If you follow enough people on Twitter, particularly those folks with a penchant for artfully absurdist comedy, Tuesday nights between 9pm and midnight Eastern Time have either become a delight or a slog.
It is during those hours that Tom Scharpling airs The Best Show, his former terrestrial radio show, now webstreaming broadcast dedicated to, as he puts it, “mirth, music, and mayhem.” And during those three hours, his dedicated fanbase tweets up a storm, expressing their joy at hearing a regular caller; repeating the funniest lines spoken during extended comic exchanges between Tom and his longtime foil, Jon Wurster; trainspotting the various samples buried in the now-signature sound collages that Tom concocts in real time; or simply sharing the love of the program with fellow FOTs, or Friends of Tom. For the uninitiated, it can be maddening and confusing, similar to stumbling upon the actual show for the first time with no backstory nor a whiff of explanation.
Even with some priming, buying into The Best Show might still feel like a risky proposition. Scharpling and Wurster’s comedy routines can be 20 minutes of build up before they fully pay off. And considering the show’s otherwise freeform nature, you may wonder what benefit can be had listening to a phalanx of phone calls—some fun and pointed; others rambling and disorganized—and Tom’s long tales of frustration and joy with the world around him.
If you can get acclimated to the unique voice and spirit of The Best Show, however, the dividends you receive in return are huge. You’ll not only find instant community with the thousands of FOTs that helped make the show a massive success during its 13-year run on noncommercial radio exemplar WFMU (during one fundraising drive, the show racked up a quarter of a million dollars in donations) and are there to support its new online life, but you’ll also be privy to the work of some of the most agile comic minds working today.
The most venerated parts of each show are the bits that Scharpling and Wurster cook up every week, which is no small feat especially when you realize how consistently great these tightly scripted routines are. So consistently great, in fact, that Numero Group is set to release a 16-disc box set of the duo’s work this spring. But the real key to what ties the show together is its host.
Though he wasn’t trained as such, Scharpling has the heart and mind of an improvisational performer. That comes out with every call he fields on the show, rolling with whatever gets thrown his way no matter how half-baked or potentially unhinged it is. Equally as important is his ability to recognize when a particular thread is going to yield a vein of comic gold.
That could be anything from affecting the voice of a dour caller for the better part of a half-hour , his introduction of puppets (the irascible Gary The Squirrel and the zonked prog rock enthusiast Vance) into the mix, the conference call date he arranged between regular callers Laurie from Miami and Larry Da Perv , and his quick recognition of his call screener Mike’s strange genius . Of the three parts of The Best Show’s motto, what Scharpling feeds off of most heartily is the mayhem.
Scharpling’s skills on the air are a hard thing to replicate. And an even harder thing to monetize. That was part of the reason that he decided to take the show off of WFMU at the end of 2013. For 13 years, he poured a lot of energy and money into The Best Show for the benefit of the station and the fans. The gifts he would bestow upon folks who donated to the annual pledge drive were often elaborate collector’s items—such as the 7” single that featured cleaned up versions of GG Allin songs recorded by folks like Death Cab For Cutie and The Mountain Goats—that weren’t cheap to produce. At a certain point, a return on his investment that only included cool points and the respect of his peers became less and less sustaining.
Having listened to the show for at least the past decade, I think there was a little more behind the decision to uproot The Best Show from terrestrial radio and plant it online. If you’ve listened to the show long enough and followed his frequent social media posts, it becomes apparent that Scharpling is a bit of a scrapper. He may not necessarily enjoy having windmills to tilt at, but he does seem to thrive on them. Some of the best moments on his show came from listening to him vent on the vexing delusions of grandeur that folks like Ringo Starr and Chuck Woolery exhibit, his show being left out of the comedy podcast conversation, or his run-ins with Brooklyn’s tall bike enthusiasts. Starting at square one with all the technical and logistical hiccups that entailed had to have been at least a little appealing to someone with that kind of fighting spirit.
There was likely also a realization that, as great as The Best Show On WFMU had become, especially during its last three years, there was nowhere to go but down. In spite of the continued stream of celebrity guests (Martin Short, Julie Klausner, John Hodgman, Aimee Mann and Chris Elliott, among them), Wurster’s peerless contributions, and dozens of great moments, Scharpling’s audience could only grow so big without expanding the show beyond the confines of the Jersey City studio where he held court for 13 years.
That’s what makes 2015 such an exciting and potentially breakthrough year for The Best Show. With the help of some of the folks behind Marc Maron’s beloved podcast WTF, Scharpling could make his radio show self-sustaining thanks to some advertising income. He and Wurster were able to prove that the voice of the program could translate to TV with the fake infomercial for the fictional burg of Newbridge, New Jersey that they made for Adult Swim late last year. The SF Sketchfest and Noise Pop are hosting a “tribute” to Scharpling and Wurster in January, with appearances from Wurster’s musical partners John Darnielle and Bob Mould. And yes, there’s the big CD collection set to be unleashed on the world that carries with it the endorsement of famous fans like John Oliver and Amy Poehler. In other words, if you’re annoyed with the love for The Best Show on social media right now, brace yourself. It’s only gonna get worse.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_ham.