A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

So I Don’t Even Know My Own Name?: Digital Vocality, Affirmative Laughter, and Posthuman Ethics in Soundboard Phony Phone Calls

Kevin Casper, University of West Georgia

(Published Februrary 26, 2020)  

Pranks encourage audiences to pause and reflect, even it if is only for a few seconds. Sometimes pranksters craft clear and direct messages that persuade, and sometimes they deliberately befuddle. The latter act is also useful—especially when an unexpected guerrilla performance jolts people out of their daily routines.

 - Kembrew McLeod, Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World (6) 

To engage in a laughter that has no stake in control is to set one’s feet upon momentary lines of flight from the tyranny of meaning and from the violence of a community held together by that tyranny . . . [it] is not about (finally and for good) getting out of the negative; it is about, in a flash, experiencing the flow, the excess beyond our control, beyond our (violent) grasp.

- Diane D. Davis, Breaking Up [at] Totality (67-8) 


Rhetoric has long imagined a very human subject occupying the center of the rhetorical situation manipulating language to create rational persuasive appeals: “‘[M]an’ is at the center of language, the master of his own speech, and that speech is an expression of man’s consciousness” (Davis, Breaking Up 69). The problem with this humanist view of the subject, however, is that, in this model, the subject’s relationship with the other is always one of appropriation. The humanist subject goes out into the world and contacts otherness, but those encounters are always in service of absorbing the other into the subject’s own horizon and enriching the self, “a reduction [that] amounts to a kind of subjective colonialism, where all the other’s desires are reduced to the desires of the ‘home country,’ the self” (Nealon 31-2).[1] This desire to appropriate is dangerous precisely because the subject only puts itself in relation to the other to master it, to bring it back home to its own horizon. Therefore, humanist ethics is a kind of black hole, always and only drawing otherness toward the self where otherness cannot escape. It is an essentializing, appropriating, colonizing ethics that does not approach the other on its own terms, but seeks only to make the other a part of the self, to reduce the other’s difference to the self’s same.

Humor has a long and complicated relationship with ethics across the history of rhetoric. Plato saw humor as a form of malice and infamously feared humor’s emotional effects, because they so often are produced when “the spiteful man is pleased at his neighbor’s misfortunes” (48b). As forms of humorous appeals, “soundboard phony phone calls—technologically enhanced, sonically privileged, ethically ambiguous pranks—create productive (if a little problematic) potentials for rhetoric engagement with posthuman ethics. Because of both how they are structured—these pranks are made by cutting someone’s recorded voice into individual clips that are loaded into a software program (the “soundboard”) and assigned to buttons that trigger the corresponding citations whenever pressed—and how they are employed—to vex and befuddle unsuspecting victims by compelling them to question who (what?) they are talking to—these ontological pranks target, tease, and traverse both the rhetor(s)’s and audience(s)’s liminal boundaries of subjectivity. [2] For instance, a soundboard of iconic movie lines from Arnold Schwarzenegger might include a button that, when pressed, cues The Terminator saying, “I’ll be back!” On the one hand, soundboard phony phone calls employ aspects of their humorous appeals through ridicule. From this perspective, these calls exemplify the “superiority theory” of humor (what Plato feared), where “we laugh from feelings of superiority over other people, or over our own former position” (Morreall 5). As such, these pranks’ ethical stance always keeps one foot rooted in the totalizing realm of humanism: they begin their work in a traditionally appropriating manner. On the other hand, however, soundboard phony phone calls exceed humanist ethics by playfully employing deceptions to expose the subject as nonessential and incomplete. On the face, this paradox seems ethically problematic—potentially even untoward and insensitive—given the mean-spirited reputation that pranks and ridicule can carry in the contemporary discourse of the academy. However, I argue the paradox these pranks present—while uncomfortable—is not a problem rhetoric should efface, but rather “an invitation” for rhetoric “to leap into the sweep and to say . . . YES!” and to challenge humanist ethics’ singular, methodological approach to otherness by confronting—however awkwardly—its fundamental assumption: that when we talk to one another, we talk to stable, complete, essentially human subjects (Davis, Breaking 2).

Soundboard phony phone calls are uniquely positioned to perform this deconstructive work because, on the one hand, they offer a “mechanical advantage” over earlier forms of phone pranks in the way they construct the rhetorical address. Before soundboarding, phony phone calls had to be voiced by actual human beings performing for an audience (the victim of their pranks) in the heat of the moment. Since they were performed live, these calls were oriented as much toward the prankster as they were the person being pranked; in order to successfully deliver the humorous appeal and produce her desired effects, the prankster would need to maintain rational control over herself enough long enough to successfully deliver the message. If laughter, or some other uncontrollable emotion such as embarrassment, were to arise in the midst of the prank, she would lose control of the rhetorical situation and the gag would be a bust. Therefore, there existed a heightened sense of oratorical risk in traditional phony phone calls in which the human subject at the center of the rhetorical situation was left more vulnerable, having to carefully manipulate the address in the spirit of Marcus Cato’s “good man skilled at speaking” in order for the prank to succeed (qtd. in Quintilian 12.1.1). On the other hand, because soundboard prank calls utilize a computer-generated simulacrum of a human interlocutor and are thus more closed off from the humanist notions that a speaker must “master the rhetorical situation,” they focus less on the prankster’s ability to maintain her rational composure and more on the reactions of the prank’s multi-layered audience(s). These calls are always structured toward the audience, always toward the outside, always toward the other; they produce their appeals through an auditory “copy” that has no regard for the original. In doing so, their effects offer alternatives that exceed those produced by the human-centric rhetorical situation of the traditional phony phone call.

As pranks (or hoaxes or cons), soundboard phony phone calls—along with art movements like the Dadaists and Letterists and political movements like the Situationists, Yippies, and ACT UP—participate in a long history of subversive and ethically ambivalent performance art forms. When performing with the purest of ethical intentions, as Kembrew McLeod writes in Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, “pranksters try to spark important debates and, in some instances, provoke social change” (3). For example, in the post WWI years, the Dadaists pranked the art world through their absurdist creations (the most infamous of which being Duchamp’s “readymade” scatological prank Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed by the artist and placed in a museum in defiance of the establishment’s tyrannical hold on what can be defined as art) which employed irrationality as a weapon to reject the destructive logic of  capitalism. In the 1960s, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, as members of the Yippies, threw hundreds of dollars onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, a prank which stopped trading for several minutes while traders dropped to their knees to greedily scoop up the loot (14).[3] And in the 1980s, the AIDS-rights group ACT UP installed a giant yellow condom over Senator Jesse Helms’ house in protest of the senator’s opposition to safe sex initiatives (14). These pranks, in their most idealized reading, attempt to perform “a form of edutainment—an instructive amusement that can make perpetrators, victims, and witnesses wiser” (6).

