In the early 1960s, two young men dressed up in suits and took a tape recorder around San Francisco, pulling weird pranks on unsuspecting pedestrians and shop owners. After 30 years, the recordings are finally available on CD.
America in the early â€˜60s: People whistling songs from West Side Story. First-class postage costs 4 cents. Jet airliners have made intercontinental travel practical. Alan Shepard Jr. rides a Mercury capsule into the space race. JFK half-heartedly invades Cuba. Cassius Clay is crowned light heavyweight champion of the world. Color TV flickers in the living rooms of the wealthy. Naivete and optimism have not yet given way to conspiracy and protest.
And in San Francisco, hipsters and anarchists are bubbling to the surface once again. Howard K. Smith brings a CBS News crew to North Beach as part of a radio program called The Hidden Revolution to get to the bottom of this crazy Beat thing. Kenneth Rexroth and City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti are helping promote poetry readings in North Beach clubs and coffeehouses like the Cellar and the Blackhawk. Fantasy Records, flush with cash from high-charting jazz albums, signs deals with spoken-word iconoclasts like Lenny Bruce, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg.
But Fantasy Records co-owners Sol and Max Weiss brothers have an abrupt change of heart over another hip project, an anarchistic album idea by two young men in suits named Jim Coyle and Mal Sharpe, who are obsessed with the art of ambush. Prefiguring â€˜90s phone-pranksters such as the Jerky Boys and video verite like Americaâ€™s Funniest Home Videos, Coyle and Sharpe have submitted tapes of their wildly improvised man-on-the-street interviews with unsuspecting San Franciscans and submitted the tapes to Fantasy. Packing a microphone hidden in a briefcase, the duo double-teams credulous citizens with straight-faced yet oddball questions like â€œAre you essentially opposed to taking an animal and trying to evoke music from it?â€
But the material is just too weird for Fantasy Records. Max Weiss heaves the precious tapes down a flight of stairs at Coyle and Sharpe and screams:
â€œGet out of here, you Communists!â€
Three decades later, Ginsberg still writes poetry, Ferlinghetti still helms City Lights Books and Mal Sharpeâ€”after releasing albums on Warner Bros. and Rhino, creating and hosting numerous TV and radio shows, and building a loopy career in advertisingâ€”still conducts San Francisco man-on-the-street interviews.
Sharpeâ€™s absurdist humor is currently enjoying a major revival, too, although such a revival is undeserved when its subject never went out of vogue. Maintaining his presence in Bay Area TV and radio for these many decades, Sharpe is as common as a Pete Wilson anchor desk updateâ€”and infinitely more interesting. Even so, a retrospective of his video wackiness recently aired on KQED-TV; punk mogul Henry Rollins is issuing a CD of unreleased Coyle & Sharpe material on his 213CD label; and New Yorkâ€™s radio station WFMU has scheduled the rebroadcast of old KGO-AM programs by the team.
And though it is true that Sharpe lives in Kampuchea by the Bayâ€”Berkeleyâ€”Max Weiss was wrong to characterize him as a communist. The Weiss brothers certainly had a knack for scouting talent. They just shouldnâ€™t have taken Joe McCarthy seriously.
â€œWe never knew what he meant,â€ says Sharpe of the commie comment. â€œIt was so weird.â€
Born in 1936, Malcolm Sharpe grew up an only child in Boston and studied broadcasting at Boston University. He enrolled in ROTC, attended Michigan State for a year, then in 1959, with six months to kill before active duty, was drawn to San Francisco by the bohemian looks of the city depicted on a Turk Murphy album jacket. Sharpe landed a job at Macyâ€™s and met a girl who introduced him to North Beach.
â€œShe had a mattress on the floor, and stuff made out of orange crates, and she was living with a guy but she wasnâ€™t going out with him, and I thought, â€˜This is so cool!â€™â€
Sharpe boarded at a co-ed guest house at Broadway and Laguna and during dinner one night found himself engaged in conversation with an intense young man with a large vocabulary: Jim Coyle.
Coyle asked Mal Sharpe what he did for a living and Sharpe replied that he specialized in animal-to-human brain transplants, and that he was actually waiting to receive a flamingo brain. Coyle revealed that while he looked like he was 23 years old, he was actually 80, and was a veteran of the Spanish American War, living off a pension.
Coyle was an autodidact who had read Nietzsche and claimed to have held 114 jobs for durations ranging from 25 minutes to two months; Mal remembers himself as â€œjust a guy out of college.â€ Coyle looked the part of a short, freckled IBM executive. Sharpe stood at least 6â€™5â€, large-nosed and dark, with sinister-looking eyes. Coyle was biting and quick; Sharpe, probing and ironic.
Despite their polar natures, the two hit it off, staging pranks throughout the city, harassing innocent tourists, lying their way through financial district job interviews.
