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Tom Scharpling, right, and Jon Wurster
Photograph: Rob Hatch Miller Tom Scharpling, right, and Jon Wurster

Tom Scharpling on the return of The Best Show

The Best Show host Tom Scharpling chats about bringing his free-form-radio phenomenon back as a podcast

By Tim Lowery

When Tom Scharpling announced that The Best Showon WFMU was signing off at the end of 2013, there was a collective gasp in certain circles. For comedy and rock purists, the weekly three-hour, New Jersey–based call-in show had been a go-to since debuting in 2000—a constant that promised hilarious banter between Tom and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, some killer garage-rock tunes and the insanity that happens when anybody can dial up and say their (often questionable) piece. And then, this past November, The Best Show returned as a self-sufficient podcast (—and fans could breathe easy again. On the heels of the show’s four-gig live run at the Bell House (March 11, 12) and its spiffy 16-disc box set by Numero (out March 17), we sat down with one of Time Out New York’s 50 funniest locals to talk about The Best Show’s humble beginnings and where it’s headed.

For the uninitiated, could you explain how The Best Show came together?
I was doing a pretty straight music show on WFMU. Jon Wurster and I met through Superchunk, which was a favorite band of mine. We hit it off comedically, so it was like, What could we do that takes advantage of this radio show that I’ve got? How could we do some kind of comedy thing on here? Comedy and music have been my two favorite things for my whole life. So we did a call where he called as an author talking about his book. He was an expert on rock. It was called Rock, Rot & Rule. We made tapes of it, and it kind of spread through the world of comedy and touring bands. 

But this was still before The Best Show debuted, right?
Right. Then I stopped the music show, 'cause I was trying to find a job, and I didn’t think doing a radio show was really my future. I wasn’t looking to be part of the music industry or anything. I was just trying to focus on getting a job writing. But then after seeing all the comedy that was happening in the mid- to late ’90s in New York—with the UCB and Eating It at the Luna Lounge on Ludlow—it was like, What if I went back to WFMU and did a radio show but it was kind of like the Rock, Rot & Rule call every week? And Jon was totally into it; the station was into it.

How long did it take for people to catch on that Jon was calling in as different characters?
I’d say a couple of years before the listeners were truly onboard and up to speed. Look, there were people from the get-go who were into it. It gets overstated sometimes that nobody liked the show. So there were people who got it, people we respected. And that sustained us through the lean years of trying to establish the show and not waver from what we want to do. 

Was that exciting for you at first, knowing people might not be on the same page?
There’s always excitement that comes from the kind of confusion of people trying to figure out if something’s real or not. That’s something I’ve always been a fan of, but we’ve always been more fans of written stuff like SCTV. And pranking the audience was not our primary goal. It was a funny side effect that people would be confused. There’d be people who would call up and be like, This is fake. And it’s like, Yes, of course, it’s fake. We’re not trying to convince you that a guy is actually two inches tall is on the phone. 

I love your long-form interviews. Do you have a dream guest?
You know, somebody I would love to talk to would be Steve Coogan, just about the mechanics of the things he’s built over the years, a very inside-baseball discussion with him. I’m a fan of everything he’s done. I consider myself a student of his stuff, where I watch all of it repeatedly. Comedy interviews are not fun like that on the whole. But I think every kind of genius needs to do at least one thing where they pull the curtain aside and give people some kind of glimpse into it. And then you can pull the curtains shut again. 

Anybody else?
Mike Myers. He’s basically a world builder when you look at the things that he makes. And he’s done it again and again. He’s really fascinating, because no matter where you stand on him in 2015, I don’t think anyone could look themselves in the mirror and say, That guy never made anything that I at one point or another in my life loved. I mean, that first Austin Powers movie was on cable a week ago. It really impressed me. This guy built this thing out of whole cloth. 

It’s interesting that you bring up creating this self-sustaining world, ’cause your show does that as well. Jon’s characters often call in from the fictional Newbridge, New Jersey.
Is this your Barbara Walters moment, where you’re going to make me cry now? 

Yes, my next question is: Name the saddest thing you’ve ever seen.
It would've been that Nationwide Super Bowl commercial. You could call that a total misfire. I think they forgot it was not airing during a foreign film festival and was airing during a football game, where everyone is drunk and gorging themselves on pizza and screaming, hoping that Katie Perry’s shirt falls off in 10 minutes. 