For phony phone calls, however, the ethical positioning, at first glance, appears decidedly more ambivalent, if not even a bit malicious, as the immediate goal of these pranks is to make either the pranksters or the pranksters’ audience laugh at the expense of the prank’s victims. In the early 1990s, The Jerky Boys, a comedy duo from Queens made up of Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed, unexpectedly elbowed their way into the upper-echelons of the comedy world by selling over eight million records that drastically deviated from the traditional comedy album mold: they contained no jokes, no skits, and no bits of any kind—just recording after recording of Brennan and Ahmed making prank phone calls. The first major outlet that experimented with soundboard phony phone calls on a large scale was The Howard Stern Show, a New York based radio program that has been nationally syndicated since 1986 and available on subscription-based satellite radio since 2006. In many ways, the entire Stern Show is itself an inside joke that lives its “[a] prank a day keeps ‘The Man’ away” ethos through a free-associative exposition of the American id (Mcleod 3), bawdily speaking truth to power with the purposefully modest aim of making people laugh on their drive to work, and like all pranks, these soundboard phony phone calls the Stern Show broadcasts provide us “some conceptual gizmos to add to [our] critical thinking toolkit,” (McLeod 15) allowing us a low-stakes chance to practice looking for what isn’t quite sincere and genuine in our world so we aren’t so easily fooled by more dangerous forms of deceit down the road.[4] 

But a distinction needs to be maintained between how McLeod thinks about “ethical” pranking and what might more accurately, for our purposes, be thought of as the “morality” of pranking; this distinction is tricky for humor, in general, but it’s specifically tricky when considering the complex art of pranking. In order for any prank to be deemed morally “good” or “bad,” we would have to a priori assess the intentions of the prankster. But therein lies the rub; determining the intentions of a prank as “moral” would first depend on where you fall within the prank’s rhetorical situation. But it would also require an appropriating, essentializing gesture on the part of whomever gets deemed authorized to doll out this moral judgment. For example, let’s imagine a stereotypical moral framework for a moment and assume that the demographic reading an academic article like this one would see the prank that installed a condom on Jessie Holmes’ house as an ethical act of social justice. But free thought, speech, and expression being what they are, imagine how the same demographic might react to reading that Senator Elizabeth Warren woke up on Halloween morning to find that Project Veritas—a socially conservative prankster organization—had trespassed on her property, vandalized all of her decorations, and installed hundreds of gorily realistic dead fetuses in her yard. Outrage would be likely. This is not to make an argument for moral relativism, but rather a reminder that there’s always a butt to the joke. And while we often think of humor’s effects as being trivial, they are never neutral: “Although ‘good’ pranks sometimes do ridicule their targets,” writes McLeod, “they serve a higher purpose by sowing skepticism and speaking truth to power (or at lease cracking jokes that expose fissures in power’s façade)” (3).

In the case of the soundboard pranks broadcast on the Stern Show, however, I would argue that their ethical implications have less to do with assessing moral notions of “right” and “wrong” and more to do with the conditions surrounding human (or posthuman) relationality. Morally, the stakes of these soundboard calls appear far from urgent (the stakeholders have little more at risk than a joke that fails for the pranksters or a few moments of embarrassment/annoyance for the victims). Yet ethically, they are more multi-dimensional, wider reaching, and less constrainable by traditional notions of subject positioning within the rhetorical situation than other forms of pranking. This is largely an effect of how soundboard pranks are constructed to be temporally dispersed across layers of audience(s): the original pranksters operating the soundboard and making the phony call, the victim of the prank, Howard Stern and his radio crew in the studio who play the recording of the prank and respond to it in “real time,” and the larger broadcast audience listening in on this postmodern pastiche of hyper-meta, absurdist discourse where things aren’t always what they appear (until they reappear again in another context and signify something different entirely). For the audience/victim, “all varieties of deceit engender confusion, uncertainty, and ambiguity,” yet “[s]pectators (whether they have been scammed by a swindler or have witnessed a satirical street-theatre spectacle) can experience a single event in radically different ways,” and the pranksters themselves “aren’t [always] driven by noble impulses, and even those who are more pure of heart can muddy the ethical waters with dubious tactics” (McLeod 3). More to the point, stable intention is not something we can so blithely assume, because the subject—and language itself—is not stable. This is what soundboard pranks reveal and how they specifically forward the posthuman project: they problematize the sacredness of our notion of rhetorical intention by dramatizing McLeod’s adage that “[t]he more sacred the belief, the more likely it will be profaned” (13). Like “Carnivalesque trickster figures—who appear in myths throughout the world [and] attack the things that society reveres most,” soundboard phony phone calls use cleverly constructed mischief and ethically ambivalent deceit to tease at rhetoric’s long-standing sacred cow, the purity of the rhetorical subject (13).

Unfolding here in three acts, the following examples of soundboard phony phone calls complicate and problematize traditional notions of subjectivity, rhetorical situation, and humanist ethics. I present these specific selections in this particular order to mirror the heightening of tension felt as each prank moves its target increasingly closer to the victim’s sense of self. All of these calls begin by creating an uncomfortable identity crisis for the victim. But as they unfold, their effects increasingly reverberate outward across time, space, and distance, moving farther and farther away from the pranks’ initially malicious effects, to create infinite potential responses for future audiences, which remind us that —no matter how much we might want to take it for granted—our sense of subjective stability already faces an always present, always possible interruption that is always only a phone call away.

Act 1. You Must Have the Wrong Number: Prank Calling Infinity

A telephone rings. An older man answers, speaking in a slow, twangy dialect that signifies Southern American. On the other end of the line is the voice of celebrity fitness advocate and Deal-A-Meal entrepreneur Richard Simmons. Simmons’s voice exudes his well-known traits of mania and effusiveness.“Southern American Male” doesn’t recognize Simmons and grows increasingly confused and dismayed as the fraught conversation unfolds.

                 [Telephone Rings.]

Southern American Male: Hello?

Richard Simmons: For all these years I wondered, what I would ever say if I ever found you.

SAM: Who is this?

RS: My name is Cheryl. I believe I am your daughter.

SAM: Uh . . . you must have the wrong number.

RS: Oh my god. My name is Cheryl. And I’m your daughter.

SAM: I don’t have a daughter named Cheryl.

RS: Please tell me why you’re doing this to yourself?

SAM: What do you mean why I’m doing this to myself? You better get

off this phone before I call the telephone company and have them come git’cha.

RS: I don’t like this new attitude of yours.

SAM: Well you don’t have to like it! Just get off my phone!

[SAM Hangs up.]

[Telephone Rings again . . . ]

SAM: Hello.

RS: I just want you, to be my mom.

SAM: You want what?

RS: I just want you, to be my mom.

SAM: How can a man be a mom?

RS: Well, I’ll think about it . . .

SAM: Well you better think a long, long time and don’t dial this number


RS: I mean for your whole life you knew nothing about me.

SAM: And I don’t want to know anything about ya’, now, I just want you to get off my phone and leave me alone.

RS: I’m so sorry.

SAM: Well show me that by not calling me anymore.


SAM: . . .

[SAM Hangs up.]

