Occurs in four varieties:
Talking to nobody
- Bob isn't actually talking to anybody (Bob hasn't dialed anyone but pretends he's talking to Charlie). This can fail if:
- the phone isn't working
- the phone rings while he is talking
- Alice is the technician who came to connect Bob's previously unplugged and non-functional telephone to the network.
Talking to someone else
- Bob is actually talking to Carol, but he pretends it's Charlie. The comedy here is built on the fact Carol initially can't understand what's going on. It rarely fails, but in cases where it does, it can fail several ways:
- Carol screws everything up by walking into the room and asking "Why did you just call me Charlie?"
- Carol says something so surprising or infuriating on the phone that Bob can't help but respond, calling her Carol.
Talking after hanging up
- Bob keeps talking after Charlie has hung up. Depending on the situation, Bob could either be trying to:
- Show off to bystanders by shouting an insult into the speaker which he otherwise wouldn't have dared to if Charlie was still connected.
- Save face by not letting everyone know that Charlie hung up on him.
Talking to an automated system
- Bob is talking to an automated system such as:
Regardless of variety, all four attempts can fail if:
- Charlie walks into the room, clearly not on the phone, while Bob is still 'talking' to him and asks "who are you talking to, Bob?"
- Alice just knows that Charlie can't be talking at the moment (he's in a coma, dead, on vacation in a remote location with no phones, etc.).
- Alice later asks Charlie about some details of that phone conversation of which he can't possibly know.
Do not confuse with a Prank Call. Compare Escape Call, where Bob deliberately arranges earlier for Charlie to call him so that he can get out of talking to Alice. Subtrope of Looking Busy. See also Phoning the Phantom, where somebody communicates with someone nobody else can hear by pretending to be on the phone with them.
- At one time there was a series of advertisements for a building society, starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. In one, Laurie calls their telephone banking service. Fry, whose character always has to go one better, claims his bank has one too, calls it, and requests his balance — though we see at the other end of the line there is only a telephone ringing in an empty office.
- Happened to José Carioca when he tried to use a mobile phone he found on the streets to impress a girl by pretending to be holding an important conversation... and then the phone started ringing.
- In Andhadhun, Simi pretends to call Mr. Sinha when Akash shows up at their apartment to hide that he's already dead. Akash spots the dead body anyway, since he's only faking his blindness.
- In order to keep up the ruse that she's a Baroness with a child, Claudette Colbert's character has to pretend to talk to her on the phone. Of course, no one is on the other line. One of the funniest scenes from the film, Midnight (1939)
- In The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, Toto has declared himself to be Dorothy's agent, and is apparently calling someone about a gig. Dorothy's reaction: "That isn't even a real phone!"
- The New Centurions (1972). When a Scary Black Man causes trouble, one of the policeman calls for an ambulance for the injuries he's about to receive. He decides to surrender without trouble, and finds it Actually Pretty Funny when he's told the call was a fake.
- Done dramatically in Obsessed. Lisa tricks the Charles' babysitter into letting her into the house by pretending to hold a phone conversation with Sharon. Justified a bit when Lisa pretends that Sharon is upset with the babysitter, causing her to decide against taking the phone herself.
- In Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Tim has to pretend to be on his phone while conversing with Detective Pikachu in a café, mainly because nobody but him (because Pikachu is really his father Harry) can understand a word Pikachu says, and Tim doesn't want to look crazy.
- In Uncut Gems, Howard pretends to make a phone call to get out of a tough spot but gets caught out on it (by having his phone taken from him) and gets into more trouble as a result.
- There's a well-known lawyer joke along these lines. A young man is just starting up his own law firm. On the morning of his very first day in business, a man comes to the door. Just before he enters the office, the lawyer (wanting to impress this client) picks up the phone and shouts into it: "$100,000 is my final offer! I'm a very busy man, you know, and my time doesn't come cheap. You don't like it? Fine, then, you can just go find yourself another lawyer!" He slams down the phone and turns to the other man. "Now, what can I do for you?" he asks. The other man replies, "Uh, I was just here to hook up the phone."