â€œHe was the kind of guy that would become your mentor in a strange way,â€ Sharpe says of Coyle. â€œHe was very intelligent, and turned me on to all this stuff. And he had other friends like that, people who would sort of become his acolytes.â€
When Sharpe moved to New York in 1960 to write Army training films, he bumped intoâ€”who else?â€”Jim Coyle. Realizing some sort of destiny, the two moved back to San Francisco in 1961 to carve out a career with their mischievous talent. They obtained a Mohawk tape recorder, a concealable and portable model favored by private investigators, and mounted it inside a briefcase. They entertained vague ideas of perhaps releasing a record, but like many young people in San Francisco, they didnâ€™t care as much about the money as the adventure
For almost two years Coyle and Sharpe walked the streets, spoofing people and taping the results. Both were basically broke: Sharpe made ends meet with $14 a week playing trombone in a North Beach club, until he and his fellow musicians were bumped by a topless all-girl combo. Coyle made his living getting jobs from which he promptly was fired or quite. A typical Coyle and Sharpe day might begin by meeting in a bakery, where they have a coffee and discuss the dayâ€™s ideas, then they choose a neighborhood and hop a bus in their suits.
â€œGet off the bus, another dayâ€™s work!â€ cackles Sharpe at the ridiculousness of his past. â€œYou canâ€™t even imagine! Youâ€™d have to be 23. You canâ€™t do it when youâ€™re 30.â€
In conventional business attire, trusty Mohawk at their side, the two would waylay pedestrians and proprietors. Clandestinely recording each conversation, they would go to the curb to rewind: The Mohawk used quarter-inch metal cassettes and rewinding the tapes required the operator to manually turn a handle like a fishing reel. Then theyâ€™d hook up the earpiece and listen to their latest. If they only get usable material every two or three days, they were still happy.
The best of these hidden-mike recordings is a long encounter with a druggist, from whom Coyle solicits advice about performing home surgery on Sharpe, who is complaining of chest pains. The druggist is aghast at Coyleâ€™s medical â€œexperienceâ€â€”third-year high school, plus a few days of home study. They offer to do the surgery in a station wagon outside. The druggist begs them not to, saying theyâ€™re running huge risks for no reason. Coyle replies, â€œHeâ€™s willing to take the chance, and it would be very interesting for me.â€
â€œCoyle and I would bend over backwards to keep a straight face,â€ remembers Sharpe. â€œAnd Jim was serious about it. You donâ€™t smile. It was like a cult, you know what I mean?â€
The two pitched tapes of their self-described â€œterrorizationsâ€ around town without success, until they were directed to Fantasy Records where a tentative deal was struck. Coyle and Sharpe were insane with glee. This could soon be their ticket! Given the sales of comedy records by Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby, they could soon be making millions!
Instead, of course their precious material was thrown back into their faces.
â€œOne of the great things about having a partner and being so crazy, is that you just keep going,â€ says Sharpe. â€œYou laugh at it, and go home, and put the tape recorder in the briefcase the next day, and youâ€™re out in some paint store telling the guy that youâ€™ve got something thatâ€™s half-zebra, half-eel that you want to put in his window.â€
After a prospective radio syndication fell through, they were brought to the attention of a vice-president at Warner Bros. Records named Joe Smith, a producer of comedy albums, including those of Bill Cosby, Don Rickles and the â€œ10,000-Year-Old Manâ€ duo of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Smith invited the two to Los Angeles for a meeting, not really knowing what their â€œactâ€ was all about.
â€œIt was a great experience of my life,â€ laughs Smith, who went on to sign the Grateful Dead and become CEO of both Elektra and Capitol Records, and is now a consultant. â€œItâ€™s very hard to explain to people what happened, but it was very strange. They come into my office, very straight-faced, very quiet. You understand, I donâ€™t even know what they do. I say â€˜Guys, Iâ€™m doing this as a favor. Tell me, what is it you do?â€™â€
Coyle said, â€œWould you name an object in the room?â€
Smith said, â€œThe lamp.â€
The two both leaped to their feet: â€œOh lamp, oh glorious lamp, thou incandescence that burns brightly,â€ and went on and on.
â€œI thought I had some fucking loonies!â€ laughs Smith. â€œI was going to call security. As it went on, I realized these are the put-on people of all time.â€
Smith realized their potential, and signed them. Although the routines were hilarious, this really wasnâ€™t a comedy album by any traditional standards. It veered closer to humorous artâ€”exposing humans for the greedy, insecure, uptight people we actually are. Today someone might label it performance art, although in 1961 nobody had yet come up with such a pretentious category.
