Music » Music Feature

How The Best Show became the world's greatest in-joke incubator

During their 13 years on WFMU, Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster devised a virtual small town of fictional weirdos. Now they're back with a studio of their own, a new box set, and a touring live act.

by

comment

Eighteen years ago, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster called his friend Tom Scharpling, who had a radio show on New Jersey noncommercial station WFMU, and pretended to be an oblivious music critic named Ronald Thomas Clontle. Clontle had supposedly written a book called Rock, Rot & Rule: The Ultimate Argument Settler, and for the next 47 minutes, he and Scharpling—who was in on the joke—discussed which acts rocked, rotted, or ruled. Clontle's criteria were so bizarre and confounding, and his knowledge of music so clearly impaired, that many listeners who didn't realize what was happening called in to argue with him. "Madness invented ska," he said. Neil Young and David Bowie? They rotted because they'd made too many changes. The Beatles merely rocked: "They wrote a lot of bad songs."

"It really was uncharted territory for the station," says Scharpling. It was also the duo's first collaboration. Three years later, they launched The Best Show on WFMU, a weekly call-in program that mixed fictional characters like Clontle with members of the general public, some of whom had realized they were listening to a comedy program.


Rot Rock Rule Scharpling and Wurster

Scharpling and Wurster revive 'Rock, Rot & Rule' for the Reader


The Best Show would run till 2013 on the station, totaling more than 1,500 hours of programming. As it grew more popular, it began hosting guests not played by Wurster. During WFMU's 2010 fund-raising marathon, John Hodgman and Patton Oswalt brought their "nerd-off" trivia contest to the show; two years later Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick spent three hours talking about Cabin Boy and Get a Life. Zach Galifianakis has made a number of appearances since 2006, once yelling at a small child about Dungeons & Dragons. Louis C.K. called to give fellow comedian Todd Barry a hard time in 2010, and in 2011 Saturday Night Live cast member Vanessa Bayer blew the lid off the garbage-eating habits of the show's staff.

When the show's WFMU run ended, though, as far as its fans knew it was gone for good. People responded with an outpouring of support and sadness, and think pieces about The Best Show appeared at the A.V. Club and Grantland, among other places. The show had grown into a full-time job for Scharpling and Wurster, except that they were doing it for free. (Wurster paid his way largely as a drummer for hire, and Scharpling spent most of the 2000s working on the TV show Monk.) They decided they'd rather go out at the top of their game, and on December 17, 2013, they aired their final episode. Around the country—in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and beyond—bars held jam-packed listening parties. In Chicago, the Burlington was full of people tuned in to the show, respectfully silent save for their laughter.

In spring 2014, the Numero Group approached Scharpling and Wurster about putting together a box set—a grand capstone for The Best Show. Curating it required the two of them to survey their massive body of work for the first time. "It was a herculean effort that just seemed to take from May until September," says Wurster. "We didn't really know our calls that well—we'd write them and perform them, but they were forgotten about the next week." The 16-CD set Scharpling & Wurster: The Best of the Best Show, which contains 75 calls, comes out May 12.

This being Numero, the set also includes (among other things) a map of the fictional town of Newbridge, New Jersey, where many of Wurster's callers live, and a 108-page book with essays by Oswalt, Julie Klausner, Best Show associate producer Mike Lisk, and others. Preorders come with a piece of the phone Wurster used for "Rock, Rot & Rule," which the duo smashed for the giveaway.

Of course, The Best Show didn't stay gone. In December 2014 it relaunched independent of WFMU at thebestshow.net, where it's broadcast live on Tuesdays at 8 PM CST (it goes up as a podcast the next day). This time out, Scharpling hopes to make a paying job of it. As part of that effort, he and Wurster are doing a small tour, including a sold-out date at Lincoln Hall on Thursday, March 19. Wurster is a bit cagey about how a call-in radio show will work onstage. "Oh, we don't want to ruin this for anyone," he says. "Let's just say it will probably be terrifying for all of us."

Even if you've never listened to The Best Show, odds are you know someone who won't stop carrying on about it. Like Monty Python, it's attracted fans who quote it incessantly and work its catchphrases into conversation. Signs of affliction include talking about Wawa convenience stores (frequently mentioned by Philly Boy Roy, Wurster's best-known Newbridge character) and making references to the 1993 death of GG Allin (whenever anyone brings up that infamous rock 'n' roll degenerate, someone else can be relied upon to say "It feels like he just passed"). Devotees of the show have a special fondness for its recurring bits. If Wurster breaks character during a call and cracks up, for instance, he likes to explain that he just saw a mouse with a cape run by (or blame it on pollen). And people discuss the 1994 Martin Short film Clifford far more often than chance alone would dictate; Scharpling even owns a little-boy outfit Short wore in the film.