[Telephone Rings again . . . ]

SAM: Hello.

RS: My name is Cheryl. I believe I am your daughter.

SAM: I told you to get off my phone and quit calling me! Now I mean it! I’m gonna have you put in jail if you don’t!

RS: What’s wrong?

SAM: Huh?

RS: What’s wrong?

S.A.M: What’s right?

RS: Please don’t hang up the phone again.

SAM: I’m gonna hang up the phone again, because I’ve got no time for


RS: Don’t you start with me!

SAM: What do you mean don’t start with you, you, you started it. You

started it when you dialed my number!

RS: Where’s mama?

SAM: What?

RS: Where’s mama?

SAM: You heard mama? What are you talking about?

RS: I’m sorry.

SAM: Well show me you’re sorry by leaving me alone, and don’t dial my number anymore.

RS: I’ll call back in an hour!

SAM: You’d better not!

RS: Yes! Yes! Yes!

SAM: I’ll tell you what . . . If you call back the telephone company is

gonna monitor the call and they’re gonna know who you are and they’re gonna come git’cha!

RS: You’re so beautiful.

SAM: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

RS: My name is Cheryl. And I’m your daughter.

SAM: No, you’re not my daughter. I don’t have a daughter named

Cheryl. I don’t have a daughter that’s a man.

RS: Sure.

SAM: Obviously, obviously you’re a male. You sound like a male.

RS: No!

SAM: And how could I be your mom? Because I’m a male, too.

RS: Don’t you start with me!

SAM: Well you started this!

RS: I don’t like this new attitude of yours!

SAM: I don’t like you either!

RS: What’s wrong?

SAM: What?

RS: What’s wrong?

SAM: What do you mean, “What’s right?”

RS: Well, I’ll think about it . . .

SAM: Well you better thing about it for 1,000 years . . .

RS: No!

SAM: Yes!

RS: No!

SAM: Yes!

RS: No!

SAM: Wait, why do you say, “No”?

RS: Is this Diane?

SAM: What?

RS: Is this Diane?

SAM: Is it . . . what?

RS: Is this Diane?

SAM: Tan?

RS: Is this Diane?

SAM: . . . No!

[SAM Hangs up.] (Stern “Richard Simmons Crank Calls a Redneck”)

When the victim of a soundboard prank hears the phone ring, s/he is already being welcomed by the other, already being given a chance to say “yes.” As Diane Davis writes, “[Y]ou pick up the phone, and your first word is ‘yes?’ Even if you say ‘hello?’ it means ‘yes?’ [. . .] Already in picking up, you have responded, welcomed the other in. Indeed, even before you pick up, the ringing itself announces that the other is in, has already come in through the phone line or cable line or cell signal that runs into your home (or pocket) from the outside” (Inessential 121). The clips used to create the voice of the prank caller in this call were cited from an “original” context (a Richard Simmons audio book recorded years before the prank), rearranged to maximize absurdity and confusion and heighten the bit’s comedic potential, placed into a different context (that of the prank phone call) that was itself recorded, broadcast at a later date in the context of Howard Stern’s radio program where it is heard “originally” by Stern’s “live” audience, and, with an always possible eventuality, rebroadcast and reencountered irregularly during future show moments.[5] Derrida’s concept of language’s “essential iterability,” that a “written syntagma can always be detached from the chain in which it is inserted or given without causing it to lose all possibility of functioning, if not all possibility of ‘communicating,’ precisely” is on full display here: “No context can entirely enclose it. Nor any code, the code here being both the possibility and impossibility of writing, of its essential iterability (repetition/alterity)” (“Signature” 9). Even if, in these new contexts, the citations represent “non-meaning”—and it is precisely this sense of “non-meaning” that these soundboard phony phone calls exploit to provoke discomfort in the victim and create the potential for laughter(s) in the pranksters and the audience—they have infinite future possibilities to signify infinite possible meanings since these grafts can always be cited again and again and grafted onto new chains.

By creating rhetorical gestures initiated by a non-human other that can be cited again and again onto new chains, these soundboard phony phone calls provides a glimpse (as much as is theoretically possible) of an ethics of alterity, or what happens when a human encounters the other as “Other.” Levinas uses the concept totality to signify the space of identification of the self; it is the ontological realm of “being” where human reason and meaning-making occur and subjectivity resides. The “I,” the ego, takes place in the world of totality: “The meaning of individuals (invisible outside of this totality) is derived from the totality” (Totality 22). In short, totality is the always-appropriating space of the rational human subject. All soundboard pranks start off in this place of appropriation and totality, performing the “superiority theory” of humor that Plato maligned by ridiculing their unsuspecting victims and exploiting the victim’s desire to return the other to the self. From this perspective, the depth of SAM’s struggles to make sense of this phone conversation actually speaks to this prank’s “success.” For example, SAM’s exasperated retort, “How can a man be a mom?” in response to Simmons’s declaration, “I just want you to be my mom,” can possibly be read as SAM failing to return the other to a horizon he understands. And because we, the audience, know what is going on and he doesn’t, the opportunity is created to laugh superiorly at his pain, his being reduced to making idle threats that the telephone company is somehow “gonna come git’cha” and restore things to an order he understands. Humor in the form of malice; just what Plato feared.

However, there exists a space beyond totality, a space of infinity, where movement is always away from the self, always toward a radically unapproachable “Other” that is, itself, always effacing, always going away. Through the expanded reach afforded by soundboard technology and broadcast radio, these pranks’ rhetorical effects always reverberate outwards, always beyond the original audience(s) of the prankster/victim, always toward new audiences, always with infinite potential effects—including arousing different laughter(s)—that exceed the reduction of the other to the self. As such, they offer a way to respond to the other not as something to be mastered and returned to the subject’s own horizon, but as a radically unapproachable and absolute “Other,” one toward which the subject is always moving, but can never reach. In this encounter with an “Otherness” that cannot be reached, the subject itself become interrupted. And while we cannot stay in this space of infinity—we do hermeneutical things all the time, constantly returning the other to the self—there has to be this space of infinity before the space of totality can even be possible. This space of infinity, this ethics of alterity, is a condition of possibility for having a sense of the self and living in totality.

Beginning, as all pranks must begin, because all pranks must place someone in the position of victim, in a space of totality, the audience’s potential for pleasure likewise begins in schadenfreude, or in feeling superior to the victim who doesn’t realize he’s being ridiculed. Diane Davis, in Breaking Up [at] Totality, might associate the laughter that arises from feelings of superiority with Milan Kundera’s concept of “angel laughter,” or a laughter of idealism that— because it comes from a place that celebrates moments when the subject recognizes order has been established in precisely the manner that was expected—always fortifies systems of meaning. Angel laughter springs from the “metaphysics of presence, it is a laughter that celebrates meaning, order, and Truth” (33).[6] Nothing about this laughter carries the subject away: “[t]here is no abandonment here,” but instead, this is a “self-righteous” laughter “in which the laughers (knowers) celebrate their under/standing of the pure presence of the real world, of the order of things” (33). Angel laughter is a product of history’s privileging of reason and, therefore, the idealized agency of the subject in an ethical realm of “good” and “bad.”

