The following is the long version of The Art of the Slap press bio that I wrote in early 2007. It had been disenfranchised from its former online location, but it has a home now. This post is part of the ongoing The Best Show on WFMU World Domination Scheme: Phase I media tour that has made recent stops at New York's Vulture blog, The Onion A.V. Club, and The Stranger. Join the effort at Friends of Tom, listen to every Tuuuuesday night installment from 8 - 11 p.m, and subscribe to the podcast in your iTunes machine.
On a fateful night back in early 1997, WFMU disc jockey Tom Scharpling and his comedy partner Jon Wurster orchestrated what they thought would be a one-off goof. Wurster called Scharpling's radio program posing as Ronald Thomas Clontle, the author of Rock, Rot & Rule, a highly-dubious and aggressively idiotic tome that promised to be the "ultimate argument settler" by filing every musical artist into one of three vague categories - "rock", "rot", or "rule."
The phones exploded with angry and baffled callers falling right into the duo's comedic trap. Scharpling navigated the ruse with expert faux incredulity, while Wurster plowed ahead undeterred, as Clontle's bizarre justifications (David Bowie and Neil Young rot because of "too many changes") and blatant inaccuracies ("Madness invented ska") stirred up endless, unsettled arguments. A tape of the call started making the rounds and soon became an underground hit, especially with touring rock bands. To meet the demand, Scharpling and Wurster formed Stereolaffs Records and released Rock, Rot & Rule on CD in 1999.
Now, 10 years into their reign as the masters of radio sketch comedy, Scharpling and Wurster celebrate a decade of laffmaking with The Art of the Slap, their fifth release on Stereolaffs. Their pieces now anchor Scharpling's "The Best Show on WFMU", a weekly, three-hour dose of mirth, music, and mayhem that hit the airwaves in 2000. Scharpling also continues to work as a writer/executive producer for the television show Monk, and Wurster, the longtime drummer for indie-rock pioneers Superchunk, has recently toured with former Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard and the Mountain Goats.
In the years following Rock, Rot & Rule, an increasing number of comedy and music titans began singing Scharpling and Wurster's praises, like Conan O'Brien, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Death Cabe for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Ted Leo. The double-CD Best-Of compilations Chain Fights, Beer Busts and Service with a Grin (2002) and New Hope for the Ape-Eared (2004) were further evidence that not only were Scharpling and Wurster crafting brilliant, standalone bits, but also mapping out an exciting and unique comedic universe. Those releases were followed in 2005 by the instant-classic, Hippy Justice.
The widely-hailed set spawned legendary characters, such as two-inch racist Timmy von Trimble and the tyrannical commune leader named Hippy Johnny, and concluded with "Kid eBay", perhaps the oddest conversation ever recorded. A track like "Darren From Work" is a quintessential example of Scharpling and Wurster's masterful use of the slow-burn set-up and surprise twist that, in this case, has Tom questioning his own sanity and fearing for his life.
The Art of the Slap continues in this tradition by introducing six characters that allow for ruminating on issues of class, puncturing the self-inflated, and embracing the hilarity of the desperate scramble to maintain a tenuous grip on reality. You'll meet Andy from Lake Newbridge, who engages Tom in mundane chit-chat that gradually builds to a surreal symphony of revelations, and enter the funhouse of "extreme" filmmaker Trent L. Strauss ("The Auteur") as he holds a mirror up to society and sees grisly horror epics (sample title from his oeuvre: Entrails 2: The Gouging) upholding Hollywood's history of socially-conscious filmmaking. You'll also hear the heart-tugging story of Tornado Todd, a misguided entrepreneur (his products include "Faux Nuggs", a line of legal marijuana) who turned a life-changing event into a profitable non-profit charity that preys on society's basest instincts.
And then there's Horse ("The Jock Squad"), a bodybuilding computer repair man who treats Tom's ailing PC like his personal heavy bag. The set ends with a call from Keith Garfinkle ("Postal Slapfight"), a belligerent, ill-informed blowhard (he thinks Lon Chaney is the sitting Vice-President), whose latest hobby is entering a nine-sided polygon and competitively slapping the faces of morbidly obese teenagers. In other words, this is comedy that goes straight for the juggler! Like the bulk of the Scharpling and Wurster players, these new creations are armed with an unearned confidence and false, self-appointed sense of authority that frequently erupt in anger and violence. These volatile traits are fertile terrain for the delicate give-and-take between Wurster's nuanced portrayal of frustrated megalomaniacs and Scharpling's stentorian sanity on the other end of the line.
"There's nothing funnier to me than someone who is absolutely wrong - morally and realistically - in what they are doing, yet so incredibly convinced that they're in the right or that they can't fail," says Wurster. "That's a very common characteristic of a lot of our characters."
