The week of May 31, 2015

The elegant dance of ‘The Best Show’

By Audra Schroeder

In early February, a first-time caller/longtime listener dialed into The Best Show to talk about comic books. He didn’t want to tie up the line; he likely knows about host Tom Scharpling’s penchant for hanging up on long-winded callers. He asked his questions and reverently bowed out. Scharpling took notice of his “elegant dance” and asked him to keep calling in.

In early April, Scharpling steamrolled through a crowdsourced list of the top 100 fictional characters—supplied by his devoted callers—and he played the final decider. In early May, a man named Adler Lansington called in to talk about the Bee Gees cover band he manages. The bit ramps up to him just naming off ridiculous cover bands, and when he gets to “Black Todd Rundgren,” he cracks. You can hear him quietly trying to suppress his laughter, so he goes for the improv save: “My wallet fell in the sewer!”

This is the elegant dance of the The Best Show, which has been streaming live from the Internet for 15 years. Scharpling, along with comedy partner Jon Wurster—who plays Adler Lansington, among many others—was the pilot of WFMU’s weekly radio show, which went off the air in December 2013 after 13 years. The show developed its own meta social network, buoyed by self-professed “Friends of Tom,” a group of revolving-door comedians and performers (Julie Klausner, Paul F. Tompkins, Ted Leo, John Hodgman), and a cast of Wurster’s characters. It became another stage for comedians to test out material.

In December 2014, The Best Show returned as a weekly live podcast, and fans followed Scharpling there. Every Tuesday, they call in to talk about music, TV, comedy, or whatever happens to be on their minds. Every call starts with Scharpling’s greeting: “WFMU, you’re on the air.” That’s the signal that the light’s on. You’re live. But we’re all just waiting for the moment Wurster calls in, and for the elegant dance to begin.

The Best of the Best Show box set, which was just released by Chicago-based archival label Numero Group, collects the best of Scharpling and Wurster’s calls over nearly two decades, from Wurster’s mold-breaking character Ronald Thomas Clontle to the more recent Terrence From Brooklyn. The track “Fluffernutter” is perhaps the purest distillation of a classic Best Show bit, and a frequent callback: Wurster calls in, tells Scharpling about a ridiculous job that he has, then interrupts the bit by dropping the titular object on the ground, throwing a fit, and hanging up (see also: “Coconut Water”).

“And there he goes,” Scharpling says at the end. And then the dance starts over.

• • •

Is the idea to always be adversarial with the calls?

Wurster: They started out that way a little more, but then they reached a point where it worked better if Tom was a little more… gullible’s not the right word.

Scharpling: Neutral. Letting the caller sort of explain the thing without me right off the bat putting some sort of judgment on it.

The show developed its own meta social network.

Wurster: That allows everything to breathe a little more, and for things to unfold. In the early ones, it was more of a, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” More disbelief on Tom’s part.

Scharpling: And also I would try to compete; I would insult you right back. And that kind of went away. We started setting these things in the town of Newbridge, and it helped because it didn’t have to be so confrontational. It was like, “OK, there’s a world for these things to exist.”

Did you two bond over music first?

Wurster: I met Tom at a Superchunk show in New York, and it was My Bloody Valentine, Superchunk, and Pavement. It was 1992. I met him that night, and the first thing we really bonded over was this show called Get a Life that Chris Elliott did. And from there I think we bonded over a lot of things. We’ve always had a love of music and that’s the thing we talk about probably more than anything. We were both devout readers of all the rock magazines growing up in the ’80s, like Circus and Creem.

Scharpling: Yeah, I was a fan of Superchunk and Jon had become their new drummer, so we got introduced and started talking about comedy. … To  find someone who was talking about these forgotten-about things was like, “Oh, someone gets what I’m about.” My whole life, music and comedy were the two things; everything I was interested in was one or the other. You can’t believe someone out there is obsessed with the exact same things you’re obsessed with.

What was it about Get a Life?

Wurster: I think we both already liked Chris Elliott from his Letterman appearances, and I don’t know, I can’t think of another show besides maybe SCTV [Second City Television] that just hit me immediately and spoke to me; it’s hard to put it into words. It just hits that comedy nerve that you have.

Scharpling: Those are the two big ones. SCTV and then just everything Chris Elliott did, and then the idea that the guy from Letterman had his own TV series was just… It sounds like a fantasy show. That guy who shows up for three minutes a pop on Letterman every couple weeks—wait, he’s the show? And then it turned out that very few people were also waiting for it. So when you find people who were into and instantly speaking the language, it’s like, “Oh my God, this is fantastic.”

Would Get a Life be successful if it debuted today?

Wurster: I wonder. Maybe if it aired on Comedy Central?

Scharpling: It was on Fox, and the funny thing is, we have a friend named Jason Woliner who’s a director and a writer, and he’s been working on this [now-aired] show Last Man on Earth, on Fox. I haven’t seen it yet, but Jason said the show’s so weird, and it’s really a lot like Get a Life in terms of, it’s this thing and his character’s so odd. But things are different now; Comedy Central was not an option then. Now there’s different places for different comedy, and it doesn’t have to be on a network.

“It’s the same thing that’s been in place since Tom and I first started doing the calls: trying to make each other laugh.” —Jon Wurster

Was it surprising that The Best Show became a sort of social network?

Scharpling: That was not a part of the plan, to have people be talking to each other the way they are, and it’s really flattering that people took the experience of this thing being on once a week and built networks around it and have gotten to be friends from it and people have gotten married from being fans and meeting through the show. So many things have happened, but the whole point of the stuff was to put a focus on things so there could be ways to be in touch with everybody for when WFMU had to do its fundraisers. But this whole other thing started to grow out of it, and then it just kept growing.

