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Longmont Potion Castle and the Art of Absurdist Prank-Dialling

By Jeremy Klemin.

Longmont Potion Castle

Some passions are meant to be left behind in adolescence. I no longer feel compelled to eat entire bags of potato chips in one sitting. Video games aren’t nearly as entertaining as they once were. Dick jokes and being aimlessly obnoxious in public are out of the question. Ding-dong-ditch no longer seems as harmless as it once was. My love for prank-calling, however, has remained. When done correctly and without malice, it’s both hilarious and harmless. I had been thinking at length about whether or not harassing strangers via the telephone is morally permissible when a long-time prank call collaborator showed me Longmont Potion Castle, a self-described “absurdist prank dialler”. Although he started out as a teenager over his parent’s answering machine in small-town Colorado, his operation is now considerably more complex and organised: he has bought several thousand dollars worth of audio gear for the purpose of imitating strange phone feedback and modulating his voice.

Traditional prank calling is usually done in one of two ways — the first is through fear or intimidation. These calls aren’t particularly funny, and anybody who calls strangers and whispers “I know where you live” with the sole intention of frightening them is a morally bankrupt arsehole. The latter is immediately goofy (“Is your fridge running? Well, you better go get it!”) – harmless and funny, but not particularly clever. Neither of these promote reflection after the fact, nor is there any real ability or intelligence involved. If prank dialling deserves to be considered audio art, it’s because of how quickly anonymous voice-only conversations enter absurd territory. Baffling, circular conversations with irate neighbours, insisting upon nonexistent items from stores, being threatened with millipedes by a UPS worker — all of these can only take place in Longmont Potion Castle’s beautifully strange universe.

The word “absurdity” is thrown around too much as a literary trope, but Longmont is truly absurd and the result is a joy to listen to. In his phone calls, individuals are repeatedly put at the mercy of large, impersonal systems whose machinations are unclear; it’s difficult not to compare these situations to Josef K’s exploits in Kafka’s The Trial. He frequently pretends to be a UPS deliveryman (United Parcel Service, not United Postal Service, as he repeatedly reminds his respondents), insisting that he needs to make a timely delivery of $1,800 worth of peacocks from Lithuania, and demanding that the delivery be paid COD. After the respondent repeatedly refuses payment, “Luke from UPS” says, “I’ll see you in the courtroom,” in which the respondent replies that he’ll counter sue him. Only 3:55 in, and I am now listening to two grown men heave legal threats at each other over an alleged order of Lithuanian peacock meat. Beautiful.

There’s something mind-numbingly frustrating about being called from a representative of a monolithic organisation like an energy company, for example, and being told that your candy store is going to be bumped up to 43°C (110°F) and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Likewise, what is someone supposed to say to a remarkably insistent employee of the largest package shipping company in the world when they’re told that a 9,600 gallon squid tank with live squid will be at there door in 10-15 minutes? What begins as a service call becomes a threat. There WILL be live squid at your door within the hour, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Longmont starts with the inherent hopelessness most of us feel when dealing with large, bureaucratic organisations and magnifies the feeling tenfold. On occasion, respondents simply acquiesce, acknowledging defeat at the hands of a system they don’t fully understand. Fuck it, bring the squids. Turn the heat up. You’re going to destroy all the candy in my store, but what am I to do? The callback number you’ve given me is either automated or plain doesn’t work.

In another UPS call, “Trinidad from UPS” attempts to arrange a delivery time for Tasmanian syrup on dry ice. After the respondent becomes increasingly exasperated over his failed attempts to explain that he did not order “a big tub of syrup from Tasmania” and starts becoming aggressive, Longmont lures Nick Harrington (the victim in question) back in:

“Can I ask you a question, sir?”
“Yeah, sure.”
“True or False: You’re full of excuses. True or false?”

No matter how strange the question is, respondents nearly always provide a response. They seem almost relieved at the fact that they’re now being prompted to answer a question. Such situations have precedents; “Hey, can I ask you something?” is a request that has a place in a rational, ordered universe, which couldn’t be further away from the universe that Longmont constructs during his prank dials.

Longmont capitalises on a fear that lies dormant within all of us, that one day we’ll wake up and find that our words don’t mean the same thing as they did the day before, that without warning we’ll find ourselves belonging to a society that speaks the same language as we do but fundamentally fails to understand what we’re trying to communicate. This isn’t the perpetually angsty adolescent moaning that “nobody understands him”, it’s the morbid, utterly human fear of a growing gap between intended and received meaning. Anyone who has suspected that some intended message has been lost after an important conversation knows how this feels — “Yes, my words have been heard and processed, but have they been understood correctly?” How, then, do people react to not being entirely understood? Anger and frustration. This is true after a convoluted, emotion-laden argument with a significant other, and mostly certainly true after literally being threatened with syrup from Tasmania.

