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Crank Yankers crawls out of the past, wisely leaves one character behind

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Crank Yankers feels much older, culturally speaking, than it actually is: The prank call puppet show originally ran on Comedy Central from 2002 to 2005, but even then it seemed pulled by the gravity of old comedic modes like stock characters and catch phrases. It’s not that it wasn’t funny; it could sometimes be very funny, but it seems of a different time. Now, during this burst of either progressive awakening or a new era of oppressive political correctness—take your pick—it seems even more anachronistic. Rebooting Crank Yankers in 2019, when both its comedic style and the very idea of a telephone call seem outdated, feels weirdly out of step. Of course what really matters is whether Crank Yankers is actually funny in 2019, and based on the first two episodes of this 20-episode season, it’s brutally hit-or-miss—and the year can’t be blamed for its winners or its whiffs.

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Jim Florentine, one of the stars of past Yankers—and voice of Special Ed, more on that later—told Paste a couple of years ago that the real people on the receiving end of these pranks are “the star of the call,” which is absolutely not the case with this new batch. On many calls, they may as well not be there—they’re just nonplussed receptacles for nonstop jokes, some good, some hacky as hell. “You need to get someone mad,” Florentine said, and it’s not clear that anybody gets mad on these new episodes at all. They’re just there, like you, vacillating between amused and confused, and maybe getting a chuckle here and there. The woman who answers the phone at an aquarium when Kathy Griffin calls, pretending to be a teacher whose students witness some kind of fish fornication on a field trip, keeps her cool entirely. She’s a sounding board who makes almost no sound, not a pissed-off target who adds to the comedic tension.

That leaves the burden on the voice actors, who essentially deliver one-sided, largely improvised bits that are then brought to life by puppets. This time around, there are funny premises that don’t work all that well in practice, as when Natasha Leggero’s character calls her stepson’s school but can’t remember his name. There are stupid premises saved by the caller, as when Tracy Morgan (as his recurring character, Spoonie Luv) calls the park service to complain that birds are shitting on him while he’s trying to have sex in a public park. And there are hacky premises hackily delivered, as when Jimmy Kimmel’s Elmer character—an incontinent old man—calls to thank the adult-diaper company for making him so comfortable. That one is so weak that it relies mostly on visual jokes with the puppets for some relief. “What if old people actually loved shitting in their pants?” it dares to ask.

Co-creators Kimmel and Adam Carolla, the former Man Show co-hosts who’ve taken opposite political paths over the years, might have had more fun poking at each other’s views about more pointed issues, but there’s never been much of a statement to be found on Crank Yankers. It is, weirdly, almost entirely inoffensive at this point, and the original is actually far less offensive than most people probably remember. The only glaring difference is the lack of Special Ed, a mentally disabled character who wore a helmet and yelled “Yay!” a lot. His calls were some of the show’s signature bits, and it’s telling that nobody seemed to bat an eyelash back then: Special Ed even appeared onstage at an MTV awards show with Eminem, who beat him up.

“That character could never have come out today,” Florentine, who voiced Special Ed, told Paste. Carolla, in typically Carollian fashion, added, “I can’t speak for everybody, but we were just trying to get laughs. Now everything has to be seen through some sort of prism of, ‘Who’s going to take this and turn it into something else, and what are they going to say?’ Back then we were just there to make people laugh.”

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He seems to imply with that line that the mission has changed, but it hasn’t. Crank Yankers was a ratings success for years, and hit its mark comedically plenty of the time. It was obviously successful enough to create demand for a reboot, and it can’t hurt that so many of its principal players—particularly Jimmy Kimmel—have gotten vastly more famous since. The world has changed, too, though maybe that shouldn’t matter. Funny is funny, many comedians—especially Carolla—would argue. It’s hard to disagree with that on some level, but it’s also pretty hard to find enough laughs in Crank Yankers 2019 to make it worth watching.

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