Dial a Dude: Night Flight picks a few of our fave 80s/90s 1-900 numbers and funny parodies

By on November 28, 2015

Most of us probably still associate those 1-900 numbers with the TV commercials we’d see airing late at night on the cable networks like USA, back in the 1980s and ’90s.

The typically low-budget but usually legit TV commercials — often advertising adult phone-sex hotlines — were sometimes so hilariously awful that they were easy targets for parodying, and soon faked-up 1-900 commercials began to show up on late night TV shows, like “Night Flight,” sometimes making it difficult to tell if the commercial was for a legit 1-900 number, or not. Sometimes.

Check out our “1-900-555-DUDE” commercial above — which obviously also parodies the stoner Jeff Spicoli character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which came out in 1982 — and so perfectly uses Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” for a backing soundtrack.

We thought it would be fun to look at some of the best 1-900 TV commercials from the 80s and 9os that we could find — unfortunately we have to select them from the ones that have been compiled by HS tapers and uploaded to Youtube accounts, but trust us, there were hundreds of these ads, and hopefully we’ve found some of the better ones that you can find online.

1-900 numbers were actually created in the early 1970s, and were originally part of the regional phone company services that were offered that would provide information that you would be required to pay for, but one early example that ran nationally and was not connected to any type of business or service (or was, depending how cynical you are about politics), was the 1-900 number set up in 1980, which allowed viewers at home, watching a presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on the NBC network (partnering with AT&T, some sources say it was ABC, and perhaps it was available to all three of major networks?).

Viewers called in and they were given two additional phone numbers — they were told to dial one number if they thought Carter was winning the debate, and another if they thought Reagan was winning. Of course, this was later modified after touchtone phone pads replaced rotary phones, where you could push either “1” or “2,” but at the time, you actually had to hang up, and call a separate number to voice your opinion about your candidate’s performance — and believe it or not, voters actually did this!

Typically, though, businesses would offer a 1-900 number as an additional part of their service, but then companies started realizing that they could come up with 1-900 for just about anything, and as long as they were people sitting at home who were willing to pay for it, realizing they would split any of the profits with the phone companies who did the billing and provided the numbers.

Usually the voiceover announcer in the TV commercial would point out the call would cost a little bit more — sometimes $2.99 for the first minute and 99 cents for each additional minute, or a flat rate in the neighborhood of $3 or $4-per minute, for example — and if the ad was one that was targeted to or at least might be seen by juveniles under the age of eighteen, they were always told to get their parents’ permission before dialing the number. Most of the time, kids did not do this.

The 1-900 prefix on premium phone numbers meant that phone companies treated them the same way they treated toll-free 1-800 numbers, regardless of the area code they were calling from; the caller would be simply charged a higher-than-normal per-minute long distance-type rate for the 1-900 numbers, and those rates would apply for however long he or she spent on the call, chatting with the hot chick they’d seen in hot tubs in the commercials was toweling off, or so we’ve been told (the 900 numbers followed by 976 were always the most scandalous ones).

There were 1-900 numbers for teen celebrities Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, and this one, for TV’s Grandpa Munster, with actor Al Lewis offering up kids the chance to join his exclusive clubs and become “junior vampires of America”:

There were 1-900 numbers for heavy metal rock bands, like Warrant, Mötley Crüe, and KISS.

There were 1-900 for rappers too like “Too legit to quit!” M.C. Hammer, Vanilla Ice, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith, and New Kids on the Block.

There were 1-900 numbers for creeps and horror freaks, Freddy Krueger’s ‘Call Freddy’ hotline which let you listen to him telling you ‘deadtime stories’:

There were 1-900 numbers for calling up pro wrestling megastars (according to a Wikipedia entry that is flagged ‘citation needed’, the Hulk Hogan Hotline, 1-900-454-HULK, was AT&T’s single biggest 1-900 number from 1991-1993).

The World Wrestling Federation and everyone involved — from Mean Gene Okerlund to Captain Lou Albano — had their own hotline for behind-the-scenes scoops and interviews. Even the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) had a 1-900 number.

There were also 1-900 numbers that offered up weather forecasts, tech support, directory inquiries, recipes, sex secrets and romantic confessions, dating hints, all kinds of dial-a-jokes (a couple of the earliest examples, dating back to the 70s, included 1-900 numbers that offered up daily quips recorded by comedians like Henny Youngman and Phyllis Diller), dial-up insults (!), and popular (and not-so popular) cartoon characters.

There were 1-900 numbers for Elvis death mysteries and conspiracies, soap opera recaps, sports scores and gossip (Sports Illustrated had a 1-900 number that promised insider info), crossword puzzle and video game hints and tips, daily prayers and horoscopes (Jean Dixon, and who can forget Dionne Warwick and her Psychic Friends Network? Apparently at its peak, their annual gross was over $100 million), and some really strange ones that still just make no fucking sense whatsoever, like this one:

Some, as you can see, were probably for legitimate services and companies, but some of the 1-900 numbers were obviously non-legit scams, set up to keep the caller online for a long, long time, stringing out the call so that the charges added up significantly, and some also seem now only to have existed purely to make money for the companies who set them up, purely so they could continue to exist. Before everyone had access to the internet, where you could verify if the number was legit or not, you sometimes didn’t know who might be profiting from the call you were making.

thanks to Night Flight’s friend Josh Hadley for uploading this one!