- Laurie does this in Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles: A Giant Problem. Nick's dad doesn't want Laurie and Nick going to the beach without supervision, so Laurie fakes a call to Jules to ask him to babysit them. She tells their parents that Jules agreed, and they are none the wiser as she and Nick go off to hunt giants with Noseeum Jack.
- Nick is actually shocked (and impressed) by Laurie's ability to lie so well.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid: When Greg was younger, his mother Susan found out that he wasn't brushing his teeth, so she faked a call to the dentist asking if they had dentures for little boys to scare him into brushing. Greg claims that it worked so well that he started brushing his teeth at least four times a day (and he still does).
- This scene from 30 Rock.
- On the Soap Opera The City (a reworking of Loving), Molly is on the phone with her mother. She puts it down to turn off the kettle, and at this point, the audience hears the operator's message "If you'd like to make a call please hang up and try again. If you need help, hang up, and then dial your operator. . ." Molly returns and proceeds to pick up the phone and continue talking the way she was before, thus revealing herself to be completely delusional—and the Serial Killer who has been offing various characters for the past several months. In a later scene, her boyfriend Danny realizes this when he picks up the extension while she's talking to her "mother", only to hear the same operators message.
- Death in Paradise: Vital to the solution of a seemingly impossible murder in "The Blood Red Sea". The wife of the Victim of the Week answered a call from her husband's phone. However, the call was made by her accomplice on her husband's phone, and she was talking to empty air.
- Happens frequently on Frasier — in one episode, Frasier attempts to get out of a date by pretending he's getting an emergency call from his brother, in another, he and his ex-wife simultaneously make non-calls to "cancel" other dates that they don't actually have.
- Ghost Whisperer: Melinda is on a road trip with Jim, who for plot reasons doesn't know at the moment that she's a psychic. When a ghost shows up in the car, Melinda pretends to take a phone call so she can talk to him.
- In Inside No. 9 episode "Once Removed", Hugo tries to push a sale in front of a client by faking a call about a rival offer on the house, only for the phone to actually ring when his mother calls to ask what he wants for dinner.
- In The IT Crowd, Jen is pretending to be busy, so she makes Moss wait till she finishes her phone call. When she asks him what he wants, he replies that he came to connect her telephone. She didn't really learn her lesson, since later in the same episode she pretends to use a computer and then Moss plugs it in for her.
- On Just Shoot Me!, Maya is at Nina's birthday party when she sees Nina have a conversation on a pay phone that is out of order. Turns out Nina was upset about her boyfriend breaking up with her and was faking a phone call with him to save face.
- On Mad Men, the firm is thrown to hear a longtime client is dropping them. They get Roger to call the guy to find out the truth. As it happens, Roger has known for weeks the guy was dropping them and has kept it quiet. With everyone watching, he phones the client, secretly pushing on the receiver. He then expertly fakes an entire "outraged" argument with the guy (even making the others think "he might be drunk") and then making it sound like he hung up. The others have no clue Roger could have warned them about this a while ago.
- In an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, Dewey pretends to be talking on the phone to their mother in order to get Reese and Malcolm to do what he wants, which they think are orders from their mother. Fails when the phone rings as he is talking.
- A couple of times in Quantum Leap, Sam picks up a phone without calling anybody, so that he can have a conversation with the Invisible to Normals Al in front of other people.
- Romper Room: Several local versions have had the teacher receive "a phone call" from a safety officer (usually, "the police chief" or "the fire chief") as part of a safety lesson. Often, these lessons tended to be graphic, even for 4- and 5-year-old kids ... such as what happens when children run with scissors or kids looking right at the sun. Usually, a large phone prop was sitting on the desk, and was first seen after a commercial break ... letting viewers know that they can expect the phone to ring (obvious sound effects) at any moment.
- On Saturday Night Live, the impoverished Woodrow tries to impress a woman by taking a business call, but he promptly confesses it was fake. She doesn't have the heart to tell him how obviously his "phone" was a block of wood.
