ARCHIVE: Phone Prankster Dials Up the Basie

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Standup comedian, radio personality and phone-prank specialist Roy Wood Jr. keeps up with the latest tech, as the Last Comic Standing Live! tour brings him to New Jersey for the first time. (Photo by Mykeon Smith)

By TOM CHESEK (First published on RedBankGreen October 14, 2010)

As a practitioner of the lively, all-American art of the prank phone call, Roy Wood Jr. has driven people of all backgrounds to equal-opportunity apoplexy — pranking and posing as bureaucratic blowhards, nosy neighbors, unwelcome exes, crabby customers and a certain Dr. Azibo. It’s a skill set that’s landed him major exposure on nationwide shows with Tom Joyner and Jamie Foxx.

The question isn’t just who Wood is at any given moment, but where — as the busy standup, comedy writer and broadcaster can appear at any moment to be anywhere on the TV comedy circuit (Def Comedy JamChelsea LatelyLettermanFerguson), to his native Birmingham, Alabama (where he somehow manages to deliver a daily radio show), to any of 60 cities on the current tour of Last Comic Standing Live!

When the traveling version of the hit NBC series Last Comic Standing makes its annual jaunt to the Count Basie Theatre Friday night for an 8p show, Wood will be present, in person, accompanied by a busload of his fellow finalists from the Season Seven comedy competition. In  advance, we got on the phone with Wood — not the safest thing to do under normal circumstances.

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From left to right: Myq Kaplan, Tommy Johnagin, Felipe Esparza, Roy Wood Jr. and Mike DeStefano are co-headliners (and bus-mates) when the Last Comic Standing tour rolls into Red Bank on Friday night.

redbankgreen: Thanks for calling in, Roy — if that IS your name. I know the caller ID says Roy Wood Jr., but when you’ve pranked as you’ve pranked, how can you ever expect to be treated in good faith when you make a call?

ROY WOOD JR.: It’s getting worse for phone pranks. I used to use phone cards as my cloaking device, until the FCC changed the laws. Now I have to employ technology like Skype. The cool thing about Skype is that you can change your name as it appears, pretend you’re Continental Airlines or something.

It’s probably not much fun trying to compete with the campaign calls this time of year. But as much as the taped political ads inspire negative feelings, how much respect does the prank artist get? Where does the art form sit on the showbiz hierarchy?

As an artistic enterprise, an art form, it’s not high on the list. I guess it’s classier than a kick to the crotch on YouTube — it’s good for a simple laugh, but in the end it’s not something I try to build a career upon. Almost like juggling — it’s a skill, but you’re just another dude throwing things in the air.

I understand that you actually entered show business on an even lower rung, the world of journalism.

I majored in journalism at good old Florida A&M University — I wanted to be a sports journalist kind of like Kenny Mayne, who probably has the career I would have wanted. The guy who interviews the guy who paints the football field before the game. That got me into radio — I became a producer and a co-host for a morning radio show.

And you’ve always kept your hand in with the radio thing over the years, correct?

I’m doing morning radio every day in Birmingham — it’s the number one show in the market, and I do it from wherever I am, on the road, or home in LA, where I moved three years ago. I have a pretty damn good internet connection; ISDN lines, mobile broadcast equipment.

You’re actually trying to do your show from a tour bus? How’s that working out?

I have four roommates on a big bus — and I’m not a big fan of roommates as a rule — but it’s actually been fun. You really have the opportunity to get to know people that way, talk about projects you can do together.

Well, on October 15 your bus rolls into Red Bank, New Jersey, where I’m pretty sure you’ve never appeared. Gave you played anywhere in the general region  New Brunswick, Atlantic City?

No! I play New York a lot, but this’ll be my first trip to the land of the Turnpike. Coming up on the Southern circuit as I did, I never got a chance to play above Philadelphia.

So what can we expect to see in this year’s edition of the show? I imagine you guys all play it a bit more loose than you do on prime time network TV.

Pretty much everything is fair game — people can expect a PG-13 kind of show — not over the top, but not squeaky clean by any means. I’m not as dirty as some comics on the show, but I did have some trouble with the network over a joke I did about a guy cursing out a fast food employee — it was a true story — and the network didn’t want me to say the name Wendy’s. My issue is with time — most of my jokes are three, four minutes long, and they’d like it if everything was thirty seconds.

Still, it’s the kind of thing you can’t pass up, right?

Doing a network TV show for eight weeks definitely does things for your career. I’ve heard stories of comics fighting with each other in past seasons, but it’s been a great experience for me — I think the show made a few misfires in the first few seasons, but bringing on people likeGreg GiraldoAndy Kindler, really changed the show for the better.

Well, since you bring it up, I have to ask you about the whole thing with Greg Giraldo — he died pretty close by to where we are here, and the news must have just cast a pall over everything, right in the middle of your tour.

It was completely sad — our first night back on stage after it happened, this was in Boston I think it was, we got together backstage, and made a decision to say a few words in tribute during the show. It reminded me almost of the first show I did right after 9-11 happened; at some dive bar in Mississippi. Every TV was showing Ground Zero still smoldering; people were captivated by what was happening there, and I get onstage attempting to ignore it, telling jokes that were funny on 9-10. The lesson was that you can’t ignore these things — you do have a responsibility to the audience, to acknowledge the bad stuff; help them to deal with it.

One more. As a sports fan, if you follow baseball at all, you know about Tommy John surgery. If there was such a thing as “Tommy Johnagin surgery,” which body part would it involve?

Hmm. Tommy Johnagin surgery, that’d have to be gene surgery! Replacement of the non-sarcastic genes — the sarcasm ligament.

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