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August 25, 2019

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Columnist John Katsilometes: A real chat with King of Hoaxes

John Katsilometes' column appears Tuesdays and Sundays. Reach him at 259-2327 or [email protected]m.

The e-mail was short and snappy, and the sender was clearly torqued.

"Calling someone you're writing about a 'twerp' is real objective journalism! Your wife must be proud of you! The only mystery is that you HAVE a wife!"

What, ho? Could it be? Yes! It was none other than the phantom of the phone lines, Philadelphia's favorite son, Captain Janks.

You may or may not recall Mr. Janks from a column written the Tuesday after John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane plunged into the ocean off Martha's Vineyard. During a live report on ABC News, Peter Jennings took a call from someone claiming to be a Coast Guard representative. Jennings asked for the person's location, and the caller told Jennings that "Howard Stern thinks you're a (certain part of the male anatomy)."

Jennings, nonplussed, swiftly dismissed the caller and explained that it was a fan of Stern's who has a habit of interrupting crisis coverage on network and cable newscasts. It was Captain Janks, who has successfully infiltrated similar reports about the Columbine High School shootings, the death of Princess Diana, and just about every emergency report worthy of national coverage. He's broken through on "Larry King Live" several times, unnerving and confusing guests like Dick Van Dyke, Jimmy Stewart and Donny Osmond.

I was critical of Janks' decision to bust in on what was a somber, serious report of JFK Jr.'s missing plane. I also ventured to the Captain Janks website, which includes a few photos, and noted that "he looks like a real twerp."

Janks finally caught up with the column last week when it was posted on the Howard Stern newsgroup website. We swapped e-mail messages and, after he provided proof of his identity, agreed to conduct a running Q & A column. A brief bio: Janks' real name is Tom Cipriano, he's 32 years old and works, as he says, "for a company that manufactures toilet seats and other plastics," something to remember the next time you're on the commode.

Here goes:

Urban Scrawl: What or who was your inspiration for making crank phone calls?

Captain Janks: It was the "Tube Bar" (comedy) tapes that originate from Jersey City, N.J. that inspired me. That, and "The Howard Stern Show."

US: When was your first crank call and who was the victim?

CJ: My first crank call was to "Larry King Live" back in 1989. It took off from there with Larry King being the main target, along with other call-in shows such as Sonya Freedman on CNN and Phil Donahue. The calls to the news-gathering organizations didn't happen until 1992, when I called CNN as a witness after an earthquake (in Southern California). I liked the challenge of getting on shows that did not take on-air calls. The first show I got through to that didn't take on-air calls was the "Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon" back in 1991.

US: What happened with the telethon call?

CJ: In order to get on the telethon I told the producers that I was representing Larry King and that he wanted to make an on-air pledge to Jerry. Then I put together several snippets of Larry King's voice to fool them into believing that he was actually on the phone. Once I got on the air I asked Jerry what he thought of Howard Stern. Jerry then called me a schmuck.

US: Have you ever felt guilty after pulling a prank call?

CJ: No.

US: Who has been the most strident in their criticism of you?

CJ: Rosie O'Donnell. She went on the Charles Grodin show once and trashed me. In response, I got on her TV show disguised as the mayor of Philadelphia. When I was put on the air with her, I called her a fat pig.

US: Do you have any kind of regular contact with Howard Stern? What has your relationship with him been like?

CJ: My relationship with Howard is on the air. I do not work for Howard, nor do I work for CBS. Howard has never asked me to do a prank. I do the pranks on my own, and sometimes Howard plays the audio of the pranks on his show.

US: Why "Captain Janks?":

CJ: I was in the Army from 1985-1988. Our captain was named Captain Janks and we always made fun of him. He's a real person I've adopted as an alter-ego.

US: Some detractors accuse you of poor taste and even Stern at times has attempted to distance himself from you, especially after the JFK Jr. crash. What do you have to say to those who accuse you of crossing the boundaries of good taste?

CJ: Howard laughed when I played the calls from the JFK Jr. incident over the air. A lot of people laughed. I received good and bad e-mail concerning the whole thing. I don't think JFK Jr.'s death is funny, nor do I think Princess Di's death or natural disasters are funny. See, I've been doing this for years now. I pull my pranks on news-gathering organizations that are so gullible that, time and time again, (they) will put my calls through without checking the credibility of the call. They are so willing to get the "scoop" before anyone else that they can be very sloppy about getting the story on the air.

At least I let the viewers in on the fact that it is a prank. I wonder how many times CNN has reported on breaking stories when they didn't have accurate facts. How many times must they fall for the same prank? They never learn, and when they screw up and put a prank caller on the air, they cry "foul." How about if the viewers start asking, "How could CNN let that happen as much as it does? Don't they check their sources?" My pranks are never about the story itself, just the organization that is covering the story.

US: Can you describe a typical prank call? What's the process like and how do you gain access to a phone number for, say, ABC News?

CJ: The producer's control room numbers are usually given to me by the person at the assignment desk after I identify myself as a public official or witness in connection with a breaking story. I also have quite a few insiders at any given news outlet (usually Stern fans I will not name) who give me inside numbers. Once I get through to the proper extension and speak to the producer, they usually ask me if I want to do a "beeper" (a live phone report) and I just say yes. Then, while I'm waiting to go on the air, I make up a dialogue of what I will say on the air.

US: Have you ever considered that crank calls can trivialize a tragic event, such as the Columbine shootings?

CJ: No one can trivialize a tragic event except maybe the news organization. As I recall, someone called in during the coverage of the Columbine school shootings claiming to be a trapped student on a cellular phone, which turned out to be a hoax. Even if that call had been authentic, why would a news station air it? That could only cause further problems, had the gunmen had a TV on in the school.

US: You've become famous solely for being a practical joke artist. Why do you do this?

CJ: Well, nowadays with "Real TV" or "America's Funniest Home Videos"-type shows taking over television, you can see that "live" television is becoming very popular -- just as the "Jerky Boys" (novelty CDs) along with many other phony phone call artists who have been emerging in the past 10 years. It's another step toward a new type of comedy. When CNN does live coverage of a breaking story, anything can happen. I do it because it's funny. It makes people laugh. Some people won't laugh, and I understand that. The majority will, though. Practical jokes are funny as long as no one gets hurt. Although my prank calls may evoke strong emotions, no one has ever gotten hurt.

I don't do it to hurt people. I do it to make people laugh. As long as my calls still get laughs, I'll continue doing them.