Rent A Pigeon
January 13, 1964, Newsweek

On San Francisco's Market Street last week, two somber-faced public-opinion "pollsters" approached a young man, thrust a microphone in his face, and after a few minutes of earnest conversation asked: "Would you be interested in helping future generations to fly?" When the young man said "yes," the pollsters asked: "Well, then, would you let us graft a pair of chicken wings on your forehead?" The subject was dubious but the interviewers refused to give up. "Well, how about just one wing?" they asked. "It's absolutely painless, you know." By the time the exasperated youth shouted: "Get away from me, you crackpots," it was too late. The dialogue was on tape, and the zany radio team of James Coyle and Malcome Sharpe had hooked another victim.

For the past eight months, Coyle and Sharpe have been roaming the streets of San Francisco looking for likely guinea pigs for their imaginative nonsense. So far, they have duped more than 3,500 San Franciscans into taking part in tape-recorded stunts broadcast a dozen times nightly over a KGO radio disk-jockey show. Combining some of the elements of "Truth or Consequences" and "Candid Camera," Coyle and Sharpe have rapidly made themselves one of KGO's most popular features. Each week the pair gets more mail than any of the ABC station's other performers.

Coyle and Sharpe have, among other things, recruited a private army of 14,000 San Franciscans to invade Los Angeles to solve the smog problem; they have sold a clothing salesman on the notion of putting insects into the pockets of men's suits) to familiarize the buyers with entomology); they have tried to rent out the pigeons in Golden Gate Park at $1.50 an hour; they have asked people if they would permit cornflake advertisements to be printed in their eyeballs, and they once convinced a San Francisco businessman to give physical-fitness demonstrations on a pedestal in Union Square. The executive balked only after Coyle and Sharpe proposed thet he be attacked by a flock of trained birds "to prove that people can exercise when under pressure."

ROB A BANK: Sometimes their victims take them a little too seriously. Coyle and Sharpe once got a Navy gunner's mate to agree to go back to his base, get his weapon, and then help them rob a bank. When the Navy man was told it was just a joke, he replied: "Listen, this is not a bad idea. The three of us could still pull it off."

Not all of these stunts, of course, succeed. When they canvassed passers-by on Geary Street to jump off the roof of a nearby building with them "for the fun of it," one man told them: "You first!" More often than not, however, Coyle and Sharpe manage to fast-talk interviews out of almost everyone they approach. "We try to pose an almost plausible question," says 27-year-old Sharpe, "then proceed step by step into absurdity until the interviewee is seething." And Coyle, 32, adds: "We create a fantasyland. We're almost childlike."

The Coyle-Sharpe partnership was forged three years ago in a San Francisco boardinghouse when both were unemployed and uncertain of their future. The pair collaborated on a record which they eventually sold to Warner Bros., appropriately titled "The Absurd Impostors." When a Chicago ABC representative heard it, he promptly wired KGO who hired them at San Francisco scale. Their future now looks promising, indeed. They have already had eight guest shots on "The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show" since last fall.

If there is a method in their madness it lies, says native Californian Coyle, "in pushing our victims as far as they'll go before they take a poke at us."

"In other words," adds the Boston-born Sharpe, "we keep straight-faced and manipulate people because people desperately need to believe in other human beings--even when they don't know what we're talking about."