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Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster - Chain Fights, Beer Busts and Service with a Grin

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Artist: Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster

Album: Chain Fights, Beer Busts and Service with a Grin

Label: Stereolaffs

Review date: May. 21, 2002

Telephone prank humor. What do you think of when I say that? Let me say it again, louder this time: TELEPHONE PRANK HUMOR. Maybe you think of the Jerky Boys – I know I do. Nothing will erase the memory, even though it can’t be anchored down by a specific incident, of being in high school and really deeply loathing the Jerky Boys. I thought that they were almost impossibly unfunny. Anti-funny. Maybe you disagree with me. Fine. Still, let us talk seriously about telephone prank humor. Imagine a world where telephone prank humor still exists, but where the Jerky Boys don’t. Now let’s imagine a world where telephone prank humor exists, but where Roy D. Mercer doesn’t. And neither did that joke about ten pound balls, or the one about walking refrigerators. Or Bart Simpson calling Moe’s bar.

Where does that leave us? What associations can we still make with telephone prank humor? In what form does it exist?

How about Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster?

One is a DJ at the renowned radio station WFMU in New Jersey. The other plays drums for Superchunk. They’ve performed some fairly elaborate and well-staged prank calls on WFMU’s “The Best Show”, with Tom playing the straight man to various insane, belligerent and mean-spirited callers played by Jon. They first released one of these hoaxes as the CD Rock, Rot and Rule. Jon posed as a self-appointed expert on pop music, Ronald Thomas Contle. Contle appeared on Scharpling’s show promoting a new book, in which he determined once and for all which musicians rocked, which rotted, and which ruled, according to a supposedly infallible criteria that happened to be completely insane and totally impervious to logic. Also featured on the CD were a string of irate callers attempting to challenge Contle. The duo’s newest double CD, Chain Fights, Beer Busts and Service with a Grin features comedy routines that are more self-contained (only one of them really baits angry listeners), all involving the skeptical Tom attempting to deal logically and reasonably (and invariably failing) with a succession of exasperating, moronic and violent callers voiced by Wurster.

The first segment is “The Music Scholar”. Charles Martin (played by Wurster) calls Tom Scharpling, the DJ (played by Scharpling) and takes him to task for a bad song decision: the Rolling Stones’ “Jigsaw.” Tom is understandably offended by the listener’s disparagement of his playlist, and subsequently does not initially recognize that he is in fact talking to the man with the best musical taste on the planet, a man who actually saw the Stones live in Concert in 1969 at the age of 11 and realized that they had already become “bloated.” A sharp caricature of the music snob, Charles has an absurdly flawless musical taste, and possesses an inflated ego as a result. First record bought – “Velvet Underground and Nico.” First concert – the Beatles when he was six (they were already “bloated” too). Saw the Stooges and the MC5 at ten years old. Hung out with Iggy Pop in Detroit, became a teenage music critic (like the kid in “Almost Famous”, but with a “thousand times better musical taste”), frequented the New York punk scene in the seventies (Richard Hell ripped off his fashion sense), saw the Talking Heads and Blondie while they were still good (before they recorded). Becoming tired of rock, he started a music store in New Jersey, where as part of his mission to educate people about good music he mocked customers who liked Black Flag and X. During the eighties he gave up on music altogether and listened exclusively to soundless “air mixes.” Tom is impressed by Charles’ story and is turned off by his obnoxious attitude, but is shocked by the music expert’s final admission: that the bands he has heard recently on modern rock radio, such as Limp Bizkit, Blink-182 and Matchbox 20, have re-invigorated his interest in music, and are superior to the ones he revered in the sixties. The Counting Crows, for example, are what the Flying Burrito Brothers would have sounded like if they could actually play and sing. And Curly-from-the-Three-Stooges sound-alike Fred Durst is the new voice of a generation. The punch-line of this skit, that the man who believes himself to be the world’s most “educated” music fan eagerly laps up the most vile modern rock sludge, is a bit too neatly ironic, but still serves as a nice skewering of musical pretension and the folly of basing your sense of worth on your sense of taste.

The second segment, “The Gorch”, is the track that I find most amusing, probably because it’s the one with the most tenuous relation to reality. It’s completely absurd, which often makes for the most durable comedy. Tom interviews a man claiming to be the inspiration for the Fonz on “Happy Days”, the Gorch, who is finally setting the record straight with his new book, “The Real Life Fonzie’s Guide to Real Life.” A psychopathic thug who describes a surreally violent youth primarily spent stealing and beating up people with chains, the Gorch complains to Tom how the Garry Marshall series watered down his character. For example, you never saw the Fonz smash someone’s head through the jukebox at Al’s Place and play a record with their teeth, or drop a car on Richie. Or even beat anybody up with a chain. When the Gorch claims to have shaved with a chain when out of razors, comedy doesn’t get purer than that.

And with that example comes the obvious downfall in writing about comedy, especially comedy without a visual element – so much of its success depends on delivery and other indefinables that it’s genuinely impossible to describe what is funny, or why something is funny, without quoting examples that lose something for being taken out of context. Comedy that may appear tedious in writing can come alive with the performer (there’s a big difference between reading Lenny Bruce’s monologues and hearing them, or reading the script to a Marx Brothers movie and seeing it). So bear with me - it is actually funny when the Gorch claims to shave with a chain.

“Citizens For A True Democracy” finds Tom interviewing Maurice Kern, a vile and unctuous conservative demagogue who claims to have helped the process of democracy reach the proper conclusion in the recent presidential election fiasco in Florida. He also attended beer busts with a young George W. Bush. Wurster makes a convincing Republican slimeball (referring to Clinton as “Billary” – an authentic touch), despite a somewhat variable Texas accent. The segment turns embarrassing when Scharpling opens the phone lines to a succession of earnest liberal callers, who first question if Kern (who is as comically over-the-top as a Batman villain) is for real, and then proceed to passionately condemn him and his views anyway. It’s painful to listen to people reduced to a sputtering rage and defending strongly held beliefs while being made part of a hoax – it’s both wince-inducingly depressing and wickedly funny at the same time.

The two remaining skits find Scharpling squaring off with two equally odious characters: Jeff Cooper, the manager of the local Radio Hut, an impoverished electronics store peddling outdated junk merchandise left over from the eighties, and Mike Healy, the proud father of a newborn girl and also a delusional bully who, after an innocent comment from the DJ, wrong-headedly and unceasingly accuses Tom of attempting to give people advice on how to raise their children. Aside from whatever musical gifts Wurster possesses a drummer, he has also been blessed with the ability to inhabit some gloriously obnoxious personalities, to bring to life the characteristics of a complete asshole. Tom is an excellent foil, the epitome of someone who is good-natured and reasonable but who is clearly out of his element attempting to reason with people more aggressive and less sane than himself. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Scharpling as he’s drawn into fruitless conflict with Wurster’s collection of maniacs, to remember the feeling of a fight that you lost even though you were in the right. Although their work is unlikely to become a high school study hall favorite, Wurster and Scharpling have introduced comic precision and an unerring sense of character (as opposed to the funny voices and vulgarities that have traditionally dominated the genre) to telephone prank humor.

By Mark Hamilton

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