â€œWe tried to explain what this was on the liner notes,â€ says Smith. â€œWe had to go person by person, saying â€˜These guys are real! This is not an act!â€™â€
Coyle and Sharpe so terrorized the Warner Bros. offices that the record company pulled a prank on the pranksters, concocting a scheme in which the two had to provide urine specimens in a drinking glass in order to qualify for medical insurance. Sharpe complied first, and the attending physician dumped the contents into another drinking glass, put it in his satchel, and handed the contaminated glass to Coyle.
â€œCoyle came back with his specimen, and he put it in his bag and said â€˜Iâ€™ll be right back,â€™ and he left the office,â€ says Sharpe. â€œAnd then they opened the door, and everybody from Warner Bros. was out there in hysterics. They had spent weeks trying toâ€”and they really got us.â€
Having passed the piss test, Coyle and Sharpe were rewarded with the 1963 release of their Warner Bros. debut, The Absurd Imposters. The album essentially launched the duoâ€™s career, and was an immediate favorite with disc jockeys nationwide, but many listeners found the spontaneous interviewsâ€”which sounded scriptedâ€”difficult to believe. The jargon-laden C&S dialogues sounded so deadpan and official that their victims were invariably suckered.
A garage mechanic is nearly talked into participating in a full-scale military assault on someone Coyle and Sharpe have a grievance with. Could he help repair the vehicles during the siege?
A man is convinced to jump off a building; a corner grocer is talking into reselling half-eaten food Coyle and Sharpe have obtained from picnics; a clothier is asked if he could insert bags of ants into his clothing so that the customer could have some pets to play with.
The last track, â€œTransporting Captured People,â€ most succinctly reflects the duoâ€™s evil persuasiveness. They approach a guy who has a small moving van for hire, and wish to obtain a vehicle for a scheme:
Coyle: Excuse me, do you do deliveries?
Mover: What is it? Liquor, foodâ€¦
Coyle: No, itâ€™s not anything like that. We are transporting people, and we would like a vehicle such as this, a small van. Weâ€™d like to just put the people inside.
Mover: How many people?
Coyle: Weâ€™d have about fourteen.
Sharpe: In one load. Weâ€™d have about five loads.
Mover: And where would I get the seats?
Coyle: Well, we donâ€™t need seats. Iâ€™ll explain the situation to you. We have people in our employ. You might say theyâ€™re in our employ, we donâ€™t pay them. But we procured these people, we got these people on an expedition.
Mover: Where are they from?
Coyle: Theyâ€™re from a northern area.
Sharpe: But they arenâ€™t Eskimos.
Coyle: We have complete control of them.
Mover: What kind of arrangement is it? You have them working on your ranch or something?
Coyle: Letâ€™s face it, weâ€™re exploiting them. Thatâ€™s what it boils down to, and we just keep themâ€”we tyrannize them.
Sharpe: Theyâ€™re extremely thin, each one of them. Theyâ€™re grown men, but they weigh about 62 or 63 pounds.
Mover: [He whistles]
Coyle: Very thin.
Sharpe: We keep their weight down. It keeps them weak.
Mover: Are they midgets?
Coyle: Theyâ€™re midget-like, yes they are, as a matter of fact.
Mover: Theyâ€™re people, though?
Coyle: Yes, theyâ€™re human beings.
Sharpe: Yeah, definitely.
Mover: This is unusual! I love it! Itâ€™s intriguing, it really is, but now, what is the nature of your business?
Coyle: Well, weâ€™re in developmental work, and we use the labor of these people, frankly speaking.
Sharpe: Weâ€™re making radio tubes.
Mover: Oh, yeah?
Coyle: And theyâ€™re very handy, and as long as we keep punishing them they keep producing.
Sharpe: Their hands are very thin. Get inside the radio.
Coyle: Now we want to transfer them to another area.
Mover: And what would this area be?
Sharpe: Itâ€™s a camp. A post.
Mover: A post.
Coyle: Well, itâ€™s something youâ€™re probably not familiar with.
Mover: Naw, just explain it to me, just vaguely, I mean, then I could tell you whether I could do it or not.
Coyle: Well, you see, theyâ€™re in bondage. Do you care about that aspect of it?
Coyle: In other words, we have them in servitude.
Mover: Thatâ€™s alright.
Sharpe: We captured them.
Coyle: And thatâ€™s the thing. Weâ€™d restrain them during the trip.
Sharpe: We have some large birds that are vicious, and theyâ€™ll keep them inâ€”Mover: Birds!??
Mover: Ravens. Would they bother a person?
Sharpe: Yeah, well, thatâ€™s there for the people. The ravens will keep the people under control.
Mover: Okay. We could take them in a Volkswagen, or this, if you want.
Coyle: Would you have any objection to strapping them down? You would have to do the strapping, thatâ€™s the-
Mover: We would have to? Why couldnâ€™t you do the-?
Sharpe: They donâ€™t care for us, particularly. We have to make the arrangements. They hate us. If we get near them, they get violent.
Coyle: Theyâ€™re hostile to us, because we have toâ€”
Mover: What about us?