Like WFMU itself, which takes pride in its esotericism (the lead-in to The Best Show for years was The Ragged Antique Phonograph Program, which played only 78s or cylinders on period equipment), The Best Show is a cult phenomenon. Its most hard-core listeners can literally become card-carrying fans: "Friends of Tom" are issued membership cards signed by Scharpling. For years, finding out about the show took some digging. Chicagoans who wanted to hear it had to visit the tristate area or find one of five CDs that Scharpling and Wurster self-released between 2002 and 2007. That finally changed in 2008, when they added a podcast.

Regardless of broadcast medium, The Best Show works like a classic call-in program. If you've ever heard Howard Stern or Jim Rome, then you know its basic structure. Scharpling plays up his ordinary good-natured irascibility, banging on about whatever has his hackles up that day. He vents at callers, at associate producer Mike Lisk, or at the "mutants" at his local Panera. At some point, Wurster calls up in character, often as someone from Newbridge. Located somewhere in the Garden State near Philadelphia, Newbridge is akin to Springfield on The Simpsons. Notable residents include Power-Pop Pop-Pop (the dictatorial leader of the town's power-­pop scene), Zachary Brimstead Esq. (an overweight enthusiast of barbershop music), Timmy von Trimble (the two-inch racist), and Reggie Monroe (who was kicked off Survivor for getting caught doing pants stuff).

"We never really said, 'Let's come up with a fake town like [SCTV's] Melonville or Springfield,'" says Wurster. "I think one day we were working on a call and one of us said, 'What if this person lives in the same town as this other person?'" Though Wurster voices the great majority of the characters on the show, Scharpling plays a few too, usually with puppets his audience can't see: they include Vance, a prog-rock-obsessed alien, and Gary the Squirrel, a power-pop aficionado who's desperate to break into showbiz.

As Conan O'Brien put it in a plug for the box set, "Scharpling & Wurster are keeping the fine art of two-person comedy alive." Like a sort of anti-Lake Wobegon, their imaginary town is a place where everyone's a bit below average—yet somehow filled with confidence and unencumbered by self-awareness.

Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, not in cartoon form - MINDY TUCKER
  • Mindy Tucker
  • Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, not in cartoon form

Scharpling and Wurster met at a Superchunk show in New York in the summer of 1992. Wurster was about to record his first LP with the band, 1993's On the Mouth, and Scharpling knew front man Mac McCaughan (the label arm of Scharpling's zine, 18 Wheeler, would release the first seven-inch by the McCaughan solo project Portastatic in '93). "Tom came to the show, and we just hit it off," Wurster says. "Somehow we found ourselves talking about Chris Elliott and Get a Life."

Throughout the mid-90s, Wurster recorded and toured with Superchunk, and Scharpling did a lot of writing—notably sportswriting for basketball magazine Slam. He also ventured into the New York City comedy scene, become well versed with its alternative-­stand-up circuit. In 1997, after Scharpling and Wurster recorded "Rock, Rot & Rule" on WFMU, they circulated it among friends on cassette. From there it became a hit in indie-­rock circles, as touring bands circulated dubbed tapes. It was the perfect thing for musicians on the road: long, filled with jokes, and aimed at Gen X music junkies.

During a break from WFMU in the late 90s, Scharpling says, he thought to himself, "If this show is going to come back, let's have it be what we did with 'Rock, Rot & Rule.'" Wurster agreed, and The Best Show on WFMU debuted in October 2000. Scharpling also began writing for Monk, co­created by fellow WFMU DJ Andy Breckman; he worked on the show for its entire run (from 2002 till 2009) and served as executive producer for seasons five though eight. Wurster started taking other jobs after Superchunk slowed down in the early 2000s; he drummed on Rocket From the Crypt's 2001 Group Sounds, joined the Mountain Goats, toured with Bob Mould, and backed Katy Perry at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards, among other things.

Meanwhile The Best Show slowly built an audience. Conan O'Brien, Amy Poehler, and Jon Glaser were early fans, as was H. Jon Benjamin, who called the show pretending to be a sales rep for Smirnoff Ice. The debut of the Best Show podcast in 2008 accelerated that growth, and in 2009 the twice-monthly podcast Best Show Gems joined it. Devoted exclusively to calls featuring Scharpling and Wurster, Gems gave listeners an easy way to catch up with the world of Newbridge. "The way people got the show changed by 2009," says Wurster. "People were able to hear it." A tight-knit Friends of Tom group formed online, both on Twitter and on the message boards at friendsoftom.com.

If The Best Show has a breakout character, it's Philly Boy Roy. Roy Ziegler sees himself as the personification of Philadelphia, certain of the superiority of everything from his hometown over everything from Jersey—including Scharpling, whom he calls "Blob."

