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Matter of characters

In the age of the sound bite, Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster are reviving the lost art of long-form radio comedy
By MIKE MILIARD  |  April 4, 2007


Two men are on the phone. They’re talking about the things guys sometimes talk about: their favorite Replacements records, the Keith Richards vocal on “Memory Motel,” the hotness of Meg White. At times, the conversation veers into more obscure pop-cultural territory, as when one of them boasts of his plan to hawk an ultra-rare blue wax Ron “Horshack” Palillo single and a vintage bag of “Rod Carew Circus Peanuts” on eBay.

At other times, it’s punctuated by grunts and tortured yelps. This is because one man has been carrying on his end of the conversation while lying at the bottom of his basement stairs with two broken arms and two broken legs after a nasty fall, writhing in pain while marrow spurts from his ruptured shin.

As it happens, “Kid eBay” is one of the less fantastical characters loosed upon the world by Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster. Every Tuesday night, Scharpling, a producer for the USA Network show Monk, spins records and takes calls during his three-hour radio show on Jersey City freeform station WFMU. Usually, one of those calls is from Wurster, drummer for Superchunk, Robert Pollard, and the Mountain Goats.

Scharpling plays the straight man as Wurster disguises his voice to play one of an ever-expanding galaxy of creeps and weirdoes: a ruthless hippie capitalist; an ear-bleedingly bad barbershop-quartet singer; a sixtysomething hood who purports to be the real-life inspiration for Fonzie; the purveyor of a frighteningly dyspeptic diet plan; Pat Sajak’s contemptible older brother, Mike; a ’roid-raging computer repairman; a sweet-voiced two-inch man who also happens to be a virulent racist.

Long-form radio comedy has a long history, but it’s now nearly extinct. These two-man sketches, which usually last between 20 and 45 minutes, are entirely unique in today’s radio landscape. As Scharpling and Wurster celebrate the 10th year of their collaboration with the release, on April 17, of their fourth best-of CD, The Art of the Slap (Stereolaffs), and as they hash out plans to branch out into a visual medium, their unique brand of comedy is a gleeful rebuttal to this age of the short attention span.

Two-man group
Tom Scharpling met Jon Wurster backstage at a Superchunk show in 1994. Immediately, the two pop-culture gourmands bonded over unsung heroes like Chris Elliott and forgotten mid-’80s Headbangers Ball veejay Smash.

“It was kind of that thing where all of a sudden I’m just able to go to shorthand with this person, who I barely know,” says Scharpling. “They get everything I’m saying, and I get what they’re saying, and the types of things I thought only I would laugh at, they’re laughing at too. It just clicked.”

“We started talking on the phone all the time, him in New Jersey and me down here [in Chapel Hill],” says Wurster. “We’d just talk about weird stuff we were seeing or experiencing. Inevitably, these conversations would spin into these fake scenarios based on real-life things.”

The first call to WFMU, in 1997, was done as a lark. Wurster phoned the station as a smug music critic named Ronald Thomas Clontle whose astoundingly wrongheaded book, Rock, Rot and Rule claimed to be the “ultimate argument settler” with regard to an artist’s merit. Puff Daddy and Bruce Hornsby were deemed to rule; the Beatles merely rock (“Penny Lane” is a pretty bad song); and David Bowie rots (“too many changes”). The board was soon flooded with angry calls from credulous listeners taking issue with Clontle’s misinformed pronouncements. Wurster engaged them with cool aplomb. Luckily, Scharpling had a cassette running. A classic was born.

“We were just amazed that people called in and thought it was real,” says Wurster. “We were never trying to put anything over on anyone. It just sort of happened. We called each other afterward: ‘That was amazing!’ It was the perfect venue for guys like us. It’s all done over the radio, nobody sees you or anything, and you’re able to just create this other world.”

“I’ve always been drawn to the two-man game,” says Scharpling, “whether it’s Bob & Ray or Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in The In-Laws, or Martin Short and Charles Grodin in Clifford. Just watching two people play off each other. Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke is something that I love. Just hearing two people have a dialogue or an argument.”

Out on a limb
As the years have gone on, Scharpling & Wurster’s dialogues have gotten, shall we say, curiouser and curiouser. One highlight of The Art of the Slap — aside from a classic bit from Wurster’s long-time recurring character, the oafish townie Philly Boy Roy — is an epic two-part, 73-minute sketch that scales new heights of comedy.

Wurster plays cocksure corporate rocker Corey Harris (born Dinkins), whose band, Mother 13, are veterans of festivals like the Earthlink/Pringles Summer Slam Jam and the Puffs Tissues “Fall Into Softness” Tour. Corey is trying to restore his reputation by organizing the first rock concert atop Mount Everest. Accompanying him, besides assorted roadies, soundmen, and film crew, will be Buddy Guy, Everclear’s Art Alexakis, Springsteen sax man Clarence Clemons, Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, Darren Cook (Dane’s younger, funnier, fictional brother), and all 38 members of the Polyphonic Spree.

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