Pity the poor soul who walked up to the bar at The Waypost in Portland, Oregon last night, his brow furrowed and wondering aloud, “What the heck is this?”
The well-meaning chap had unknowingly stumbled upon a party being held to listen to and commemorate the final installment of The Best Show on WFMU, the weekly radio show that was wrapping up 13 years of, as host Tom Scharpling loved to put it, “mirth, music, and mayhem.”
It didn’t help that the confused gent walked in at the halfway mark of an extended sound collage that wrapped clips from older episodes of the show with snippets of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”
I didn’t hear the bartender’s explanation but didn’t envy her trying to explain away The Best Show to a newbie. As Whitney Matheson said in a farewell essay that appeared on USA Today’s website yesterday:
Ask a fan to describe [it], and they’ll probably say something along the lines of, “That’s impossible. You just have to listen.” Even after hearing several episodes you may not fully comprehend what’s going on: Scharpling has created a world that consists of so many in-jokes and idiosyncrasies that it takes patience for one to feel like they’re part of the action.
I know that that’s what kept people like me coming back to the show week after week and interacting with fellow fans on Twitter and the chat room and message board of the show’s fan site. We felt like we were part of the action.
It’s a weird thing to say about a radio show, but full credit for the devotion of its followers must be given to Scharpling, his regular comic foil Jon Wurster and the cadre of on-and-off-air supporters. Like any good serialized comic book or TV show, you had to return to it every Tuesday to find out where they were going next.
That’s what brought about 30 fans together at The Waypost on a chilly Tuesday evening. We had to know where they would go after they shut the lights on this delirious universe conjured up over the course of a decade-plus. Goodness knows we couldn’t face that uncertainty alone.
Okay…we actually did know some of Scharpling and Wurster’s plans following this final airing. They’ve been very clear in interviews and on social media that they aren’t done with The Best Show; they just can’t continue to do it for free on a public radio station if they want to keep food on the table.
What was so gratifying about taking in this final WFMU Best Show alongside fellow Friends of Tom was hearing others cackling or giggling at the same things at the same time: the first ever call from Officer Harrups, a character who had been referenced on the show for years but never heard from; an in-studio appearance by Philly Boy Roy (on the run after crashing a helicopter into a sub shop); hilarious intrusions from Tom’s puppets, Gary The Squirrel and Vance (remember what Whitney Matheson said about idiosyncrasies?); and a bevy of well-wishers and weirdos calling in for one last shot at on-air glory or ignominy.
It all built up to a heartfelt conclusion. Tom first thanked longtime associate producer/call screener Mike Lisk before introducing his best friend and partner in comedy Jon Wurster.
The room let out a small gasp at this, as it was the first time Wurster had appeared on the show not in character. But it was a proper nod to his contributions and fun to hear he and Tom share memories from their 13+ years working on the program and express awe that they were able to do it all with the endorsement of WFMU.
FOTs gather for the final Best Show at The Waypost in Portland, Oregon:
The last part of the show, however, was all Tom. He delivered a halting but moving monologue of gratitude for the fans and supporters of the show, and reiterated that The Best Show was not over yet. “In many ways,” he said, “I feel like we’re just getting started.” It was a small comfort to bring this bittersweet evening to an end.
But of course Tom Scharpling couldn’t leave without getting one last shot in. (Keep in mind, I’m paraphrasing these quotes. By this point I was five beers deep and didn’t think to take notes.)
“Before I go, I want to play a song that I think sums up everything that I’ve been trying to say all this time.” Cue: Tom Waits’ “Innocent When You Dream,” followed by a lot of laughter from the folks at the Waypost (Scharpling has been outspoken on the show about his hatred of all things Tom Waits). The song cut out after about 10 seconds.
“Wouldn’t that be hilarious if I ended it with that song? C’mon. I know he’s terrible, you know he’s terrible…” Cue: Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme.”