The Trash-Talking Rivalry Between the World’s Fastest Talkers

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

On the flight from Heathrow, Steve Woodmore began to feel afraid. A Londoner through and through, he had never been to America. In his hand was the science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. When the plane touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Aug. 7, 1990, the enormity of the occasion hit home. “I was very much alone,” he says. “I was absolutely terrified.” Woodmore was in New York to try to become, once and for all, the world’s fastest talker.

Since it first appeared in The Guinness Book of Records in 1962, the category of world’s fastest talker has been bedeviled by disagreement and scandal. It is difficult to adjudicate, for a start. Do all words count the same? How intelligible does someone need to be? How long should they talk for? Since 2015 Guinness have stipulated that fast-talking applicants recite Hamlet's “To be or not to be” soliloquy. In the mid-1990s, Canadian Sean Shannon recited the 260-word speech faster than anyone else, in 23.8 seconds—655 words a minute.

But to other fast talkers, it’s not that simple.

John Moschitta Jr. is a 66-year-old Italian from Long Island. To many, he is the quickest on the planet. As a boy he tried to break the world record at a charity fair. The first time The Guinness Book of Records mentions Hamlet’s soliloquy is in 1968, when Dr Charles Hunter read the first 218 words of the speech in 35.2 seconds. (Why he couldn’t finish the remaining 42 words is unclear.) Moschitta practiced for months and raced through the soliloquy faster than this, but the fair didn’t have the facilities to verify his speed.

Moschitta began to trade Hamlet for “Ya Got Trouble” from the musical The Music Man, a 545-word song that, by 1980, he could recite in a minute. The Guinness Book of Records’ editor-in-chief Craig Glenday tells me that Moschitta, who has a moustache, minimal hair, and a broad smile, doesn’t appear until the 1984 book’s Stop Press section, where “results of tests by a radio station” indicate that he spoke intelligibly at 552 words per minute.

For years, no one came close to Moschitta. He became a star, appearing in commercials and making a living from his ability. He is in the book in 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988, his record unchallenged.

Then came Fran Capo.

Capo, a tiny New York comedian with jet-black hair, appears for the first time in the 1989 book. Three years earlier she had performed on Larry King Live aged 26, reading the 91st Psalm from the Book of Psalms. “I developed my own breathing technique,” she says. How did it work, I ask. “That I’m not gonna say.” On the show she spoke at 585 words a minute—33 words faster than Moschitta.

This annoyed Moschitta. The book’s then-editor Donald McFarlan, who Moschitta claims was not too happy with Capo's intelligibility, gave Moschitta a chance to beat her time before the 1989 book went to final print. According to Moschitta, McFarlan and the editor of the American edition believed that he was the only legitimate fast-talker. In the Stop Press section that year, Moschitta appears again, having spoken Ya Got Trouble in 55.8 seconds. At 586 words a minute, this was faster than Capo—by a single word.

Meanwhile, in England, Steve Woodmore was quietly speeding up.

Woodmore’s first fast-talking memory is of reading Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky in a school assembly when he was 8 or 9. As he spoke, he could feel the headteacher pulling his trouser hem, urging him to slow down. “My mother used to say I could talk the hind legs off a donkey,” says the 60-year-old, who lives in Chislehurst, London. In the late 1980s, as an electronics salesman, he would practice with a passage from Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games. He realized he was approaching 600 words a minute—a new world record.

He contacted British radio station Capital Radio to tell them. But on air, when he attempted to beat the record, nerves got the better of Woodmore. “Live in front of the entire population of London, I fucked up big time,” he says. But he wasn’t going to stop. And in America, people were beginning to learn his name.

Because Guinness kept having to update the record, they decided that in August 1990 they would try to definitively settle the matter. (Moschitta tells me it was also because Capo was constantly contacting Guinness and “driving them crazy” by “demanding that she get put in the book.” Capo, the keenest of the group to leave the controversy behind her, denies this.) Capo, Woodmore and Moschitta accepted an invitation to the Good Morning America studios in New York.

