By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
It starts innocently enough: Tom Scharpling, in the middle of his radio show, puts a listener named Charles Martin on the air. Martin compliments him on the music he's been playing, but adds, "I don't know about that Stones song..."--the caller had seen the Stones in 1969, when he was 11, and thought they were sort of over the hill then. As he pushes Scharpling to a resentful simmer over the next half-hour, Martin mentions that he saw the Beatles at age six ("those guys in their suits, jumping up and down--I saw right through it"), followed the Stooges and MC5 at ten, convinced Big Star to get back together for the legendary rock writers' convention in Memphis in 1973, and edited a fanzine called "The Gift" (Scharpling: "After the Velvet Underground song?" Martin: "Oh, you know that!" Then Martin moved to New York at the dawn of punk ("I'll always have a soft spot for Doug." "Who's Doug?" "Oh...you know him as Dee Dee Ramone. Well, you probably don't know him"), ran a record store with "the best selection of Greek rembetika 78s anywhere," sees it as his responsibility "to educate people," etc. In short, he's the very worst music snob of all time.
He's also not for real--not quite. The "music scholar" is played by Scharpling's co-conspirator Jon Wurster, who calls in to the show most weeks under various assumed identities, five of which are documented on Chain Fights, Beer Busts & Service With a Grin (Stereo Laffs). The duo released another CD of a genius call-in sketch, Rock, Rot & Rule, a couple of years ago. (Conflict-of-interest alert: Scharpling's show appears on New Jersey's WFMU, where I also occasionally DJ.) Martin, though, is the funniest and cruelest of Wurster's creations, because he cuts so close to the bone. The guy's unbearable. He's a type we all know, and those of us who care about Wurster's day job (playing drums in Superchunk) have all occasionally been him. But he's not just awful because of his attitude; he's awful because he knows all this stuff: Part of the genius of the piece is that it implicates listeners simply for getting the jokes. There's no other art form where an analogous piece would be anywhere near as funny. (Let's see: hung out with the Bloomsbury set, um...)
What makes knowing a lot about pop music, especially if it's attached to strong tastes, a suspect act on its own? Maybe it's that pop music is the only discipline where knowing a lot is supposed to make you cooler, not just more a part of your subculture. Wurster's characters are obsessed with seeming cool--with appearing to be absolutely in command. In fact, he takes on the idea of coolness at its historical root with "The Gorch," in which he plays an aging Midwestern thug who claims that Fonzie from Happy Days was directly based on his teenage experience, with all the exciting stuff (like bloody gang fights) left out.
Still, the Wurster call-ins that make up the rest of Chain Fights' two discs couldn't be as hilarious as "The Music Scholar," and aren't. (The Bush-loving multimillionaire founder of "Citizens for a True Democracy" is way too obvious a gibe to get off the ground.) But a routine involving a new father named Mike Healy--who takes offense at an innocent comment and won't accept an apology--turns into a beautiful piece of weirdness as caller after caller catches on to the joke and plays along, and control of the show slips entirely away from Scharpling. It's not quite comedy, but it's theater of the absurd--and radio could use some more of it.