Icing: Ambush Humorist MAL SHARPE vs. Asperger’s Are Us’ NOAH BRITTON Part I
In 1961, MAL SHARPE, along with his partner, the late James P. Coyle, began recording put-ons on unsuspecting strangers. After two albums of hilarious pranks, a TV pilot, and what turned out to be a very tumultuous personal relationship, the two split up, and Mal began doing solo TV spots, ads, and his own radio program, Back on Basin Street, on San Mateo’s KCSM. He also performs in a jazz group, Big Money in Jazz.
NOAH BRITTON is a musician, comedian, psychology professor, and autistic person. His band, The Best Thing Ever, is most famous for their tours of unusual venues, such as 2006’s Bathroom Tour and 2010’s Animals Tour. He also co-founded the first all-autistic comedy troupe, Asperger’s Are Us, who were profiled in a self-titled 2016 Netflix documentary.
On the evening of Jan 31, 2013, I called Mal Sharpe at his home to fill in some of the missing gaps in the Coyle and Sharpe history. I tried to ensure that my questions had never been answered before. Mal was affable, interested, and very polite, as well as a bit old-fashioned, as evidenced by his repeated use of 1950’s slang.
NOAH BRITTON: How did you and Coyle decide to start doing this in the first place?
MAL SHARPE: We’d met in San Francisco and we just hung around and… I wasn’t a performer at Boston University, I wasn’t on the air. On the radio I saw myself as a writer or producer… So I’d just go places with Coyle and he had a great imagination and a great vocabulary and I’d get into these things like he’d dress up as a priest and we’d get into movie theaters and-
Noah: -right, so you just started doing this stuff organically?
Mal: Yeah, well I went back to NYC to be in the army and I bumped into Coyle in Manhattan and we decided we didn’t want real jobs so we went back to San Francisco on a whim and started recording this stuff and so that’s what we did… stuff you can only do when you’re 23.
Noah: Yeah I went on the Bathroom Tour at 23 and The Surprise Tour at 24 but wouldn’t do that stuff now. So do you know anything about Coyle’s background, why he was this sociopathic genius and would do the stuff that he’d do?
Mal: Yeah I do. He grew up in Manhattan and his father was this eccentric guy, he taught Latin, and he didn’t like his kids too much, he was kind of cruel to his kids and his wife, and, according to Jim, his wife committed suicide. I kind of believe him on this. He had this kind of weird father who was also a kind of a… he’d officiate at track meets and things like that, he was kind of a strange guy, and the point is that Jim grew up hearing Latin all the time, so he had this incredible vocabulary and he’d know the roots of words and he’s always using these words that normal people wouldn’t pick up. He had a great facility for bullshit and that really impressed people once we’d go in and interview them and he talked his way into 116 jobs.
Noah: So what were the jobs he talked himself into?
Mal: Well, one job he didn’t talk himself into was he was a minor league baseball pitcher, that, he did pretty well. He somehow flew on a TWA training mission as a co-pilot, they were considering him to be a co-pilot. He looked like a guy who could be a TWA pilot, so he flew on this plane on some kind of flight.
When I met him he was working in Chinatown at a travel agency and the Chinese man who owned it would have him do lectures, slideshows, to non-Chinese people and convince these people to take these European tours. And he’d never been to Europe… And there’d be these slides of cathedrals and trees and lakes and whatever and Jim would just make up shit about, you know, “Tuesday we’re gonna be at the groundhog tree, the tree with 400 branches and, you know, we’re all gonna be sitting in the tree and one day when people come from the village and look up at the tree they’ll see” and every slide he’d make up and I went to one of these presentations and they were hilarious and people in 1959 didn’t know much about Europe and he was so convincing and he sold a bunch of tours for the guy.
He worked as a sales guy for a lot of magazines but he’d never go to work, often he’d just go home and listen to Bruckner and Mahler on his record player and his bosses would eventually realize and fire him and he’d talk his way into another job.
Noah: And he would wait to get fired ‘til after he got a paycheck?
Mal: They’d go with him for a while, they were kinda expecting this guy was gonna work out.
Noah: How long did he do this for?
Mel: I suspect, probably from when he left home at 16 and I met him when he was 24, so 6 or 7 years. The baseball thing… he was this minor league guy. He traveled around America with these teams, did that for a while.
Noah: That’s amazing, that’s great stuff. I’m trying to fill in the gaps that the internet’s missing. And the next big question is why was the army movie he made filmed? What was the purpose, according to the army?
Mal: That’s the thing where he gets buried in central park?
Noah: Yeah, he’s getting buried alive as a human vegetable.
Mal: He and I split up and we had a mutual friend named Bob Strovink who was a cameraman in New York City. I think he got hired for this army training film, they wanted something unusual and different.
Noah: What were they training them for? Was this for battle? Because it’s insane.