Sharpe: No, they donâ€™t know you. Chances are, youâ€™d get along with them.
Coyle: We have one person who would ride with them. His name is Hugo.
Sharpe: Heâ€™s a hypnotist.
Mover: He is?
Mover: We could do it. When would it have to be?
Sharpe: At night.
Mover: And how much a head?
Coyle: Wouldnâ€™t you do it by the weight factor?
Mover: By the weight, right.
Mover: Human flesh, though. I donâ€™t knowâ€¦
Coyle and Sharpe pushed it too far in The Absurd Imposters tapes for Warnerâ€™s taste: They convinced a sailor to help them stage a bank robbery for a movie they are filming. In midgag, they switch gears and tell the sailor there is no movieâ€”that they intend to rob the bank for real. Can you help us do it, they ask the drunken gunnerâ€™s mate. Heâ€™s already so excited that he agrees anyway, and offers to procure some guns from his ship. The suggestion that U.S. Navy personnel would provide weapons for an armed robbery was too much, and the segment was dropped at the last minute.
As a veteran of putting on people, Mal Sharpe makes a nerve-racking interview subject. Once the microphone is turned on him, will he navigate the conversation down some odd path, then suddenly shrug off everything as a complete lie? Will he reverse the tables and begin interviewing the interviewer instead? Will he shut down completely and refuse to even participate?
Instead, heâ€™s very personable. When the tape runs out during the interview, he stops talking until the cassette is flipped and back in the deck.
Although DJs and hipsters were immediate fans of The Absurd Imposters, sales were listlessâ€”only about 13,000. But among them was Jim Dunbar, who heard them in Chicago. Dunbar, now a KGO morning personality, was moving to San Francisco to become the KGO programming director as the ABC-owned station switched its evening format from paid religious programming to talk radio. Dunbarâ€™s vision was to give the team a daily show.
â€œSomehow, he got ABC to hire us,â€ says a grateful Sharpe. â€œIt was so miraculous, in a way.â€
Their program was called Coyle and Sharpe on the Loose, broadcast live Monday through Saturday evenings from 7 to 10 pm. Recording on-the-street interviews daily, they edited the material down to 12 or so bits for the nightly show, interspersed with music. The pace was brutal for people who never worked in radio beforeâ€”18 hours of air a week.
The program gained fans up and down the West Coast, wherever KGOâ€™s powerful night signal reached, generating more fan mail than any other of the stationâ€™s programs. Producing so much material forced them to abandon the surreptitious Mohawk and thrust a Uher mike (the same instrument later made famous by a certain president and an 18-minute gap) into the faces of their targets. The readily visible mike didnâ€™t make much difference in the material: People were as gullible as ever.
In a Newsweek write-up, Sharpe explains, â€œWe keep straight-faced and manipulate people because people desperately need to believe in other human beingsâ€”even when they donâ€™t know what weâ€™re talking about.â€
This C&S operating principle is illustrated in the following segment from the KGO era, slated for the upcoming CD release, in which Coyle and Sharpe pretend to be animal-rights activists:
Sharpe: Could we have your name, please?
Dairy: Julia Dairy.
Sharpe: And you work down here in the financial district?
Dairy: Yes I do.
Coyle: A group of people in the musical world here in our city are exploiting animals for the purpose of making music. Would you say that you are essentially opposed to the idea of taking an animal and trying to evoke music from an animal?
Dairy: Yes, Iâ€™m very much against the idea, yes.
Coyle: Why do you say that, Julia?
Dairy: Well, because itâ€™s cruel. Itâ€™s not right to do this sort of thing to animals.
Sharpe: Even if it allows an animal to create beautiful music?
Dairy: I donâ€™t think an animal can create beautiful music.
Coyle: Do you mean to say that if you could actually take a wolf, or letâ€™s say a jackal, in your arms and actually press over the body of this jackal, the bow of a violin or a cello, and beautiful music would come from this contact that the bow has with the animal, you donâ€™t think that you yourself would be entranced, and overcome any misgivings you have about it?
Dairy: I donâ€™t think so, because Iâ€™m sure it would hurt whatever animal it was, and I mean, if it didnâ€™t hurt it at all I think that would be fine, butâ€”
Coyle: If the animals were doped?
Dairy: Well, if they were completely out, and it didnâ€™t injure them in any way, yes I suppose that would be okay, but itâ€™s a bit of a strange idea, anyway, I think.
Coyle: Would you yourself, if you knew that you could get a really enjoyable and uplifting musical experience by attending a concert in which animals were used as stringed musical instrumentsâ€”live animalsâ€”would you hesitate to attend this concert?
