Icing: Ambush Humorist MAL SHARPE vs. Asperger’s Are Us’ NOAH BRITTON Part II
NOAH BRITTON: Was that one of the reasons you guys split, was his weird control stuff?
MAL SHARPE: Well, he got married, I got married, we were living in LA, and it did kinda circumscribe our whole life. I had to deal with him. When we worked together and it was just the two of us, it was fine. But the minute we got into these situations with other people it got really difficult, and it was a strain all the time to be a partner of this guy because you kinda had to go along with this concept of, as he called it, “The Venture.” It was like a bad marriage, be partnered with someone who… but in a way I missed it when he disappeared, but in a way I was glad to see him go, because he was a bit controlling.
NOAH: It’s a shame that it seems that after his army movie, he didn’t make any more recorded output, is that true?
MAL: There were some things I heard, some recordings over in England, but they weren’t interesting or funny, they were stiff. I wouldn’t put them on the air. But his wife would describe… they’d live in this town and he’d tell the grocer he’d have a way of treating the zucchinis and he’d just go off [putting the grocer on], he never stopped doing that. A lot of people who knew him there didn’t know he had a sense of humor.
NOAH: Yeah but without you they wouldn’t get it! They’d think he’s just a creepy weird guy just saying insane stuff, I’m guessing. I read that and it’s really sad that he lost that heart you provided him and just became a scientist doing experiments on anybody but not for their amusement. So how are his children?
MAL: Did I say he had children?
NOAH: I thought I read somewhere that he had a child.
NOAH: Your daughter said she met one of his kids… or am I confusing this with his wife?
MAL: Ha, no he doesn’t have kids. I could put you on if you were a reporter but-
NOAH: -thank you-
MAL: I’ve done that a lot.
NOAH: I read [interviews with you], and I can tell the difference [between the truth and the put-ons], like the thing where he pursued a career in burrowing.
NOAH: That’s a good one. Which brings up the question of did anyone you met on the street start messing with you?
MAL: No one we met on the street, but if they did we’d have been real hip to that. I’ve done a lot of man on the street interviews, when suddenly people start telling you what they wanna hear, you-
MAL: Warner Brothers Records put us on once.
NOAH: What did they do?
MAL: We were really excited to go down to Warner Brothers in Berkeley and the president of Warner Brothers was a very straight arrow, nice guy, and he told us that when we signed with Warner Brothers we were eligible for health benefits. People then didn’t give a shit about health benefits like now, but I guess we figured screw it let’s get the health benefits. So they said “Dr. Gordon’s gonna be here in a few minutes and is gonna give you a physical,” and he walked in with a bag and we introduced ourselves and he made everyone leave the room and he turned to Jim and he opened the bag and he had a glass in there and he said “Go down the hall and give me a specimen and bring it back.” So, Jim went out and came back ten minutes later with this glass of urine. [The doctor] put it in the bag, he didn’t cover it up! Then he gave me a glass and we had to walk down the long corridor with these offices and go in the restroom and pee in the glass and I remember bootlegging the glass because all these secretaries look up as you pass the door and so I went back and gave Dr. Gordon the glass and we’re sitting in the office and everybody from the record company opened the door and were rolling over laughing because they’d watched us carry this urine down the hallway. It was a pretty well-constructed thing. He was just a salesman, Dr. Gordon. But I don’t think you could’ve put us on then.
NOAH: The thing about that stuff is if you’re primed for it, you’ll see through anything, but it’s that most people aren’t primed for stuff if they don’t do it for a living.
MAL: You mean primed to detect it? You’re way ahead of me on this stuff.
NOAH: Thanks, it’s primed as in something that’ll make you be in that mode, because when I’m in a pranking mode, nobody can possibly fool me but, if I’m not, people can get me and I’ll have no idea. I’ve studied this stuff a lot and… if only there were a use for it outside of entertaining myself! But that’s a pretty good use, I suppose.
