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Mal Sharpe, Groundbreaker in Street-Level Pranking, Dies at 83 – The New York Times

Mal Sharpe, Groundbreaker in Street-Level Pranking, Dies at 83 - The New York Times
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https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/arts/mal-sharpe-dead.html
 

Mal Sharpe, Groundbreaker in Street-Level Pranking, Dies at 83

By Neil Genzlinger

March 19, 2020

Long before late-night talk show hosts began doing it, he conducted absurd interviews with gullible passersby with his comedic partner, Jim Coyle.

 

The pranksters Mal Sharpe, center, and Jim Coyle, right, pose as researchers from The Milpitas Physical Fitness Institute in 1963 in San Francisco, where they talk a man into a display of sidewalk gymnastics. The pranksters Mal Sharpe, center, and Jim Coyle, right, pose as researchers from The Milpitas Physical Fitness Institute in 1963 in San Francisco, where they talk a man into a display of sidewalk gymnastics.John Gorman/San Francisco Examiner

Two strangers approach a man named George on the streets of San Francisco.

“George,” one of them says, “would you yourself participate in a program of inter-protoplasm flow?”

George doesn’t hesitate. “If I needed it, I guess I would,” he says.

One of the strangers, earnestly impressing on George the seriousness of that commitment, elaborates:

“If you knew that you were going to have all of your — let’s face it — your insides taken out or sucked out of you and in return you were going to have the insides of another person placed into the interior of your body, either the insides of one other person or many other people, would you participate in such a program?”

George again affirms, “Yes, if I needed it.” Only when the two try to get him to accompany them to a lab, right then and there, to have the procedure done does George balk.

The two ersatz medical experts were Mal Sharpe and Jim Coyle, and the exchange, immortalized in an audio track, took place in the early 1960s, one of countless pranks the pair sprung on unsuspecting passers-by decades before “Impractical Jokers” and present-day late-night hosts thought of working similar comedic territory.

Mr. Coyle stayed in the punking game only a short while, but Mr. Sharpe made something of a career out of it, influencing the whole field of ambush humor.

Coyle and Sharpe were pioneers of an entire genre of comedy, the Man on the Street bit,” Charlie Todd, founder of the comedy collective Improv Everywhere, said by email. “Every late-night host and YouTube prankster owes a bit of their act to Coyle and Sharpe.”

Mr. Sharpe, who was well known in the Bay Area for his wacky interviews and also as a jazz trombonist, died on March 10 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 83. His daughter, Jennifer Sharpe, said his health had diminished since he underwent heart surgery three and a half years ago.

Mr. Sharpe first met Mr. Coyle in 1959 when they were bunking at the same San Francisco rooming house. Mr. Coyle asked Mr. Sharpe what he did for a living, and Mr. Sharpe said he specialized in animal-to-human brain transplants and was himself waiting to receive a flamingo brain. Mr. Coyle, in turn, gave Mr. Sharpe his biography: Although he looked 23, he said, he was 80 and had a pension from serving in the Spanish-American War.

With such an introduction the two hit it off and began exchanging comedic ideas. They went their separate ways briefly, but returned to San Francisco in 1961 and began pranking in earnest.

They used a tape recorder hidden in a briefcase to record their absurd encounters. Comedy albums were enjoying a surge of popularity, driven by the enormous success of Bob Newhart’s 1960 record, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” and the pair had hopes of landing a record deal with their recordings. Although the first company they tried rejected them, they were eventually signed by Warner Brothers Records, which in 1963 released “The Absurd Imposters.”

Its track list gives the flavor of the enterprise: “Selling Insects to a Clothing Store” is one; “Carpenter, Give Us Your Lunch” another. And then there was “Mutant Zebra-Eel in a Paint Store,” in which they tried to persuade a merchant to exhibit a new life form in his shop window.

“It’s a cross between a zebra and certain type of sea eel,” one of them explains, “and it’s almost entirely zebralike physically. The eel influence is only in the legs.”

The album didn’t sell all that well, but disc jockeys started playing the cuts, and KGO radio in San Francisco signed the pair to do a show, “Coyle and Sharpe on the Loose.”

“C & S, who had never done radio work before, were suddenly faced with the terror of filling 18 hours of airtime a week,” Jennifer Sharpe wrote in liner notes for a 1995 album drawn from the tapes from this period. To get better audio quality, they abandoned the hidden recorder and went to a straight-on interview method with microphone and recorder in full view.

About a decade ago, Jesse Thorn, founder of the Maximum Fun podcast network, turned some of Coyle & Sharpe’s best material into bite-size podcasts.

“What makes it work so amazingly,” Mr. Thorn said in a phone interview, “is that Jim was a genuine weirdo who was also an actual con man, and Mal was an actual cool guy who could pass for a square.”

The moment — space exploration just beginning; science asserting itself — was also right, since many of the pair’s bits involved concepts that were on the edge of science fiction.

“What you had,” Mr. Thorn said, “was people who were used to living in a world of wonder, and science is the one delivering the wonder.”

Malcolm Sharpe was born on April 2, 1936, in Cambridge, Mass. His father, Ralph, who died when Malcolm was 4, managed a shoe store. His mother, Carolyn (Varnick) Sharpe, worked in a clothing store during World War II.

Mr. Sharpe enrolled in Boston University’s public relations and communication program, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1958. He later pursued a master’s degree in broadcast communications at Michigan State University. His interest in jazz led him to San Francisco, drawn, he said, by an image on the cover of an album by the San Francisco jazz musician Turk Murphy.

He and Mr. Coyle, who died in 1993, called their pranks “terrorizations,” but generally the pranksters and their targets parted as friends thanks to Mr. Sharpe’s genial personality.

Well, except for that time the two got arrested.

“We were interviewing this guy and told him that we wanted to borrow his car for a few hours to go to a restaurant,” Mr. Sharpe related to The New York Times in 2000. “He said, ‘How do I know you’re going to bring it back?’ We said that would be the great thing for him: We would bring it back and then he’d have more trust in human beings. And he called the police.”

The two made a television pilot, but nothing came of it, and in the mid-1960s Mr. Coyle abandoned the partnership. Mr. Sharpe, though, kept doing on-the-street interviews, working in radio and advertising and releasing two albums on his own. In the early 1970s he had a nationally syndicated television show, “Street People.” He worked for several radio stations doing street interviews, and for years he was a host of “Back on Basin Street,” a jazz program on KCSM in the Bay Area. He also had his own jazz band, Big Money in Jazz.

In 1964 Mr. Sharpe married Sandra Lee Wemple; in addition to his daughter, his wife survives him.

The Coyle and Sharpe radio show lasted only two years. Although Mr. Sharpe did plenty of pranking on his own afterward, he told San Francisco Weekly in 1995 that his partnership with Mr. Coyle was in a class by itself.

“You hate to think your best stuff was the first stuff you did, but in a way I’ve always felt that way,” he said. “That stuff was much more artistic, and had more validity and somehow was out there on a level that I really didn’t do again in many ways.”

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