Since 2000, the most unique comedy duo in the country weren’t in the movies, on TV or posting YouTube videos on the Internet. They were radio guys: Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, whose weekly, New Jersey-based extravaganza The Best Show on WFMU rivaled the laugh-per-minute ratio and creative imagination of any late-night TV talk show, but with none of the budget.
Scharpling, a former producer and writer on Monk, served as the cranky host; his writing partner (and Superchunk/Mountain Goats drummer) Wurster would phone in, pretending to be a clueless Bruce Springsteen biographer, a two-inch-tall white supremacist or a music snob who only listened to “air mixes” and Limp Bizkit. In between taking real calls from listeners and talking to guests like Zach Galifinakis, the duo would riff off these improvised conversations for hours. It was unlike anything else on the airwaves and quickly became a cult favorite among comedy nerds; Aziz Ansari once claimed that its fans wanted to “turn it into a woman” and make love to it.
But in December 2013, Scharpling ended the program’s run, citing a desire to turn the pro bono pet project into a full-time, paid gig. Almost a year to the day, The Best Show With Tom Scharpling debuted, broadcasting live on Tuesday nights at thebestshow.net out of a self-built studio. A new podcasting era for the Gorch, Philly Boy Roy and the Citizens for a True Democracy was born.
“WFMU couldn’t have been a greater place to do a show, but when there’s no chance at monetizing it, you don’t think about how far you can take certain things,”Scharpling says. “But now, with the podcast, there’s no ceiling. There was a lot of talk of where we could end up, [but] none of the things seemed like a perfect fit. And after doing it for this long, I feel that we don’t have to audition for anybody anymore. It’s like, ‘Let’s do the show that we want to do, and the people who will like it will find it.'”
What would become The Best Show had it roots in a 1997 bit that Scharpling concocted as a freshly-minted DJ at the Jersey station, when he took the first scripted Wurster call on-air. Rock, Rot & Rule, as it came to be known, featured the musician pretending to be fictional author Ronald Thomas Clontle. The writer was promoting his “ultimate argument settler” of a book, in which he irrationally classifies various music acts into one of the three aforementioned groupings. (“You can’t ‘Rock’ if there’s no guitar in your group — but you can potentially ‘Rule.'”) Scharpling kept egging him on to more ridiculous heights; actual callers starting phoning in, irately debating Clontle’s arrgoance and historical inaccuracies (“Madness hardly invented ska!” one listener griped). After that, the duo started to envision a radio show devoted to that type of humor on a weekly basis – inspired partially by the creative freedom of Upright Citizen’s Brigade’s flagship “ASSSCAT” group-improv spectacles – and The Best Show on WFMU was officially launched three years later.
The amount of characters and storylines from the duo’s fictional city of “Newbridge, NJ” eventually started to reach gigantic proportions in the show’s decade-plus run, and even the creators can’t remember every specific twist, turn or detail. (This March will see the release of The Best of The Best Show, a career-spanning, 16-CD box set containing over 20 hours of Scharpling and Wurster’s bits.) But TBS always had a penchant for balancing the grounded with the absurd: In a span of 10 minutes, the host would easily shift from discussing weekend plans to fading into a half-eerie, half-hilarious sound collage consisting of feverish Paul Stanley stage banter and a catheter infomercial starring Chuck Woolery. Or Scharpling may just start holding court about whatever is on his mind. “If I’m feeling down, then that becomes the show,” he says. “And if I’m mad or really sad and going through something, then that’s the show, too.”
Frequent guests of the program (or “Friends of Tom,” as they’re colloquially known) have included Galifianakis, Ansari, Aimee Mann and Patton Oswalt, to only name a few, and the tight-knit community of fans provides the with a steady stream of regulars to improvise with over each show’s duration. “It is a real community at this point,” says Wurster. “I was in Sydney, Australia just sitting there eating an ice cream cone and this guy walks by in a Best Show shirt with his child. It’s crazy, to me, how far this thing reaches.”
Following a rough start after getting the podcast off the ground, Scharpling and Wurster seem to be back on track: a recent string of live shows at Brooklyn’s Bell House quickly sold out, and and dates in Chicago and Los Angeles were huge successes. And as long as TBS carries on, the duo promise to continue delivering the same offbeat, off-the-cuff tomfoolery that’s characterized the program since day one.
“We’re not a show where [you’re] chained to something, every episode, to the minute,” Scharpling insists. “Whatever shape The Best Show takes is whatever shape it takes, and I love that.”