[The Best Thing Ever] did The Bathroom Tour in 2006, where we just toured bathrooms all over New England for two weeks and a lot of them didn’t know we were coming. And we’d play shows for our friends who’d come with us and whoever else was in the bathroom of, like, the Shell station, and we did one in the Top of the Hub in the Prudential building. And we played all over the place for a couple weeks. Then, the next year we did The Surprise Tour, driving around the entire country playing unbooked shows, the Waffle House, the movie theatre, the White House, yeah no one could’ve pulled one over on me then and they probably could now.
MAL: Were you doing these flash mob things?
NOAH: Well, it wasn’t like a flash mob but I know what you’re talking about. Improv Everywhere… are you familiar with them?
NOAH: They invented the made up musicals in Grand Central Station or wherever.
MAL: Oh yeah.
NOAH: But we were doing the stuff before that. There’s three of us in the band and we’d show up and say “Hey we’re here to play your fireworks store, here’s a song we wrote about your fireworks store” and sometimes it’d be a real song and sometimes it’d be Jen, our cellist just yelling greeting card lyrics while Alex and I played slide whistle improvised and it just sounded awful and they’d sometimes throw us out really quickly and sometimes they really loved it and wanted us to stay and play more.
We put up an exhibit in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and stood as living statues next to it then we played a show ‘til we got thrown out. The big thing is to get thrown out before you get bored ‘cuz otherwise it’s no fun. So we did a lot of that. The next year we did The Retirement Tour so we played retirement homes-
MAL: -oh my God-
NOAH: But that’s the challenge, that we’re doing that stuff so straight and so deadpan that no one would see the humor in it, but we’re doing it under the auspices of this is a retirement tour so every show has to do with retirement so we played at the cemetery and all these weird places and we did The Animals Tour in 2010 where we played at the zoo and the dog shelter and the aquarium and-
MAL: -in Boston
NOAH: That was in NYC actually.
MAL: Is it the same group?
NOAH: Yeah, we’ve been together 10 years.
MAL: I was laughing when you started because of those New Englanders who have that severe townie thing. The hardest people to go perform in front of, who’d go “get tha fuck outta here.”
NOAH: I’ll send you a link to The Bathroom Tour movie. We did documentaries of all of these tours. In The Bathroom Tour you can see us performing at the frat house and the reception there was pretty amazing. And also when we performed at Revere Beach and this guy is yelling at us about how Jen isn’t a man and isn’t allowed in the men’s room and Jen says she’s transgender and he says “OH YEAH TELL IT TO THE POLICE.”
MAL: I’m a little shocked about the New Englanders and how the townies there are… I did a video called “Pardon my Boston Accent” and it’s on Youtube and all the comments are “Who the fuck are these people they don’t even have a goddamn accent, these assholes, these Californians” Jesus Christ the fucking townies!
NOAH: The south gets a bad rap but the north has just as many ignorant idiots but in a different way. The townies and the rednecks would get along if they could get over their regional differences.
MAL: Totally. When you said that I thought “Oh, God these are the worst people they’re so humorless.”
NOAH: Yeah absolutely! I have people who show their friends The Bathroom Tour and say ‘I’d kick his ass if I’d [been there].”
NOAH: I went to the NYC marathon to watch my ex-wife run and I held up a sign that said “Honk if you love to run” and everybody passing would say “I don’t have a car what am I supposed to do?” and so everyone thought it was really funny and then she showed it to her sister’s husband and he said “I’d probably have been really pissed about it if you did that” and I was thinking what the hell is wrong with people?
NOAH: It’s sad. So from listening to the shows it sounds like your goal was never to actually convince anyone to agree to anything, but rather to find how far you can push them ‘til they say no?
MAL: Yeah we wanted to push them so they would say-
NOAH: You’d get them to agree to insane stuff and then you would keep going and then occasionally, the Maniacs guy for example, would still be on board when you’d run out of insane stuff to tell them.
NOAH: I guess that’s something people don’t realize is going on. Do you have any good memories that weren’t recorded?
MAL: That’s a good one. I dunno… I just remember the whole thing very fondly, it was great. It was really creative. We really had to be on our toes and I’ve moved back to San Francisco and you know I can relate to the streets me and Coyle walked down. A lot of the city looks the same, it was very charming. We worked hard at it and it is something you can do at a certain time in your life so I don’t know there’s probably some things that even are unpleasant but… I dunno.
