By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
Over the jingle of ice, an old lady with a strong New York accent says, "Hold on. Let me get a shot of bourbon." Then she starts complaining: "Yes, I was just speaking to someone who was very rude. I don't know if they're shy for what they're selling, but if they don't want to talk about the products they're selling, they shouldn't be on the phone."
She wants to talk about her broken Cum Here Mr. Cucumber vibrator: "I have an item that I ordered here that isn't functioning correctly. Here listen. I'll turn it on here. [sound of vibrator] All right, now, the cock's vibrating, but it stops after... [vibrator goes off] See? Did you hear that?"
"It just stopped on me in the middle of... I was about to... [vibrating starts again] uh, ooohh! There it goes again. It goes on and off, and I tried changing the batteries, uh, in the balls. And, uh, it still... Oh, there it goes again. Right in the middle, you know, I'm about to climax and boof! It's out on me."
"Sounds like it's attacking you."
"I know. It's crazy. And, you know, I'm an older woman, so these little things, whatever. I mean, I'm not embarrassed about it."
In an understanding tone, Chris says, "Well, you shouldn't be."
Emboldened by his understanding, Gladys gets the toy working again. "Whoa. Ohh. Gee. There it goes. Oh! Holy Jesus. Jesus Lord."
Then, when she decides to order something else, she
ups the ante: ups the ante: "You see, I was looking for something for me and my dog. I have a wonderful German shepherd with blue eyes. And I'm looking for something because the dog likes the vibration, and I like...Wait a minute: This thing is going crazy on me. Let me beat it down. [buzzing, violent thrashing sounds, end of buzzing] Jesus. Hello. The thing's shaking all over the place except where it's supposed to be."
She continues, "I have got a wonderful German shepherd, and I'm looking for something that's got the two ends. On both sides. Do you got anything like that?"
"Yeah, we do."
Evidently excited, she asks: "Oh, what do you got?"
"I've got some that are jelly."
"Ew. Jelly on my toast, but not on my vag. You know? Please."
"I've got something called the double-dick vibrator."
"Ooh! That's interesting -- what's that? Ooh. What's that? The double dig, or the double dick? What's it do?"
"It vibrates," Chris says patiently.
"Both, both ways?"
"Yeah. I think it kind of like tapers down so one side is big and the other side isn't."
"Would it be safe for my dog?"
"Um, it should be. I don't see why it wouldn't be."
"'Cause I don't want to hurt my little, you know. I've been using this Cum Here Mr. Cucumber. That thing was crazy. It would start squirting things all over the place. Go away, Mr. Cucumber. I'll tell you that much."
Chris tries to wrap up the sale. "The double-dick vibrator is $22.95."
"Whoa, that's good! That's a good price. For two sides. You say one side's the bigger side and the other's the smaller? So, I'd probably take the big side since I'm 67. My dog's younger. I'll give him the little side."
"Do you happen to have your nine-digit customer number?"
Gladys balks. "Oh God. Hold on. I can't find my customer number. Let me go get it and call you back. I'm gonna play with my vibrator a little more. Let me turn it on. Oh, it stopped on me. Let me jump-start it. I'll call you back. Love ya."
"OK. Bye," Chris says and hangs up.
When the call ended, Gladys Ridgeford didn't turn a lascivious eye on her "beautiful German shepherd" -- PETA take note. In fact, the 67-year-old lady doesn't exist; she is the most popular character in the repertoire of local crank caller and Internet radio show host Michael Biganski -- better known as Blackout.
Standing six feet tall and wearing his signature Cat in the Hat-style top hat, Biganski cuts a figure that is at once silly and mystical, not to mention handsome. His curly brown tufts splay out beneath the brim, framing his spangly blue eyes. His button nose sits atop slightly parted lips; there's a strong resemblance to Hugh Grant -- minus the stuttering dapper charm. Blackout's draw is of a completely different variety; it's a zany goulash of slick-tongued hysteria.
His eponymous website, Blackout's Box at Blackout.com, and his Internet radio show, Blackout's Box Live, feature cranks with several other outrageous characters like the singing-dancing Mikey Christopher, the gay redneck Dick Dangle, and the dull-witted cop, John Dandell, who calls back frustrated victims to resolve disputes. Biganski created the site in 1995 so fans could access recordings of his cranks. He wanted to foster what he calls "the intangible lore of communication amongst many." Blackout.com has evolved with technology and is now an elaborate online location where fans can listen to his weekly Internet radio show, watch his short films, and join a community of active chat rooms and bulletin boards.
