It's become one of the most popular running gags on American TV: In almost every episode of "The Simpsons," insufferable miscreant Bart calls up Moe's Tavern and asks the bartender to page the likes of "Hugh Jazz" or "Amanda Huginkiss." The dimwitted Moe falls for it every time -- "I'm looking for a man to hug and kiss!" he'll shout -- as his patrons howl in laughter. But what agitates Moe even more is the taunting, anonymous giggle on the other end of the line.

He's been pranked -- and there's not a damn thing he can do about it.

These animated vignettes never fail to amuse, but they pale in comparison with the real thing.

Take, for example, the so-called "Cambodian Refugee Calls," in which phone pranksters pose as Asian social workers and play off the bigotry of residents in Garden Grove, Calif., a community wrought with racial tension. The callers inform various locals that the Cambodian Refugee Center is ready to deliver an orphaned child to their home. "You show up over here and I'll shoot the {expletive} out of you!" one victim hollers.

Or consider "Blue Feathers," in which telephonic terrorists agitate a Pittsburgh man so intensely that he cocks his shotgun over the phone and begs them for a meeting so he can kill them. Or the calls made by a band of Portland, Ore., audio subversives to a religious radio station, in which hoaxers refer to sighting Jesus in a frozen yogurt cone and ask for advice on finding a good "Christian abortionist."

Distributed on homemade tapes and even CDs, these calls are, to fans, harmless and hilarious practi cal jokes. Even an art form. But in the eyes of the law, they are a form of harassment -- and in some states it's illegal to tape calls without the consent of both parties.

Even so, phone pranks are rapidly gaining popularity, hailed by some as a return to humor for humor's sake, real-life comedy with an edge.

"They're very funny because they're real," says Barry Alfonso, a Nashville-based writer who's the de facto librarian of the phone prank underground, with nearly 75 hours of other people's pranks in his collection. "This stuff isn't staged."

And what makes them even more intriguing is the willingness of victims to endure the abuse. The mark of a successful prank is often the call's duration. Explains one veteran hoaxer: "Since it's on the phone, people have this automatic trust in the voice at the other end of the line for some reason. You can really manipulate people into thinking you're serious, but do weird stuff like change your name four times in one conversation. But people will stay on the phone because they want to believe."

With the recent commercial release of "The Jerky Boys," an album of pranks done by a duo from Queens, N.Y., phone-related wackiness has been drawing mainstream attention; the Jerky Boys' album has sold 150,000 copies so far. Though the Jerkies may be new to some, the world of phone abuse is far more diversified -- and often more intense and ingenious than what you'll hear on their album.

Historical Prank Primer

Phone pranks have been going on since Mr. Bell obtained his patent, but the granddaddy of the modern art is widely regarded to be the "Tube Bar" tapes, now available on a Teen Beat Records CD and looked upon with the utmost admiration by many pranksters.

"Simpsons" creator Matt Groening doesn't admit to borrowing Tube Bar

material, even though exact lines from the Tube Bar tapes have shown up on the Fox series. ("I think it's a case of sociopathic synchronicity," Groening says with a chuckle.)

The calls reportedly were taped in 1969, when a couple of kids in Jersey City launched a prank campaign against Louis "Red" Deutsch, owner of the Tube Bar -- a hole in the wall near the entrance of the Journal Square train station. Red, who swore like a David Mamet character and sounded like he gargled with gravel, wasn't known for being patient or even-tempered, which made him a perfect target.

The guys started out by asking Red to see if patrons named "Al Knockerup" and "Hal Jalikakick" were in the bar. For a while, Red would honor their requests, loudly obliging with "Al Koholic? Is there an Al Koholic in here?" But Red eventually figured out the scam, and anytime the kids called, he'd launch into obscenity-strewn soliloquies, ending almost every burst with a guttural "You yellow rat bastard!"

"The beauty of the Tube Bar tapes is people had no idea it was going to turn into the ongoing war with Red that it did," says Terry Tolkin, director of artist development for Elektra Records and a fan of phone pranks. "The magic is in Red's outrageous response and his voice -- you can practically hear him having a heart attack."

