The Dual Citizenship of Jon Wurster
Jon Wurster is no John Belushi. The latter spent the late '70s touring with the Blues Brothers Band and partying with the Rolling Stones, recasting himself as the Rock Star Comedian; Wurster, the drummer for both Superchunk and the Mountain Goats, is on the exact opposite trajectory, having become something of a Comedic Rock Star.
"Though I love comedy, I never set out to be a comedian," he says. "I totally came into comedy through the back door." Wurster had been bouncing around from band to band before joining Superchunk in 1991; it was at a gig opening up for My Bloody Valentine the following year that he met writer and radio host Tom Scharpling, the man who would drag him into comedy. The two quickly bonded over a shared affinity for Chris Elliot, and a few years later, Wurster began contributing to Scharpling's radio show on WFMU. Calling in as the boneheaded author of the opinion-driven reference book Rock, Rot & Rule, he made a perfect foil for the host and for the unwitting callers not in on the joke. The resulting interplay was a staple of what became The Best Show on WFMU, which has since amassed a large, devoted following that persists more than a decade later.
Wurster's drumming for Superchunk might be tight and energetic, but the patient comedy that unfurls between him and Scharpling each week runs closer to the steady, amiable pace of the Mountain Goats. His characters gradually reveal their surreal quirks over lengthy conversations, taking time to establish a premise that Scharpling and Wurster try to get each other to break, like a game of Jenga. When, say, "The Gorch" calls in, an incredulous Scharpling will alternate between humoring the 63-year-old "inspiration for TV's Fonzie" and taking apart his stories. This nuanced brand of humor is an acquired taste—made for aficionados by aficionados—which partly explains why the show's fanbase now includes a legion of professional comedians.
Those fans have proven beneficial to the drummer's burgeoning comedy profile. Brian Stack, a writer for The Late Show With Conan O'Brien, cast the drummer in several Conan sketches starting in 2001; as Wurster's writing chops developed, he and Scharpling teamed with absurdist auteurs Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim on the duo's first series, Tom Goes to the Mayor. The transition was complete. Along with Portlandia co-creator and Sleater-Kinney alum Carrie Brownstein, Wurster now enjoys a rare dual citizenship in the worlds of music and comedy, though several other musicians clearly have passports. Aimee Mann hooked up with the Comedians of Comedy contingent through Jon Brion's legendary Largo residency in Los Angeles in the mid-'90s, inspiring much collaboration. Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan was friends with Bill Hicks and appeared on Mr. Show. Guided by Voices bandmates Robert Pollard and Doug Gillard are both confirmed Friends of Comedy; Pollard even released an album composed entirely of drunken stage banter. And according to Eugene Mirman, "Yo La Tengo have probably come to more shows and toured with more comedians than any other band."
Indeed, YLT are responsible for one of the funniest music videos ever: their 1997 clip for "Sugarcube," in which the trio is sent off to Rock School, featuring teachers played by Mr. Show masterminds and alt-comedy godheads Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, a rock-biz send-up echoed many years later in a pair of videos directed by Scharpling himself. For Ted Leo's "Bottled in Cork" (the first real music video to premier on Funny or Die), rakish comedian Paul F. Tompkins plays a suit who convinces Leo to stage an American Idiot–esque Broadway monstrosity. But the clip for the New Pornographers' "Moves," released just a few weeks ago, is even bolder. Using a fake-movie-trailer format, Scharpling expertly mimics the look and feel of a classic "rise and fall of a rock star" cautionary tale, complete with cocaine pizza. A hodgepodge of comedians and musicians play members of the band, including Julie Klausner, Wyatt Cenac, and, of course, a gloriously unhinged Jon Wurster.
"A lot of comedians want to be musicians, and vice versa, so the two groups of performers are naturally drawn to each other," says musician/comedian Dave Hill. The two disciplines have intertwined even tighter in recent years: Most music festivals now boast comedy stages, and comedians routinely open up for musicians. Mirman and singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding even share hosting duties when they tour their Cabinet of Wonders show together. But while plenty of rockers are fans of comedy and are funny in their own right, actually channeling those instincts into a legit project often proves too daunting. The audiences overlap, but they're far from identical, especially in terms of temperament. "If you've played a song people don't like, you'll probably still get a smattering of applause," Wurster says. "If you tell a joke people don't like, you'll get silence—or worse, groans."
Some stars have braved this potential indifference, and been claimed by it. Six years after a goodwill-accruing cameo on Chappelle's Show, John Mayer attempted a foray into the New York stand-up scene, culminating in a disastrous, quasi-racist 2009 debacle at the Slipper Room, subsequently made notorious by actual comedian Kumail Nanjiani's epic recounting of the incident. A couple years earlier, Kanye West got an HBO deal to develop a Curb Your Enthusiasm–style pilot; Matt Besser, of the virtuosic Upright Citizens Brigade troupe, was brought in to be the rapper's "Improv Samurai," later describing the experience on the Jordan Jesse Go podcast. "Improv isn't as easy as people think it is," Besser explained, diplomatically. "Kanye's pretty funny, but he can improvise about as well as I can rap."
Which doesn't mean other musicians should be discouraged from emulating Jon Wurster's crossover success. "I wrote a book," Eugene Mirman says. "I'd hate for some author to tell me I should stay away from the written word and only talk onstage." Dave Hill concurs, up to a certain extent: "I think people should do whatever they feel like trying, with the exception of athletes who make rap records. That needs to stop."
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