- In an episode of Scrubs Eliot overhears Dr Kelso talking about his enforced retirement on his cellphone. She later learns that the bathroom doesn't have cellphone reception - this was his way of asking her for help.
- In Three's Company, The phone rings while Jack is pretending to talk to his girlfriend, Irene.
- Used in Torchwood: Miracle Day by Esther as an excuse for following Maloney. He instantly knows she's lying since Esther claims to be talking to Vera on the phone, but Maloney had just killed her and Esther quickly figures out he's up to no good.
- Utopia (2014): Tony does this in "Smart Cities"; pretending to take an important call in order to ditch Brian the security guard who is insisting on reading him a lot of unhelpful Tweets.
- The Veronica Mars episode "The Green-Eyed Monster" has Veronica take a case while her father's not there. When he returns, he says that he's too busy to take the case and tells Veronica to call the client and tell her this. Veronica only pretends to call the client and takes the case in secret.
- In Dilbert, Wally once gets a hands-free and goes around PHB, shouting insults in his face, pretending that he actually talks to his mother. Personal calls have been forbidden in the Path-E-Tech Management ever since.
- Modesty Blaise: In "Children of Lucifer", Willie has a long and loud phone conversation with no one at all as part of a scheme to bluff his way inside the villain's HQ; knowing the Mooks won't attack him while he is talking to someone as his disappearance would attract attention.
- In the first of the game series 'Blackwell Legacy' , Rosa needs to communicate with her ghost partner Joey that she needs him to use one of his abilities while in the general area of someone who isn't supposed to know about Joey being a ghost. Rosa gets around this by supposably making a call to Joey, although no one is on the other side of the line, but it lets her voice her request without arousing suspicions.
- Strong Bad Email: In the episode "dullard", Strong Bad suggests getting rid of boring coworkers by pretending to be in the middle of an important call.
Strong Bad: Oh! Oh, oh! Yes, yes, yes... Uh, so no, I'm still here, yes. Working hard. I've been synergizing all morning...
- Played for drama in Killing Stalking, Officer Seungbae is investigating Serial Killer Sangwoo's house for evidence on the pretext of a noise complaint. When he can't find anything in his first check, he pretends to get a phone call from his chief as an excuse to stay and observe the place longer. Unfortunately, while the phone is on his ear it starts ringing aloud with a real call from the station, making the deception obvious.
- An online article making fun of Fifty Shades of Grey mocks Grey's business calls by saying that if you saw someone in real life talking like that, you would assume that there was nobody on the other end of the phone, and probably that they didn't really have a job at all.
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold: In "Menace of the Conquerer Caveman!", Booster Gold pretends to take a call from Batman during a meeting with a toy company. No one buys it.
- In one of The Simpsons Christmas episodes, Bart and Lisa have to sneak past security guard Gary Coleman who is having an animated phone conversation. Lisa notices that the phone isn't even plugged in.
- There are many smartphone apps to facilitate realistic sounding fake calls, which cause the phone to "ring" at a scheduled time, display a designated contact name and picture, and playback a recorded script for the user to repeat.
- Fullmetal Alchemist: When Mustang receives a phone call from Barry the Chopper, he quickly plays it off as getting a call from a female friend, in order to disguise the nature of the conversation from anyone who may be listening in. Barry is initially confused before getting the hint and adapting a falsetto voice to play along.
- In The Body (2012), when Álex has to answer the phone in front of inspector Jaime, he pretends to be speaking to his sister while it's actually his mistress Carla on the other end.
- In The Guilty, Iben calls emergency services pretending to speak to her daughter Mathilde to avoid tipping off her abductor.
- Money Movers: After the video feed is cut, Eric calls up the crime boss Henderson to tell him, but pretends to be calling the surveillance company to get them to repair it.
- Ransom. Tom Mullen has been kidnapped by the Big Bad, who agrees to spare his life if he's paid the ransom money and given a flight out of the country on Mullen's private plane. While pretending to call his pilot, Mullen actually places the call to the FBI agent running the case. The Big Bad is suspicious and turns on the speakerphone, but fortunately Mullen hangs up at that point.
