Mike Purpus: Surf Court Jester

Combatter of '70s surf world seriousness

Surfing's Great Humor Drought began in 1968 and lasted about eight years. Blame drugs. Blame soul surfing. Blame shortboards. Blame Pipeline! First thing we did after getting a good long look inside the tube was decide that our fine sun-kissed little sport was "heavy." Heavy enough, anyway, to crush the fun.

Yes, there were funny people in surfing during the late sixties and seventies. Ian Cairns, Rory Russell, Buttons; Corky Carroll, before he started making country-folk albums. There were even a few who dared to be funny in surfing's public sphere. Phil Jarratt was incapable of sitting at a typewriter without loosing off a few zingers. Drew Kampion could break off a chunk of funny just as easily as he could compose a stanza of Whitmanesque free-verse poetry. Surfing‘s “Comedy Annual ’74” tickled the ribs nicely.

But for the most part we were up to our dilated pupils in seriousness and high purpose. I've seen History Channel documentaries with more chuckles than Free Ride. Morning of the Earth is bearable only if chased with an equilibrium-restoring shot of Richard Pryor. "Tom Stone, Pipeline," would have been a perfectly fine cover caption for SURFER's March issue in 1970, but editors instead went with "Tom Stone suspended in the Pipeline vector complex."

So thank God for seven-time USSC finalist and surf world court jester Mike Purpus. We may debate his merits as an international-caliber surfer (not a great stylist in my view, but had a mile-wide progressive streak). We may freely mock certain fashion choices he made (Katin trunks laced up high and tight over his fullsuit—that look ain’t coming back). But let the record show that Mike Purpus did more than anybody to keep humor alive in surfing’s Age of Nixon. Pose for Playgirl wearing nothing but a thick strand of puka shells, a Burt Reynolds moustache, and a schoolboy grin? Yes. Show up at the biggest contest of the year with a full-frontal life-size barely-legal nude girl airbrushed on the bottom of his new board? Excuse me, a full-frontal life-size barely-legal nude girl holding an airbrushed copy of Surfing with Purp on the cover? Yes! When SURFER asked a cross-section of A-listers in 1970 “What do you hope to get out of your surfing experience?” the answers predictably sounded as if they’d been memorized from a lesser C.S.N.Y. song: “To live peacefully in harmony with nature,” “To make life better for me and my brothers.” Purpus, just as predictably, ran the other way: “I hope to get a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud and five naked lady companions.”

Interestingly, this wasn’t all fun and games for Purpus. It don’t even think it was natural. I knew Mike in the 1970s, and he wasn’t an especially funny guy to be around. Humor, I think, for Purpus, was viewed as part of the job of being a professional surfer. He wanted to stand out. In fact, whatever meager scraps were available in this dawning age of surfing professionalism depended on it. Serious wave-riding chops got him most of the way there (Purpus logged more water time than anybody), but he rightly figured out that if he could tack hard away from the dominate Lopez-Abellira presentation model, which was by turns humble and earnest and philosophical, he could carve out a niche. It worked. At his peak, Purpus got dumped on more often than anybody in surfing. He was booed at surf movies. Flamed in surf magazines’ letters sections. But he was not ignored. He was always front and center. And he was not without conviction. “People say I have as much soul as a go-ahead,” he once wrote. “But I found out long ago that all the soul in the world can’t buy me breakfast.”

Post-shortboard heaviness was a near-death experience for surfing’s sense of humor. Mike Purpus, with his Katins and his Raquel Welch obsession and his ridiculous leather hat, paddle-shocked us back to life. Did we thank him? We gave him a pie in the face. I’ll take that as a “yes.”