Yet these phony phone calls do more than celebrate the existing order of things and can always evoke more disruptive responses than self-righteous, angel laughter. By exceeding the “metaphysics of presence” reinforced by the superiority theory by way of their infinite iterative potentiality always turned outward toward an audience that is always effacing, these pranks can—in fleeting bursts—release the force of what Davis terms “affirmative laughter,” or an eruptive laughter that exceeds the constraints of reason and meaning, breaks from context, and threatens our long-held notion of the stable human subject by interrupting it without consent: “Laughter that shatters is an affirmative laughter, arising from the overflow, the excess, and capable of momentarily and instantaneously catapulting us out of negative dialectics by negating negation itself” (Breaking Up 2). There are flashes in this call, perhaps most accessible when the audience experiences the nonrepresentational sonic colorations—the feelings—imbuing the call’s “human” voices, which exceed the written transcript and allow additional potential layers of effects and meaning(s). For example, at the call’s climactic moment of tension and frustration for SAM (the soundboard created voice of Richard Simmons just responded to SAM’s plea “[S]how me you’re sorry by leaving me alone, and don’t dial my number anymore,” with an enthusiastically tone deaf, “I’ll call back in an hour!”), Simmons’ voice incongruously states “You are so beautiful” with a pathos that, it seems, momentarily pierces SAM’s anger, and his vexed response—“I don’t know what you’re talking about”—exposes (deliberately or not) the risk always already inherent in language that this prank exploits: language is not a passive technology that carries the full presence of a speaker’s presence across an absence. Hearing a heavily accented, older Southern American male voice (a stigmatized sound that can bring along specific historical prejudices for American audiences) encounter another male voice who is calling out as SAM’s daughter, asking for SAM to be his mother is a context, we can assume, that this prank’s creators intended to be narrowly interpreted by the prank’s audience as farcically absurd. But the iterative form and performative potential of soundboard phony phone calls cannot be contained within this narrow context. To audiences for whom identity is nonessential and incomplete, for example, this prank might cheekily tease at how sonic dimensions of the voice define or challenge gender performance, or it might dramatize how intra-familial notions of identity can be awkward to navigate across generational and cultural divides. Rippling outward as sound waves that reverberate across time, space, and distance to penetrate the unique bodies of unique listeners in unique instances, these prank calls create opportunities – even if only through different kinds of farcical absurdities – to exceed the narrow malice of schadenfreude and provoke flashes of affirmative laughter, a laughter that deconstructs by violently, unexpectedly cracking us up and fracturing our naïve notions that humankind collectively comprises some superior species of rational animals.

Act 2. Hey, Look Here. You’re Talking to the Wrong Person: Say, “Yes?”

The following example of a soundboard prank manipulates the rhetorical address in a more intimate manner than the previous example by using the soundboard to call out to the prank’s victim through the use (and misuse) of his proper name. It is the technology of the soundboard created voice that allows the prank such close access to the subject, an opportunity Anderson recognizes when she writes, “at the same time as a digitally reproduced voice may sound more like the ‘original’ voice of the person speaking, it can also quite easily be made to sound in ways that defy that speaker’s original intention.” In a prank call, it is the other who provides the victim with an opening; the other is always calling us and allowing us an opportunity to say “yes,” to say “I.” From this perspective, to be “I” is to have no attributes that come from an ego or a stable self. Instead, the things that make us unique come from our unique modes of subjection; we are constantly in a performative response when we are in a responsible relationship with the other, and this performative response never ends. In this case, the soundboard created voice shows us how encountering the other as “Other” is a condition of possibility for having a sense of self at all and reminds us that we are not as full of the characteristics collected under our name as we may think.

The setup for this prank is relatively straightforward: a middle-aged man named Thomas answers the phone at his place of business. On the other end of the phone is the voice of the late talk-show host Riley Martin who addresses Thomas with a variety of proper names.[7] Martin’s random “shout outs” occasionally land on Thomas’s actual name, but they never stay in that place of understanding for very long:

[Telephone rings . . . ]

Thomas: Hello?

Riley Martin: Hello, Bobby?

Thomas: No, this is Thomas.

RM: Hello, Brian?

Thomas: No, this . . . what you want?

RM: Hello, Chris?

Thomas: No.

RM: Hello, Chris from Arizona?

Thomas: No.

RM: Hello, James?

Thomas: No.

RM: Hello, Louis?

Thomas: No.

RM: Hello, Michelle?

Thomas: Ah . . . look here. All them names you calling me, they ain’t

making no sense.

RM: Hello, Tony?

Thomas: No, this is Thomas.

RM: Hello, Tom?

Thomas: Yes.

RM: Hello, Steve?

Thomas: No.

RM: Hello, Thomas?

Thomas: Well, wait a minute now, I’m gonna hang up.

RM: Hello, Otis!

Thomas: . . .

[Thomas hangs up.]

[Telephone rings again . . . ]

Thomas: Hello?

RM: Hello, Stephanie!

Thomas: Hey, look here. You, you’re talking to the wrong person.

RM: Hello, Thomas?

Thomas: Alright, then.

RM: Hello, Slim?

Thomas: No, I ain’t Slim.

RM: Hello, Curtis from New Orleans?

Thomas: I ain’t Curtis from New Orleans.

RM: How are you, Mike?

Thomas: I ain’t that. My name is Thomas.

RM: Hello, Thomas!

Thomas: Hey.

RM: Hello, Michelle?

Thomas: . . .

[Thomas hangs up.]

[Telephone rings again . . . ]

Thomas: Hello?

RM: Hello, Tom?

Thomas: Yeah?

RM: Yeah, um, yeah, yeah, uh, shout out, uh, shout out here, uh

. . . to uh . . . Andre, Tom Hoffman, and his little dog Ember

in Gentilly, Virginia, uh . . . Jeff in Jefferson, Mississippi . . .

Uh, he don’t hurt nobody [laughing] . . . And, Bill Nickin in Rosaries.

Thomas: Look here. Uh, if you want to keep talking, you call somebody

else. But, don’t call me. Cause I got, I, I’m on a business phone.

[Thomas hangs up.] (Stern “Riley Martin Phony Call (Hello Tom, Hello Mike!)”) 

This phony call revolves around its manipulation of the rhetorical address, but in particular, it toys with a specific aspect of the address, the part that calls out, literally, to the victim’s source of self-identification: his name. The prank hinges on a sort of amplified identity crisis that gets perpetrated on the victim. Thomas is given the chance to be his sense of “I,” to be “Thomas,” (which is who he wants to be) at the moment his phone rings. But because he wants the caller on the other end of his phone to call out to him specifically, to acknowledge himself to himself as himself, to tell him, “Yes, you are Thomas!” he becomes frustrated when that acknowledgement is inconsistently provided.