NOAH: So, as far as the new possibilities of pranking, have any of these interested you? We have so much more technology now, has it ever gotten to the place where, you’re thinking “we could do a lot with Twitter or-”
MAL: Well I did a lot of hidden camera stuff but I guess… I like to screw with these people on the phone just drive them batty but I guess that’s just my own stuff. I don’t know, I imagine it wouldn’t be much different to screw with people on technology today. I like the thing of being on the street and looking people in the face but now they’re a lot more paranoid-
NOAH: -yeah that’s the thing! What you guys did wouldn’t be possible, in that way, today but I guess is there a new thing that would be equally-
MAL: Every once in a while I see something that’s really funny but a lot of it is still the same kind of concepts that really work and a lot of it isn’t funny to me…
NOAH: You might like Improv Everywhere, they did some really original stuff. They’re most famous for the No Pants Subway Ride… so what they do is they get basically anyone who wants to join in as a participant in advance can so they have thousands of people (they only do it in New York City), who’ll come and help them with this. So they did a thing where they went to Best Buy and wore blue collared shirts and khaki pants and didn’t do anything else but everyone would ask them for help and they’d do their best to help and the real staff of Best Buy were freaked out like “Who are these people and why are they here?” and they’d say “it’s just a coincidence I just wore this today I don’t know these other guys”
MAL: Yeah I think I’ve seen some of that and it is really good.
NOAH: I bet they’d be interested in doing something down in California with you guys. They started when The Best Thing Ever did and we were doing similar stuff, but the difference is they invited as many people as they could to join them so they got much more successful than we did ‘cuz I was like “it’s just us three” and I would push people away as much as possible, kinda like Coyle I bet.
MAL: Yeah, haha.
NOAH: But I’ve learned from my mistakes a bit. Anyway so it sounds like your impression of today’s pranksters isn’t that high but I’m also betting that even in the sixties you weren’t that impressed with most of them.
MAL: Well there wasn’t anybody else, I mean there was Candid Camera–
NOAH: -I mean after you guys, but in the later sixties, when people would be doing weird stuff, I’m guessing you had higher standards for what would impress you compared to the average person who’s a comedy fan.
MAL: Yeah I guess so, all those funny phone calls and things. Every once in a while there’d be one… there was that guy some salesman called him up trying to sell him something… Pretend you’re the guy
NOAH: Yeah do you wanna buy this new-
NOAH: -vacuum. Yeah what-
NOAH: -is it?
MAL: He would just say “Sir!” and stop the guy cold and the guy would go “Yeah?” “Yeah?” and he wouldn’t say anything and he drove the salesman nuts and he wouldn’t wanna stop.
MAL: Anyway once in a while there’d be something good but usually… I dunno this is all very subjective.
NOAH: Right, which leads to my next question, which is what is something that offends you? As far as stuff people might say, is there anything?
MAL: What do you mean?
NOAH: Something where you’d be like “I’m offended by this and I think you’ve crossed a line.”
MAL: By golly, that so depends on the situation. That’s a funny question.
NOAH: Well is there a certain type of thing that offends you or even a certain type of comedy that’s cruel or it’s uncreative?
MAL: I don’t like the cruel stuff. I don’t like these morning radio shows where the wife will call them and say “call my husband and say I’m having an affair with the guy who’s working on the house” and they’ll call the husband and really upset him and – you know those things?
NOAH: Yeah yeah, stuff that’s just mean.
MAL: And then I can’t believe it and finally the guy will be like “I can’t believe my wife would do that to me and he’s sobbing and crying and then they go “Hey Ted this is the Morning Zoo calling!” and he goes “what?” and they just start laughing. They’re so happy to be on the radio and I’m like “they’ve been so humiliated!” and I really feel bad for them. I think that stuff is really gross but it’s kinda the way these people, just to be with the media their life is falling apart and… well you never know what they said, it’s all been edited-
NOAH: Well they’re probably also relieved that it wasn’t true, what they’ve been hearing.
