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Routine Interruptions: Random Payphone Calls, With Fred Armisen

Monday, July 28, 2014 0 4

David Letterman used to use payphones as a stage for one of his most memorable bits. Calling payphones near the Ed Sullivan theater Dave would lure whoever answered the phone into random conversation and even into entering the theater to a standing ovation.

This comedy gimmick (used by other comedians, but never to the excellences of Letterman) has largely faded because few payphones allow for incoming calls any more, and because of the rapid disappearance of payphones from city streets.

Letterman’s telephone skits were almost always hilarious (I will never forget Sid Tuckman) but the payphone calls in particular partly inspired me to set up The Payphone Project in 1995. By supplying to the public Internet a list of payphone locations in Manhattan I wanted to encourage people to Be Like Dave and make random contacts with strangers by calling the numbers.

It worked for a while, and this site actually almost landed me an appearance on Dave’s show. They didn’t think I was funny enough. (In reality I am hilarious but at the time their talent scout contacted me I was insecure about the subject matter.)

Read more about the Letterman inspiration behind this web site here.

Former SNL comedian Fred Armisen, working with the Wieden + Kennedy ad agency, has revived the “call a payphone and see what happens” genre of comedy in the form of “Routine Interruptions”, an ad campaign for Heineken Breweries.

Or has he revived the genre?

I am slightly skeptical but mostly open to the possibility that the random encounters recorded in this short film teaser are genuine.

I am only skeptical because of the devils I found in the details.

Watch the video:

According to a timestamp at its beginning this film was shot on June 21, 2014, outside 128 Macdougal Street. Today, only 5 weeks later, no payphone exists at that spot.

The phone appears to be an Elcotel Series 5 with the web address on its top placard. I have not seen phones with those placards in active use in New York City for years, and I suspect the ones that used to be in service were not legal. Payphone service providers who use Elcotel phones purchased from typically replace its default placards with their own, as required by the city’s Department Of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT).

In 2012 I documented a long-abandoned Elcotel 5 on Greenpoint Avenue in Blissville, Queens. That phone, with branding, was removed soon after I posted that story.

Whether or not the payphone is authorized by DoITT or simply a high-functioning prop should not matter to the comedy of “Routine Interruptions”, just so long as the phone actually works in the way depicted and the people who answered genuinely had no idea what they were getting themselves into by answering the phone.

For this to be a real functioning landline telephone someone would have to have worked with the city and/or a franchised payphone service provider to set up a temporary payphone just for this ad campaign.

The folks behind “Routine Interruptions” either did that, or they did an excellent job setting up a rogue payphone (that’s possibly illegal, as is recording telephone conversations without both parties’ consent), or they did an even better job of hiring actors to make it look like they randomly answered a real working payphone.

Real or not the “Routine Interruptions” teaser is skillfully produced, and I think it’s cool to see payphones used to help people make random contacts with strangers.

It reminds me of an incident which occurred some years ago. On Broadway in Astoria I heard a ringing payphone outside a donut shop. I knew where most of the payphones in Astoria were but this one was new to me. I answered the ringing payphone and spent some minutes talking to a lonely, confused woman who swore that someone had just called her from this number. Obviously trying to keep me on the line I became skeptical of her motives, sensing that she was a reality TV or gotcha journalist, or even a blogger mining for content. Read the story here: Ringing Payphones.

Other devils in the details that bother me about “Routine Interruptions”:

I am confused about the neon sign for a “PSYCHIC”. At 0:12 (and at 1:16) a sign in the door says the psychic is closed, but another sign on the sidewalk (“READER ADVISOR ALSO SPECIAL”) suggests the place is opened. Why would the sign remain out there, ripe for theft, when the place is not even open for business?

I can’t tell if there ever really was a “PSYCHIC” at this location. The Land Of Buddha Himalayan Gift Shop appears to have recently vacated the space (their web site is still active).

Either a psychic was in that space for a very brief time or the producers added the neon signage for atmosphere.

Whatever the case the spot where this payphone stood on June 14, 2014, looks only slightly the same today:

"Routine Intrusions" Payphone

“Routine Intrusions” Payphone

Forensic evidence suggests there actually may have been a payphone at this location. This would make the setup of a rogue payphone all the easier.

You can tell where payphones used to be by looking at the sidewalk. When you see metal spikes and a rectangular palimpsest on the pavement you are most likely looking at a place where a payphone used to stand. Look at this spot where the “Routine Interruptions” payphone stood:

Payphone Location Gone

Payphone Location Gone

The red arrows point to metal spikes which usually survive where a payphone did not. Once you open your eyes to them you see them everywhere.

Searching the Payphone Project’s archive of payphone locations turns up a handful of phones on Macdougal Street but none at this address.

Google’s Streetview is not necessarily reliable for capturing smaller objects such as this (or even whole buildings) but its archived captures (going back to 2007) show no payphone at this spot.

I found no obvious way to contact anyone regarding this video, and I’m not important enough that I would expect a reply even if I did know who to contact. Wieden + Kennedy’s blog site returns a “404 File Not Found” (nginx) error (UPDATE: THE BLOG LINK APPEARS TO WORK NOW, JULY 29, 2014) and the “People” page has only a few phone numbers of individuals who work there. I can’t tell who did the “Routine Interruptions” piece so I’d have to make a lot of calls.

If anyone reading this knows the backstory behind how this payphone was installed please contact me so I can give accolades as appropriate.