Prank Phone Calls Aren’t Dead. Longmont Potion Castle Kept Them Alive In The Cult Underground

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7min 30sec
<p>Courtesy of David Hall/Burger Records</p>
<p>A still from “Where In The Hell Is The Lavender House?” shows Longmont Potion Castle, seen from behind, at the recording rig he uses for prank calls.</p>
Photo: LPC 1 | LPC In Trailer Still - Courtesy
A still from "Where In The Hell Is The Lavender House?" shows Longmont Potion Castle, seen from behind, at the recording rig he uses for prank calls.

He goes by the moniker Longmont Potion Castle. He’s released dozens of albums, his first dropped in 1988. Each contains track after track of elaborate and absurdist prank phone calls recorded in his home near Denver.

Like the time he called a candy store and, posing as the utility company, told them they needed to test the heat: “So we’re gonna be turning your temperature up to about 110 degrees,” he said over the line.

The dismayed candy store clerk responds it “could be a really big issue... you will melt all of our candy.”

Over three decades, LPC has amassed a cult following. Many fans say he elevates prank calls to an art form. These aren’t your typical gags, like “is your refrigerator running?” He weaves farcical premises with witty responses and audio effects. He often manages to keep people on the line longer than you’d expect.

A new film titled “Where in the Hell is the Lavender House? The Longmont Potion Castle Story” — a nod to one of his prank calls — premieres in March. It’s released by California-based Burger Records, which also produced the film’s soundtrack.

The prankster hadn’t talked much to the media. Then, in 2016, he spoke with Rolling Stone, which deemed him “America’s Underground Prank-Call King.” CPR News reached out to him and agreed not to use Longmont Potion Castle’s real name. His anonymity is key to his work, and somehow, he’s managed to maintain it this whole time.

LPC said he had a phone in his room when he was a kid, but “it kept getting taken away.”
“I was using it for unintended reasons,” the prankster said. “I was always getting in trouble as a kid prank calling people.”

This wasn’t just some teenage phase. LPC kept at it and quickly saw the creative potential in prank calls. He is also a musician, which plays into how he approaches his pranks, from his recording studio set up to the way he experiments with sound. His music, he admits, never took off like the prank calls did.

“I’m honestly a little surprised that people like it even now, at this late day,” he said of the LPC catalogue. “I’m not trying to act meek or anything. I just really am surprised that people care about it.”

Early on, he pulled numbers for random people from the phone book, usually because the name “seemed funny.”

The crank call concept seems to be throwback to an earlier time of landlines, printed phone directories and the availability of human operators when you dial “0.” Today’s phone technology has certainly presented challenges. Everyone carries a smartphone, which is a much more personal device. Caller ID and the scourge of robocalls have made it more difficult to get many to answer. For every call that’s successful, LPC said 10 fail.

He has a few techniques to keep people on the line when they do answer.

“The UPS scenario really snares people in there,” he said. “I just picture them thinking, did I order something? I don’t think so, but I better keep talking and find out.”

If people hang up on him, he’ll just call them back and splice the calls together.

As his popularity grew, fans started to send him phone numbers. That’s how he got the number for Alex Trebek. In fact, he’s pranked the Jeopardy host a number of times. There was the call during which LPC told Trebek there was a shipment of 4,200 pounds of sod on the way to his home, or the number of times he’s patched him in with other unsuspecting people, using conference lines or three-way calling to create confusion.

LPC has also pranked celebrities, like actor Keifer Sutherland and singer Eddie Money.

Other celebrities, like actor Rainn Wilson, perhaps best known for playing Dwight Schrute on the U.S. version of “The Office,” are fans, even superfans, of LPC’s work. Wilson considers the prank caller “one of the most unique comedic voices working in America in the last 20 years.”

“There’s something about his sense of humor and comic mayhem that reminds me of the Marx Brothers at their greatest,” Wilson said. “There’s a surreal aspect, as if Salvador Dali were doing prank phone calls.”

Wilson was interviewed as part of the new LPC documentary. Though he clarified that, despite some previous reports, he had no involvement in the film’s production.

Unsurprisingly, many of the people LPC pranks get very angry. In the LPC flick, the owner of a Denver electronics store said what LPC does is, plain and simple, harassment.

“I’m telling you, when this guy finally gets outed, somebody’s going to beat this dude’s ass. I hope it’s me,” the store owner said.

The business proprietor goes on to bring up a big question: Is this legal? There’s no simple answer to that. Some states, like Colorado, require only one person’s permission to record a call or in-person conversation. California, and others, mandate that all parties are aware of a recording. The fact that LPC releases some of these calls as albums makes it even murkier. A court would have to sort that out. But he’s never been sued.

Photo: LPC 2 | Twist &amp; Shout Paul Epstein - CJones
Paul Epstein of Denver's Twist & Shout.

Some on the receiving end can laugh it off, like Paul Epstein, owner of Denver record store Twist and Shout. Epstein said he actually knew LPC in the early 90s. They were “friendly and casually chatty in that customer-clerk-record-store way.”

“I found him to be sincere, intelligent, artistic, funny, and vulnerable,” Epstein said, adding they bonded over music and a love for restaurant chain Shakey’s Pizza. They fell out of touch for a while. Then, Epstein heard from his employees that they started to get “weird calls at night.”

LPC dropped a new album soon after and with a track called “Dugan Nash.” On it, he asked a Twist & Shout employee to find a fictional song, using sound effects to manipulate his voice in a way that mimics a song itself.

Epstein said the prank was juvenile, calling it the “humor of hurt.” And yet, while he felt bad for his employee, he also thought it was funny and decided to sell the album at his store. He did so with a small display at the counter and a sign that said, “Buy them now before we sue him.”

“I was like, if you’re going to make fun of my store, I’m going to make money off of you,” Epstein said.

To be clear, Epstein had no intention of suing him, but said the sign helped sell more albums.

LPC has claimed in other interviews that he was banned from Twist & Shout for his antics. But Epstein said that’s not true — when pressed about it, the phone prankster said it was a “self-imposed” ban. In fact, Epstein claimed to have no hard feelings and, if he saw LPC today, he’d congratulate him.  

Filmmaker David Hall’s Longmont Potion Castle movie blurs the line between reality and fiction, much like what you hear in the prank calls. Hall also maintains his anonymity. In some scenes, you’ll see LPC at his setup, but filmed in ways so that you never see his face. Hall considers what LPC does to be art.

“For me, there’s always two main factions to art. There’s the technical, formal aspect and then there’s the inspirational side. And I see both [with LPC],” Hall said. “He puts as much work into creating an album as any band I’ve ever met.”

Hall said he is “a genius and deserves recognition.”

There’s also a television show about LPC in the works. Brooklyn-based comedian and director Sebastian DiNatale is behind that series. He learned about LPC after he graduated from college and he became a “superfan overnight.”

“On its face, he’s a prank caller, but he’s so much more,” Dinatale said. “He has so much technicality and craft behind his calls. It’s completely different than Jerky Boys or even Crank Yankers.”

Paid telephones and landlines might be dinosaurs for millennials today, but maybe that nostalgia is  why the prank call has held on — and might be poised for a return. The new Longmont Potion Castle movie and its screening tour is one piece of the puzzle, another is a new album from the Jerky Boys, their first in 20 years.