Originally published: March 17, 2004
Why you have to see Bobby Badfingers finger-snap the drum solo to "Wipe Out"
Let us start by saying, simply, that there are many excellent things about Bobby "Badfingers" Von Merta, the self-proclaimed World's Fastest Finger Snapper (30 clicks per second, he claims). Among them:
He can snap out any rhythm he hears, from conga beats to military marching cadences.
During performances, the San Francisco native wears sunglasses, tight black pants, and a rhinestone-encrusted black silk shirt that exhibits his plentiful chest hair.
During said live act, Badfingers mixes finger-snapping with mesmerizing, pelvic-jutting dance moves, which he based on martial arts footwork (he's a black belt) -- except for his signature disco shimmy, which he stole from a stripper.
He pals around with John Stamos and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
During one of his numerous appearances on the Howard Stern Show, he performed his most popular number, "Wipe Out,".
Before becoming a professional snappist a couple of years ago, he sold RVs.
Indeed, the list of Things That Are Excellent About Bobby Badfingers is nearly endless; in fact, we haven't been so unabashedly enthusiastic about a live act since we heard Charo had a new thing going in Vegas. But there's more: Badfingers, who just shot a commercial for Yahoo!, is in the midst of establishing a "finger-snapping media empire" by creating a how-to book and instructional DVD titled Snapology 101 for Whippersnappers. He's also commissioned a cartoon called Snapmaster Badfingers and His Homies.
After viewing his demo reel, we knew we had to sidle up to this superstar-to-be, and immediately e-mailed his people (aka Tom Borden, a San Francisco-based freelance film producer who once made an award-winning documentary about a NASA scientist/sax player ). His people called Badfingers. Badfingers called us.
The snappist greeted us enthusiastically on the phone, his voice oozing the kind of alarming optimism frequently associated with daytime game-show hosts or, well, RV salesmen. In what we would soon learn is a well-worn personal chestnut, Badfingers told us that he began snapping at age 4 after watching flamenco dancers on TV. "I couldn't see their castanets," he said. "I asked my parents, and they said, 'Sure, they're snapping their fingers. Why don't you try?' So I did."
Bobby's mother, a 72-year-old hobbyist tap dancer who lives in the Outer Sunset, says she doesn't remember the incident, though she does recall the time young Bobby crossed the street on all fours when she put him on a kiddie leash. "He has lots of personality," Mrs. Von Merta says.
Young Badfingers, a hyperactive child despite double doses of Ritalin, began snapping incessantly. When he mastered speed snapping, he began to pay attention to rhythm, tone, and pitch by listening to records and trying to emulate the drum lines. He experimented until he snapped with the perfect amount of pressure so that the resulting clicks were "loud and crispy."
"It's not just speed; it's also rhythms and sounds and beats that you can make out really clearly," Badfingers told us. "It's like playing drums on your fingers. You have to hear it to believe it."
Badfingers didn't begin exploiting his nervous tic as a live act until the mid-'80s, when a guy from a local oldies rock band in Santa Clara noticed Badfingers snapping fiendishly at the bar. After playing Badfingers with a shot of tequila, the guy persuaded Bobby to accompany the band onstage.
"The crowd went nuts," Badfingers said. "I thought, 'Hey, I kinda like this. This is kinda fun.'"
A few months later, Badfingers appeared on Late Night With David Letterman -- as a musical guest star, we were told repeatedly, and not as a Stupid Human Trick.
Tragically, Badfingers' superstar trajectory was stunted for nearly 10 years while he made gobs of money selling RVs. (He owned one of the largest dealerships in the country.) He kept himself in performance shape, though, and played the occasional show at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk alongside surf-rock band Jan & Dean.
In 2000, Badfingers decided he could no longer resist the lure of the stage (women reportedly swoon as he performs and flock to him afterward). He decided to take up snapping professionally, sold his RV business, and rented an apartment in Los Angeles.
Though we had chatted him up on the phone, we had to wait until Badfingers visited San Francisco late in February to actually meet him. We headed over to the SOMA offices of animators Mike Judge and Tony Horgan, who are working on the Snapmaster cartoon that Badfingers commissioned. (They describe him as "unusual in a funny way.") A few minutes later, Badfingers made his entrance, outsize personality and all, with his hair perfectly styled in a pseudo-pompadour and his signature dark sunglasses hooked into the collar of his fleece jacket.
Judge played the latest version of the cartoon, wherein a bunch of kids from the 'hood challenge Snapmaster Badfingers to a snap-off. As he watched the segment on Judge's screen, Badfingers laughed uproariously and called out praises with the fervor of a devout worshipper at a gospel church.
"I love it," Badfingers told Judge as the screen faded to black. "When are you going to put it online? I got a couple friends cruising by [your Web site]. John [Stamos] is checking it out online." He told Judge that he had contacts at Disney and HBO, and Judge smiled kindly.
"Everybody says, 'I can't believe how far you've stretched this career of yours out,'" Badfingers says later, after we've piled into his gleaming new BMW 745Li to drive three blocks from the animators' studio to a cafe. "And I'm like, 'Yeah? Well you ain't seen nothing yet.' Because with the book and the DVD, we're going to see where this takes us. ... People are going to think, 'How ridiculous can this guy Bobby Badfingers be?'"
Really, really ridiculous, if Badfingers' well-positioned supporters have anything to say about it. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos has plugged him on Live With Regis and Kelly and The Wayne Brady Show. John Stamos' mom, Loretta, helped Badfingers find an agent, and recently took him to the set of Will & Grace, where Badfingers met a representative of the William Morris Talent Agency.
"Bobby has one of the oddest, most unique talents in the world," Loretta Stamos told us, after reassuring us that her relationship with Badfingers is purely platonic. "The audience just goes crazy when he performs. He puts his heart and soul into it. I asked Bobby if he would perform [at a gala event], and everyone went crazy, especially the women. Because they all think he's tall, dark, and handsome. And what's not to like? He looks like Tom Selleck, he dances like Elvis.
"It's a useless, unique talent that makes people happy," Stamos says. "I think he will be a huge name."
And we can say we knew him when .... (Bernice Yeung)