Tragedy Shows How Far We’ve Come From ‘Prince Albert in a Can’

Guest Blog: Even before the tragic death of the British nurse involved with the Princess Kate incident, it was clear the prank phone call has devolved

I grew up making prank calls.

Back then, I would call a supermarket and ask if they "had Prince Albert in the can?" I was a schmuck among other young schmucks whose collective heads were pressed against a Princess Phone as if it were a modern day glory-hole, in order to hear a muffled response.

A short pause while the harried clerk looked into his tobacco inventory would often bring the reply "yes," to which I would gasp out in a hurried retort, "Well let him out!" and hang up before any FBI trace could be put on my parents' phone.

My friends and I would be breathless laughing that we had put one over on the poor grocery guy.  Hell, we weren't even smoking pot at that point. We had no excuse for our idiocy. It was the pure innocence of those early years before sarcasm and parody overshadowed whatever wit I could lay claim to. 

The prank call, however, has devolved. 

I remember how various fans of Howard Stern would turn the prank call into a telephonic feast that the Marquis de Sade would be proud of. Those scurrilous Stern fans would play an evil pas de deux with an iPhone, laying in wait as segment producers recited a silent prayer, and then put the caller on hold, in fervent hope that the empty credentials or half-hearted impression would not end in their termination.

We all know how it goes down. The prank call to the on-air personality is what high beams are to a deer. Their expressions and attempts to recover become the punch line, while the prank caller enjoys the orgasm of brief fame — vowing that the next one will be more scathing, and the next … and the next.  

The prank call is the currency of every Morning Zoo DJ or Shock Jock whose challenge it is to come up with content every day, for four hours a day. We don't merely accept it, we salivate over it, and it becomes the topic of conversation during work breaks. Entertainment at the expense of others has been around since the Romans would get together to watch some Christians have it out with lions. It's no freaking different. We enjoy comedy at the expense of others, and the prank call is the lowest form of this. 

So, when an obviously disturbed woman decides that her defilement at the hands of idiot Shock Jocks several continents away is worth her life, and the emptiness and regret that will follow her children for the rest of their lives — we find it most easy to fault the merry pranksters.

The call that was made to the hospital ward of Princess Kate in the guise of Queen Elizabeth wasn't even good radio. The appalling impression was so obviously bad and the parody so stale, that many people are scratching their heads wondering how these nurses fell for it in the first place. Add to that the most likely scenario that the hospital administration had this poor woman on the carpet for falling for this ruse, and you have a perfect cocktail of despair that fed into this poor woman's obvious psychoses — and as a result, she couldn't handle it.

Instead of ruining the lives of the perpetrators, who were just re-hashing a common routine to get ratings, look instead at how corporate administrations create personal havoc when disciplining staff who have made an innocent mistake. Instead of chastising the DJs in the pages of the Telegraph, look at the British paparazzi mentality that can follow a Princess' Mercedes at top speed in a Parisian tunnel, causing a fatal accident. Instead of threatening to boycott Australian radio, turn up the dial on your own morning radio regimen, and tell me who you listen to. If you say NPR, don't. I'm talking about entertainment.

The roll of the prank call dice landed unfortunately at the feet of what seems to be a disturbed woman, who buckled under the rancor that the British Press foisted upon her. 

This is not to apologize for how scurrilous prank phone calls have become. They haven't always been so biting. I remember Sweet Dick Whittington, a DJ of my youth who made prank calls to various civic leaders on the island of Catalina, warning them of an impending invasion. And then, he took listeners to Catalina for the invasion. Not one member of the chamber of commerce committed hara-kiri, or any other ritual disembowelment. I remember Paraquat Kelly, an iconic DJ at an album rock-oriented FM station who would call various beach resorts to inquire how the "red snapper is biting."

The worst reaction might be a letter to a station manager, or maybe to the FCC.  And as the humor has changed, so have we. We take things far too personally, we are afraid to laugh at each other's foibles or our own, in order to be P.C.  We are way too serious.  Lighten the f up.  If you're the butt of a joke, laugh along with the others.  I do that regularly.

And if the Queen calls, just hang up.