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Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster - Hippy Justice

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Artist: Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster

Album: Hippy Justice

Label: Stereolaffs

Review date: Sep. 27, 2005

Take it from Orson Welles: if you wanna make a splash in radio, keep a tight lid on your M.O. Years back, WFMU’s Tom Scharpling, on his weekly program “The Best Show on WFMU,” received a phone call from one Ronald Thomas Clontle, author of a book called Rock, Rot & Rule. In discussion of this book, it was revealed that Clontle, a Midwestern coffeehouse employee, had written the definitive argument-settler on the quality of bands in rock and pop history. Throughout the interview, it was intimated that, among other things, the Beatles could “rock” but never “rule … because they wrote some bad songs,” and that ska was invented in the late 70s by the band Madness. In doing so, Clontle drew the ire of all listeners, and even some other DJs at the nation’s best-loved free-form station, who called in to argue against Clontle’s questionable, yet immovable taste-as-fact.

Word got out pretty soon, though – Clontle was actually Jon Wurster, drummer of the band Superchunk, the whole thing was planned in advance, and soon after the tide turned for Scharpling’s show. New listeners started tuning in specifically for the comedy; perhaps some were still hanging in there for Scharpling’s well-rounded forays in keeping college rock and roots alive. But the sketches continued on and, despite the show’s reputation, continued to bewilder their targets – including threats of legal action by Blood Sweat and Tears frontman David Clayton-Thomas over a piece of character assassination aired on the show. For the most part, however, the dynamic remains the same: a guest calls in to the show (be it Wurster, rock critic par excellence Andrew Earles, or “Home Movies” voice Jon Benjamin, among others) and spars verbally with Scharpling over some hypothetical situation or absurd scenario, to which he either argues as the voice of reason or falls victim to an elaborate prank.

But it’s Wurster’s broadcast phone calls that are the most regularly elaborate and arcane of them all. Referencing hyper-specific facets of underground culture, music nerdery, and non-existent towns in New Jersey, the two weave elaborate, argumentative dialogues that more often than not devolve into threats and tirades against one another. On Hippy Justice, their fourth compilation of sketches from the show, Wurster – in character – threatens to kill or seriously injure Scharpling in four out of the six tracks on the double CD. It’s also one of the ways in which the show itself becomes difficult to listen to over time, and the opening cut, entitled “Hippy Johnny,” exemplifies the most dire aspects of their routine: an unbelievable premise, a corny voice, a beleaguered host enduring a massive amount of horseshit, devolving into name-calling at the end of almost a half-hour of belabored exchanges. Fortunately, the sketches improve exponentially from this point forward. Wurster scores big as P.J., a member of child-punk band Old Skull, who’ve recently reformed as adults to play six-hour smooth jazz sets employing a conch shell while suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. (The actual band’s recent reunion to benefit CBGB may or may not have had something to do with refuting this broadcast). A friendly conversation with co-worker “Darren” culminates as an extreme case of mistaken identity and the hatching of a plot to bronze Scharpling’s still-living body at a cardboard box factory. And at the disc’s most absurd, Wurster phones in as “Timmy von Trimble,” a two-inch-tall neo-Nazi who threatens to jump into Tom’s mouth and stab him with a pin. “White Power!,” shouted in a Mickey Mouse falsetto, as never sounded as funny.

A lot of the appeal of their comedy, and why it fits so well on WFMU, is the “winking” that music obsessives (as well as sports, TV, movies and pop culture fanatics) get to enjoy. On the album’s closer, “Kid eBay,” the two have a lively, personality-filled exchange on these subjects while Wurster’s hipster scavenger suffers under extreme duress. Giving away what happens here would sort of ruin the surprise, but suffice to say, Wurster creates a character with depth, personality, and a unique sense of humor and timing, and Scharpling goads him on in such a way that may be unprecedented at this length in sketch comedy. Even if you don’t understand the names they drop, the way in which it all unfolds is priceless and unbelievably funny. Plus, it’s one of the few times on the show that Scharpling gets to step out of the role of straight man and really antagonize Wurster, and though his digs are slight, you can sense his relish of being in control of the conversation.

Years of recognition on the WFMU schedule and the station’s Internet presence have led Scharpling to a career in television, as a writer and co-producer on the Emmy award-winning TV series “Monk,” as well as a guest spot on an episode of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” His weekly radio shows are incredible exercises in live comedy, and while they may never reach “War of the Worlds” status now that the cat’s been let out of the bag, it’s clear to see why so many people find their humor memorable, and continue to tune in every week.

(“The Best Show on WFMU” is broadcast live every Tuesday from 8 to 11pm ET on WFMU 91.1fm, Jersey City, NJ. It’s simulcast live on the Web and archived weekly. Check them out at www.wfmu.org.)

By Doug Mosurock

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