He broadcasts from the converted garage of a four-bedroom house in Lauderhill that he shares with two roommates. Using a laptop for sound effects, a digital camera to broadcast video, and a cable broadband connection, he streams his shows to as many as 600 people an evening. Five to 20 people a night cram the house as spectators, on-air guests, and wisecrackers. His production background has included FM radio, cable television, and local theater, but he chose the Internet because, he says, it offers "more control of creative content." No bosses. No money men. No commercial interruption.
Although Blackout doesn't like to be pigeonholed, it is his outlandish cranks that have made him a popular figure on the Internet. In its 2003 edition, a popular Internet reference book called Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages featured his site in its humor and jokes section. Hahn's book says of Blackout's work, "These are, by far, the funniest such calls I ever heard. Every time I visit Blackout's Box, I end up laughing and laughing out loud." Then there are the e-mails from fans: "You are the funniest fucking crank caller in this world, bro!" and "You are a god you rule the world please more pranks you are the best I wet my pants eighteen times listening to this stuff all others pale in comparison" -- a nightmare of a run-on sentence, but the meaning is clear: Blackout's comedy leaves a strong impression.
While the Jerky Boys were turning the nation on to crank comedy with the release of their first CD, The Jerky Boys, in 1993, Blackout was developing his own style in Broward County. "I don't like to do like Jerky Boy-type things," he says. "I love to give the cue to make things go longer. I like to build, like, this long drama." Indeed, Blackout is adept at playing with his victims, adjusting his tone, and even switching characters to make the call believable.
The local talent's calls are longer and generally more sophisticated than those of the current crank market giant, Comedy Central's Crank Yankers, which features the smug humor of Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel. In a recent Yankers call, for instance, a cranker phones a telemarketing service to inquire about a job. While talking to the hiring manager, he starts belching into the phone and denies that he's doing it. While the hiring manager looks around his office for the gassy employee, the Yanker complains that he doesn't want to work in such an unprofessional environment. Ba dum chh!
Compare this to Blackout's latest, in which he calls up the distributor for a dog-calming CD imitating Snoop Dogg. Over the sound of a bubbling bong, Snoop comes on to the operator, calling her "little Venus" and asking her "what the Doggy Ease CD can do to calm the Dogg down." As Snoop's advances become more extreme, the telephone saleswoman gets increasingly antsy about the phone call's being recorded for "quality assurance." When Snoop persists and asks her for her personal phone number, she hangs up. It's more than a simple prank; Blackout does an amusing Dogg impersonation while exposing the rigid conditions under which the operator works.
When Biganski was 8 years old, he saw himself in a home video his grandfather had made. Instantly obsessed, he dug the eight-millimeter camera out of the closet and made a short film about an evil toy car. He recruited neighborhood kids to run away screaming.
When it was finished, he popped popcorn and set up a projector. But when the film rolled, all the children saw was a black screen. It was then that Biganski's grandfather sat him down with reels of exposed film and explained that it needed to be developed.
This was a telling beginning to Biganski's trial-and-error career in acting and media production.
His foray into radio began seven years later on a stormy Thursday afternoon in 1991. Tucked away in the studio of Piper High School's WKPX-FM (88.5), he was oblivious to the fact that a thunderstorm had just moved in. So, when lightning struck the radio tower, blowing out equipment at the station and cutting power to the whole school, Biganski freaked. He describes the experience best in the bio on his website: "I distinctly remember the huge CRAAAACCCking sound and believing that I had pushed the wrong button and somehow blown everything all to hell, and that surely I was going to be expelled." His classmates ragged on him and started calling him Blackout. The name stuck.
WKPX was out of commission for a couple of months, Blackout recalls. That was when he started making crank calls to entertain his friends in radio class. When the station went back on the air, he played recordings of this material. In one of his most outlandish on-air cranks from this period (posted on Blackout.com), he called 411 with a snooty British accent and requested the telephone number for the "Rrrrrrrooksnitzien Society." In the call, he claimed not to know how many r's the word begins with and attempted to persuade the operators that if they rolled their tongues when they said it, they would be able to divine the quantity.
