Portraits of Awesomeness #3: Scharpling & Wurster
My old boss Stephen Thompson didn't just recommend Scharpling & Wurster's debut masterpiece Rock, Rot & Rule, which was recorded late in 1997 and released on CD in 1999, to everyone he knew; he damn near duct-taped his friends and co-workers to their chairs and forced them to listen to it. It was for our own good, of course. I will forever be grateful to him for turning me on to the God-like genius of Tom Scharpling & Jon Wurster, preeminent masters of long-form radio comedy, a dying genre they're more or less single-handedly keeping alive.
I don't know many people who sorta like S& W. They tend not to have casual fans so much as cultists, fanatics and die-hards, comedy evangelists who take it upon themselves to spread the gospel of S&W.; I am one such zealot. This here piece is my appeal for you to join the flock. That is why I am making Scharpling & Wurster the subjects of the second installment in an erratically updated feature I like to call, "Portraits of Awesomeness".
Rock, Rot And Rule was S& W's first radio comedy bit together yet it contains all the hallmarks of the duo's later work. As in subsequent pieces, Tom Scharpling plays himself, the host of The Best Show on WFMU, a beloved New Jersey freeform radio station. He's a terrific straight man, the gruff voice of reason to Wurster's giddy cavalcade of deluded maniacs.
In Rock, Rot And Rule, Wurster plays Ronald Clontle, amateur musicologist and the author of the fictitious titular tome, a rock and roll history billed as "The Ultimate Argument Settler". Clontle boasts that his book definitively settles the eternal question of which acts rock, which rot and which rule. Clontle brags that his study is the first completely objective music guide but its methods are hilariously unscientific; the opinions are culled largely from Clontle's day job working at Java The Hut, "Home of the Bottomless Wookie". The criteria for which act fits into what category is as convoluted as it is arbitrary. Clontle's "objective" judgments are willfully perverse. For example, he ranks Puff Daddy over The Beatles and David Bowie, who he cavalierly dismisses for having "too many changes". There is a huge music geek element to Scharpling & Wurster's work. Part of the bit's fun lies in Clontle barreling into a bastion of elite music snobbery like WMFU with an unabashed dose of musical philistinism.
Scharpling opens the floor to callers, who are apoplectic over Clontle's musical heresy, yet Clontle holds his ground. Wurster would go on to specialize in arrogant idiots who never let the fact that they are obviously, transparently wrong interfere with their unshakable belief in the rightness of their actions. It's a high-wire act, especially once a tricky variable like outside callers are added to the mix. You keep waiting for Wurster to break, for the glib façade of dopey self-assurance to crack, yet it never does. Its fearlessness suggests Sacha Baron Cohen's experiments in aggravation as Borat, Ali G and Bruno reconceived as radio comedy.
As the bit stretches out pass the half-hour mark, it develops a hypnotic jazz-like rhythm, a weird musicality. This shouldn't come as a surprise, since Wurster doubles as Superchunk's drummer and has played with R.E.M, Guided By Voices, The New Pornographers and many more.
There is a persistent thread of music-world satire coursing through S&W;'s oeuvre, loving yet scathing digs at the absurdity of the rock business from an outsider adept at channeling insane outsiders. One of my favorite Scharpling & Wurster bits is a three-part saga concerning the fall of Mother 13, alt-rock poseurs with corporate sponsorships where their souls should be. The opus begins with a Wurster character named Corey Harris mistakenly calling Scharpling thinking he's a Clear Channel morning zoo shock jock named Bobzilla.
Boasting that his band is a cross between Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Who, Nirvana and R.E.M, Harris outlines his band's attempts to conquer rock by playing Clear Channel-sponsored rock festivals with names like the Bud Light Snickers Dancing in the District Festival, the Heineken Chips Ahoy Fun Rally and the Earthlink Pringles Summer Slam Jam alongside made-up (yet disturbingly convincing) contemporaries like Sister Sheila and Splendid. Harris tries to win over the eternally skeptical Scharpling by playing him a bit of "Wired", the first single off their new album High Dive. According to an interview with Wurster in these here pages, the duo originally used snippets from a real alt-rock pretender named Vertical Horizon but recorded an original song excerpt for the eventual CD. The new song is a brilliantly straight-faced parody of soulless alt-rock bleating, a song so processed and mechanical it sounds like it was created by poser robots manufactured in a sinister laboratory by Clear Channel scientists in an attempt to breed the world's most generic college rock outfit.
In "Mother 13", S&W; nail all the details; the evocatively meaningless band names and song/album titles, the shameless whoring out to powerful radio conglomerates, the myopic worldview that leads bands like Mother 13 to suckle greedily at the teat of an industry designed to chew them up and spit them out. Behind the hilarity is a scathing satire of alt-rock machinery at its most grindingly mercenary.
Not surprisingly, the next time Corey Harris checks in with Scharpling the band has been dropped and has resorted to an even more ridiculous scheme to get attention without actually contributing anything of worth or substance to the world. This time out Mother 13 is determined to become the first band to play Mount Everest, a deliciously misguided plot that involves Travis Barker, Dane Cook's brother, Buddy Guy, the Polyphonic Spree, and some seriously lax preparations.
Scharpling & Wurster bits often have a knowing rock and roll slant, but they're open to lampooning cocksure idiocy and hypocrisy of any stripe, whether it's a chain-swinging psychotic who brags about being the inspiration for The Fonz ("The Gorch") yet recoils at how Garry Marshall and company downplayed his thuggish brutality or a proponent of the "hippified lifestyle" shilling for a line of countercultural products run by a company whose methods and ideology owe more to Stalin than Ben & Jerry ("Hippie Johnny").
S&W; routines often move slowly but surely from friendly camaraderie to confrontation. It isn't unusual for Wurster's gallery of oddballs to threaten to kick Scharpling's ass by the end of a phone call. There are other motifs fans have come to love as well, like Wurster's incredulous "Whaaaat?" when Scharpling expresses skepticism or outright disdain for his menagerie of outsized characters or Scharpling getting Wurster's characters to sheepishly admit to doing something horrible and/or criminal.
Most comedy albums lose their pop after a single listen but there are so many levels to S&W; that they hold up after a good dozen listens, though if you commute like I do, you might have to worry about the disapproving glares of strangers you'll engender while laughing your ass off listening to classic routines like "Rock And Roll Car Dealership" (a revealing interview with the co-owner of Gene Simmons Toyota) or "Old Skull". In "Old Skull" a cynical careerist reforms semi-infamous kiddie punk outfit as a jazz-fusion seven-piece. I used to live in a co-op (Le Chateau/Meridian/Pheonix stand up!) with an original member of Old Skull (the original group, not the fake jazz-fusionists) but you don't have to be an ex-housemate of Jamie Toulon to find that shit utterly hilarious.
My fumbling words don't do S&W; justice, so I very much encourage you to check out audio samples on their website. So please, buy Rock, Rot And Rule, then all of their other albums. I'm asking you nicely, though I'm fully prepared to tie you to a chair and force their comic genius on you by force. But hopefully it won't come to that.