Tolkin first heard a tape of the calls at a 1987 party, and he says he couldn't stop listening to it for weeks. He made one of his friends, D.C-area musician Mark Robinson, listen. Robinson was so taken that he released it on his Teen Beat label the following year. The album sold 6,000 copies then, and it continues to sell about 3,000 a year.

"If you buy a Robin Williams comedy album, it's just a bunch of jokes," says Robinson. "But what makes this funnier is that it's real. You can identify with the caller or the bartender, and it almost makes you feel like you're a part of it."

So popular are the Tube Bar tapes that Christian Gore, editor in chief of the renegade movie journal Film Threat, persuaded veteran actor Lawrence Tierney to play the title role in "Red," his 35-minute video interpretation of the pranks. The film is almost religious to the original Tube Bar material, with one exception -- it ends with Red tracking down the pranksters and blowing them away with a shotgun.

"Red always talks about doing that in the tapes," says Gore. "Since it was something he never got to do in real life, I felt that if his spirit could see the film, maybe he'd rest in peace."

'Auto Mechanic'

As the Tube Bar tapes became popular, a handful of other pranksters decided to release their finest moments on tape or CD, generally through obscure record labels. While some have gained in notoriety through self-promotion, others have been discovered, which brings us to the tale of the Jerky Boys.

Known in real life as Johnny Brennan and Kamal (no last name -- a la Sting), the Jerky Boys have spent the past six years plaguing New Yorkers with phone calls that range from amusing to humiliating. Brennan makes most of the calls, his general MO being to call up prospective employers and harass them. He'll punctuate sentences with such epithets as "jerky" and "fruitcake," yet for some reason, his victims stay on the line.

A classic example is "Auto Mechanic," in which one of the Jerkies calls a garage and doesn't wait to get hired -- he tells the owner he's coming down to start work now. ("You have a New York state inspection license?" the owner asks. "Yeah, I got all dat {expletive}, tough guy," the Jerky fires back.)

Last year, a copy of some Jerky calls found its way to Florida producer Joe Reneda, who was so amused that he signed the Jerkies to his label, Detonator Records. Reneda got some deejay friends to play Jerky cuts and interest blossomed. Then Fred Munao, head of Select Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic, decided to sign the Jerkies.

"I thought it was brilliant -- the funniest comedy I had heard in years," Munao says. "I wanted to go after them. I found a way to get in touch with them, and they came to my office wearing masks and did the whole Jerky routine: 'How many albums you want us to sell, jerky?' "

"The Jerky Boys" is selling exceptionally well for a comedy album, but other pranksters are quick to point out that there's even better stuff on the fringes.

"Among pranksters and collectors, some people are really bummed out with regard to the Jerkies," says Alfonso, the Nashville collector. "They feel like it's the end of an era. It's really the last underground art form, because you really can't license it."

Beyond Jerky

If you call Al White Motors in Manchester, Tenn., and ask for Arnie, they'll put you on hold for a minute until you hear "Parts -- Jimmy White here." At this point you are in the telephonic presence of the purveyor of one of the most successful, longest-running and thoroughly agitating phone pranks in American history, known as "The Benny Garrick Tapes" to a motley assortment of appreciators that includes phone tricksters, country-western musicians and perhaps even Vice President Gore. "Imagine an evil version of 'The Andy Griffith Show,' with Gomer calling up Barney Fife and tormenting him," says Alfonso. "That's the Benny Garrick calls."

Garrick was a car salesman at Al White Motors; his friend of 20 years, Jimmy White, worked in the parts office. One day, for no particular reason, White sat down in an office several doors from Garrick's and called him, identifying himself only as an obnoxious character named "Arnie." Garrick was a high-strung man, and didn't care much for the calls. So almost every morning for the next three years, the first voice Garrick heard every morning was Arnie's.

"I knew his background, so I could bring all that stuff in to the calls. He didn't recognize the voice and never found out who it was," says White of Garrick, who died several years ago. "I'd just try to keep saying stuff that would keep him from hanging up."

Eventually a colleague joined White in making the calls, becoming Arnie's brother, "Barney." After a while, Barney decided to quit, so Arnie told Garrick that Barney had died -- and that he, Garrick, was Arnie's father. "There was a moment of silence, and then he got real mad," says White.