It was a weird one. So why did you decide to leave WFMU?
It was kind of unavoidable after a while, because the show kept growing and growing. And that takes more and more time to schedule everything and keep writing the show and make the show as good as it can possibly be. And there’s just a point where it wasn’t sustainable to put that level of work into a noncommercial station where there was just no chance of making money. And it’s not any sort of judgment on WFMU. It was just the best doing the show there. And it’s a station I grew up listening to, and it’ll always be important to me. It just wasn’t sustainable. So either we'd have to click back the amount of work that went into the show or figure out how to do this show somewhere where we can get paid at least some money. Nobody’s getting rich on it. That’s not the goal. We just can’t do it for free anymore. 

That show lasted 13 years on WFMU. I imagine its last episode was emotional for you.
Yeah, it was. There were a couple of points where I felt the magnitude of what we had built. I was just really touched by the amount of support this thing had grown into. It had turned into a thing that people really cared about. 

Did you know it would be this podcast that would bring The Best Show back?
No, just the idea that we’re not done, we’ll figure something out. But this show needs to end properly before that stuff can be figured out. You can’t do both at the same time. I wanted to focus everything on ending The Best Show the way it deserved to be ended. It was funny, 'cause a lot of people were like, Who’s gonna be on the show? We wanted to do a mirror version of what the first show was: me talking on a mike and Jon doing a character. I think about Breaking Bad, when it was in that final season. Just by the nature of them trying to wrap this thing up, these episodes aren’t Breaking Bad episodes anymore. Different things are happening. It’s not about the cat and mouse thing anymore, ’cause that’s all gone. The thing that vanishes in the course of that is the stuff that made you like the show in the first place. But that's not a judgment on Breaking Bad.

Have you noticed a difference with the new show?
When it’s me just sitting behind the mic and doing the show, it feels great. But the entire structure of everything is completely different, and I’m on the hook for a lot. In terms of the time that I and others have spent on this, and the money that I’ve spent to get it up on its feet, that’s all on me. It does have to become a viable commercial property also. Unfortunately, it’s not just about the quality of the episodes. And I mean, I can’t wait to do the things I want to do with the new version of the show over the next couple months. 

It has to be frightening but also very exciting.
I’m gonna say more frightening than exciting, because if it does not work, then I basically spent a ton of my own money and a year of my own life just trying to get a thing going. 

Going back to your beginnings, what radio personalities were your biggest influences?
In high school, I was a big fan of Howard Stern. And when I went to community college, I would sit in the parking lot, just listening and debating whether I should go into class or just sit here listening to this thing. There’s also Bob Grant, who was the afternoon host on WABC, this right-wing talk-show host. He was a horrible person—truly horrible, just racist creep. But it’s a testament to the power of broadcasting that I disagreed with everything he said but I would listen to the show for hours, because he was such a good broadcaster. He was just so compelling and really funny. I feel like Morton Downey Jr. borrowed a lot from Bob Grant when he took his thing to television. But Morton Downey Jr. didn’t believe the stuff. I do think Bob Grant, unfortunately, believed that poor people or people of color should be sterilized. 

Did he really say that?
Oh, yeah. He would push for sterilization after a second child if you were not a white person. So he was one of the worst humans ever, but oh, my God, he was entertaining. 

There’s something about people who are in the wrong thinking they’re infallible that’s so amusing.
It has nothing to do with what you believe, really. Look at Air America. If all you need to do is have the right opinions, then Air America should have been wildly successful and should still be going. But it’s like, either you’re interesting on mike or you’re not. 

How has your voice developed your voice over the years?
There was point where I had more ideas than skill, so you kind of just have to keep doing it and wait for the skill and the execution to catch up to the ideas. It thankfully did get to that point where I was able to relax and just be myself and not be scared of the silence. I love the silence—so much of just being there alone talking and saying things that I know are funny but no one is laughing. If I hear AP Mike, the associate producer, laugh at something, it’s like, Oh, I’m like swimming in gravy here. I couldn’t be in better shape. But even if he doesn’t laugh, it’s like, Oh, I’m alright. I’m entertaining myself, and if I’m entertaining myself, I assume somebody else is being entertained also. 

Catch Scharpling & Wurster Live! at the Bell House March 11, 12.


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