Again, watching the victim of this prank twist in the wind and break down in frustration is, on the one hand, clearly absurd, and this absurdity might create a feeling of superiority in certain audiences who find it hard to imagine how anyone could behave this way in this kind of situation. Yet—we must admit—situations like this one don’t readily present themselves in our daily lives, which is precisely why they make fantastic opportunities for pranks. Given that very few of us have likely been in a situation like this before and, therefore, have no idea how we might respond, we could allow ourselves a moment of empathy here. Perhaps, we could read these moments where Thomas gets repeatedly “shouted out” to incorrectly as less about the comic failures of some “inferior” buffoon (one who gets called both “Curtis from New Orleans” and “Stephanie” in the space of the same phone call and continues to stay on the line) and more about how doggedly someone who truly believes themselves secure in their identity will fight to defend themselves against repeated attacks on their sense of self. In spite of how absurd and unexpected the situation begins (“No, this . . . what you want?”), in spite of how frustrated Thomas becomes in the face of the serial imprecision of the caller (“No, I ain’t Slim”; “I ain’t Curtis from New Orleans”; “I ain’t that. My name is Thomas”), in spite of his instincts to kill the conversation rather than kill his perception of “Thomas” (“Well, wait a minute now, I’m gonna hang up”), and in spite of how much he (on some level) may come to realize someone is messing with/laughing at him (“Yeah, um, yeah, yeah, uh, shout out, uh, shout out here, uh . . .  to uh . . . Andre, Tom Hoffman, and his little dog Ember in Gentilly, Virginia, uh . . . Jeff in Jefferson, Mississippi . . . Uh, he don’t hurt nobody [laughing} . . . And, Bill Nickin in Rosaries”), in spite of all of this, Thomas persists. He continues to fight; in fact, it appears, in a sense, that Thomas will fight to the end, to the “death,” for his name, for his sense of self, for his need to be “Thomas,” and to have the world reflect that certainty back to him by saying, “Hello, can I please speak to Thomas? You’re Thomas? Well, hello there, Thomas!”

 But, on the other hand, Thomas’s persistence speaks to another point; we are always already reaching out to the other, to be seen by the other, to be given the chance to be our sense of “I.” As Thomas reaches out toward an other who is always effacing, always retreating, always moving away, this prank shows us how identity is already interrupted by infinite “Otherness,” because “Thomas” is no more stable, no more “full” of the qualities that make him “Thomas” before his phone rang than he is during this prank. It is just that the prank explicitly brings an interruption that is always already happening—that is always already continuously giving him the chance to have the performative response that he calls “Thomas”—to light. As this non-human voice calls out randomly to the infinite performative possibilities collected under the names “James,” “Otis,” “Thomas,” “Michelle,” etc., Thomas struggles to return this “Otherness” to his own subjective horizon (“Ah . . . look here. All them names you calling me, they ain’t making no sense”). As Thomas struggles, the audience, perhaps, is similarly provided an opportunity for encountering the “Otherness” within ourselves by way of how the prank brings to light the absurdity of being “named” at all. As David Appelbaum writes, “That a person is known in essence by such and such a name, is born, dies, is acclaimed, upbraided, cajoled, and vilified by a particular phonemic assemblage—and believes himself to be that name—is a joke of such magnitude that only a full-blooded laugh can explode it. It is a rare laugh, a catastrophic laugh, a laugh which ends death and life of the one who voices names” (19). Observing, as they do, from the relative safety of the prank’s margins, the prank’s radio audience(s) are allowed the possibility of this different encounter with “Otherness,” a possibility that could transform the “framework of representational ethics – which concerns itself with maintaining property and establishing identity” into an opportunity for the breaking, non-representational force of affirmative laughter to burst through, disrupting notions of stability, essence, and meaning (Anderson). 

Act 3. So I don’t Even Know My Own Name?: Leaving the Body Behind

The extraordinary rhetorical situation created by this final prank call takes the positive potentiality for soundboard technology to its radical limits. Here is the setup: two of Stern’s writers and producers host a fictitious call-in radio show called “The Jack and Rod Show,” where guests—often academics or other lesser-known authors—believe they are calling in to an actual radio program to get the word out about their books. In this episode, an author named Dr. Joseph A. Williams thinks he’s being booked on a real talk show to promote his new book, but, instead, he is being set up to be the victim of a very elaborate prank. During his appearance, Dr. Williams gets placed into conversation with another caller who aggressively challenges the legitimacy of his research. However, what Dr. Williams doesn’t realize—and what the prank hinges on—is that the voice of the other caller is actually his own voice.[8]  The soundboard technology’s manipulation of the human voice both creates the possibility for this prank’s serpentine rhetorical situation to exist in the first place and intensifies the prank’s scope of possible audiences[9] and, therefore, amplifies its range of potential effects.

 In the transcription below, “Dr. Williams” refers to the “live” Dr. Williams, presently a guest on “The Jack and Rod Show,” and “Caller” is the soundboard-created caller composed from previous iterations of Dr. Williams’s own voice.

[Theme Music Plays . . . ]                                 

Host #1 (Jack): And we’re back with “The Jack and Rod Show,” and

today we have author of Who Do You See in the Mirror? Dr. Joseph A. Williams.

[Applause . . . ]

Host #2 (Rod): How you doing, doctor?

Dr. Williams: Ok, how ‘bout you?

Rod: Tell us a little bit about what makes your book so unique?

Dr. Williams: Well, I, what I did was design a system called the

Human CABLE System, which stands for Consequence, Attitude, Behavior, Learning, and Environment.

Jack: Hmm. Interesting. Let’s take a call, Rod.

Rod: Good idea, Jack. Caller, you’re on the air with Dr. Joseph A.


Caller: Hello?

Dr. Williams: Good morning.

Caller: You actually stole my idea.

Dr. Williams: Oh, I stole your idea? Ok, well that’s funny. That’s a

. . . I took the Human CABLE System and, cause I own the trademark on it.

Caller: I have the trademark on the Human CABLE System.

Dr. Williams: Oh, really? Hmm, now, you know, you, that’s a, that’s a

pretty big accusation there. And, I, I don’t understand where

you’re coming from.

Caller: I clearly own the trademark and it will be registered in about

another month.

Dr. Williams: Hmm, that’s gonna be, this is gonna be really

interesting, because, guess what? Mine will be registered in a


Caller: There was two characters in the book. Can you give me the

name of the female character?

Dr. Williams: Oh! Ok, I have, ah, Donna, who’s the female character.

Caller: No, it, it was Donna. He’s wrong on, on the character, the

female character.

Dr. Williams: I was wrong, from, from my own book? You, you asked

me to name the character from my book.

Caller: Yes.

Dr. Williams: Not your book. My book! My book, is, it’s Donna.

Caller: No, it, it was Donna.

Dr. Williams. That’s what I said! It’s in my book! It was Donna.

That’s correct!

Caller: He’s wrong again! He gave me the wrong name.

Dr. Williams: What do you mean? How can I be wrong on my own

book? I have a copy of it! It’s in front of me! I have the copy

of the book now, [laughing] as I speak to you!