- In Shaft, when Shaft is impersonating a waiter at a bar that several mafia goons are drinking at, he calls his Friend on the Force Lt. Androzzi to let him know how many are there and where to send the cops, pretending to be talking to one of his girlfriends.
- Shock Treatment: Judge Oliver Wright and Betty Hapschatt at adjacent pay phones to cover up the fact that they're actually talking to each other while listening in on a conversation between some nearby bad guys.
- One scene of Speed Zone has Jack pretend that he cleared his team's entry into the race by pretending to phone his boss. The little old lady he actually calls hangs up in confusion.
- The hero of Sweet Smell of Success is a slimy press agent who shows off to one of his clients by making a fake call to his secretary pretending to be speaking to J.J. Hunsecker, a powerful columnist.
- In a number of Agatha Christie novels, the murderer uses this trick to help set up an alibi by making it appear that the victim's death occurred while the murderer was far away in the presence of witnesses. Examples of this include The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hickory Dickory Dock, and Lord Edgware Dies.
- In Lawrence Block's The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian Bernie pretends to be a flower deliveryman to get into a high-security apartment building. When the tenant he hands them to protests that they can't be for her, he asks to use her phone so he can straighten things out. He then calls his friend Carolyn and pretends he's talking to his "boss."
- In a ''Sweet Valley Twins book, 12-year old Jessica is secretly dating a 16-year old boy by lying about her age and pretending to be 14. Her upcoming alibi is that she's spending the weekend at a friend's house and she has the friend call her mother, posing as the friend's mother in order to make the arrangements.
- In the Tommy and Tuppence short story collection Partners in Crime, Tommy has a hidden button on his desk at the International Detective Agency. If he wants to impress a client or end an interview early, he presses it, and Alfred the office boy phones him. He then answers the phone and pretends to be speaking to an important government minister or something.
- Breaking Bad makes particular use of this whenever Walt talks to Jessie in the first two seasons.
- Columbo: In "A Friend in Deed", the murderer publicly phones his home from his club and pretends to be talking to his wife. He is actually talking to his accomplice who is cleaning up the crime scene.
- On Continuum, Keira constantly pretends to be calling her (nonexistent) colleagues in Section 6 when she's actually talking to Alec. In a twist, she doesn't even talk to him on her phone — they talk using an implant in her head, and she just holds the phone up to her ear so it doesn't look like she's talking to herself.
- The Coroner: In "The Fisherman's Tale", Jane pretends that a call from her assistant Kent is actually from her mother, and uses it as an excuse to duck out of a very uncomfortable date.
- In an episode of CSI, Grissom is taken off a case and Nick covertly calls him to discuss the investigation; when caught, he pretends he's talking to his girlfriend, leaving Grissom somewhat puzzled on the other end.
- Diagnosis: Murder: In "Blood Will Out", Mark calls Steve to tell him where he and the missing patient are. Being in a room with a rogue NSA agent, Steve pretends to be having a conversation with his wife about a dinner. In a twist, the NSA had been tapping Steve's phone and got a recording of the full conversation. Steve, however, expected the them to be tapping his phone and arranged to have a squad of police waiting for them when they followed him.
- Doctor Who: In "The Lie of the Land", the Doctor makes a phone call and pretends to be informing the Monks that Bill has arrived. He has actually phoned the kitchen. He sends one of the rebels down to apologise to them because they are going to be very confused.
- In the second Fawlty Towers episode, "The Builders", Basil apparently receives a telephone call from the professional builders. Sybil is not fooled; she goes into another room to discover Polly providing the other end of the call.
- Hustle. In "Father of the Jewels", Sean is with the mark when he calls Mickey and starts acting like he is talking to nursing home. Mickey is initially confused but quickly figures out that Sean is letting him know that they urgently need to set up a nursing home for the next stage of the con.
Hardison: "Why did Nate call me 'sweetheart?'"
- Hardison does this in "The Iceman Job," telling a mark he has to call his girlfriend, then calling Sophie and managing to signal to her that he's in trouble.