Mel: I have no idea. I was in the army, stationed on Long Island City where they made all the army training films, and all the films looked alike, they were kinda in a rut, they’d all start with a rocket and then I think they just got in a rut and somehow this cameraman, who was also infatuated with Coyle and myself, and… Bob Strovink did a lot of industrial films in Manhattan and I guess he talked them into doing this stuff. Every once in a while we’d run into an unconventional guy in a conventional occupation.
Noah: Is that how you got into The Efficiency Experts?
Mal: No, that was a hidden camera thing for the television pilot for a kinda well-known guy named David Wolper and… we approached the producer and he’d find the factory and they’d say come over and we’ll hide the cameras.
Noah: So how many places did you shop the pilot to?
Mal: I don’t know. We did that for David Wolper who’s kind of a big deal producer and he had William Morris shop it around and they didn’t find it funny at all and kept saying “you’re not gonna sell the pilot because it’s sick,” so I don’t really know how many places they shopped it to.
Noah: OK. So I’ve seen some of Jim’s really weird drawings, were they stuff he was just doing for fun or did he come up with characters or was he an artist in his spare time?
Mal: When I knew him he wasn’t drawing very much… but those drawings were sent to me by his wife when he was living in Europe after we split up, and his father died, and he inherited a bunch of money, and he and his wife Naomi went to Austria and ended up in England, and I think he was flailing around trying to find something to do. I think it must’ve appealed to him, but they were definitely Coyleian things.
Noah: So I know you lost touch after you split up but what was he doing to survive after you two split?
Mal: His wife Naomi worked. She was a good secretarial person and I think he would go to bookstores and record stores and would always develop a little coterie of 3 or 4 people who’d come under his spell and he’d begin to lecture them and become a mentor or something, but his wife took care of their money.
Noah: So after you two split up I read somewhere you said Jim started doing more mean stuff like walking up to people and yelling on the street or something.
Mal: I might’ve said that, when I wasn’t part of it, he… I can’t say it was a lark for me, I was really into it, but I always thought of Jim as really the star… but then, later, when I heard these things he did without me, they just seemed meaner. They were flatter. It was often the same kinds of premises but, I don’t know, there was just some ingredient missing that I guess I added, where it was a little more mean this way.
Noah: I think of it where you brought the heart in and a little of the “I’m not laughing at you I’m laughing with you, you just don’t know it yet” and he seemed very okay with “I’m gonna laugh at what I’m doing and whether or not you’re in on it is sort of irrelevant, it’s sort of an afterthought.”
Mal: That’s a good point.
Noah: In The Best Thing Ever I’m more like him in that way and the stuff I can do on my own sounds more antisocial and obnoxious and mean but then when Jen, my cello player, is with me everybody loves it ‘cuz she’s interested in making sure everybody’s having a good time. Even as we’re playing slide whistle and screaming greeting cards at the Waffle House, everyone’s still enjoying themselves ‘cuz they can tell… I guess it’s a question of who’s more deadpan?
Mal: I think you kinda nailed it. Obviously you feel a connection with Jim, I bet with this partner of yours you’re a little more okay ‘cuz she’s there with you… He would go to parties and socially he never stopped putting people on and often people at parties would get pissed off at him and the host would ask “Why’d you bring him?”… What do you teach?
Noah: Actually one of the questions I had was are there any bits that you think would have a good social psychological ramification? In social psychology it’s all about this obedience and conformity and… are you familiar with Stanley Milgram?
Noah: Milgram did this conformity experience where he-
Mal: -getting the people to-
Noah: -do the shocks
Noah: I see him as very similar to you guys but he did it through the scientific channels, but you guys were just doing it on your own. So do you have any bits that were particularly good for conformity or obedience or-
Mal: Well, the one that people really marvel at is “The Maniacs in the Living Hell.”
Noah: That’s a good one. I was actually gonna ask about that guy, because it fascinates me, because I don’t see that as a study of people in general, but rather a study of this really dumb guy because I don’t see what motivates him to be interested in this terrifying prospect, because I don’t know why he’d go with it as long as he did.
Mal: Well, I think he wanted a job.
Mal: We didn’t prey on people and offer them money but that guy was a nice guy and thought this was intriguing and an okay thing to do and he was, you know…
Noah: I guess everyone does this… Technically what you were doing was putting someone else into Coyle’s role of lying because they wanted work-
Mal: -but I’ve seen television shows in the last ten years and I could tell a lot of people that were sent over were sent over by employment agencies where they had hidden cameras and they thought they were there to get a job because they wanted a job really badly. We didn’t prey on that. Tell me again the premise of what you’re looking for.
Noah: I guess the conformity and obedience stuff is what you had the best examples of but also the stuff of where you had examples of human behavior and people who wouldn’t go along with the right thing because of societal pressure or maybe will go along with someone who’s just telling them what to do because they feel like they have to. I think “Elongated Head” is an example of that I think, that was a good one.
