Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster of ‘The Best Show’ on WFMU Are Punk Genuises
America's most beloved, subversive comedy haven is a three-hour-long public-radio call-in show
Patton Oswalt introduces SPIN’s The Best Show story:
Trying to explain The Best Show on WFMU to someone who hasn’t heard it can be one of the most frustrating tasks on the planet. It’s a radio show. Let’s at least start there. It airs out of listener-supported station WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey, and it’s one of those rare things in pop culture — like, say, The Wire — that you actually get angry with your friends for not knowing about.
The simple explanation is this: For three hours each week, a guy named Tom Scharpling gets on the radio, plays some cool records, takes some phone calls, and then his friend, Superchunk and Mountain Goats drummer Jon Wurster, calls up and acts like a jerk. That’s the basic blueprint, but The Best Show on WMFU has a lot more in common with Fugazi than it does with a “morning zoo” — beyond being just a local radio show on one of those amazing “free-form” stations you can’t believe still exists. The Best Show on WFMU has created a fully developed world unto itself and has the textbook definition of a cult audience. They are the “Friends of Tom,” which includes an impressive collection of alternative-comedy and indie-rock all-stars, from Amy Poehler and Conan O’Brien to Robert Pollard. I count myself as one of them and have been since the show began more than a decade ago.
“There’s something about that radio-listener intimacy that this show provides,” testifies comedienne and author Julie Klausner. “[Scharpling] is like Letterman or Stern to me. And when he talks to Wurster, the only thing I can compare it to is Nichols and May.”
It’s hard to imagine an audience hanging around for a sprawling three-hour radio show filled with obscure rock-history references, surly asides, and long stretches where nothing in particular happens at all. But they do.
“The show is fully exploiting its medium,” says comedian Paul F. Tompkins, a frequent guest. “If you can do whatever you want, why not have an extended, conversational sketch, which covers a variety of comedic targets and supports a self-generated, densely packed mythology? Not everything has to be three minutes long and filled with granite-hard punch lines. Those guys get so much out of small moments.”
Tom Scharpling 42, and Jon Wurster, 45, met exactly where you’d expect guys like them to meet: seeing My Bloody Valentine at the Ritz in New York City, 1992. Wurster was the new drummer in Superchunk (who were opening that night along with Pavement); Scharpling had a fanzine called 18 Wheeler. They bonded over Chris Elliott’s Get a Life.
“We just kind of hit it off,” Wurster explains, seated next to Scharpling at a café in New York’s East Village — a rare instance of the longtime comedy partners actually being in the same room at the same time. Their budding friendship developed largely over the phone, and even today Wurster’s bits are called in from his home in North Carolina or while on the road.
“The one thing we always talked about was this MTV VJ called Smash,” Scharpling recalls. “He was on for, like, a summer. He was this older guy, clearly a classic-rock DJ they were giving a shot. It was just so hypnotic. He would [call the Rolling Stones] ‘Mick and the boys.’?”
Scharpling instantly paints a picture of this sad FM jock out of his element, trying desperately to connect with a young, early-’90s MTV audience, failing in a spectacularly beautiful way. Even though I don’t remember Smash (and there’s nothing on YouTube, I checked), any listener would instantly know who this guy is. And this is exactly what Scharpling and Wurster do on the radio together every week: They bring to life these flawed characters who have absolutely no idea how flawed they are.
My entry point to The Best Show was the same as that of many other longtime fans — a self-released 1997 cassette called Rock, Rot & Rule, a 45-minute phone interview between Scharpling and America’s self-appointed premier rock critic, Ronald Thomas Clontle. Wurster totally grounds the character of Clontle in reality, speaking in the same calm manner he’d use to talk about, say, paying his electric bill. Scharpling, who in ’97 is mostly doing a music-based show, breaks format to speak extensively with Clontle about his new book, which is billed as “the ultimate argument settler,” classifying all bands into one of three categories: rock, rot, or rule. Clontle then makes proclamations that would drive an unsuspecting music fan — and certainly, the show’s increasingly confused callers — insane: “Madness invented ska”; “Bowie and Neil Young rot because they’ve made too many changes”; “Puff Daddy rules.”