- In "The Boys Night Out Job", Nate and Hurley hide from Mooks in an addiction support group meeting. (A Call-Back to Hurley's original appearance in "The 12-Step Job.") After trying unsuccessfully to get a cellphone from various attendees so he can contact the team, Nate volunteers to talk next, laments about how he hurt his ex-wife, Maggie, and says "If I had a cellphone right now I would call her..." Naturally everyone in the crowd offers him their phones. Of course, Hilarity Ensues as he attempts to maintain his cover.
(Cuts back to Nate)
Nate: "I'm sorry about the bag of drugs''..."
- Midsomer Murders: In "The Oblong Murders", Jones gets trapped in a bedroom while conducting an undercover investigation. He calls Barnaby to rescue him but - because he cannot let the person he is with know that he is a cop - he pretends to be calling a friend. Calling Barnaby 'matey' initially confuses the Inspector, but he soon figures out what is going on.
- Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: In "Death on the Vine", Phryne makes a call to Inspector Jack Robinson and pretends to be talking to her mechanic so the people eavesdropping on her call won't know who she is really talking to.
- Murder, She Wrote: In "A Quaking in Aspen", a woman who is having an affair pretends to be talking to her hairdresser when she is actually talking to her lover because her husband is in the room.
- In a Rescue 911 segment, after a rapist breaks into a woman's home, she manages to convince him to let her call her job and tell them she won't be in today. She manages to call a friend and alert him to the fact that she's in trouble and also calls 911 and alert them, a while her assailant thinks she's talking to a co-worker.
- In Three's Company, Jack lies to his grandfather about being a doctor and tries to guilt Terry into letting him use a doctor's office at the hospital to maintain the sham. He succeeds by pretending to call his grandfather and tell him the truth, although Janet grabs the phone and discovers he called Larry.
- In the January 23, 1989◊ Calvin and Hobbes strip, Calvin momentarily pretends to be calling Susie about homework as his mom passes through when he's actually trying to purchase power tools.
- The Most Popular Girls in School:
- Trisha does this in Episode 59 by pretending that she's actually talking with her mother as soon as Brittnay asks her if she's speaking to Mackenzie on the phone.
- The Trishas do this in Episode 62 by pretending that they have managed to put a late Shay on their lines. Mackenzie doesn't fall for it.
- In an early episode of Code Lyoko, Jeremie is calling his teammates back from vacation due to a XANA attack and happens to phone Odd just as the latter has gotten caught trying to smuggle Kiwi onto the plane in his carry-on. Odd promptly pretends Jeremie is his grandmother, to Jeremie's clear confusion.
- The Looney Tunes Show: Bugs does this in "Semper Lie", calling up Speedy and pretending to be speaking to his (non-existent) sister Viola. Speedy works out what is going on and plays along.
- An abused woman used this to call 911 on her boyfriend by pretending she was ordering a pizza. Luckily for her, the operator picked up on her ploy quick, and played along, allowing the police to arrive and arrest the boyfriend.
- A common procedure in retail when dealing with problematic customers, particularly those who need to be kicked out, is to use the staff phone to place a call to the local security team and say an innocuous-sounding code phrase such as "We need a cleanup in aisle 7" or "We got a package ready for pickup."
- Early on in It Happened One Night, the hero makes a drunk call to his editor who decides to fire him while on the phone and then hangs up in disgust. The hero, surrounded by other drunkards, pretends the conversation is going on and that his editor is begging him to stay on the job which then earns him the applause of his friends.
- Played for drama in Nashville, where Lily Tomlin's character receives a booty call from some admirer while having dinner with her husband and kids. She first presents to be talking to someone else and after the caller has hung up she speaks a few more lines into the speaker to make the conversation sound less suspicious to her family.
Live Action TV
- Rick Martinez from CHAOS does this at one point, too.
- Ari Gold from Entourage frequently does this when trying to get parts for Vince.
- The F.B.I.: In "Image in a Cracked Mirror", Jim is interrogating the young son of a fugitive and not getting far. He has a local cop phone him and then hang up as soon as he picks up. He then talks into the dead line and acts like they have picked up a lead in Texas. By gauging the son's reaction, he is able to work out how close to the truth he is getting.