Dairy: No, Iâ€™d love to go and see it, just to see what it was like, but I mean, Iâ€™m against it. But Iâ€™d like to see what sort of thing they could produceâ€¦
Sharpe: If you knew, for instance, that the violinâ€”what would normally be considered the violin sectionâ€”was going to be composed of weasels. You came to the concert hall, you sat down, the concert began, you looked over, and what would you see in the arms of the violinists?
Dairy: What would Iâ€”well, Iâ€™d see weasels, of course. I mean, what do you mean?
Coyle: If you yourself found that taking a small, letâ€™s say coyote in your arms, and running over the back of the coyoteâ€”actually over the backbone of the coyote as the meansâ€”the bow of a violin, and you found that you could make a beautiful sound, and you could become a virtuoso of this sort of music, and actually benefit both professionally and materially, would you tour the world?
Dairy: I suppose if I got any money out of it, I would, yes.
Coyle: What is it you would do?
Dairy: Iâ€™d tour the world, playing on a coyoteâ€¦
â€œCoyle was an extreme person,â€ says Frank Zamacona, Bay Area television producer and frequent Sharpe video collaborator. â€œHe went with it, no matter how weird it was. I loved that. Nothing in the middle. Once you put things in the middle, it doesnâ€™t feel right. Go to one end or the other.â€
Sausalito radio producer Walt Kraemer remembers editing the chaotic tapes. Working by day at a rival station, he met clandestinely with Coyle and Sharpe in late-night diners. Theyâ€™d give him the tapes, and he would sneak back to a studio to edit down a version suitable for airplay.
â€œIt was sort of like a precursor to a drug deal,â€ chuckles Kraemer, who years later would reunite with Sharpe to produce an album for Rhino Records, The Last Man on the Street.
Many of the KGO interviews take place on Market at Powell, ensnaring tourists fresh off the boat. Subjects such as animals, death music, clothing and crime appear with great frequency, often prefaced by an innocuous question like â€œDoes this sound interesting?â€ or â€œWould you object toâ€¦ â€ hinting at a perverse moral choice soon to come.
These were the golden years for Coyle and Sharpe. A man is recruited for a dangerous job at a facility called Peril Village, described as a violent Disneyland in Marin County. A neighborhood coin laundry is asked for a discount on cleaning bloody sheets and linens as part of a Murder Club, which meets every Thursday and kills someone. The two hold a rally for pigeon betterment, and attempt to rent the birds at $1.50 each, advocating they â€œare lovable, have intense spiritual qualities and can be trained for domestic chores.â€ They ask subjects to submit to medical experiments such as switching the mind of a woman with a dog: â€œIt will give the dog a glimpse of human rationality, and you a moment of canine mentality.â€
In 1963, the radio program endorsed a mayoral candidate, a bear named Harry Kodiak. At a rally staged in Union Square, with hundreds gathered to hear the political platform of this guy in a bear suit, shots suddenly ring out. Kodiak, assassinated onstage! Coyle and Sharpe tried to elicit a final interview, standing over the mortally wounded bruin, while the mob milled about in confusion. Eerily, JFK is whacked in Dallas later that year.
Warner Brothers released another album, The Insane Minds of Coyle and Sharpe, which also sells poorly, but it didnâ€™t really matter since by this time the two had moved to Los Angeles to suck the tailpipe of opportunity. While working on a video pilot for producer David Wolper, they continued taping radio interviews for KGO, stopping people on the Santa Monica Pier and saying â€œWeâ€™re here on Oâ€™Farrell Streetâ€¦â€ At weekâ€™s end, one would take the train back to the Bay Area and hand over the tapes to KGO. Sharpe says that the station never discovered the ruse.
The Coyle and Sharpe nightly run lasted two years until one day an ABC executive, fresh to San Francisco and KGO, tuned in the program while driving across the Bay Bridge to his new job. His reaction was immediate: â€œWhat is that doing on ABC?â€ They were dropped from the station without notice.
Their television pilot, The Imposters, proved too bizarre for the mainstream palate of Los Angeles. In one scrapped segment, they approach tennis pro Pancho Gonzalez saying they have a new product to sell at sporting eventsâ€”half-eaten food, marketed under the name â€œPancho Gonzalez Used Food.â€ They reveal to Gonzalez that they sold the food the previous week in Seattle, using the tennis playerâ€™s nameâ€”and that only one person got sickâ€”and that he neednâ€™t worry about the lawsuit. Gonzalez blows up, yelling obscenities, hopping in his car and roaring off down the freeway until someone flagged him down and explains the gag.
Sharpe says that game-show host Allen Ludden was invited to a screening in hopes that he would host the program, only to tell Wolper after the lights came on: â€œI wouldnâ€™t be associated with this. This is just sick!â€
The pilot was edited to pieces, and never sold.
Hollywood rejection put the Coyle and Sharpe partnership under incredible stress, Paranoid by nature, Coyle was convinced that everyone was out to sabotage their work, and one day in 1964, borrowed a set of luggage from a friend and abruptly vanished. He reportedly later resurfaced in New York, doing his own brand of man-on-the-street material.