"R-r-r-roll," he urged. "Put your tongue to the tip to the top to the tip." The crank punchlined when the supervising operator claimed to have a speech impediment.
A former schoolmate, James Jacoby, recalls that WKPX sponsor JoAnne Boggus, who was then an administrator at Piper, gave Biganski leeway to perform his antics on the air: "He was able to persuade Mrs. Boggus to allow him to do a show where he could play any type of music, because he was far above everybody else who was a DJ at that radio station. He was the most professional, both with production and on-air personality." Although Boggus, who recently retired as principal at Fort Lauderdale High School, did not confirm the decade-old details of this story, she remembered Biganski with an amused fondness: "He was an extremely talented person, and I'm happy that he's still doing this."
While still in high school, Biganski found an innovative way to distribute his work: He got a 1-800 number with a voice mailbox and recorded his cranks as the messages. He says, "I would have, like, ten-minute messages. That number got spread everywhere. Before I knew it, I was getting messages from all over the United States." Creating this voice mailbox, which provided the origin of the name Blackout's Box, was his way of overcoming technology insufficient to accommodate his vision. Looking back, he says, "Now, if you're a teenager in school, you can have a website, you can have all your shit up there, all your music up there, all your e-mail. You can have this massive computer database of whatever you want, and I kind of wanted that when that didn't really exist."
About the same time, the Y-100 (WHYI-FM, 100.7) morning program, the Y-Morning Zoo with Bobby and Footy and Captain Y, held a "Do Something Outrageous Contest," and Biganski put his filmmaking ambitions to the test. He won the contest two years in a row: 1992 and 1993. In his first film, which he lost in a 1998 house fire, he played Y-Man, a character who claims that he, and not the Y-100 morning radio personality Captain Y, is the real Y-100 superhero. In his second film, Y-Man Returns, Biganski performs a real-life stunt -- think Jackass -- in which, wearing a mask and cape, he runs into the Sawgrass Mills Mall with a blow-up boat, shouting at the top of his lungs, and flops into the fountain.
After it was over, the police dragged him to a holding cell and yelled at him. But that was a small price to pay for the trip he won to the Hedonism resort in Jamaica.
Y-100 DJ Footy, real name John Cross, vividly recalls Biganski and his films, saying, "I remember that contest. He was a Y-100 superhero or something. He was a cool guy. He was insane. He was the kind of guy who was willing to take chances."
In the ensuing years, Biganski performed in several local theaters. While a student at Broward Community College (he is still a few credits shy of his associate's degree), Biganski performed the role of Trevor in Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce." A review in the student paper, the Observer, described his performance as "brilliantly executed." A review of his portrayal of Gus in the 1996 production of It's Only a Play pronounced: "Michael Biganski's facial expressions and overall behavior are excellent."
It was on the set of Bedroom Farce that Biganski met another young comedian, Flip Shultz.
Through Shultz, he became involved in Mixed Nuts, an improv-comedy troop that performed at Uncle Funny's and other local venues. The two put on a series of two-character sketches, Shultz recalls, in which Biganski played a homicidal little girl named Melinda who would make unwelcome passes at Shultz's geeky character, Herbert. In one sketch, Melinda horrified Herbert with a poem about ripping a bird's head off. In another, she aggressively serenaded him and then ripped his clothes off, thwarting his plans to hook up with their baby sitter.
In 2000, Biganski landed a television gig. He hosted a Tricom Pictures product-marketing show called Twenty-Something that broadcast in the middle of the night on PAX. In one clip, he mocks Mentos commercials as he interviews the company's spokesperson. In another, he jibes uptight military personnel at NORAD, an Air Force satellite-tracking facility in Colorado. Of these animated interviews, Biganski says: "I would go beyond the script and do improv. At first, they thought I was crazy, and they tried to tone me down. By the end, they weren't writing scripts for me anymore."