“I was part of the circle of touring musicians that was always handing that tape around,” says Best Show fan Ted Leo. “I just thought it was some amazing and weird one-time thing that a DJ decided to do during what was probably some late-night avant-garde noise show. Now I so appreciate the audacity of hosting a three-hour show, based around one person’s personality and his relationship with music, callers, and the rest of the world. I’m amazed and inspired by the very idea of it.”
But just as Rock, Rot & Rule was garnering underground-legend status, Tom Scharpling ditched his unpaid radio gig. “I was just at a point where I was like, ‘I have to get a real job.’?” That’s around the time I first met Scharpling at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, which had just moved to New York from Chicago — the Sunday night UCB long-form improv troupe ASSSSCAT shared the same DIY sensibilities as the indie-rock world, which wasn’t lost on Scharpling.
“I was just going every week, watching them do this thing on their own terms,” he says, “and I was like, ‘Man, if I was to ever go back to the radio station, I want it to be what Jon and I did on those calls every week.’ So I asked Jon if he was up for doing it regularly. He said no.”
“I knew I could do it,” explains Wurster. “But I will say, it was a little out of character for me to get into this sort of thing — I am a lifelong stutterer. It’s nowhere near as bad as it was when I was a kid, but it’s still something I deal with. When I run through a bit on my own just before making the call, I’ll often change words I know I will have a hard time with.”
Wurster eventually said yes, The Best Show on WFMU as we know it debuted in October 2000, and Scharpling got a “real job” writing for the USA television series Monk. Early adopters of The Best Show included the staff at Late Night With Conan O’Brien. (“I remember Conan saying that he would play Rock, Rot & Rule for his dad when they were driving,” says Wurster.) While Scharpling was working on Monk (and Superchunk was on hiatus), Wurster was writing for other Best Show fans, including Dave Willis, co-creator of Aqua Teen Hunger Force (which led to a job on Squidbillies), and Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who hired him to write for Tom Goes to the Mayor and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
Despite the initial support from the tight-knit comedy community, The Best Show on WFMU was no overnight success. The regular WFMU audience was expecting the station’s usual (and excellent) eclectic, free-form music programming, not weird, long, slow-burn comedy pieces. “This guy wrote an e-mail that was like, ‘Your show is so unfunny, with pointless skits,’?” Scharpling recounts gleefully. “When somebody calls it a skit, it’s like they’re shitting on you, like it’s junior high. He was, like, ‘Shut up and play some music.’ Two years later, the guy wrote back and was like, ‘I get what you guys are doing now and it’s really funny.’?”
The centerpiece of each Best Show is a conversation between Scharpling and Wurster, who plays a rotating cast of nut-jobs. (Wurster estimates there have been “at least 200″ different characters so far.) Often, the characters will have a loose connection to each other through the show’s fictional home base of Newbridge, New Jersey, not unlike SCTV’s Melonville.
“We never really set out to create this world,” explains Wurster. “It just slowly and organically evolved into the circus that it is today. I think it dawned on us a few years in that a fictitious town could be a great hub for all these characters. Literally anything can exist in Newbridge: from a two-inch racist to a crabby talking fish who lives in a lake and plays guitar in a garage band called Carp A.D.M.”
Whether it’s “the Gorch,” a guy who insists he was the real-life inspiration for Fonzie, or “Philly Boy Roy,” the Newbridge mayor who loves Philadelphia as much as he hates Tom Scharpling, each Best Show character shares a common theme: They are all terrible, clueless people.
“Weird lack of self-awareness is the big thing,” explains Wurster. He likens it to the people interviewed for Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. “There’s just interview after interview with these glam bands on the Sunset Strip circa ’86. Spheeris will say, ‘Well, what if you don’t make it? What’s going to happen?’ They all say the same thing: ‘I am going to make it. There’s no other option.’ And they show these bands playing, and they just don’t have it. None of them made it. You can only go so far on sheer force of will, you know?”
Walking into WFMU is like entering an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. It’s what you think of when you think of a radio station: There’s a wall of records, actual vinyl, leading down a long hallway to the small studio. It’s a few days after Hurricane Irene, and Tom Scharpling is telling his audience how the storm has fucked up his life.