Tensions ran high. “John Moschitta I didn’t like one little bit, the minute he opened his mouth,” says Woodmore. “He’s just an arrogant arsehole.” As the two fastest talkers in America, Capo and Moschitta had crossed paths before. Capo says that she wanted to perform a Saturday Night Live sketch where they played a husband and wife but Moschitta replied, “I work alone.” (Moschitta disputes this.) Moschitta claims that when he was on a press tour, Capo’s management found out his schedule and tried to book her on his shows, alleging that he had requested her. (Capo disputes this.)

The talk-off was something of a mess. The three were given a passage from the 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy with around 12 hours to become familiar with it. Woodmore didn’t like going first—he likes playing black at chess because he is reactive. Capo spoke fastest but, for speed and intelligibility, Woodmore was crowned the victor—at only 448 words a minute. Because he had told Moschitta that he could barely remember what he had said, Moschitta told the press that Woodmore had skipped a line.

“It was not my finest hour,” Moschitta admits. “But I was mad because Good Morning America had said he had won when really none of us had won.” Woodmore says, “Obviously I’d pissed in his pot, hadn’t I. He pulled every dirty stroke, every trick in the book he could.” Woodmore claims Moschitta refused rematches in England; Moschitta claims Woodmore refused.

Mysteriously, though Capo spoke at 667.88 words a minute in June 1990 at the Guinness Museum in Las Vegas and emails me the Guinness certificate to prove it, this record never appeared in the book’despite nobody in history speaking faster. But that September, Moschitta’s dominion was truly over: on the British TV show Motor Mouth, Woodmore read his Patriot Games passage at 637.4 words a minute. This appeared in the book in 1994 and stayed there intermittently until 2003, as a separate entry to Shannon’s. Woodmore scoffs at the use of the soliloquy for the record because it is both archaic (“You talk like that to somebody round here and they’ll smack you in the mouth”) and too short: extrapolating from under a minute, he says, is like using Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint time to determine his marathon time. The others tend to agree, citing the importance of timing one’s breathing for the whole minute. Woodmore, who processes written information extraordinarily quickly, thinks the passage should be relatively unseen, as opposed to a “recital.”

Moschitta, Capo and Woodmore are easy to contact, and make fast-talking a prominent part of their public personas. Less keen on the spotlight, however, is the world record holder: Sean Shannon. “He has no email or anything,” says Craig Glenday. “He’s very old-school. But I can give him a call.”

Shannon and I meet for a walk in Oxford where, by chance, both of us live. He is 6-foot-4 with silver hair and the booming voice of a headmaster. He first beat the soliloquy record in 1989 on BBC Radio Oxford, reading it in 26.8 seconds and appearing in the 1990 book’s Stop Press section. “I did a very beautiful, sweet job on that one,” he says.

Shannon declined the Good Morning America talk-off invitation because reading aloud (as distinct from ‘talking’) wasn’t his speciality and because he thought the mood might turn ugly. “I was quite happy to sit back, let them batter each other around, and see what the consequence was,” he says. “And as far as I was concerned, until somebody did the mile quicker than I did the mile, I didn’t have to do too much.” He twice beat his own record in the following years, in the 1994 and 1996 books.

Shannon isn’t looking for “the general adulation of the masses” and doesn't mind that Woodmore calls him a one-trick pony. Shannon says that Woodmore would often comment online under videos of him. “Couldn't have cared less,” he says. “His speed isn’t as quick as mine but he has his own area,” he says. When they met face-to-face they were “pretty civil” to each other.

Shannon thinks that if Guinness used a different metric he would have a perfectly good chance of winning that as well. He suspects that anyone who criticises the current template wouldn’t do so if they could beat his time. Although people apply to beat the record all the time, says Glenday, the category has not appeared in the book since 2017. Nobody has beaten Shannon’s time in 26 years.

Shannon once met Donald McFarlan, who, as the editor of The Guinness Book of Records, had probably heard all the contenders more than anyone else. McFarlan told him that, of the four, one person was both quicker and clearer than all the others. He looked at him. He paused. “But I couldn't possibly say.”

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