COYLE & SHARPE / ARTICLES
May We Graft Chicken Wings To Your Head
In the Interest of Aviation
by Kenneth Goldsmith
June 1995, Published in LCD
James P. Coyle and Mal Sharpe hit the streets--and local radio--of San Francisco on local radio in the fall of 1963. Dressed as two clean cut, IBM executives-types, they lugged around one of those clunky "portable"--reel to reel tape players and inflicted a hilarious brand of man-on-the-streets interviews on an unsuspecting public. Their straight appearance a ruse,they would pull in unwitting and unsuspecting passers-bye to answer their ultimately absurd questions, often convincing the victim to do something as outrageous as agreeing to commit murder or rob a bank.
It's incredible now to hear the gullibility of these people--you think, it just couldn't happen today--people are too cynical and paranoid. But it was a different time in America--the post-Eisenhower-pre-Vietnam-Cold War period. At that time the only really alternative thing that the media was picking up on was the Beats; the hippies were still several years away. Coyle and Sharpe were not hanging on the Beat Scene, rather they lived in a residence house on Russian Hill, which is where they met in 1960, and spent their days doing recorded put-on's that really verged on conceptual performance art. In a sense, what they were doing was a dark and twisted audio version of Candid Camera.
James Coyle was a professional con-man who, according to Mal Sharpe, had conned his way into 160 jobs by the time he was 24 and took none of them--the simple act of getting the job was enough. Mal Sharpe had arrived in San Francisco from Boston, a communications major bumming around the Bay Area when he fell under Jim's persuasive spell. Soon enough, they were out on the streets with a hidden microphone honing what was to become a paying gig. In 1963 they were contracted by radio station KGO to come up with three hours of material five days a week to be broadcast that very same night. The result was spontaneous radio, the likes of which is unknown today. Each morning they would meet at a coffee shop and brainstorm the day's ideas. They would look at everyday objects around them and invent absurd situations--a lamp post would become "human lamp post," a chicken wing on a plate would become something to be grafted on to the head of a person "in the interest of aviation"--and so on until they were ready to go out on the streets seeking their "victims" (Jim's widow, Naomi has told me that their victims were carefully selected, usually by their shoes!). At the end of the day, they would turn their tapes into the station where they would be broadcast that evening up and down the West Coast.
Admittedly, lot of what they did was sheer hassle for hassle's sake. They spent their days roaming the city, looking for people to bother wherever they went. There is one interview in which they approach a gentleman sitting leisurely under the shade of a tree on a lovely fall afternoon. As the leaves begin to fall from the tree, they accuse the man of being anti-arboreal and an enemy of nature, a claim which he adamantly denies. More arguing ensues and in his characteristically brilliant manner, sophist James Coyle forces the conversation to the point where the man has been accused, tried, and found guilty of arboricide. His sentence is to have to endure the abrasiveness of Coyle and Sharpe. In another situation, they walked on to a construction site and with no idea in mind found a carpenter eating a sandwich for lunch whereupon they insisted that the man give them a bite of his sandwich. Surprisingly enough, the confrontations rarely came to blows as Coyle and Sharpe would defuse the interview by saying, "May we tell you something? This is all in the interest of humor!," whereupon all would laugh and recall what was going through their minds during the interview as if they were old friends.
Sometimes, the work is chilling. In one scene, they try to convince a passer-by to make a phone call for them and say "We have little Jimmy Jones here with us and we'd like to arrange a meeting..." There is a lot of work involving cults, conspiracy theory and political revolution that all too unfortunately came to pass in the following quarter of a century. It was not uncommon for them to propose then-morally repugnant or culturally oppositional ideas to their victims. While always presented in the interest of humor, many of these ideas found full bloom in the counterculture years later. Mal Sharpe claims that this was all coincidental; their works were done with only humor in mind--political or artistic considerations were not part of their agenda. As a matter of fact, both Coyle and Sharpe have claimed to have no interest in either the "pretension" of high art or the filthiness of politics. It's eerie to listen to the work 30 years later and discover how right on they were in their humor--they called for nothing short of a complete overhaul of society as it was then known and commonly agreed to.
In addition to street interviews, Coyle and Sharpe also did several "studio" pieces--small bits of Dadaist/Surrealist humor that went over everybody's heads (Listening to them today, they strike me like Sound-Poems/Zen koans. I can't imagine what the average AM listener made of them 30 years ago!). Over the course of time, they developed threads running through the work that evolved into elaborate political conspiracy theories and included a cast of characters such as: Mayor Harry Kodiak, his arch nemesis Chancellor Eric Argyle, Repugno and his child the filthy Baby Rasputin. These fictitious beings were involved in a series of kidnapping, murders, political upheavals and power struggles centering around the L.A. Invasion (a fictitious war between San Francisco and Los Angeles led by Field Marshall Coyle and Field Marshall Sharpe). Of course, the average citizen on the streets of San Francisco became involved in the struggle and was asked to take sides and to perform absurd tasks for the cause. Much of this work predated and influenced Bay Area artists like Negativland and Survival Research Laboratories, as well as The Firesign Theater. It is also possible to see their influence in David Letterman's humor as well as (for better or worse) the Jerky Boys.
Things started to pick up for Coyle and Sharpe around 1964. Their radio show was gaining national attention to the point where they were featured in a Newsweek article. Then came the recording offers--they released two albums for Warner Bros., The Absurd Impostors and The Insane But Hilarious Minds of Coyle and Sharpe. Following a move to Los Angeles, the duo made a television pilot called The Impostors--a series of street interviews and set-up situations where they bust people's balls (tennis great Poncho Gonzalez being one of them). However, these guys were essentially artists and they resented the influence and control that the "Hollywood Mafia" wanted to assert on their work--and to be honest, Hollywood wasn't exactly crazy for them either--they were too "weird." One day Jim Coyle just up and split. No one knew where he went and even Mal Sharpe was not to find out what happened until 15 years later when they finally spoke. Hollywood was nauseating him, so he and his wife moved to New York where they waited for Jim's father to die so they could inherit some money. After this happened, they moved to Austria and finally settled in Cambridge, England where they lived quietly for years reading the classics and listening to Wagner, Mahler, and Bach. Jim died in 1992 of complications arising from diabetes. Mal Sharpe stayed in Los Angeles and began a career in radio, which he continues to this day. He moved back to San Francisco and found an interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Mal has continued his man-on-the-street work often with a more humorous, philosophical, and gentle bent.
Listening to Coyle and Sharpe is a bit like traveling to a foreign land--suddenly "everything you know is wrong"--and it's up to you to question and reinvent attitudes you have complacently long taken for granted. A mirror is held up to our seemingly random and absurd societal conventions; they make us question what we call "common sense" and "everydayness" in a way that "high" art, cinema, and literature are capable of. In their unsuspecting victims we squirm in sympathy as we see more than a bit of ourselves reflected, uncomfortably laughing along, of course, "all in the interest of humor."