Pretty soon, the whole town got in on the prank. Whenever Garrick would go somewhere in town -- say, the barbershop -- someone would call and alert White. Moments later, the phone would ring at the barbershop, and the receiver would be passed to Garrick, who would find himself talking to his mystery nemesis Arnie.

White says he taped the calls purely "for the fun of it" and had no intention of ever circulating copies. "Sometimes I'd let someone borrow a tape," he says, "and they wouldn't bring it back. Next thing I knew, people in L.A., Virginia and Canada are getting a hold of these things." A number of copies ended up in Nashville and became an instant hit with the country-western music community. Chet Atkins and Garth Brooks even threw a party there in White's honor. White has also been told that Gore either possesses or has heard the tapes, and that he gets a kick out of them. (The vice president's office, perhaps understandably, did not return calls on this topic.)

White's approach was fairly unique, in that he focused all his energy and attention on one person over an extended period of time. Most pranksters either pick their subjects at random, usually using the classified ads as a point of departure. Perhaps one of the best classified-based pranks done to date is "Swatch" or "Bacon and Eggs," orchestrated by one of the few female pranksters, known only as Persimmon.

The call revolves around negotiations for a collectors'-item Bacon and Eggs Swatch. The victims are a couple so eager to get whatever money they can for the watch (original asking price: $500) that they'll put up with a variety of psychologically and sexually charged assaults and manipulations.

"I like the unpredictability of it all," said Persimmon, who insisted that her name and location be kept confidential. "The great thing is, you never know how people on the other end of the line are going to respond. You don't know what's going to set someone off."

Persimmon says she was inspired to enter the world of phone pranks after hearing tapes of calls made by a Pennsylvania trio known as either the Pittsburgh Fightsters or Pittsburgh Pirates, whom many consider to be the Green Berets of phone anarchy. Says Alfonso: "The Fightsters are brilliant and sociopathic at the same time. They're extremely intelligent and crafty people who know how to incense others with minimal effort."

Two Fightsters agreed to talk on condition of anonymity. "You must realize the gravity of the laws we're breaking," one said. "I can only think of all the people out there who would be psychotic enough to come after us."

There's a lot of 'em out there; according to one Fightster, he and his comrades have been making prank calls since they were in the fourth grade (they're in their early thirties now).

As evidenced in "Blue Feathers" -- in which the caller says he accidentally killed the lost parrot being sought by its concerned owner -- the Fightsters' victims seem to enjoy threatening violence. (Dry-firing his shotgun, he tells the caller: "Y'hear that? That's what I'm gonna do to you. I pray to God I find you!")

Another call was to an older, religious Italian woman, who invoked God in a different manner.

"You have a the wrong number, in the name of Jesus," she says.

"I don't have no wrong number in the name of no Jesus."

"Yes!"

"No."

"I command you, Devil, to get out!"

This took the Fightsters by surprise: "We've never had anyone try to exorcise us over the phone before," one said.

Way Beyond Jerky

Also making the rounds in the underground is a CD called "Raymond and Peter: Shut Up, Little Man," a hilarious but profoundly disturbing series of surreptitiously recorded conversations between two middle-aged alcoholic roommates in a cheap San Francisco apartment building. The roommates would often shout and fight, and after neighbor Eddie Lee Sausage asked them to quiet down, Ray told him, "I'm perfectly willing to kill anyone that thinks they're tough. I was a killer before you were born, and I'll be a killer after you're dead." Based on that exchange, Sausage and his roommate decided to start taping the threats, in case proof might be needed for an assault case.

"At first we thought these guys were going to kill us, but after a while, it became apparent that maybe the threats weren't as real as we thought, and the taping became a form of therapy," Sausage says. "And after that, it became obsessive fun. It was kind of like having a nonstop cabaret of 'Punch and Judy' next door."

Sausage and his roommate invested in better recording equipment, and whenever a fight broke out next door, they simply stuck a microphone in the hallway and taped the proceedings. With such titles as "Someday I Will Kill You" and "You Wanna Stick Me With That Fork," these recordings straddle the line between depression and effervescence -- "kind of like a Mamet or Beckett play," says Sausage, "except for one thing: No one could write this material."

To hear a free Sound Bite from "Cambodian Refugee Calls," dial 202-334-9000 and press 8173; for a Sound Bite of "Shut Up, Little Man," press 8174.