How has the transition been from radio to podcast?

Scharpling: What we did was so much harder than just doing a podcast. It’s still a live radio show; we had basically had to build a radio studio because it’s live on the Internet, with phone calls and the whole thing. Everything that WFMU show had, we have here. So it’s still this strange kind of hybrid: It’s a radio show that turned into a podcast, but it’s not on the radio. But most people who listen to the show were listening on their computer anyway. I choose to call it radio in the way that Netflix is called television. The way to get there changes a little bit, but it’s still the same form when you get to the end of it. The hard part has been the building of the thing and starting from scratch, turning it into a thing that replicates the show. The best part of the show for me is the live part, where you’re taking phone calls and then you hear Jon’s voice on the other end and it’s like, “OK, it’s time. Here we go.” To do that live is the best way to do that.

Wurster: There’s a danger to it that I think is crucial to the energy of it. We have done some produced things over the years, but when you have that knowledge in your head that you can stop and do it again, there’s not as much at stake. The way we’ve done it and still do it now is live, and it’s not scary, but you’re more on edge.

Scharpling: If you screw up, everybody hears you screw up. … I do feel the charge that comes from that, and I really think that’s part of it. And it was important to get that in place for the new version of the show.

How did it feel that first night back on the air?

Wurster: I’m trying to remember what our call was.

Scharpling: The first show was…

Wurster: Oh, it was Matthew Tompkins. I had a gig that night somewhere, so I had to run back to a hotel room and do it. So it was a little more hectic than usual, but it didn’t feel any different to me. It felt like the exact same kind of energy.

Scharpling: I was more worried about technical stuff that night than anything else. So those shows in December had an element of… we were just seeing how things go. And the only way to do it is to start doing the show.

Scharpling likens their evolution to that of a hardcore band: “I’d rather get faster than slower.”

• • •

Scharpling and Wurster’s influence is far-reaching. David Jara, cohost of The Mascot Wedding Show, a weekly radio show on Austin radio station KOOP that’s now a podcast, relates that discovering The Best Show was formative to what Mascot Wedding would become.

“My friend (and later cohost) Mac Blake and I got into The Best Show around the same time—I wanna say 2004 or so,” he said. “It was this thing we had heard about from other friends, who burned us a copy of [1999 album] Rock, Rot & Rule, and then from there we discovered that all of his shows dating back to 2000 were available on the WFMU website, where the show was broadcast. I think that sense of discovery was an important factor in the show resonating with fans such as Mac and myself. Here was this thing that we found pretty much on our own—that is to say, without any fanfare or hype or marketing blitz. Discovering something is way more satisfying than having something forced on you. There’s a level of ownership that comes with it, like you’re in possession of this great secret that only you and a select few get to enjoy.”

“It’s definitely a show that rewards dedicated listening,” Blake added. “The more you listen to it, the more you’ll get out of Jon Wurster’s calls, the more you pick up on recurring themes and jokes. The fact that it’s a broadcast too, not just a podcast. It turns the show into an event, something to be participated in, not just consumed.”

If you’re a fan, you likely have your favorite Best Show call or character, or the moment when the humor clicked. Mine was an episode from 2009, in which Scharpling is attempting to do his show while Karl from Newbridge Audio (Wurster) is fixing the board underneath him. The constant interruption, absurd amounts of noise, and ridiculous mic checks lend themselves nicely to Scharpling’s faux exasperation.

This is the elegant dance: Scharpling plays the increasingly annoyed or bewildered straight man and Wurster escalates each bit. Ronald Thomas Clontle, the fictional author of the music criticism book Rock, Rot & Rule, was the first real character Wurster did, and his unbridled obliviousness is his trademark. Ditto for Philadelphia pop culture expert Philly Boy Roy, 2-inch man Timmy Von Trimble, and Mike Sajak, Pat Sajak’s brother. The Best Show also has its own fictional universe: the town of Newbridge, N.J., where these characters and references live and breathe. Wurster admits those oblivious characters are the funniest to do, and it’s a common thread in their bits.

“The person who’s oblivious but really overconfident to the point of arrogance,” he said.

“I choose to call it radio in the way that Netflix is called television.”

Excavating the Best Show archives for the box set took time and patience, and the two say they wanted it to be representative of the show’s whole arc.

“I think we just wanted to find the best calls,” Wurster said. “And it’s the same thing that’s been in place since Tom and I first started doing the calls: trying to make each other laugh.”

“We were also trying to get a good balance of things,” Scharpling explained. “The characters people want and then maybe the things they forgot about. And we tried to hit all the different eras of the 13-plus years to make sure it’s not leaning on one year. There were a lot of things to try to strike a balance with. And it was exhausting. Not digging-a-ditch exhausting. Just-listening-to-you-talk exhausting.”

“Psychically exhausting,” Wurster added.

Wurster says in going through the wealth of calls, it became apparent how comfortable he and Scharpling became with each other, and also how much faster the calls came together. Scharpling likens their evolution to that of a hardcore band: “I’d rather get faster than slower.”

“Listening to those things, it’s almost like an athlete who watches a film of themselves and they figure out what they’re doing that needs to be tweaked,” Wurster added. “It was kind of like that for me. Where we’re at since the show has been back really reflects that.”

“We were doing the waltz, and now we’re doing the jitterbug,” Scharpling said. “That’s a fast dance, right?”

Photo by Rob Hatch-Miller