Mike Ledy, a producer at Tricom, now Mirage Studios, confirmed these details. "Michael was really great to work with," Ledy said. "We would just let him do his thing for a couple of takes. Then we'd reel him back in and tell him if there was anything else we needed." For the first time, Biganski says, his acting career was going somewhere. "I was making, like, $400 a day doing something that I loved. They flew me to Colorado, Georgia, and the Virgin Islands." He filmed a season's worth of episodes in short spurts of time, earning roughly $30,000 a year -- which was serious money for him.
In the economic slump following September 11, the job fell through, and Biganski's life took a turn for the worse. He jokingly describes it as his "E! Hollywood Crash."
"Tricom stopped paying me on time, and it got to the point where I had a thousand dollars in the bank," he says. Then, in October, he received the news that his long-estranged father had passed away in Connecticut. When Biganski arrived to settle the estate, he was traumatized by the awkward experiences of reentering the house where he had lived until he was 7 years old and encountering his father's family as a stranger. Finally, there was the inheritance; he received, by his friends' estimates, $100,000. He felt guilty that his father's death had rescued him from financial ruin.
Biganski colorfully describes the year of depression that followed as "all the miseries you could imagine." He stopped broadcasting Blackout's Box Live. His friends, James Jacoby and Stacy Hummel, confirm that Biganski was down for a time but say that by the summer of 2002, he was his boisterous self again, and Blackout's Box Live was back on the air.
Blackout's studio is located in a beige slope-roofed house on a typical suburban street. He lives with Stacy Hummel, a slim, quiet type with brown hair who works as a graphic designer, and Robert Shapiro, who owns Maestro Video Productions, a company that films weddings. Hummel contributes to the layout and visual content of Blackout.com, and Shapiro plays Pharris, Blackout's heavy-set, deep-voiced cohost, who is the butt of many on-air jokes. The three roommates are part of a large network of friends who come over to chill in the coffee-shop atmosphere of the house.
Try to pull up to Blackout's house at 9 p.m. on a Thursday and the driveway is so packed with cars that you have to park in front of the neighbor's place. The unkempt lawn creeps over the edges of the sidewalk on an otherwise-manicured block; tiki torches on either side of the front walk remain from last summer's house party blowout. Inside, ten men and women in their late 20s hang out on the L-shaped couch in the large central room, plucking at guitars and watching animated movies. Another group is on the back porch talking in an intimate circle and smoking cigarettes.
By 9:30, Blackout's Box Live is on the air. The dim studio is lighted by candles; a plastic black vase of dyed daisies is on the coffee table; and Blackout, dressed in khaki pants and a linen shirt, is watching the listener count on his monitor. His energy fluctuates with the numbers, and right now, the screen says 70 listeners. That's a decent-sized audience.
Steely as Howard Stern behind the mic, Blackout floats through jokes and pop-culture topics but very often delves deeply into political arguments and philosophical tangents. Listeners and fans call in on 1-800-GO-ON-AIR to join the conversation and make crank requests.
Blackout's friends and guests have gathered around the four microphones set up in front of the beige- and white-striped studio couches. The key players are Pharris, the homophobic, teeny bopper-obsessed pop-trivia nut; Charmagne, the Blackout's Box sex doctor; and James, a.k.a Galador, the red-bearded bespectacled sci-fi junkie. Those who arrived early enough to nab one of the five sets of headphones from the coffee table are listening to the voice of a caller who says his name is Wade. Though he frequents Blackout.com bulletin boards, this is the first time he's actually spoken on the air, and everyone looks freaked out by what they are hearing.
After several minutes, Blackout recaps the conversation: "For those of you who've just tuned in, you are listening to Blackout's Box on Live 365. We are on the air with Wade from Pensacola. He's a new listener, and we think he might be a killer: He's 24; he works cleaning at Burger King; he's a virgin; and he lives with his folks. Average listener of Blackout.com. I present very, uh, high-brow material."
Wade responds in a slow provincial tone when Blackout asks him about working at Burger King: "The people were nice, are nice."
Pharris, who is leaning back in the corner of the big couch with his thick arms folded behind his head, gets a strange expression on his face. His girth shifts forward as he sits up and says, "All right, here's the deal. He said the people were nice, are nice. I think he killed the people at Burger King."
Wade responds, "Man, you just make everything up, don't you?"
Pharris looks around the studio. "I really get the impression that this is the kind of dude we don't want to fuck around with too much. He lives in the state, and I think he's kind of nutty. No offense."