In fact, you could probably make the case that the use of 1-900 numbers may have actually prepared us for the “on-demand” world we live in now, where you could call up one of these numbers to get information that wasn’t available elsewhere, and, specifically, pay-per-minute phone sex lines that allowed us to have some of the first convenient, on-demand access to live women talking about sex acts.

Today, we have Google, and lots and lots of internet porn sites offering up pretty much the same types of services. Pretty much.

As you can see from some of our examples, the prefix itself eventually became the butt of a joke, all you needed to do was to add “1-900” to something and you had automatically made it not-legit, or perhaps a little salacious, or both. Saying “1-900” or some variation of that meant you were usually referring to the adult entertainment lines prevalent practice in the early years of the industry.

They were so prevalent and such a part of the pop culture for awhile that they were frequently used as plot devices on TV sitcoms, like NBC’s “Seinfeld,” where Jerry Seinfeld ends up dating the woman that his neighbor Kramer had been calling (on Jerry’s phone) because he liked her voice. Of course, there were also the parodies on shows like “Saturday Night Live,” who, in 1983, aired a skit in which Eddie Murphy held up “Larry the Lobster” and let viewers call a 1-900 number to decide whether or not he would cook up the tasty crustacean. The voters wanted Larry to live and narrowly voted to save him from being boiled in the pot. (Murphy boiled the lobster anyway.)

“Dial-an-Insult” reminded us of National Lampoon’s “Dial-a-Curse”

Our early favorite, however, dates way back to the 70s: the National Lampoon comedy troupe hilariously parodied 1-900 numbers with “Dial-a-Curse,” which appeared later on their hilarious album That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick!, a collection of sketches culled from the “National Lampoon Radio Hour” show which was broadcast — on 600 national radio stations across the country — between November 17, 1973 to December 28, 1974 (“Dial-a-Curse” originally aired on the show first broadcast on January 12, 1974).

As you can see from the actual TV ads themselves, most of these companies didn’t have much money to spend on the commercials to begin with, and since the content often needed to air after 10pm in most parts of the country, the makers of these 1-900 hotline ads didn’t think they had to spend a lot of money on talent (typically they featured terrible acting, which is one reason why they’re so funny), or minimal or even non-existent settings (sometimes just a couch or a bubbling hot tub) because the viewers at home watching the ads probably didn’t give a shit about the quality and were likely stoned out of their gourds anyway.

This ad, originally broadcast in October 1987 on WNUF TV-28, was for the horror hotline, 1-900-Monster

One reason the announcer urged the viewer to “Call now!” was the fact that many of these 1-900 numbers expired within 30 days or so, making the ads nearly obsolete after a certain period of time, and so they were aired a LOT during those thirty days before the number was disconnected.

Throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, 1-900 businesses were apparently self-regulated (can you believe it?), but in 1991, a government agency called the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began to adopt rules after complaints of widespread abuse involving calls to 900 numbers, or what they called “pay-per-call” services, ultimately requiring that customers be able to block 900 services from their phones and forbidding phone companies from disconnecting phones when customers refused to pay for premium services charged to their accounts.

By 1996, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also stepped in and began to regulate them, allowing phone customers to obtain rebates on 1-900 calls that showed up on their monthly bills, which effectively meant that you could call the numbers for free, then complain to your phone carrier once the bill arrived, and get the charges dropped. As we recall hearing at the time (not from personal experience, but from others who told us), this was pretty much abused by kids who made the calls, then had their parents complain that they had no knowledge of the fact their kids were making these premium calls, and the phone companies would typically remove the charges.

You can see then how the revenue to 1-900 companies would dry up pretty quickly.

Around the same time, the 1-900 business began to decline as everyone started getting mobile cell phones, and for whatever reason, mobile carriers in the U.S. didn’t allow calls to 1-900 numbers, which pretty quickly killed off the business as well. These old landline hotline scams have been replaced with text messaging scams, as we’re sure you’ve noticed, and even the “legit” text-messaging ads and those used on TV shows like “American Idol,” for instance, are pretty scammy too.

As 1-900 were usually blocked at most businesses, to prevent employees from calling them from work instead of home, and once parents figured out that they could just have their phone companies block 1-900 numbers from being dialed by their kids (or wives could block the husbands, and husbands could block the wives from doing the same), a huge percentage of phone carriers just weren’t splitting any revenue any more and some of the phone companies were dropping the service entirely.

AT&T dropped billing for 1-900 numbers in 2002. Verizon stopped billing for all 1-900 numbers at the end of 2012. MCI — owned by Verizon — filed for bankruptcy in 2002, and didn’t pay its customers for 1-900 revenues, then emerged from bankruptcy to find they had the 1-900 business all to themselves.

1-900 numbers do still exist, of course, but they’re not as profitable as they were at one time. 1991 might have been close to the peak (we’re not sure of the actual peak, though). In 1992, a New York magazine article dated January 20, 1992, it was reported that in ’91, “Americans dial $975 million worth of 900 calls — more than 274 million to almost 15,000 numbers.”

The premium numbers still being used to advertise on late-night television commercials, and yes, you can still get in touch with those lonely hot chicks in the hot tubs, if you’d like to make that call, go ahead — we assume they still run on local channels late at night, but we don’t see too many of them anymore because we DVR everything we watch and fast-forward through any goddamn commercials.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.