Jimmy Kimmel loves prank calls.
So much so that when EW calls him up to talk about the return of Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers, he first asks if we’re really, truly EW or have set up an elaborate ruse to play a prank on him. Sadly, we didn’t think that far ahead.
But Kimmel still has lots to say about the crank call-meets-puppets series, which originally ran on the network from 2002 to 2007. After 12 years off the air, Crank Yankers is back and the host of Jimmy Kimmel Live, who serves as an executive producer, couldn’t be happier. “The truth is, I would’ve brought it back in 2014 if anyone had approached me about it,” he tells EW. “Because it has always been my favorite show to do.”
The show, which airs at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, also brings back many trademark characters, including Kimmel’s elderly Elmer, who is featured in an exclusive clip above, Morgan’s Spoonie Luv, and Silverman’s Hadassah Guberman. Others, like the not-suitable-for-2019 Special Ed, will wisely not be revived.
In the midst of prepping for his late night show and smoothing out preparations for another crack at the Emmy-winning Live In Front of a Studio Audience, Kimmel picked up the phone to give us the details on this reboot, why it’s harder than ever to make a prank call in 2019, and how that’s not stopping them.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you decide that 2019 was the time to bring back Crank Yankers?
JIMMY KIMMEL: I just always loved the show. Not just the crank calls, but the show is so creative. We have some super talented puppeteers and Todd James, who’s the artist who draws all our characters, and my brother Jonathan, who runs the show, he loves this sort of thing. It is in his DNA. It was fun to do the first time, and it’s even more fun to do the second time around because we have so much technology at our disposal now.
Technology has changed a lot, but in essence, a prank call is the same. What challenges did the shifting landscape bring?
It’s a little bit harder now to get people to pick up the phone, but we mostly call businesses where they have to pick up the phone. In the old days, we’d make the calls from Vegas, and I used to flip through the Nifty Nickel, which is the local version of the Pennysaver there, and I just randomly called people who were selling things. Now, you get a very low percentage of those people picking up the phone call, and you don’t want to spend five hours making one prank call, so we tend to call businesses now. That’s the negative about technology. The positive is, it used to be that every call was made from indoors, so now we can open that up. You can have someone calling from their car or you can have a puppet calling from the park. Also, we used to have to build everything out of fabric and wood, and now it’s a combination of digital and practical, which makes the show look a lot better.
In terms of deciding on targets and who you’re calling, is not punching down with your humor something actively on your mind?
For us, we don’t know who’s gonna answer the phone. We try not to waste the time of people who are doing important work, so we’re not going to call a hospital and we’re not going to call the fire department or anything like that. You would be surprised — I would say almost everyone we call thinks it’s funny afterwards. And if they don’t, they don’t sign the release and so those calls never make it to air. People love it; people get a kick out of it. They hang up the phone, and they probably turn to their co-workers and go “I just got the craziest call.” Then they find out there was a reason for it, and there is a sense of relief. People do enjoy it. People are bored at work for the most part.
You’re introducing new formats too, including video game platforms. How did you hit on those specifically?
It’s not necessarily about the telephone, it’s about making an audio connection with another person so that seemed to make sense. I’ve heard many, many stories from my friends about they’re playing Call of Duty or something, and some kid’s mother is yelling at them from the background [laughs]. Or the kids don’t realize they’re playing against a 45-year-old man. There’s just a lot of humor there.
In the past you voiced characters pretty frequently, but can we expect it to be a bit more infrequent this go-round since you have so much on your docket?
I have a couple of characters I do regularly on the show — Elmer the Old Man and Terrence the Celebrity Assistant. Sometimes I’ll just make a call using my own voice, but I have some ideas for some new characters that I’m working on, one of them being my agent James “Baby Doll” Dixon. We all walk around imitating him all day, and it is fun to call and yell at people as him.
Are there any people, yourself included, who you worry your voices are too recognizable to pull it off?
It’s funny because it ruins the call, but it’s also quite a compliment when people recognize [you]. It’s also really weird when you call somebody who’s working in a pet store in Tennessee, and they recognize your voice as if it makes any sense that you would be calling them. But it does happen sometimes.
Did you bring back some of the original puppets or did you basically have to redesign them all from scratch?
We had to use new puppets because they’re not in great physical condition. We’d be destroying them if we used them. We also made the puppets smaller this time around. My brother realized they didn’t have to be as big as they are, so it’s a little bit better for the puppeteers working with a smaller puppet.
What reaction did you get when you reached out to actors and comedians, whether returning voices or new people?
It is funny, pretty much everyone who was a part of it the first time around was excited to be a part of it again. But it is interesting to see these people who were teenagers and kids when the show was on the air the first time around, [and they were] excited to do it because it’s something they never imagined they’d get to do and they’re long-time fans of the show. So, that’s fun for us. It’s always a compliment when you hear that kind of stuff. Like, “Oh, when I was 10 years old, I watched this over and over again.” It’s the same feeling I got from listening to the [platinum-selling prank call comedians] JerkyBoys and how much I loved those calls, and how much I would love to be a part of something like that.
Can you tease some of your favorite calls coming up?
I made a great call to a celebrity that I’m hoping we get the okay to put that one on the air. I can’t say what it is. I did make a call as Terrence the Celebrity Assistant to a white water rafting place on behalf of Ariana Grande, asking ridiculous questions like, “Is there a Sephora store along the river? In case she needs to stop and buy some beauty supplies?” And these people were very – it is the best when people are very helpful. When they are helpful, you can really run them through the wringer. [It’s] taking advantage of their good nature.
What is the plan for this — a special limited return, or will you keep it going as long as there’s interest?
We got picked up for two seasons right off the bat, so we’re going to be on for a while. The show had phenomenal ratings; it did really well, so right now it looks very positive. But after 20 episodes, we’ll see if they want to do more.