Mal: There’s another one where we’re gonna put a dime in the guy’s head, “The Brain Piggy Bank.” I think this “Underground Death Ritual” is a guy that’s appalled that we’re the kind of guys who’d do this sort of thing and is appalled that Americans think of this sort of thing and he’s intrigued at first. “The Druggist” is-
Noah: That’s a great one
Mal: I’ll tell you about him. We didn’t put him on our record at first. Anyway his name was Monroe Mendelssohn and we called this tape we had with him the Mendelssohn Torah, because it was so long. Anyway, I released it and it got a lot of play and everybody always loved it, and I’d moved to Los Angeles for 15 years and I moved back to San Francisco and I played it [on my radio show] one night and said “I’ve lost track of this guy and I’d love to speak to him again. I remember him quite fondly.” And a month later I got a card from his wife, and it said she had heard it and wondered whether she could have a copy. And she lived in the next town over, so I sent her a copy of this tape and I guess she called me a few months later and she said “Monroe fell into mental illness shortly after you interviewed him. And he got more and more disturbed in life and his grandchildren only knew him as this kind of extremely disturbed, ill man. They never ever knew him and when they heard him on this tape he was so generous and bright and funny and such a nicer guy and so caring and… they were really moved by it.” It’s really a touching story.
Noah: That’s beautiful! That actually reminds me, I’m guessing you were a fan of Andy Kaufman when he showed up, because he was messing with people a bit but he had the humanity you had in your solo work.
Mal: I met Andy when I was in LA. He loved the Coyle and Sharpe stuff.
Noah: I bet
Mal: He approached me at a screening, I made a feature film and he approached me at the lobby and he said “Mr Sharpe” and he introduced himself and he was so deferential and he was just doing standup in LA then. And so I went to see him and he would get up at one of these comedy clubs and he would just start reading out of a novel [The Great Gatsby] and he would go on and on and people would start screaming “cut it out” and that was very much like Coyle and… He had that line where you didn’t know whether he was crazy and did he find this funny or was he sadistic. And, weirdly enough, an accountant I had was a friend of his from Great Neck Long Island from high school and Andy helped him with his drug addiction. [Andy] was a nice guy.
Noah: His biography is the best book I’ve ever read, the one Bob Zmuda wrote about him [Andy Kaufman Revealed!]. He was fascinated by that antisocial stuff that Coyle did and that fascinates me and-
Mal: He definitely – as a matter of fact, I just found this thing today, there’s a guy named Timothy Carey who’s a bit part player, that I met in LA, and he was in Paths of Glory, but he made a movie called the World’s Greatest Sinner–
Noah: I’ve heard of this… I don’t remember why [It was scored by Frank Zappa].
Mal: Well, I think it would appeal to you ‘cuz he’s one of those guys. He was like Coyle, there was some… and Andy Kaufman, where he’s on that edge, where he’s really crazy, where he’s not like Will Ferrell, not like a Saturday Night Live guy, he’s like way off but somehow he can stay in, and he made a really good, but totally nutty movie. There’s some scene where he’s playing the guitar, he shot it all in his neighborhood, he just recruited these people at a high school dance, and he’s onstage doing this rock and roll dance that’s really bizarre.
Noah: It’s like Andy really did retain his soul into the midst of almost crossing the line into having no soul, like Coyle did but seems to have retreated from this in his later years.
Mal: I don’t think Coyle is as disturbed as Andy.
Noah: Some people said Andy has Asperger’s and I could see it from what I read in the book.
Mal: What were the symptoms?
Noah: When he was a child he would perform for the wall, as if there were an audience watching him, and that satisfied him completely, and that’s such an autistic trait, and the fact that he had perfect recall and could memorize his Taxi scripts in one reading and spend the rest of the week doing whatever. And then the total lack of desire for anyone seeing what he sees and being satisfied entertaining himself despite what you all want. And that’s not to say that he did [have Asperger’s Syndrome] but I can see the argument for it. And also how sincere he could be about weird childlike stuff, like being really serious about his love for Howdy Doody and getting pissed at people who questioned it, and genuinely pissed about that as opposed to it being an act. And also the fact that he would do stimming-type movements where he’d be moving, where he’d type out on an imaginary typewriter in the air stuff so that he could memorize it, that movement was helpful for him, and also he had some weird OCD symptoms and had to keep things in a precise, strange way and could get really upset if they were messed with.
Mal: Coyle was a classic paranoid. I never knew anything disturbing about him until I opened this book on psychiatry and it described paranoia. But Coyle got really paranoid about people we’d be working with, he’d get along well with me but when we were on the television show he was against it.
It was that cyclical behavior where I’d say “this guy isn’t against us!” and [Coyle]’d get hostile to the guy and then the guy would turn against us and [Coyle]’d say “See? He’s against us!” You can’t argue with him. He wanted to be very controlling of his wife. They were living in England when The Beatles were popular and he wouldn’t let her listen to The Beatles.
Noah: That makes sense, some of the pranks were his need for control coming out in a harmless way.
Mal: He totally controlled her and me. You’d get into his trip to a degree, that’s why he had these acolytes.
Noah: He’d have been a good cult leader.