'd roll a tire down the hill and watch it pick up speed for block after block until it reached the wall surrounding the ocean at the foot of the street. Jesus Christ, they could've killed somebody! As far as they knew, they never did. But isn't this really the same as a randomly launched message colliding with somebody's mind on the street somewhere?

Of course, the tire stunt is merely the irresponsible actions of some kids who didn't know better. But there is a rarified level in which pranks touch upon the spiritual. This is the zone where the mind doesn't know its own intentions—or when the intentions of someone are so mistaken by others that the act becomes alive and under its own volition. "Thought is made in the mouth," as Tristan Tzara (or his hand) once said. I recall stopping in a book store in a small town in Georgia some years ago. I was talking with the owner, just shooting the breeze, when I said, "Sometimes I can't tell if I actually saw something or just imagined I did. . . ." The book store owner got kind of dreamy-eyed and said, "You know, I've always had an interest in parapsychology. . . " He proceeded to tell me about some weird paranormal studies out of a university in North Carolina. The point is, whenever you suggest the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, between the vague remark and the mistaken meaning, what results approaches the realm of the magical. A seemingly pointless remark can open up a door to the vast unknown. And that has to be respected, even if the results are silly, inconvenient or annoying.

I must add a final thought that flows out of those last two sentences. . . .

Before I hated television, before I hated what it has done to our people, I used to watch a great deal of it. You really need to kow the times I'm talking about to understand. This was during my elementary school years in the mid-to-late 1960s, when America had truly come into its own as a consumer paradise and the gaudy bulbous logos of endless products promised strawberry goodness bleeding with flavor or something close to it. I lived in San Diego and I was as mainstream in my habits then as I think I will ever be. I loved monster model kits and pre-sweetened soft-drink mixes and I watched a lot of television, especially on weekend mornings.

Some of the things I ate and drank and watched back then seem so amazing to me now that I can hardly believe that they existed and that I enjoyed them. Some come back to me as shards of memories, aromas, belches from deep down carrying bursts of faded flavors. The old TV programs return to me in this way. The local and non-network shows I remember especially—so many were clumsy, amateurish productions, naive and often strange. I sued to sit in front of the fat squat Zenith on Sunday mornings and watch things like The Chinchilla Show (promoting home chinchilla ranching) and Product Preview with Jeff and Lisa Clark (a chat show discussing new beverages and dessert toppings, among other items). The one that still haunts me, though, is White Time.

"The Right Time is White Time!"—so went the theme song that opened this odd but enduring show, running for a half hour at 7:00 a.m. Sunday mornings between an agricultural report and a Japanese cartoon series. I made a point of watching this program regularly, for reasons I still find hard to explain. The elements of the show were always the same: the smiling silver-haired host would walk out, dressed in matching cream-colored slacks and blazer, radiating breezy good cheer. He would lead the viewer on a stroll through a vast house, starting in an immaculate pine-paneled kitchen, its sideboard and table laden with noodle casseroles, thick-sliced cheeses, big layer cakes with glistening vanilla frosting—an empire of delicious pale food. The host would pass through room after room of this mansion, every wall a dazzling white, with draperies and furniture to match, laughing and gesturing expansively. And as he strolled he would repeat fragmentary prose poems in a hearty yet dreamy voice: "See yourself in robes of white, walking with blonde angels . . . this is heaven, isn't it?"

There were montages and dissolves throughout the show, done crudely but achieving a weirdly hypnotic effect. I remember seeing kaleidoscopic shots of blonde people walking arm-in-arm, running up hills with kites, the sun shining; a flaxen-haired girl petting a lamb, juxtaposed images of milk pouring from a pitcher and sparklingly clean sheets snapping in the wind; dandelion seeds blowing, fleecy clouds rolling across the sky, close-ups of toothy smiles on freckled faces. Floating through all of this were voice-overs, lines like: "Yes, it's plain, but who needs the dirt and the shadows?" and "... it's good, it's our own, it's white!"

As I grew older, I spent much less time watching television, but occasionally I'd tune in White Time. I found it was always the same—the technical values were no better, the people seemed no older, the content remained completely predictable.

I've looked for videocassettes of this program on eBay and at flea markets. I've seen something called WipeTime for sale, but I checked and it's some sort of surf documentary. I'm half hoping no trace of the show exists and half hoping somebody has archived it. I'm ambivalent. I'm American. And that's one of the key meanings of freedom in this country: the right to be confused, mistaken or flat-out wrong and to be respected or even admired for it. After all, isn't the conquest of the frontier and Manifest Destiny and all that just one big prank? Ideas are on the market—and laughter, like water, always finds its own level. Pranksterism is in the American bloodstream. It's like Woodrow Wilson said: we must make the world safe for discrepancy.

(To be continued. . . )

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