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Monday, December 17, 2012

The Rules of the Prank-Call Game

OTTAWA - Until last week, Pierre Brassard was the world's most famous royal prankster, thanks to a 14-minute conversation he had with Queen Elizabeth back in 1995. But last Friday, while preparing to record his weekly news quiz radio program in a Montreal radio studio, Mr. Brassard learned about the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse in Britain who accepted a call from an Australian broadcaster pretending to be the queen.

“We quickly changed the script of the show,” said Mr. Brassard, whose program “Pouvez-Vous Répéter la Question?” - something like NPR's “Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me!” - had included mention of the hospital prank. “This was no longer a joke. It's not a game anymore.”

Mr. Brassard, who now works for the government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, did prank calls for about two years as part of a comedy trio that hosted a daily show on CKOI, a private radio station in Montreal. “I'm happy not to do that stuff anymore,” he said. “But if I was doing that stuff today, I'd certainly step back from it now.”

While Mr. Brassard emphasized that it was impossible to predict Mrs. Saldanha's death, he faulted the Australian D.J.s for enmeshing noncelebrities in their prank call.

During his time as a prank caller, Mr. Brassard, who is widely known for his comedic impersonations, said that he focused on calls to those in the public eye. Brigitte Bardot and Pope John Paul II were also among the group's victims.

When a famous person could not be reached, Mr. Brassard said that the group never used anyone who was not at least an official representative. “People who were armed, people who were capable of answering questions, not ordinary people,” he said.

The one exception to that policy that he could recall involved a reversal of the usual prank formula. The group published a telephone number indicating that it offered free advice from astrologers. He and his partners then recorded the reaction of its callers to the spurious advice and forecasts they were offered.

Mr. Brassard said that his group's calls often involved extensive preparation, a month in the case of the pope, a week for the queen.

Once their victims were on the phone, Mr. Brassard said that he avoided questions that would reveal personally embarrassing details or important government secrets or lead to news stories.

His conversation with the queen, however, seemed to at least skirt some of those self-imposed restrictions. It was conducted shortly before Quebecers were to vote in a refere ndum on whether to separate from Canada, and Mr. Brassard pretended to be Jean Chrétien, the prime minister at the time.

The fake Mr. Chrétien asked the queen, who is also Canada's symbolic head of state, if she would make a plea for Canadian unity on Canadian television, a strategy that most likely would have boosted the separatist cause.

After Mr. Brassard, as the prime minister, repeatedly pushed her for a commitment, the queen put down the phone and spoke openly with an aide. Jumping between French and English, Mr. Brassard parodied Mr. Chrétien's tendency to mangle both of Canada's official languages. At times, the conversation turned absurd, with Mr. Brassard asking the queen about her preparations for Halloween, a question that seemed to almost baffle her.

Mr. Brassard said that he suffered no consequences from the broadcast. While it aroused indignation in some British tabloids, a not particularly difficult achievement, the call was generally tak en with good humor in both Canada and Britain.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, however, did go to the radio station demanding a copy of the full recording of his call to the pope, in which Mr. Brassard again played the part of the prime minister. But he said that nothing ultimately came out of that action.

Whatever ultimately happens to the Australian radio pranksters, Mr. Brassard said that he hoped that Mrs. Saldanha's death would lead to “a time of reflection.” He then paused at the end of a telephone interview and asked, with a laugh: “This is not a prank, right?”