â€œI always saw myself as peripheral to this, you know?â€ Sharpe says. â€œSomeone who could carry the machine. Yet, now 30 years later, when I hear the stuff he did alone, I realize I was some catalyst, some accomplice. Something about it that made it more human. Without me, it was very flat. He was just threatening people: â€˜I have a right to cut off your head. Why donâ€™t you want to have your head cut off?â€™ But there was something conspiratorial about the two of us that made it kind of fun.â€
Coyle eventually landed in Cambridge, England, listening to Mahler symphonies and hosting philosophical discussions at his home that lasted into the dawn. Except for his wife, none of his acquaintances there knew about his radio career or that he even had a sense of humor. Coyle and Sharpe didnâ€™t speak again until Sharpe stayed put in Los Angeles, finding work producing radio commercials and helping his wife Sandra, whom he married in 1964, raise their daughter Jennifer. It wasnâ€™t long before the phone starting ringing with requests for his man-on-the-street format, and he started picking up clients that preferred the offbeat real-life interviews. He soon expanded the idea to include television ads, short films and a syndicated program called Street People, wandering streets of various U.S. cities with a camera crew.
â€œIt took me a long time to learn how to do television, because it isnâ€™t these word images. You can come up with these funny ideas, and you go out and do them, but it turns out people donâ€™t have big reactions, they have internal reactions,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s all inside. These hidden-camera things often are very hard to do.â€
But after years of always angling his work to sell products with tag lines, Sharpe found himself wondering if this was really all there was. Despite the seeming creative freedom, pleasing a client was still a 9 to 5 job. To get some spiritual balance, the Zen comedian became a real-life Buddhist, and recorded a solo album of improvisational interviews that would help answer some of the questions he himself was asking. The Meaning of Life was released in 1979 on Rhino, a noble effort that on some deeper level is the most curious of all his work:
Digging through the trash in front of Gucciâ€™s in Beverly Hills, Sharpe offers shoppers a fabulous discountâ€”any item for just 25 cents. A crowd of women gather, and one snipes, â€œWhat are you pointing to garbage for, when there are so many other beautiful things?â€
Hoping to needle their inflated materialism, Sharpe asks, â€œWhere is this garbage from?â€
â€œI donâ€™t give a damn where the garbage is from,â€ sniffs the woman.
â€œItâ€™s Beverly Hills garbage,â€ pushes Sharpe.
â€œNo,â€ she sneers. â€œThere is no garbage in Beverly Hills.â€
The record didnâ€™t sell well, but it got him a job later that year when the general manager of KMEL-FM heard it and hired him. Heâ€™s lived here ever since.
â€œPeople either love Mal, or they hate him,â€ says Zamacona, who helped Sharpe reduce three decades of interviews, films and commercials into a 27-minute video retrospective, Americaâ€™s Man-On-The-Street: Mal Sharpeâ€™s 30th Anniversary Special, which won a regional Emmy just two weeks ago.
In the anthology, Sharpe tells what he looks for in a man-on-the-street interview subject:
The bits come hurling at the viewer in Americaâ€™s Man-On-The-Street. People are asked if they wouldnâ€™t mind having an ostrich stuffed into their car. Sharpe visits used car lots, a wad of cash in hand, asking for a test driveâ€”while wearing handcuffs. He also attempts to check into a hotel, a blow-up doll under his arm, asking if someone could â€œshow her the room.â€ In one snippet, Coyle and Sharpe pester a truck driver, asking him to judge the warbling technique of Coyle, who pretends to believe that he is part bird. (Sharpe and Zamacona relocated the driver, who now lives in Marin, and filmed his reactions to watching the clip, 30 years later. The man remembered vividly being interviewed on the streets of San Franciscoâ€”by Rowan and Martin.)
Bay Area radio personality Peter B. Collins says that the key to Sharpeâ€™s success is â€œhis warmth and cleverness. Heâ€™s not threatening. Heâ€™s a big, friendly kind of bear. Heâ€™s that kind of an old-style performer who can submerge his own ego or persona into the context of the moment.â€
Another segment in the anthology grew out of a real-life experience. After moving back to the Bay Area, Mal and his wife Sandra were trying in vain to see a doctor around Christmas time, but since it was around the holidays, all of their doctors happened to be vacationing in Lake Tahoe. In frustration, he staged the following scene, which got more people upset than any other bit he has done.