Blackout turns Pharris' microphone off and says, "Yeah, well, that's not messing around with him at all. He's going to take that really well. I'm going to have to start giving out everyone's addresses so that we all have an equal chance if Wade comes down here."
Pharris dramatically tosses his headphones on the table and walks out of the studio.
Charmagne's long brown hair slides off her shoulders as she stretches up from the couch toward the microphone and says, "On the [bulletin] boards, Wade seems like a very nice, polite young man. So certainly, I say: I think he's creepy." She laughs apologetically and says, "Wade, you're too normal."
When Charmagne busts out tarot cards and starts doing a reading for Wade, Blackout yells "Shut up, shut up!" and goes into shtick.
As freaky music starts to play from his laptop, his shoulders stretch back into rigid posture and he modifies his voice with an echo effect as it takes on the slow calculated hiss of Hannibal Lecter. "I want to speak to Wade. Wade, what is the most terrifying thought you've ever had?"
Wade: I'm not that kind of person.
Blackout: Everyone gets sad sometimes, Wade. Everyone gets... lonely.
Wade: I'm really a very happy person.
Blackout: I'm not happy, Wade. I drink too much. Why don't you have some red wine, Wade? It's a little dry, but you will like it nonetheless.
Wade: I don't drink alcohol.
Blackout: What do you drink, Wade?
Wade: Dr. Pepper.
Blackout: Oh, Dr. Pepper is strange, Wade. Dr. Pepper tastes like something that's been sitting in my medicine cabinet for far too long.
Wade: I don't know what kind of Dr. Pepper you're drinking.
Blackout: I drank Dr. Pepper once. I drank Dr. Pepper with a small European boy who no longer exists.
Blackout tires of teasing Wade and opens the line for crank requests. "Call in and give me a phone number. I will call the person you want me to, and I will ruin their fucking lives... or make them laugh."
Meanwhile, Pharris is on the back porch smoking a menthol Benson & Hedges with Kerry Sampson, a petite brunette who's a self-proclaimed bitch. He explains, "On the show, I'm Pharris the character. I express my own beliefs, and it is my personality, but I allow certain liberties." Sampson doesn't have the same playful dynamic with Blackout. Their fights are real. "I was over here, and I was talking bad about Charmagne," she says. "I was saying that she's fake artsy, and, um, [Blackout] thought I was talking about him. And he got all offensive and up in arms, and he was like, 'Fuck you. Get the fuck out of my house, bitch.' Then I took him in the room and soothed his big fucking ego."
Back in the studio, conversation has turned to George W. Bush, and Blackout articulates a common sentiment: "I know this is all fake, and I'm just dreaming, because he's president. I took too much drugs a long time ago, and none of this is real."
He imitates Dubya. Looking straight ahead as if confronting a camera with petulant authority, he speaks in three-word sentences. "We are here." He pauses. "It is important." He pauses again. "That we are here."
He looks off to the side as if connecting with an audience member and says, "Terror will not hold our hearts. Or our minds."
Then, he looks down at his hands as if pondering humbly what he will say next and adds, "And if the people."
He looks into the camera with grave expression. "The terrorists. Terror us."
Back at the audience. "Then we will stare back at them. With the same lost look."
Straight into the camera, "That they look at us."
Suddenly, Pharris runs into the studio with a car-battery clamp attached to his nipple, and Blackout releases pent-up aggression toward him in a Tourette's-style outburst. "Fuck you. Pharris is fat. I can't hold it anymore. He's fat. He's fucking fat, fat, fat." The host and cohost have a symbiotic relationship: Pharris gets all the attention he wants, and Blackout gets to slap down a contentious personality for the amusement of his listeners.
When Blackout shuts down the show, he joins his friends on the back porch for a smoke, a drink, and conversation. Cars whiz by on the small highway behind the fence. Some nights, a bowl gets passed around. As the night wears on, people slowly file out to get some rest before going to work Friday morning. Free from the daily grind, for now, Blackout and Pharris hang out till the wee hours of morning.