Caller: You are wrong again.

Dr. Williams: I’m wrong, and, and, it’s Donna? And I’m looking at

it? How could you come up with that kind of, kind of uh

. . . vision. I mean that is blatant, it’s just don’t, uh,

It doesn’t prove, uh, it doesn’t make sense!

Caller: My name is Dr. Joseph A. Williams.

Dr. Williams: Hey, what is, what is going on here? Hey, look here

[laughing] My name is Dr. Joseph Williams, come on!

Caller: My full name, is, you know, Joseph A. Williams.

Dr. Williams: Well, that’s exactly, uh, my name.

Caller: You are wrong again!

Dr. Williams: I’m, I’m wrong . . . oh, so I don’t even know my own

name!? This is . . .

Caller: No. My full name is Joseph A. Williams.

Dr. Williams: You, you’re Dr., well, OK, maybe there’s two, so, uh,

I’m not going to . . .

Caller: Hello, Leroy.

Dr. Williams: Hello? What do you mean, Leroy?

Caller: Hello, Leroy.

Dr. Williams: Oh, I’m Leroy, huh?

Caller: No, it, it was, Donna.

Dr. Williams: Gee whiz, what is going on here? I am now being,

I haven’t gotta . . . then he comes up with Leroy?

Caller: Hello, Leroy?

Dr. Williams: Wow. This is quite a, uh, situation here. I tell ya.

[Dr. Williams hangs up.] (Stern “The Jack and Rod Show: Caller Argues with Himself”) 

Erin Anderson writes, “one of the key features that sets voice apart in the sonic landscape is its source: its unique status as a sound produced and emitted by the human body.” Because of this, we are always inclined to try to figure out where/who the sound of the voice is coming from, as there remains an “attachment to voice as a function of authorship, personhood, and identity.” But what happens when this process of “figuring out” who is speaking is complicated beyond what seems logically possible?

This prank challenges foundational assumptions regarding the human voice and, by extension, the body and the myriad identities it performs. The voice on the other end of Dr. Williams’ line sure sounds like a human voice. The sounds he hears are the very sounds created when a living human (in this case, himself) speaks, and the words being spoken are actual words that he has spoken in the past. But the living, breathing being whose experiences are collected under the name “Dr. Joseph A. Williams,” the self-present human subject, is not actually present on the other end of his line. His dumbfounded response to encountering this unreachable, always effacing “Other” (an especially inconceivable “Other” given it’s a sonic representation of “himself” somehow speaking to himself in real time), amplifies a fundamental paradox about the human voice, for “[w]hile the voice undoubtedly comes from the human body . . . it also inevitably leaves the body behind,” and, in doing so, implores us to consider, ‘who’ (or ‘what’) is actually speaking to whom within this exchange (Anderson).

Creating the situation for this unsettling, inter-subjective exchange to occur within (and in a sense, without) Dr. Williams requires both soundboard technology’s creative potential to “[expand] our abilities not only to speak in voice, but also to compose with voice as a malleable material” and the spatial and temporal absence created by the medium of radio (Anderson ). No equivalent “face-to-face” prank could be performed given current technological limitations. Because of this, as Adriana Cavarero suggests, soundboard phony phone calls broadcast over the radio allow for a correction in what she considers a “rather illogical” privileging of the visual in Levinas: “[W]hen he deals with speech. . .  Levinas cannot help sliding from speech itself to the vision of the face,” a face that “signifies itself, before and beyond every system of signification” (27). This tendency is particularly ironic considering he is using the concept of the saying, “the event by which human beings speak to one another one by one, without regard for what they say,” (28) to challenge philosophy’s fixation on the said, a fixation which “corresponds to the central role of logos understood as intelligible order that represents, expresses, signifies, designates, duplicates, and organizes the objective order of beings” and insists “on what is Said and never asks after who is Saying,” or, more directly, “who speaks?” (29).[10] It’s curious that Levinas is speaking about an address—the saying—that seems to say more about sound and voice than the visual image of the face, a point Cavarero makes quite plainly: “After all, I can speak in the dark to someone who is not in front of me” (27).

Considering these soundboard phony calls are encountered by way of the radio, this privileging of the visual becomes even more strained, since we clearly don’t “see” radio in any visual sense (although what we often perceive as sensory input coming from a discrete sense is more accurately a “representation of different sensory modalities in combination”) (Babilon 24). Radio, however, is a sonic-forward theatre of the mind that provokes audience experiences not only through carefully chosen semantic description but also through “many elements of vocal sound—accent, intonation, timbre—[that] escape our fundamental desire to signify and thus to capture, categorize, and control” (Anderson). However, Cavarero is quick to point out that calling attention to this point “is not to highlight a contradiction in Levinas’s text; nor is it to insist on a rigid distinction between the vocal and the visual” (27). Instead, Cavarero’s interest is “to reflect on this surprising tendency” in Levinas to “resolve speech in the face” rather than in the voice (27). In her call for reflection, I hear an opportunity to transpose Levinas’s critique of the verbal system of signification to the material, sonic level of the voice. For if, as Davis writes, “[T]he challenge is to refuse to reduce the saying to the said, to keep hermeneutic interpretation from absorbing the strictly rhetorical gesture of the approach, which interrupts the movement of appropriation and bursts any illusion of having understood,” we must continue to playfully explore untapped artifacts like soundboard phony phone calls—artifacts that interrupt and exceed traditional “interpretive” notions and expand rhetoric’s focus on non-representation force (Inessential 208).

Like the relationship of infinity to totality, language does not reside within the saying; the saying is always “betrayed” by the said. There is no way to say what is unsayable, no way to use language and not be betrayed by the said, because to say anything is to return to the ontological realm of the self that “manifestation demands” (Levinas, Otherwise 6). This betrayal—the indiscretion with regards to the unsayable—becomes a labyrinth from which there appears to be no rational way out except in glimpses and flashes of the sort that bursts of affirmative laughter can produce. Again, the iterative, radically citational nature of soundboard phony phone calls place this prank before myriad audience(s) far exceeding those present at the prank’s inception (the pranksters and the victim), and, as a prank, it provides an initial opportunity to laugh from a superior position while ridiculing a man who, as Stern joked after hearing the bit for the first time, “lost an argument with himself.” For other audiences—academics, perhaps, who can relate all too well to how desperately this man is trying to get people to read his book (a book he, in all likelihood, probably knows deep down no one is ever going to read)—the more nervous response Freud describes in Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious may occur, as the immense amount of “psychic expenditure” which was previously devoted to repressing unpleasant feelings and memories finds its cathartic, empathetic, therapeutic release in laughter (180).