"I'm from just outside of Philadelphia, so it was an easy persona and character to come up with," says Wurster. "And when I'm on the road, which is a lot of the year, sometimes there just isn't a lot of time to work on a call. We'll just say, 'Let's do something with Roy.'"

"He's this great pot for us to pour all these weird things into," says Scharpling. "He's so much fun to me because he's a dreamer. As much as he does terrible things, he's still just this guy who's got these aspirations for something bigger. Like Ralph Kramden, but evil. Well, not evil, but he'll go to new depths that Ralph Kramden wouldn't."

"He straddles that line of having a genuinely good heart but also that delusional, misplaced, unearned arrogance that Tom and I just cannot get enough of," says Wurster. Over the course of more than 100 calls, Roy has been elected mayor of Newbridge and worked with Patton Oswalt on his dream film project, Rambocky (a combination of Rambo and Rocky).

Another key feature of The Best Show is Scharpling's interviews with nonfictional guests. With three hours to fill, the show can become an on-air hangout, as Scharpling and his guest banter and talk to callers. Visitors have come from the worlds of film, TV, and music, among them Bruce Campbell, Kristen Schaal, Jen Kirkman, Ted Leo, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie.

The Numero Group's 16-disc Best Show box set comes out in May. - COURTESY OF SCHARPLING & WURSTER
  • courtesy of Scharpling & Wurster
  • The Numero Group's 16-disc Best Show box set comes out in May.

Despite The Best Show's success, though, by 2010 Scharpling and Wurster began to feel stretched thin. The show consumed more and more time and energy: scripted calls got longer and more complex, and booking guests took more effort. This unpaid work made it harder for the duo to earn their livelihoods elsewhere. "This thing is a full-time job," Scharpling says. "If you're in a band and you're not making any money, you still have the potential." But at WFMU, money wasn't a possibility. "Either let's find somewhere else to do it, or let's stop doing it," he recalls thinking. "And we always wanted to keep doing it, because it felt like we're not done yet."

After Scharpling announced that the show would end in late 2013, it seemed to take on a special luster. He indulged his weirder side, broadcasting ever-longer sound collages, often based on Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop" (a song he's called the scariest ever written). Wurster's calls acquired a sense of finality, with long-running characters such as the Gorch (an old man who believes he was the inspiration for the Fonz from Happy Days) and Darren From Work (Scharpling's fictional coworker at the Consolidated Cardboard factory) wrapping up their stories.

"I definitely missed doing the show," says Wurster, "but being away from it made me realize how much time we put into it." As fans got used to life without The Best Show, though, Scharpling was already quietly plotting to bring it back. "It was great to get a break from the show, to take stock of what it was and what we had done," he says. "But I knew the show wasn't done—just the version of the show that was on WFMU. There was still more show to do!"

Scharpling and Wurster also kept The Best Show alive in the interim in other ways—and not just by working on the Numero box set. Adult Swim recruited them to contribute to its series of parody infomercials (e.g., "Too Many Cooks"). In the duo's contribution, "The Newbridge Tourism Board Presents: 'We're Newbridge, We're Comin' to Get Ya!,'" they both play characters from The Best Show's past. It aired in November 2014.

"We'd been talking about pitching something to Adult Swim for about ten years, but we never really had the time to see it though," says Wurster. "When they started making these late-night infomercials, it seemed like a natural fit for us."

That same month, after months of work behind the scenes, Scharpling and Wurster announced the imminent return of The Best Show. "That was so much of 2014 for me," says Scharpling. "Talking to people about possibly hosting the show on their networks, deciding to do it independently, building the studio and the plan, getting the people on board to help make it happen. It took so much of 2014 to get the pieces in place."

Brendan McDonald, producer of the hugely successful podcast WTF With Marc Maron, had come aboard on the business side, which seemed to bode well. But over the summer the studio that Scharpling was setting up was robbed—the thieves took the not-yet-installed security system and the mixer. The crew persisted, though, and on December 16, 2014, almost a year to the day after its WFMU incarnation went off the air, the new Best Show went live. Callers were hung up on, stories were told, laughs were had. Despite the hiccups that come with any new DIY production, it was as if nothing had changed.

But for Scharpling, the high was short-lived. His father died suddenly in early January, and his grandmother passed away a week later. He spent the new show's third episode paying tribute to his dad. Wurster has no shortage of drumming gigs to keep himself afloat, but Scharpling has made a high-stakes bet by spending so much of his own money to restart The Best Show—and those losses in his family made it hard to follow through at a critical time. On February 23, he posted to his blog discussing the show's future, explaining that he'd have to decide from week to week whether or not to do an episode of the show. "I'm going to take care of myself," he wrote. The week after that post, he was back.

"I love doing the show, and the stuff Jon and I are doing, it makes me laugh as much as anything we've ever done," Scharpling says. "So everything is kinda worth it so that this show can exist."

Add a comment