Blackout's live show is different every week, depending upon what mood he's in. One week, he's dressed formally, drinking apple martinis, cranking small-time celebrities, and hosting local bands like I Digress. Another week, he's dressed shoddily, wearing glasses and improvising with the energy of his friends and callers. The fluid structure of the show creates room for all sorts of spontaneous humor, especially when Blackout's fans call in. His show almost always lasts longer than its three-hour time slot: When Blackout is engrossed in a shtick, he'll stay on as late as 2 a.m.
While channel surfing, Blackout came across The Prayer Hotline, a religious program that displayed "SATAN IS STEALING YOUR SOUL" in flashing red letters. The blatant swindle triggered his instinct for satire. He immediately called in as Kilty O'Neal, a slurring alcoholic Scot in the grips of a growling demon.
The call is a good example of how Blackout pushes the tacit perversity of the situation to its logical extreme. Kilty shows all the weaknesses that televangelists prey upon, launches the operator into fits of religious fervor, and yet manages to get his demon exorcised before the operator can take down the credit card information.
Operator: Praise the Lord. Break the pride.
Kilty: Man, I've been watching this, and I'll tell ya, I've never been so touched in my life. I'm a Scottish man, and you know about us, we're a drinkin' people. I'm a drinkin' man. I wanted to call in and talk to someone.
Operator: Can I have your name please, sir?
Kilty: Satan is deep within me. Pray for me, because this man has touched me today.
Operator: OK, but I need your name.
Kilty: My name is Kilty. Not guilty but Kilty. But I tell you, I am guilty.
Kilty: Yeah, that's it there, lad.
Operator: Can I have your last name?
Kilty: Kilty O'Neal... O'Neal.
Kilty: Right. And I kneel before you because I tell you, I've been doing the wrong thing, lad. Pray with me.
Operator: Can I have your address, sir?
Kilty: Me? My address is 4243 Ritnishnitzel Way. I've lived here my whole life. And, I've been drinking the whole time, and I wanted to come out with it.
Operator: Right now, in Jesus' name, Satan, take your filthy hands off him.
Kilty: I know my hands are filthy!
Operator: "I rebuke your stronghold in Jesus' name!"
Kilty: "Watch out! Watch out!" [glass smashes]
Operator: Come out in Jesus' name.
Kilty: He's coming out of me right now!
[Kilty's screams are drowned out by a deep satanic growl]
Operator: "In Jesus' name, I come across you by the blood of Jesus Christ. By your word, in Jesus' name, have your way. In Jesus' name. In Jesus' name. In Jesus' name. In Jesus' name."
Kilty: I feel it. I feel it.
Operator: So repeat after me: Father God.
Kilty: Father God.
Operator: In Jesus' name.
Kilty: In the name of Satan! I mean, the name of God. I'm sorry... it's still beatin' in me. I have it in me.
Operator: Please repeat after me: I come to you, God.
Kilty: I come to you.
Operator: As a sinner.
Kilty: As a bastard sinner and --
Operator: God, I need you.
Kilty: ...a drinker!
Operator: Say I'm through with drinking.
Kilty: I like the alcohol, though. Do I have to be through with it?
Operator: You have to.
Kilty: I need the liquor.
Operator: That the devil's got you bound to.
Kilty: But I have to.
Operator: Say I'm through with drinking.
Kilty: I'm through with drinking.
Operator: Say no more.
Kilty: No more... except for a little shot of bourbon in the morning.
For the future, the bottom line is Biganski's most formidable obstacle. Beyond the approximately $200 his crank CDs bring in monthly, Blackout's Box generates no revenue. What will he do when his savings and inheritance run out? He finds the predicament daunting: "It's so difficult to live if you're any kind of artist because you have to do that other thing. What is your real job that you're going to make money with?"
Biganski, who turned 30 in June, sees no long-term potential for himself as an Internet radio show host and crank caller. "That's been done," he says. Instead, he wants to use Blackout's Box as a launching pad for his career as a character actor, using the professional-quality equipment in his studio to direct, produce, and star in his own media. He says he's developing a pilot for Blackout's Box the television show, which will combine "the reality of Real World with sketch comedy such as Kids in the Hall, with the improv of Whose Line Is It Anyway?" Also, Biganski has immediate plans to start a live sketch-comedy show in a local theater and will hold auditions for actors August 4 at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale.
Regardless, he says, "I'll always do Blackout's Box. Financial gains or not, this will always be a thing that I will never let die."