“I had a box of stuff that was labeled, get this, NICE MEMORIES. Gone!” Scharpling is genuinely hurt as he recounts his week of cleaning up his basement and what he refers to as “20,000 DVDs under the sea.”
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“These are the three things I didn’t want to hear from people all week: ‘You’re lucky,’ ‘It could’ve been worse,’ ‘It’s just stuff.’ My counter to all of those things: (a) Clearly, I’m not the luckiest; (b) It could’ve been worse? Of course it could’ve been worse! Like I’m so dumb to think, ‘This is the worst it could ever be! This is literally as bad as it could ever get!'; and (c) It’s just stuff? Yes, it’s just stuff. My stuff! Can I at least not be wet before I get the pep talk?” The monologue goes on for 30 minutes.
Wurster then calls in as Philly Boy Roy, announcing that the storm has forced the cancellation of the Newbridge Fun Fest, which would have featured John Eddie, Hooters, George Thorogood, Marty Balin, Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo’s Rockforce, Baha Men (famous for what the mayor calls “Who Let the Dogs In?”), 3 Non Blondes (4 Non Blondes sans Linda Perry), the Bruce Kulick Band, and very special guests the Muppets, appearing under the name the Moppets for legal reasons. For the first time all night, Scharpling moves from the casual notes in front of him and looks at his laptop, scrolling through e-mails with Wurster that sketched out rough ideas for this call — not a script as much as a loose collection of beats to hit, the same way Curb Your Enthusiasm is filmed. They know where they’re going, but leave lots of room to play around before they get there.
Though The Best Show on WFMU is heard over the air on FM radio, its podcast and Internet stream have allowed the show to find a nationwide audience. “The delivery mechanisms for this stuff are so different now,” says Wurster. “I remember putting Rock, Rot & Rule on the merch table at a Superchunk show, and I’d have to explain what it was, and that still didn’t work.”
Listener-supported WFMU doesn’t have Arbitron ratings, but it does have a pledge drive each year, and The Best Show brings in big money. “Last March, in six hours, $175,000 came in,” Scharpling beams. “And it kept coming in.”
Of course, that money goes to keeping WFMU on the air, a good cause with which Scharpling and Wurster are proud to be of help. The free-form, listener-supported model of WFMU is maybe the only place where Scharpling and Wurster could do The Best Show, the way they do it. Last fall, Scharpling considered quitting but found a second (or eighth) wind.
“It really just comes down to me talking,” says Scharpling. “And then it’s me and Jon writing a thing nobody is giving us notes or feedback on. Literally, whatever we want to do is what gets on the air. The trade-off is that I lose money on this show every year, but I get to make this thing on my own terms and people like it on those terms.”
While neither man is particularly concerned with how many people are listening or if there’s a profit to be made out of The Best Show, it clearly continues to open doors. On the day I visited the studio, Wurster’s weekly call to Tom was made from Atlanta, where he was helping old friend Dave Willis with a new Adult Swim project. Meanwhile, Scharpling has a show with Tompkins in development at Comedy Central and has been directing music videos for Best Show fans in the bands Wild Flag, the Ettes, Titus Andronicus, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.
“I had these moments with Ted where I was like, ‘I want to direct a video for you,’ and finally he called me on it. I don’t know lenses and stuff, but there’s people who do.”
“He’s being a little modest when he plays shy about doing the videos,” says Leo. “I just think Tom’s one of the smartest and funniest people I know.”
Scharpling and Wurster are both guys who can adapt, but the beauty of the show’s success is how little they’ve had to. That they’ve gained an audience is almost incidental. It’s something they seem equally excited and freaked out by, but nothing is going to change the fact that The Best Show is born out of nothing more than two dudes rambling on the phone.
“We kept doing it solely because we loved coming up with the ideas and performing the calls,” says Wurster. “The fact that people respond so passionately, to the point of getting Newbridge-related tattoos, is just mind-blowing.”
“During that period when people didn’t care about the show, it was still making me laugh,” agrees Scharpling. “It was killing us with how funny the stuff was, and that honestly was enough. If I’m laughing and Jon’s laughing, we know we’re right on this.”