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Slap Happy

Welcome To The Hysterical Indie-Rock Radio Comedy Of Scharpling And Wurster

Hawk Krall

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 4/4/2007

If you like both music and comedy, the duo of Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster are worth making time for. Both had individual followings prior to 1997--Scharpling as the host of East Orange, N.J., free-form station WFMU's succinctly titled Best Show on WFMU, and Wurster as the drummer for Superchunk--when an on-air prank became the impetus for a collaboration that's now into its fifth CD. The new The Art of the Slap--released on Wurster's label, Stereolaffs--is subtitled The Best of Scharpling and Wurster on the Best Show on WFMU Vol. 4. But the duo's best-of series was preceded by 1999's Rock, Rot, and Rule, the recording of the aforementioned prank that started it all.

"I met Tom back in 1994 when Superchunk played a show in New York," Wurster says via e-mail, shortly after returning home from a tour drumming for the Mountain Goats. "It was pretty apparent right from the start that we shared a similar sensibility; we began talking on the phone a lot. During one of these phone conversations [in November 1997], we got to talking about Oprah Winfrey's recent victory in a slander suit brought against her by a group of Texas cattle ranchers. When [the case] was dismissed, Oprah appeared on the courthouse steps and exclaimed, `Freedom not only rings . . . it rocks!' We thought that was insanely funny and began going back and forth about why some things `rock,' some `rule,' and others `suck.'"

Disguising himself as Ronald Thomas Clontle, a Kansan barista, Wurster called into Scharpling's show and proceeded to discuss Clontle's new book, Rock, Rot, or Rule--they'd since changed the word "suck" for alliterative purposes. On air, Clontle referred to his book--in which every band he could think of was divided into one of the three title categories--as "the ultimate argument settler."

"We were surprised how many people took offense to Clontle's rankings," Wurster writes. "Listeners began calling in and arguing with Clontle and taking him to task for making statements like `Madness rules because they invented ska' and `the Beatles only rock [rather than rule] because they had a lot of bad songs.'"

A pattern soon developed: Wurster began calling Scharpling on-air every Tuesday as a different character, usually from the fictional town of Newbridge, N.J. In "The Auteur," Wurster portrays Trent L. Strauss, the writer-producer-director of such masterworks as You're Soaking in Her, The Hacksawist, and his newest, The Tool Belt Killer, which takes place at a Lowe's hardware store, inside whose walls the title character lives. ("We had a guy doing research, and he said it's plausible," Strauss explains to an incredulous Scharpling.) Like many of their routines, it begins nonchalantly--with Strauss calling in to complain about an earlier Scharpling rant about George Clooney, who'd then recently caught flak for claiming Hollywood's place as a trendsetter for social justice--and ends in a pitch of hysteria, with the director gibbering as insanely as his characters.

The Art of the Slap's third disc--on the duo's first three-disc set after a trio of doubles--is given over to the two-part "First Rock Band on Mount Everest." This routine marks the return of what might be the duo's most popular character, Corey Harris, the leader of the hapless major-label alt-rock band Mother 13. "The Mother 13 call is especially popular among rock bands," Wurster writes. "I've actually heard that Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie is having guitar picks made that say `Mother 13' on them."

The original call, from 2004's Vol. 2: New Hope for the Ape-Eared, featured Harris calling Scharpling instead of Bobzilla and the 102 Morning Zoo Crew, as he had intended, to hype his band's forthcoming appearance at the Vanilla Coke Garden Party. Mother 13 is a vicious parody of the kind of no-hope band whose brief, embarrassing career consists of playing Clear Channel festivals before being dropped by its label. Harris, of course, is convinced otherwise, telling Scharpling, "Please don't take offense if, in a year, our paths cross and I don't have time for you, OK?"

"I don't think we ever talked about bringing Corey Harris back," Wurster writes. "But he and Mother 13 fit perfectly with an idea we had about a band trying to play a show on Mount Everest." Harris has been married and divorced and has a son named Skystalker, and his band, of course, has been dropped. So they decide to make a comeback by gigging on Everest, with several support acts, including Everclear's Art Alexakis, the twee troupe the Polyphonic Spree, and blues legend Buddy Guy--after climbing it with their equipment.

"We've trained for weeks," Harris claims. "A lot of rock climbing at Go Climb a Rock, that hiking shop at Newbridge Commons. There's that 20-foot wall with all those bumps and nubs on it. I've climbed it like eight times now." Needless to say, the climb ends in disaster:

Scharpling: "Buddy Guy--is he dead now?"

Harris: "Define dead."

Scharpling: "Not living."

Harris: "Define not living."

Scharpling: "Not breathing."

Harris: "Yes."

As for the future, Scharpling and Wurster are planning to branch out of radio. "We're working on a way to bring what's on the CDs to life visually," Wurster writes. "Maybe there's a movie in [the Mother 13 saga]. I wonder if Buddy Guy and the Polyphonic Spree are up for the climb? I know Art Alexakis is."

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