We all have our own Mount Rushmore of comedy: the TV shows, movies, stand-ups, and humor writers that rule Funny Land in our minds like Odin rules Asgard, only without the ravens. For me, that pantheon will always include Coyle and Sharpe: an early 1960s radio team that created some of the weirdest and funniest bits in the history of comedy.
James P. Coyle and Mal Sharpe were put-on artists in an era far removed from our own share-happy planet. Carrying then-current recording equipment, these two well-dressed, conservative-looking fellows strolled the streets of San Francisco asking bonkers questions that provoked shockingly sincere answers. Would like to work in a flaming pit, fighting maniacs and eating bats? Would you mind being hung from a pole to help train pilots to avoid birds? Would you play a coyote as a musical instrument? The sheer imagination was staggering: get thee to the Coyle and Sharpe website or one of their CDs to sample the most preposterous comedy I’ve ever heard.
Sharpe was the straighter of the two straight men, making absurd pronouncements in a deadpan that would make Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell, or Stephen Colbert proud. A typical Sharpe introduction was, “This is field marshals Coyle and Sharpe with good news concerning mutant creature warfare” or “Here’s an opportunity for you to participate in a kidnapping that will lead to the destruction of Los Angeles.” Coyle tended toward the maniacal, and often presented himself as an absurd character such as shower inventor Lorenzo Shower or a werewolf. They often started with a simple, reasonable idea, then gradually revealed a criminal or downright evil motivation, all the while pressuring the mark into deeper and deeper involvement. If a store owner was willing to accept the existence of a hybrid animal known as a zebeel (half-zebra, half-eel) maybe he would allow it in his store window—or take it home. As Coyle non-reassuringly asked, “Do you have any children? If you don’t have any children, it might be OK.”
Picking a Best Bit Ever for these two is tough. I could easily go with “Foot Apple,” in which the pranksters convince a man that scientists have created a “mutant apple” with feet. The mark is so cooperative that he gamely discusses the possibility of eating the apples, cutting off the feet, shepherding the apples across the country, and whipping unruly apples. I thought about picking “Polylingua.” Under this villainous plan—which sounds like it came out of the Lex Luthor playbook—San Francisco would be divided into four sections, each with a brand new language. What starts as a philosophical discussion of invented languages ends with Coyle and Sharpe pressuring the poor fellow to go down to their lair and put on their language-annihilating helmet “just for a minute,” reducing him to a vegetable—“but a vegetable with a potential.” You can’t make this stuff up, but Coyle and Sharpe did, day after day, putting the absurd results on San Francisco’s KGO radio station.
After pleasurable deliberation, I’m going with “Threeism,” in which our heroes begin in a typically non-threatening manner, explaining the concept: “Three people get together and merge their identity as one. Would you ever consider giving up your identity as an individual to be a third of one person?” Soon, they’re inviting themselves to dinner and beyond:
SHARPE: Could we accompany you to your meal and show you how threeism will work? We will help you make the selection of your food.
COYLE: There is nothing we will do that will not be a unit decision.
MAN: Wait a minute now, that’s two against one for me eating at my place. The dinner’s ready!
SHARPE: Yes, we could eat dinner at your home.
COYLE: Can I ask you, what are we eating for dinner?
MAN: I don’t know yet.
COYLE: And how will you introduce us to whoever else is in the house?
MAN: Well, how am I supposed to introduce us?
COYLE: How would you introduce us?
MAN: These are two thirds of my personality.
COYLE: Would you do it? On a permanent basis.
MAN: For the rest of my life?
COYLE: Right! Exactly. We’re asking you to make that decision now.
Coyle and Sharpe were always putting people on the spot—to grow wheat on their head or allow their property be destroyed for vague reasons often involving destiny—but I can’t think of anything more invasive than two strangers inviting you to become part of a new Borg-like entity that would involve “no more personal decisions on your own part.” The creepiest moment has to be when the guy asks, “Who thought up this threeism?” and Coyle and Sharpe respond, simultaneously, “We did.”
Before finally letting this guy in on the joke, Coyle and Sharpe follow him onto a bus, their request for personal annihilation culminating in a loony final appeal by Sharpe: “You have come into our destiny and you shall remain as thus forth, henceforth from the sixth Masonic bus to your home and forevermore you shall be with us. Is that not true? Answer us thou to thy triad companions, waiting for thy answer.”
I’m just glad my destiny involved discovering Coyle and Sharpe. When it comes to smart, bonkers comedy, you couldn’t ask for better triad companions.