In addition to offering hours of fun, these highlights - culled from the hundreds of bits from "The Best Show" - showcase the rich tapestry that Scharpling & Wurster have created via their fictional town of Newbridge, New Jersey, an alternative slice of America populated by a growing roster of interconnected misfits. The larger narrative is driven by these denizens, who take a break from prowling the seedy Muffler Row and the Newbridge Commons shopping district to give the audience a peek at their delusional dreams, demented schemes, and disturbed minds.
Their use of escalating absurdism and eccentric characters that often become vessels for sly social commentary recalls Mr. Show's incisive skewering of the status quo, Arrested Development's dysfunctional Bluth family run amok, and Sacha Baron Cohen's stateside takedowns. Many characters also have a kinship to Steve Coogan's insecure and status-crazed Alan Partridge, Ricky Gervais's self-promoting and self-delusional David Brent on The Office, and the improbable predicaments that engulf Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. The surreal twists and turns also have roots in the plotlines and skewed worldview of Chris Elliot's short-lived sitcom, Get A Life, which Scharpling and Wurster bonded over when they first met in the early 1990s at a Superchunk gig.
A magical collision occurs when these aggressively wrongheaded callers are forced to battle Scharpling, a master of acting surprised as a pragmatic stand-in for the audience. As a beacon of normalcy, Scharpling's shocked outrage and lucid questioning serve to illuminate the dynamic at play.
"I end up as the voices of reason on the calls," says Scharpling of his crucial role as straight man. "It gives a sense of contrast - that way the weirdness of the characters can really shine."
The Art of the Slap also marks the CD debut for Philly Boy Roy, one of the longest-running and most fully-developed characters on "The Best Show on WFMU". Since the beginning of the show, he's been giving listeners a taste of his borderline-psychotic hometown pride (ranging from fierce loyalty to the city's sports teams to a diet consisting mainly of cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, and Wawa hoagies) and insight into his increasingly peculiar and tumultuous home life, especially the disturbing power struggle with his bullying --and possibly psychic -- son, Roy, Jr. Wurster is confident that this call is a great introduction to the character, even if you haven't been following his antics over the years.
"Roy is probably our most lovable character even though he hates New Jersey - mostly because he's wary of anything non-Philly - and antagonizes Tom," says Wurster. "Roy's likable because he's a family man and, at heart, a decent guy. But he's also insane!"
Philly Boy Roy displays the layers and complexities that are infused into Scharpling and Wurster's character studies, some of which are meticulously pre-written, while others emerge during the on-air performances. For every more overtly jerky agitator, there are just as many characters that are oddly likable, even if they inevitably end their calls by threatening Tom with various creative deaths for failing to support and encourage their ridiculous - and usually nefarious - plans.
Another perfect example is Corey Harris, who makes a glorious -- if not so triumphant -- return on The Art of the Slap in the riveting two-parter, "The First Rock Band on Mt. Everest Part." (The saga appears as a limited-edition bonus CD on the initial pressings of the collection.) When we last heard from Mr. Harris (on "Mother 13" from New Hope for the Ape-Eared), he was an arrogant, talentless rocker who refused to believe Tom's prediction that he was doomed to failure by playing to sparse, daytime crowds on a corporate festival circuit that included the Earthlink/Pringles Summer Slam Jam.
After being humbled by getting dropped from RCA, Harris gained new perspective on life and art with the birth of his son, Sky Stalker, and reunited with his former manager, Rupert Threadwell. A reinvigorated Harris has reformed Mother 13 for a woefully misconceived quest to climb Mt. Everest (with an eclectic lineup of special guests, including Buddy Guy, all 38 members of The Polyphonic Spree, and Everclear's Art Alexakis) and become the first band to perform at its summit. In addition to the guidance of a supposed Sherpa named Ricky, an extremely confident Harris is relying on a training regimen of drunken rock wall climbing and sit-ups to safely ascend what he calls a "hill". Will he make history or vanish into thin air?
Corey Harris has that glimmer of hope that resides somewhere deep within even the most crazed of Scharpling and Wurster's characters. They're constantly searching for something -- success, money, fame, power -- but they have no idea how to reasonably get there. (And one shudders to think what they would do if they did.) Corey's plan is, of course, destined to go horribly wrong, but there's something endearing about the persistent struggle to make one's dreams -- rock 'n roll or otherwise -- come through.
While they keep pushing the boundaries of the art of long-form radio comedy, Scharpling and Wurster's approach remains rooted in the inspiration for that first call: making each other laugh.
"I think the key thing is that from day one we've been doing this purely for our own amusement," says Wurster. "It's really gratifying that so many people have connected with what we do. But I'd like to think we'd still be doing this even if nobody was listening."