Sandra lies in a wheeled gurney on the sidewalk in front of a pharmacy. The IV tube has just fallen out of her arm, and she tries to stop strangers to help her get the attention of her doctor. The physician is played by Mal, dressed in stethoscope and hospital scrubs, who is chatting amiably at a nearby pay phone, oblivious to his patientâ€™s condition. From his loud, jolly conversation we gather he is making arrangements for a fun-filled ski trip to Tahoe. Passerby reactions vary wildly from horror to uncertainty toâ€”in the case of a firemanâ€”extreme suspicion, until Mal finally finds two helpful women who can give him proper directions to Tahoe:
â€œYou go to Sacramento, donâ€™t you?â€ asks one woman to her friend. The camera frames the gurney directly in the foreground with a very ill-looking Sandra moving her head from side to side. â€œJust take 80 all the way up,â€ suggests the other. Phone receiver still in hand, Mal replies â€œI just bought a condo up there!â€
â€œOh, how nice!â€ says one.
â€œI really felt bad,â€ says Sharpe in retrospect. â€œThere are moments on that where people got really angryâ€”really hostileâ€”and it really touched them that a doctor was being so inhuman to a patient. That steps over a line that I never expected. I was glad when that was over.â€
Sharpe may have gone commercial with commercials, but heâ€™s never given up his subversive side. During the 1984 Democratic National Convention at Moscone Center, Sharpe recruited a film crew from Oregon public television with nothing else to do and directed them to meet him on the floor of the convention hall at the magic moment Geraldine Ferraro would be chosen as Walter Mondaleâ€™s running mate (the infamous â€œFritz and Titsâ€ ticket).
The crowd cheers and a smiling Sharpe is surrounded by the conventioneers drunk on political fever, eager to spew their thoughts on the election.
Sharpe calmly asks them one-by-one: â€œWhatâ€™s your favorite fish?â€ Some burst into laughter, some sputter: â€œWhat am I supposed to say? Why are you asking that question?â€
The unrattleable, of course, are the politicians. Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt is approached:
Sharpe: The governor of Arizona, howâ€™re you doing?
Babbit: Look, itâ€™s an historic moment, and itâ€™s a terrific speech. Sheâ€™s really the master of her style, itâ€™s really upbeatâ€”
Sharpe: Governor of Arizona, whatâ€™s your favorite fish?
Babbitt: [immediately] Striped bass.
Sharpe corners California Senator Alan Cranston, and although hard of hearing, Big Al confidently fires off one for the constituents:
Sharpe: Senator Alan Cranston, what is your favorite fish?
Cranston: My favorite what?
Cranston: [smiles] Trout.
Sharpe recalls posing the question to Al Gore, who answered â€œTennessee catfish,â€ took about five steps into the crowd, then turned and said, â€œThatâ€™s almost as good as the question someone asked me yesterday.â€
What was that? probed Sharpe.
â€œThey wanted to know if I died and went to heaven and came back as something else in my next life,â€ said the future vice president, â€œwhat would I like to come back as?â€
â€œWhat did you say?,â€ asked Sharpe.
â€œTennessee catfish,â€ responded Gore.
â€œI interview a lot of politicians on the floor of these conventions, and a lot of them are really lumps,â€ says Sharpe. â€œMost of them, the lights are out. I really liked him for that. Heâ€™s obviously an intelligent guy.â€
Los Angeles Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda wasnâ€™t as gracious when Sharpe met him down on the field and asked if the Dodgers should place advertisements on the backs of their jerseys, selling toothpaste and other sundries.
â€œWhat the fuck are you talking about?â€ Lasorda growled. â€œGet off the field!â€
Sharpe demonstrates that advertising is all about getting the audience to remember the name of the product in a Cellular One series of ads featuring Joe Montana. Sharpe calls the veteran product-endorserâ€™s car phone and begs him to endorse Cellular One. Montana steadfastly refusesâ€”in every ad.
Friends appreciate Sharpeâ€™s advertising work, but confide that their favorite bits come from the early C&S years. The material was packed with nasty, funny philosophical exercises in logic. It poked conventional morality, pushing people to the brink of anger or perplexity. They were a balanced duo: Coyleâ€™s insistent and often cruel interrogations playing off Sharpeâ€™s sly and goofy sensibility. In those early years, C&S were unbound: They had no client to appease, no television executives to impress.
â€œYou hate to think your best stuff was the first stuff you did, but in a way Iâ€™ve always felt that way,â€ Sharpe says. â€œThat stuff was much more artistic, and had more validity, and somehow was out there on a level that I really didnâ€™t do again in many ways.â€
Musicians in particular seemed drawn to the Coyle & Sharpe material. Al Kooper played their albums on his bus for years. Huey Lewis was a big fan, as was Paul Kantner, Bill Graham, Mel Torme, even comedian Andy Kaufman.
â€œA very nice, sweet guy,â€ remembers Mal. â€œHeâ€™s a lot like Coyle in his performances. He had an ability to get so into his reality. People would yell and scream at him. Coyle would kind of do that. He would even scare me.â€
In fact, when Jim Coyle first met his mother-in-law, he feigned an epileptic fit, fell to the floor gagging, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. His wife took a picture of him on the ground, and then Jim sat up. Mom had been had.
