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Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster - The Art of the Slap

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Artist: Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster

Album: The Art of the Slap

Label: Stereolaffs

Review date: Aug. 2, 2007

Primary-source research confirms the following: Comedy is one of the only things keeping bands sane on the road. The collections of long-form radio sketches by WFMU’s Tom Scharpling and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster, airing weekly on “The Best Show of WFMU,” were a staple in the van when I headed out with Clockcleaner earlier this year. Our expectations for a decent gig, traveling through the indifferent South to and from SXSW amidst sickness and stench, were routinely crushed, night after night. Having to drive out of town after a show, or through Oklahoma, or waiting out a seven-band show in the basement of a pizza parlor, are made more harrowing by the very real threats of exhaustion, inclement weather, financial ruin, hemorrhoids from sitting in a car seat all day, muscle and joint pains, malnutrition, and the occasional flagdown by highway cops. After a few days’ acclimation to van travel, after the numbness of a day job truly vanishes, after the structure of life at home melts away, the tolerance of other peoples’ musical tastes goes out the window. Comedy mitigates all of that; it works as a lubricant to aid relations with folks you might not get along with otherwise. One of the unspoken benefits of crashing at a fan’s house is their insistence to load you up with as much media as you can take with you. Comedy plays a huge part in connecting us to the social world we leave behind.

Years of weekly broadcasts and now five lengthy compilation albums have all but ingrained Scharpling and Wurster into the lexicon of the touring musician, not to mention the tens of thousands of the show’s devotees from around the world. That The Art of the Slap, the duo’s most epic offering to date (nearly three hours of new material, spread across three CDs and gently edited for maximum yocks) doesn’t do much to improve on their formula will please some and infuriate others. At this point, the two have garnered enough notice with entertainers, and the industry that backs them, that many of us are waiting for the other Hippy Johnny brake pad to drop. The effort between the pair to prepare fresh material for a weekly, volunteer-based show, atop their responsibilities in the world of basic cable, is a humbling endeavor. Their ability to remain entertaining, if not entirely hysterical, week in and week out, is a thankless job.

Which begs the question – why continue to release these collections with padding? Earlier efforts balanced character-based riffing with the sort of hectoring, contrarian feedback the duo staked a following on. This plays out strongly on the album’s first disc, opening with “Jock Squad,” one of the funniest bits The Art of the Slap has to offer. Scharpling is contacted by an aggressive man called Horse, informing him that his computer upgrades have been completed; he and his team of steroid-abusing misfits have “hosed it out with water” to the tune of “850 clams.” Horse takes pride in having his team of Radio Hut IT contractors trashing the Newbridge Best Buy, where they mistakenly believe the rival “Geek Squad” lives (“That explains why they had 35 refrigerators!”), then, on cue, threatens to come over to the station and kick Tom’s ass. This bit dovetails into “The Autuer,” a worthwhile piece in which Scharpling interviews an asshole slasher film director about his latest offering, before crashing headlong into another discussion with “Philly Boy Roy,” a regular caller to the show. Wurster seems to relish Roy’s dim innocence and Southeast Pennsylvanian dialect, and the character becomes a clearinghouse for all manner of jokes and tall tales that wouldn’t fit in other places. Your tolerance for PBR will depend on how much of his grating delivery you can withstand, but it’s worth getting into deep at least once for the tale of how he befriended GG Allin and “nem Marder Jonkees.”

At this point, things start to head south. Disc two is largely filler, starting with an argument between Tom and a talking carp who’s squatting Aquaman’s underwater lair in the off-season. What little humor can be wrung out of this premise depends on how many bad puns and insults you can absorb. Things don’t improve much with “Tornado Todd,” all about a man whose new lease on life quickly crumbles into Joe Francis-esque debauchery, and maintains an interesting, if hackneyed stasis with “Postal Slap Fight.” Here, Tom argues with a postal carrier who puts down his “nerdy” musical taste, gets frustrated at his own stupidity, and then threatens to withhold Tom’s mail, framed loosely around a tired “Fight Club” premise. Fragments of book-throwing rage keep this piece going, and there’s some unintentional humor when a voice Wurster takes on audibly upsets his pet dog in the background, but it’s kind of a slog to get through.

The final disc in the collection exhumes the arrogant Corey Harris of the stalled major label band “Mother 13.” You may recall him from S&W’s New Hope for the Ape-Eared collection, working the parking lot stage at a number of corporate-sponsored, pay-to-play events. An hour later, we have learned of his efforts to make Mother 13 the first band to play on the tip of Mt. Everest. And at this point, if the problems of The Art of the Slap aren’t fully evident yet, it’s not for their lack of trying. Years of absurd situations played out on the air can’t cover up the fact that the dynamic between Wurster and Scharpling might be in need of a tune-up. Earlier works, such as Hippy Justice’s “Kid eBay” and the initial call from “The Gorch,” the real-life Fonzie, were successful because they balanced out the absurdity with some other factor, be it call-in guests, a simple role reversal, or a mitigating factor like a new book to plug. Here, the sketches degenerate into name-calling almost instantly, propping up a mean streak this material has trouble withstanding. Tom Scharpling is a very funny man; Jon Wurster is a hilarious foil to his braying yet affable radio personality. But the levels of inspiration here merely simmer, creating a negatively-charged atmosphere, not unlike the drummer kicking the back of your seat, or the member who won’t pick up his fair share of driving. And when you’re faced with those flat, endless stretches of Midwestern macadam, or the two-day haul from Minneapolis to Seattle, that’s exactly where you don’t want to be.

By Doug Mosurock

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