MAL: -there might’ve been 15 minutes of talking the guy down.
NOAH: Could be.
MAL: That stuff doesn’t sit well with me.
NOAH: That’s a great answer so I guess I’ll do my last question, which is would you be opposed to licensing your and Jim’s likenesses for action figures?
MAL: Hahahahaha. I would like Borat to play me.
NOAH: I liked that film a lot. His cousin is one of the premiere autism researchers in the world.
MAL: Do you pick out people that I wouldn’t pick out in crowds or social situations that are autistic?
NOAH: Yeah definitely, my Aspiedar is really really strong and the people I know who’ve worked with autistic people for years can do it too. The guys in Asperger’s Are Us can also. 1% of people [are autistic] so I can go to a large crowd and the odds are I’ll probably find another one there real easy.
MAL: I play in these bands and sometimes people from the public will walk up to me and sometimes you think something’s going on but you’re not sure…
NOAH: Yeah you’re gonna find those people who – I can diagnose people pretty easily just by talking to them for a few minutes if they seem to have something that’s diagnosable regardless of what it is just because I know enough about psych. But the people who you meet who are gonna have no expression and don’t react to what you’re doing on a social level and probably don’t even notice what your intent is, odds are those people are autistic somehow. They aren’t even necessarily diagnosed for themselves, they may not realize it, but I can spot them and usually they don’t know and I’m not gonna ask if they don’t know but yeah it is pretty easy for me to identify.
MAL: I always said that about Jerry Brown, the governor. I always say he has no affect.
NOAH: I dunno if that’s due to autism or due to some other odd trait but could be.
MAL: Yeah I’ve been with that guy and I’ve seen him and he doesn’t have facial expressions and I wonder what happened did his mother not lean over the crib and smile at him?
NOAH: Odds are he learned it to be governor but he didn’t learn to fake it, he just learned to not have it.
MAL: Yeah that’s interesting.
NOAH: Speaking of politics, I love your piece, the “What’s your favorite fish?” at the Ferraro nomination.
MAL: Oh yeah.
NOAH: ‘Cuz that’s something people haven’t explored enough, of being in huge events where everyone’s covering something, and doing something really stupid. I guess Borat did.
I did a video where I thought of it spontaneously and I wish I’d planned it better, I’ll probably do a better one this year, but on the 4th of July I was in Concord and there were fireworks going off and I was like “hold on I’m gonna make a video” so I filmed myself doing a really boring monologue, like people post to Youtube, of their political views, like trying to start arguments-
NOAH: -but in the background there’s all these loud explosions going off so you can’t totally understand what I’m saying. So I was like “this’ll be really funny and it needs planning to be delivered right” but the idea was really solid.
MAL: Hahaha. Like a Monty Python thing of standing there in your own world
NOAH: Asperger’s Are Us are all big Monty Python fans, actually there’s a guy you’ll really enjoy who’s Asperger’s Are Us’s biggest influence, which is Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser, the yoyo champion, he emailed all these news stations in the midwest and asked if he could be on their morning show because he does yo-yoing for the environment, like “green” yo-yoing. And he’d show up and he just made all this stuff up about how he goes into schools and teaches kids about yo-yoing and it helps them learn about the environment.
NOAH: And he makes the interviews as awkward as possible
MAL: Are these on Youtube?
NOAH: Yeah, look up K-Strass, you’ll find his videos, the best one is the one with the most hits (that’s usually how it works), he starts that one with a moment of silence for a guy he knows who died
NOAH: Like he starts the morning show interview with a moment of silence.
MAL: He just takes over the show.
NOAH: Yeah it’s amazing.
MAL: That’s great.
NOAH: He did this 8 or 10 times before they caught on and stopped hiring him.
NOAH: And now because of that character he’s on the show The Office, but the K-Strass character was the best thing. It’s amazing.
MAL: Oh god that’s funny.
NOAH: I’ll send you the link and I’ll send you this interview when it’s typed up.
NOAH: Thank you so much this has been really nice.
MAL: Well I really enjoyed this. It’s been really good talking to you.
NOAH: Thank you.