- In How I Met Your Mother, Lily does this after Barney hangs up on her in Season 3 Ep 20.
- Mike from Growing Pains once had a phone conversation with a friend where he mentions that he wants to quit school and become an actor. Carol overhears this and Mike presses the hang-up switch with his thumb and tells the friend he was kidding. Carol isn't convinced, though.
- The West Wing: C.J. Cregg spots a man she has an awkward history with approaching her while she's on the phone to Toby. She asks Toby to keep talking so she can avoid an unpleasant conversation but he hangs up on her instead. CJ pretends to talk to the dead line for another minute but the man she's trying to avoid just waits until she finally "hangs up".
- In Cobra by Andrew Vachss, unlicensed private eye Burke has recorded messages from his non-existent secretary, to make clients thinks his business is larger than it is.
- "Ransom for a Dead Man", the second pilot episode of Columbo, has Leslie do this. Leslie cobbles together a fake voice recording of her husband from clips she's spliced together. Having already killed him, she uses a 1970s automated phone gizmo to place a call to herself. This leads the FBI, which is listening in, to conclude that her husband is still alive.
- In an episode of Quantum Leap, Sam suspects that the killer he's tracking has done this when he realizes that he couldn't get a word in edgewise when talking to him.
- In another Calvin and Hobbes strip, Calvin lies to his babysitter, Rosalyn, about feeling sick. Rosalyn sees through this and calls the automatic time service, pretending that she's speaking with Calvin's doctor. She then tells Calvin that Doc wants Calvin to take a teaspoon of castor oil and lie down all evening.
- Garfield: Jon once talks about a date with the automated time service.
- In one El Goonish Shive strip, Susan teased Nanase by pretending she was ordering a pizza loaded with anchovies. Nanase angrily grabbed the phone to object, only to discover that Susan had been "talking" to a time service.
- On Homestar Runner, Homestar does this in one edition of Marzipan's Answering Machine. He calls Marzipan's machine while feigning an important-sounding conversation in order to impress a "hot blonde" who is, in fact, Marzipan herself.
Homestar: Oh hello, yes, middle of our conversation? Yeah. Mm-hmm. Yeah, I just met with him. Oh yeah, he's real famous. Rich. Rich with money. How many? Five? Five's good.
- A Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines story, "Bug Brained" (Gold Key, issue #7) had Dick Dastardly and Muttley planting a phone on a tower that explodes when "Hello" is said into it. Dastardly presses a button to make it ring, but when Yankee Doodle Pigeon doesn't bite, Dastardly suspect Muttley of being a mole for the other side. He forces Muttley to answer but he defers it saying the call is for Dastardly. Naturally he says "Hello," and—well, Failure Is the Only Option continues to work on him.
- The Brady Bunch: Famously, in "The Not-So-Ugly Duckling," wherein Jan — to ease the rejection by her crush, Clark Tyson — has the phone operator make several phone calls to her house, then — making sure her parents and siblings are in earshot each time — effecting a fake phone conversation with her imaginary boyfriend, George Glass.
- In the Heat of the Night. Having just realized that his visiting friend is responsible for the slew of murders that have recently taken place, Virgil calls his wife Althea and warns her to talk with him normally so as to find a way to get her out of the house safely. Unfortunately, the guy realizes that Virgil knows anyway.
- Vera: In "Dark Road", Vera phones Bethany to warn her about a suspect she is with. Standing close to to the suspect, Bethany starts giving innocuous sounding replies about the weather and other trivialities.
- In a case featured on an episode of Forensic Files("Dinner And A Movie"), a pregnant woman is found dead in her bedroom. Her husband Ed Sherman's alibi is that he was on a fishing trip, and had called home from his friend's house and gotten no answer. However, it's revealed that the friend's young daughter had picked up an extension and realized that Sherman was talking to a ringing phone. He had killed his wife before leaving, and turned up the air conditioner to slow decomposition of her body.