But this prank is set it apart from the previous two phony phone call examples in the way it provokes laughter from one important audience: the prank’s victim. In the moments when the intensity of this prank’s absurdity escalates to a breaking point (such as when the “live” Dr. Williams begs of his sonically similar non-human interlocutor—with some combination of frustration and wonder—“What do you mean? How can I be wrong on my own book! I have a copy of it! It’s in front of me! I have the copy of the book now [laughing] as I speak to you!” his illusion of understanding gives way to Davis’s affirmative laughter. Such flashes are opportunities to observe how affirmative laughter grows out of “Devil laughter,” or the laughter that still has a dog in the fight for meaning and understanding:

This [affirmative laughter], then, is Devil laughter with a twist. It might begin as a reaction, a fight against meaning, but it stops fighting in the instant that it stops recognizing the terms of the fight. In the bursting forth of this laughter, the conflict between meaning and meaningless is sidestepped. This laughter refuses to work in the service of that conflict. (Breaking Up 59)

For much of this call, Dr. Williams fights for meaning and understanding (in his work, in his name, in his identity) as the prank continues to push him so far beside himself that he can’t understand he is talking to himself. For example, in the moment when Dr. Williams tries to literally claim his own name, his voice cracks up with a laughter that collapses the certainty that he is in a fight he can truly win: “Hey, what is going on here? Hey, look here [laughing] my name is Joseph A. Williams, come on!” And at the call’s end, when he laments, “I’m, I’m wrong? . . . oh, so I don’t even know my own name?” all traces of laughter(s) are gone. In these final moments, the tonality of his voice, the “authentically disturbing and inherently sonic note” that seems to reverberate within his delivery, has seen the limits of this fight for meaning and understanding and no longer appears to want to engage (Appelbaum vix). He speaks as if he is admitting to whomever and whatever is present on both ends of his phone—the flesh and blood voice and the soundboard voice—that he cannot reach them, cannot return either of them to his horizon of understanding.

The absurdity imbuing this prank amplifies what Anderson describes as a difference between “identifiability” and “identity”: “we have a strange potential, through the voice, for a kind [of] intimacy with the Other that is visceral and vibrational but, at the same time, paradoxically impersonal” (emphasis added). In this call, however, the paradox is created when Dr. Williams encounters this wholly unapproachable, yet in a way, impossibly personal “Other.” It is by toying with Dr. Williams’s “personal-ness” in this way, by manipulating the address to play with the visceral and vibrational intimacy of the voice, that this prank is able to function as a prank in this context. It shows us that only way we get to think about “being” is after we enter this ethical relationship with alterity, a limitless “Other” that disperses what we think of as “I” into an infinite number of future instantiations of the self. Dr. Williams’s reaction to this call “presupposes an internal alterity,” which, in the end, reveals that he is really not so different than his soundboard created voice, and the “Dr. Williams” he thought he knew himself as is shown to have been never essentially there (Davis, “Rhetorical”). 


Taken at face value, frivolities like these soundboard phony phone calls have traditionally been dismissed as absurd and meaningless. But I concur with Erin Anderson that such manipulations of “voice events” have broader ontological and ethical implications for rhetoric, especially as the reach of our technology continues to expand exponentially: “Rather than focusing on what voice means, we can consider instead what voice does.” In the over-thirty-year history of the Stern Show, soundboard phony phone calls are, on the one hand, just another example of how the show’s prank-driven creative material often beats cultural trends to the mainstream market.[11] However, these relatively benign phone pranks have actually foreshadowed some far more serious social implications that newer, more powerful technologies are just beginning to present. Consider the recent phenomenon of “deepfakes” where an extraordinarily lifelike video of someone is created using AI which shows them speaking words they never said and behaving in ways they never did. Comedian and filmmaker Jordan Peele, for example, created and voiced a deepfake video of President Obama seemingly delivering a PSA to Americans about the dangers of fake news (while describing President Trump as “a total and complete dipshit”), and in the process, actually performed the dangers this technology could present if wielded for purposes more nefarious than a prank (Peele). Yet deepfakes are already being employed to heinous ends in other ways. The images of celebrity actresses and public figures are right now being reproduced in deepfake pornographic videos being widely disseminated online. Combining this technology with the rhizomic proliferation machine that is social media, McLeod’s stance that “people don’t just make mischief with media; their mischief can also remake media in the process” takes on a more ominous light (11).

Soundboard phony phone calls respond to a “need for more explicit attention to the role of technology in producing our experience of and relationship to voice in contemporary digital environments” and raise further questions about vocality “as a peculiar category of sound that attends to speech but also exceeds it, and as a mediated material that pushes the boundaries of human embodiment and agency” (Anderson). Additionally, such sonically privileged texts continue to carve out a broader space for sound within the academy. As Hawk rightfully observes:

Texts and images are also much easier to reproduce in print journals that are still the valued venue for scholarship. And sound has failed to transcend disciplinary boundaries. While words are still central to English departments and images are still central to art departments, they are both engaged widely across many fields in a way that sound is not—sound predominantly remains the scholarly property of music departments. (220)

Soundboard calls offer a way to respond to the other not as something to be mastered and returned to the subject’s own horizon, but as a radically unapproachable “Other.” They perform “affect beyond meaning, engagement beyond interpretation, method beyond close reading and historical context” (225), and—in the iterative opportunities they create for the context breaking, subject interrupting force of affirmative laughter to reach audiences far afield from the “original intentions” of their creators—can provide new glimpses of how rhetorical force precedes and exceeds interpretation. In order for the growing collection of scholarship within the field of rhetoric working to shift the focus away from questions of meaning and interpretation and toward questions of force and affect to continue forwarding this important work, it is imperative that we invite new opportunities—such as these underexplored, ethically ambivalent, technologically mischievous phony phone call pranks—and continue to remain open and welcoming of other seemingly far-afield opportunities to present themselves for future study.

[1] For example, I once visited Fiji and bought cannibal forks (the ones they sell especially to tourists) for all my friends. I returned home with a bunch of stories (“They had actual cannibals there not all that long ago . . . can you believe it?”) to demonstrate how I have used this eclectic encounter with the other to “enrich” myself. I am now somehow “more”; I am my old self plus this new experience in Fiji.

[2] These soundboard clips are always moving away from idea that a “text” is the product of some “static lexicon” anchored in stable meaning, and, as such, gesture toward Derrida’s “moving chain” stylistic resistance to “key terms” in his writing (these clips could perhaps be referred to as “grafts,” “chains,” “marks,” “citations,” etc.) that, as Barbara Johnson writes, “constantly frustrates the desire to ‘get to the point’” and “refus[es] to stop and totalize itself” (Derrida, Dissemination xvi). Because they originate from radio, this paper will refer to the pieces of soundboard texts both as “clips,” to reflect how a radio audience would recognize them, and “citations,” to reflect how they get lifted from one context and placed into another where they produce effects that (rather dramatically) exceed any “intention” of the “original” context.

[3] British street artist Banksy echoed this prank in the early 2000s by printing one million pounds worth of 10-pound notes (replacing the Queen’s face with Princess Diana’s) and handing them out at a music festival. The festivalgoers – ignorant they were being pranked – began to spend the money on beer and food, at which point it suddenly dawned on Banksy that the prank had suddenly become a crime: “Holy shit we just . . . we just forged a million quid” (Exit).

