80s, 90s, Blog — February 3, 2015 1:12 pm

The Lost Art of Outgoing Answering Machine Messages

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Who uses a phone (to make phone calls) anymore, let alone an answering machine? I still haven’t bothered to set up my voice mail, so you can forget about me dealing with an actual answering machine.

But there was a time in the not so distant past that answering machines were all the rage. I grew up with a fondness for answering machines, and chances are, you did, too.

You’ve likely stumbled across Crazy Calls in your answering machine days, but perhaps more illusive is Radio Shack’s version of this concept.

My parents’ answering machine, all through the 90s and possibly well into the 2000s, featured one of those pre-recorded “joke” messages. I always assumed it was Marilyn Monroe, since my Dad is a huge fan of hers, but apparently it’s supposed to be Mae West and plays off her “It’s not the men in your life that count, it’s the life in your men” line from the film I’m No Angel. I did not know this until today because I am horribly uncultured. Sorry.

The message came from Radio Shack’s Telephone Answering Machine Outgoing Messages: Comedy Edition. I find Radio Shack’s use of the word “comedy” questionable, but here you can listen to Mae West’s message:

Audio Courtesy: Tape Findings.

Callers often mistook the impersonator’s sultry Mae West impression for my Mom, which got real awkward.

radio-shack-comedy-tapePhoto Courtesy: Tape Findings.

The tape itself advises not to put it into your answering machine. By the time we got an answering machine the world had changed enough that they were using microtapes, so that shit wouldn’t fit anyway.

This tape also included impressions of W.C. Fields, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Boris Karloff, Rodney Dangerfield, Groucho Marx, Peter Falk (Columbo), Barbara Streisand (People), Alfred Hitchcock, and Roseanne Roseannadanna. If you think those pop culture references sounded dated even for the early 90s, you’re correct. My Dad had to have purchased the tape in 1984 waiting for the day my family got an answering machine.

Remember, this was before mp3s or computers that could do more than fill a monitor with magenta and cyan. Once you found a message you’d like on your machine, you had to play the cassette on your stereo while you held your answering machine up to the speakers to capture all that analogue glory… back onto analogue.

Strange outgoing answering machine messages were a big part of our culture and possibly the most important creative outlet of the 90s. And sometimes getting those messages down could be quite stressful, as illustrated by this Kids in the Hall sketch:


When our outgoing answering machine messages were on point, of course we’d sit by the phone to listen to our callers’ reactions (especially if we were trying not to get dumped, like Seinfeld‘s ol’ George Costanza):


All of this, of course, translated into me making my own strange messages on my voice mail in the late 90s/early 2000s, until I joined the job hunt and figured potential work places calling and hearing the Small Wonder theme song likely didn’t help my chances of getting hired anywhere.

If you want to get a hold of me nowadays, email is your best bet. Or Twitter.

Did you have any wacky outgoing answering machine messages?

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