The Warner Bros. LPs captured the imagination of a young Henry Rollins. Growing up in Washington D.C., Rollins and his friend Ian MacKaye, later to found Fugazi, listened to the albums incessantly. When Rollins appeared at a spoken-word event at the Warfield Theater two years ago, he invited Sharpe and his wife to attend.
â€œThere was like 3,000 beatniks,â€ says Sharpe. â€œPeople stood up and read poetry. It was the most amazing scene. Really, it was like beatniks. It has more of that vibe.â€
The Sharpes went backstage, and Rollins made a beeline:
â€œYouâ€™re Mal. I love everything youâ€™ve done. Iâ€™ve played your stuff for all my friends. I know every word youâ€™ve said.â€
â€[Rollins] falls in love with something, and he wants to share it with everybody,â€ says Alyson L. Careaga, director of 213CD, the recording division of Rollinsâ€™ 2.13.61 publishing company.
Rollins was eager to release a Coyle and Sharpe compilation, and luckily Sharpeâ€™s daughter Jennifer was dubbing off stacks of her fatherâ€™s old KGO tapes.
â€œListening to the interviews, theyâ€™re just weird little moments,â€ says Jennifer, a 26-year-old musician. â€œThe climate of the country, and the relationship between culture and technology is very similar.â€
She culled her favorites and sent them to Rollins. The subsequent collection of rarities, Coyle & Sharpe, Volume I, is due in stores this summer, with two more installments on the way.
Real-life as entertainment is nothing new, especially to a country weaned on Candid Camera, but nothing on Cops, MTVâ€™s The Real World or Real People matches the subversion of Coyle and Sharpe. Irradiated with pop culture information, weâ€™ve memorized the plot of every movie formula, every pop song rhyme scheme, every Saturday Night Live sketch premise, to the point where the most entertaining people in the world seem to be folks at a backyard barbecue.
Weâ€™ve gone beyond Andy Warholâ€™s prediction: Weâ€™re all famous and weâ€™re all entertaining. We all know how to toss off a sound bite. We donâ€™t need someone to tell us whatâ€™s interesting. Weâ€™re interesting. Oh sure, we could walk into a movie theater and watch a thrilling chase scene, but why bother? We know the ending before the film is even unpacked. Thirty years later, Coyle and Sharpe still surprise.
The real life of Mal Sharpe unfolds in a house on a quiet, tree-lined street in Berkeley. A living room is decorated with furnishings from all over the world. Malâ€™s office walls are covered with photos of jazz legends, and a letter from cartoonist B. Kliban declaring his retirement from the art world forever.
Jim Coyleâ€™s obituary clipping is framed.
In a way, the obit is Coyle and Sharpeâ€™s last collaboration. When Coyle died of diabetes in 1993, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter called Mal for background details about his friend and comedy partner. The conversation was so somber that Sharpe just couldnâ€™t resist. The obituary appeared the following morning with the sentence:
â€œMr. Coyle moved to Europe in the 1970s and, according to Sharpe, opened a skydiving school in Cambridge.â€
Wife Sandra waves a hello from the top of the stairs. Besides appearing in Malâ€™s videos and on The Meaning of Life album, she is also a playwright, and collaborated with him on the â€œSharpe & Sharpeâ€ column in the Berkeley Monthly. (â€œSandra did most of the work,â€ he says.) They are also working on a real-life book project called Weird Rooms in California.
To give himself a reason to get out of bed every Sunday morning, Sharpe co-hosts a weekly live radio show with Alicia Clancy on KCSM, mixing comedy, jazz and listener phone calls. He rounds out his Sundays by playing trombone with his jazz band, Big Money in Dixieland, at Sausalitoâ€™s No Name Bar. The band, which includes professional musicians, plumbers and writers, also taps the toes Friday nights at Enricoâ€™s on Broadway. After all the years sticking a microphone in someoneâ€™s face, it somehow seems apropos that Sharpe bring his horn back to the jazz clubs of North Beach.
Frank Zamacona imagines the 59-year-old Sharpe in a rest home someday, but as a spry 80-year-old organizing the fun.
â€œI donâ€™t care if heâ€™s in a wheelchair or not. Heâ€™d get a variety show together,â€ says Zamacona. â€œHe would be the emcee. Heâ€™d have men and women singing, and doing sketches. Taking his mike through the rest home. Heâ€™d have a ball.â€
â€œThe problem is, I like what I do,â€ sighs Mal Sharpe. â€œItâ€™s kind of pleasant. Itâ€™s much better than sitting home, getting nervous or something.â€
And somewhere in the afterlife, Max Weiss is gritting his teeth. He threw out the wrong tapes.
(First published in SF Weekly. Also archived on Mal Sharpeâ€™s website.)