[4] While Stern himself – and, to a lesser degree, a segment of his fan base – have long been associated with a specific form of toxic masculinity, the reality floating across the air waves is decidedly more complex. To be clear, this paper argues that the very notion of subjectivity, of identity, is divided by the otherness of laughter. My project features and demonstrates the untenability of subject positions – they are non-essential and incomplete – so any arguments about the Stern Show’s complex and ever-evolving politics come after the presubjective determinations I am making. As such, this paper will not attempt an attack or defense of Stern’s show on these grounds. However, I will offer – in the interest of inviting those working from these rather dated and incomplete associations to feel comfortable engaging with scholarship that has Stern (however tangentially) as a subject – that the Stern Show of the 2000s onward is a decidedly different space than the Stern Show of the 1980s (an observation writer/actor/comic Lena Dunham underscored when she called Stern “an outspoken feminist” on a recent Tonight Show appearance) (“Lena Dunham”). See David Segal’s 2016 New York Times exposé “Confessor. Feminist. Adult. What the hell happened to Howard Stern?” for additional context.

[5] Replays on the Stern show can occur when the “original” broadcast that contained this bit gets replayed in its entirety on days when the show is off-air, or in isolated moments when this specific citation gets lifted out of its “original” context and played on its own to take a future show into or out of a commercial, for example, or even on occasions when the show, in the moment, performs a comedic, self-referential callback, a sort of “Hey, remember that time we had Richard Simmons call that southern guy? Where’s that tape?” and replays the bit again within this new context.

[6] Davis’ comprehensive discussion of laughter in Breaking Up [at] Totality is circuitous and somewhat disorienting by design. Davis’ writing performs the fluidity that she sees in the force of laughter as she discovers multitudes of laughters along the way: kairotic laughter, kynic laughter, Angel laughter, Devil laughter, affirmative laughter, and giving laughter. While each discussion of these “individual” forms is, in some ways, sequestered and (almost) isolated enough to allow the reader to conceptually hold the discrepancies Davis wishes to elucidate between them, it seems that her multifaceted explications of numerous laughters are themselves playing with the un-definability that laughter’s force problematizes. The place where giving laughter, for example, “a discursive form . . . which laughs in resistance to totality [vis-à-vis] [t]he performance of semantic/syntactic violations” begins, and kairotic laughter, the “Laughter-in-language . . . laughing with the force of laughter” ends is opaque. Much in the same way Derrida’s writing, as Barbara Johnson suggests, resists the “temptation to focus on certain ‘key’ terms and compile them into a static lexicon: supplément, différance, pharmakon, hymen, etc.,” Davis seems intent to dramatize the permeability of the boundaries between subject and object, between etymology and physiology, between writing and speech, and so on, through her performative “analyses” of laughter (Derrida, Dissemination vxi).

[7] Riley Martin (1946-2015) was a self-proclaimed alien abductee as well as an author and musician who hosted numerous cosmically oriented radio programs throughout his career. The names Riley “shouts out” in this prank were cited from his last radio program, The Riley Martin Show, which aired on SiriusXM satellite radio from 2006 to 2015.

[8] Because the logistics of this prank were so confounding, I contacted Dr. Williams by phone and interviewed him about how this encounter came to be. His gracious explanation revealed that he was a victim of a classic “long con.” Months before the phony “The Jack and Rod Show” call occurred, Stern Show producers booked Dr. Williams as a guest on another radio show, also fake, that was never broadcast on Stern’s show but merely used as the setup for the prank cited above. During this earlier fake show, the producers used another caller to accuse Dr. Williams of plagiarism. By recording the exchange between Dr. Williams and his accuser, Stern’s producers now had recordings of Dr. Williams defending his own work in his own voice, recordings that they later used to accuse “himself” of plagiarism during his “The Jack and Rod Show” appearance. Dr. Williams never had any reason to believe that the interview on “ The Jack and Rod Show” was in any way related to the earlier interview. (“Williams Interview”).

[9] The prank’s initial audience is Stern’s broadcast audience who listen, simultaneously, as Stern and his on-air radio team play the prank “live” over the radio, a prank that is framed inside a “make-believe” radio show that is simultaneously being broadcast within a “real” radio show, a prank that is composed of a conversation/confrontation between an author, i.e. the “real,” “live” Dr. Williams calling in to a “fake” radio show to promote his book, and another author – the “same” author – i.e. the soundboard created, “fake” Dr. Williams, calling in to argue with Dr. Williams about his (their?) book.

[10] For Levinas, the said is that which can be thematized and returned to the realm of the self, to the “I.” As Davis puts it, “The said indicates the constative production of conceptual forms, themes, ideas; it thus offers itself up to interpretation” (“Addressing Alterity” 192-3). The saying, on the other hand, is an expressive position, a movement, that results from one facing the other in an ethical relationship with alterity.

[11] Bits on Stern’s show have been appropriated many times by enterprising media producers who clean them up and re-package them up for more mainstream consumption. A few examples: the television gameshow “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” was based on a Stern bit of the same name that ran for years (although Stern was never credited); Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” and “Earn Your Plugs” bits were directly taken (and also uncredited) from similar bits on Stern’s show that had likewise run for years; Stern has been widely acknowledged for laying the groundwork for the entire reality TV genre by both encouraging Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne – frequent quests on his radio show - to do a TV show about their family live (“The Osbourne’s is considered the first reality TV show) and by making the private lives of his eccentric producers, writers, interns, and even bosses essential aspects of his radio show, thus providing the template for the myriad “dysfunctional family” reality shows that followed (Walker).

Works Cited

Anderson, Erin. “Toward a Resonant Material Vocality for Digital Composition.” enculturation no.18, 2014.

Appelbaum, David. Voice. SUNY Press, 1990.

Babilon, Daniela. The Power of Smell in American Literature: Odor, Affect, and Social Inequality. Peter Lang GmbH, 2017.         

Banksy. Exit Through the Gift Shop. Mongrel, 2010.

Cavarero, Adriana. For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Stanford UP, 2005.

Davis, D. Diane. “Addressing Alterity: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Nonappropriative Relation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 38, no. 3, 2005.      

---. Breaking Up [at] Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter. Southern Illinois UP, 2000.

---. Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. U of

Pittsburgh P, 2010.

---. “Rhetorical Temporality.” Reinventing Rhetoric, Rhetoric Society of America Conference, 31 May 2018. Minneapolis, MN.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson, U of Chicago P, 1981.      

---. “Signature Event Context.” Limited Inc. Translated by Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. Northwestern UP, 1988.

Freud, Sigmund. Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious. Translated by A. A. Brill. Moffat, 1916.

Hawk, Byron. “Review of Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age by Greg Goodale.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 47, no. 2, 2014.       

“Lena Dunham Calls Howard Stern an Outspoken Feminist.” YouTube, uploaded by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, 9 Jan. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-l0CyLFF7u8

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