Longmont is every bit the English-language master that more traditional performance artists and freestyle rappers are. He asks a respondent if his name is Harry, and when he says, ”No, my name is Nick Harrington,” Longmont replies, “Well, there ya go.” Later in the call, while pretending to be another UPS regional manager, he mentions that his name is Harry. Full circle. Elsewhere, Longmont calls a woman with the surname Painter and tells her that she has been signed up for some community service painting next weekend. When she tries to explain that the fact that there’s been a mistake and her last name is Painter, Longmont responds, “Well, just the same, we’d love to have you out there… it’s for the good of the community.” The logic involved is literally dreamlike. Of course Mrs. Painter would be up for a bit of community fence-painting, given her last name.

In another prank titled ‘Golf Wolf‘, Longmont calls a business while pretending to represent a magazine, and says that he’s looking for a new publisher. When the employee confusedly answers that they only sell copiers, Longmont says, “Yeah, you know, whatever. Get off my back.” He then continues his pitch. Harry becomes Nick Harrington, copy machines become publishing. These types of semantic leaps are unlikely, but not impossible. They seem just barely plausible enough to keep the person on the phone, with at least a bit of doubt about whether or not the call is legitimate or a prank.

Longmont, in essence, constantly plays on the shred of doubt that lingers in all situations that can’t be anything but a prank, that 10-15% chance that the situation at hand is authentic. If even the smallest part of an employee believes that someone is indeed looking for a “Swamp Donkey” outfit or that they’re looking for an album from the band “Turtle Pleasure”, they’re forced to take the request seriously. Hoyt Herringbone; Chaplain Shumaker; Mummy Napkin; and Rodney, Randy are but a few of his monikers — are these first names? Last names? Honorary titles? Nevertheless, they’re all just barely believable enough to be taken seriously. There’s something almost comic book-esque about the characters of Longmont’s universe. One repeated victim, a racist, paranoid, self-described “police news reporter,” assumes the ominous moniker “The Gargler” after years of repeated prank-calls and connecting his calls with other respondents. Longmont’s more abstract prank calls occasionally borrow from surrealism, but he owes a considerable debt to the Dadaists that preceded them.

Like the Dadaists, much of what Longmont says has no intended meaning, neither connotative nor denotative. He is, in essence, a master at constructing otherwise logical sentences that serve no purpose other than to fill a void and provoke misunderstanding. When Longmont calls RadioShack looking to “revel in the excitement of Tandy [RadioShack’s parent corporation, which has changed names by the time of the phone call]”, what does he mean? The sentence is grammatically correct, but so vague and nondescript that it’s all but meaningless. When he asks a few seconds later if “the feeling is palpable”, this is similarly meaningless. Yes, the feeling one gets from “revelling in the excitement of Tandy” is palpable. No, it isn’t. What is the difference? Longmont consistently sets up his respondents for these kind of dead-end answers; for questions that are so universally applicable that they end up meaning absolutely nothing at all.

In another call where Longmont enquires with an army recruiter about “wanting to enrol” (the recruiter repeatedly corrects him as “wanting to enlist”, but to no avail), Longmont is repeatedly questioned about his criminal record. After he admits that he got in trouble for public nudity in The Netherlands, the army recruiter asks, “Indecent in public?” Longmont responds, “You’re gunna be indecent for presentation when I’m done with ya.” One wonders how anyone could take these threats seriously, how anyone could take some of his requests at face-value. Longmont persists, however, and when faced with the absurd, Longmont’s correspondents do the best they can to rationally reply to irrational demands.

Longmont is consistently employing language that can only be called weightless. Whether he’s concerned about his “flipper running through a rubber that’s he trying to quadruple”, asking someone if they “stand by their word up ‘ere”, or inquiring about what someone’s “level of involvement” is, most of he says evaporates as soon as it leaves his mouth. Whenever Longmont calls a “neighbour” requesting that they turn the noise down or that they help him catch a runaway kite, Longmont responds that he’s either “just catty-corner” or “perpendicular to ya”. A coherent response, but a meaningless one. Empty language. His name, too, is empty. Longmont is a place, but the words “Longmont Potion Castle” don’t mean anything.
           
Over the years, Longmont’s victims have been myriad — whether it’s a local employee at a music shop in small-town Colorado, Kiefer Sutherland or Alex Trebek allegedly ordering 4,200 pounds of sod from Siam (which he dutifully corrects as being Thailand), all temporarily become a part of Longmont’s internally rational but otherwise absurd universe. He teaches us what fellow performance artist Surveillance Cameraman has also made evident — when people are thrown into a situation they fundamentally don’t understand with little or no warning, they react to the threat in one of two ways: they either try to nervously placate Longmont and pretend that they’re in on the joke, or they become angry and aggressive very, very quickly. Longmont improvises beautifully, playing off of the respondent’s confusion with little to no hesitation. This is what separates him from other famous prank diallers like The Jerky Boys, who are funny but relatively one-dimensional. In Longmont’s own words: his prank dialling “may be dumb, but it’s not stupid”.

 

Jeremy Klemin

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeremy Klemin studied Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh for his MSc. You can find other pieces of his in This is Africa, Bakwa Magazine and The Ploughshares Blog. He can be found on Twitter @JeremyKlemin

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 7th, 2017.