“Trending up? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”
Tom Scharpling is talking about basketball. Specifically he’s talking about the attendance at Atlanta Hawks games, which is notoriously bad. (That’s what the Atlanta Hawks get for playing in a city that doesn’t really care about the Atlanta Hawks.) I told him fans were starting to gradually turn out for Hawks games in greater numbers, which is true, but that shouldn’t have to be pointed out in defense of a team that’s leading the Eastern Conference and has only lost two games since Thanksgiving. After a half hour of talking about his comedy work with his collaborator Jon Wurster, Scharpling sounds the most like the guy I hear on his show when we talk about basketball, open to conversation but with little patience for nonsense. It feels like I’m listening to The Best Show.
I’m not on the phone with Scharpling because he’s an NBA fan. We’re talking about The Best Show, the comedy program he’s hosted since 2000 on the radio and, later, online. It’s not a stretch to say The Best Show is also trending up after returning from a year-long break. Between new episodes that air every Tuesday night on the show’s new official website, and an upcoming box set on Numero Group that collects more than 20 hours of The Best Show’s best calls, interest has never been higher in the show.
A year ago, The Best Show was off the air. The live comedy show started on the New Jersey freeform radio station WFMU in 2000 and aired regularly on Tuesday nights up until the end of 2013. Episodes were three-hour long epics that traditionally started with a little music before moving into understated comedy. Scharpling would curmudgeonly struggle to keep his patience while handling calls from listeners, many of whom became well-known among hardcore fans. Famous friends from the worlds of comedy and music would pop in, including Ted Leo, Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt and Kurt Vile. Scharpling gradually introduced puppets into an audio-only medium, along with sound collages that would regularly wind down the show. The centerpiece of every episode was a long and intricately scripted conversation with Wurster, who called in every week as a variety of absurd characters from the fictional town of Newbridge, New Jersey. A deep, abiding love for the idiocy and idiosyncrasies of rock ‘n’ roll provided a constant undercurrent.
The Best Show developed a large following over those 13 years, and was pivotal to WFMU’s fundraising. In December, 2013, though, it aired its last episode on the station. It was an emotional farewell, capped off with a surprisingly poignant sound collage that Scharpling created live in the studio. After that, The Best Show was silent for almost a year. Cryptic tweets hinted at a return, but all fans had to listen to were WFMU’s archives and old podcasts.
And then suddenly, with only a few days of advance notice, the show returned four weeks ago as a weekly live stream through its own website, almost a year to the day after the last episode wrapped on WFMU. Despite the jump from terrestrial broadcasting to an internet-only model, almost nothing has changed about the show. Even the delivery mechanism won’t be new for the majority of the show’s fans; although WFMU is based in Jersey, The Best Show was streamed on its site and released as a podcast for years, developing a fan base far larger than its radio listeners.
The clean, definitive length of the gap, almost exactly a year, seems too orderly to be a coincidence. It wasn’t entirely by plan, though. “It’s funny that it worked out almost to the day,” Wurster says over the phone from a parking lot somewhere in North Carolina. “I think it was one day short of a year. We always knew it was coming back. There was no set date though until it got a little closer. I kind of remember it being like, well, let’s announce it in September and hopefully it’ll be happening by October and then it just got pushed back like a month or two. And then when all the gear worked we actually launched a little earlier than we thought we were going to.”
That year off wasn’t a vacation. Scharling and Wurster spent that time talking to various potential partners about bringing the show back, while also working on the box set and making a short video as part of Adult Swim’s late night infomercial slot.
“The first stretch was just trying to get a little bit of a break from it and get a little bit of distance from what the show was,” Scharpling says. “You can’t really start a new thing while doing the old thing. I couldn’t plan out what a new version of the show could be at all while the old one was going on. And also I just wanted to end the show properly and not have them overlap. Even if I could have plotted out this new version of the show simultaneously, it just didn’t feel right. Like let’s end the one show the way it should be ended and kind of honor the 13 years of it and the relationship to WFMU and not just turn the final show into some sort of commercial for the next thing, which would’ve felt pretty cheap to me, as if something was in my back pocket the whole time. Who knew what the future was going to be at that point?
“About half the year got taken up by talking to people and trying to figure out potential pairings. Hearing proposals from a few places that were interested in hosting the show, seeing what would be a good fit, and really just deciding after hearing what everybody had to say that it feels like the kind of thing that I have to launch myself and kind of take the reins on rather than join up with some larger company or organization. The worst thing to me would’ve been joining a place where we didn’t fit and then eight months later have the show start getting changed or compromised in any way from what it was. And I really felt like we don’t have to do that anymore. We did 13-plus years of establishing what the show is and it just needs to be that.
“And once we realized that wasn’t going to be the case it was about building the show up from scratch as an independent thing. And by that point the box set, we were working on that every day, and there was an Adult Swim infomercial we were working on every day, so there were these three projects going simultaneously all throughout most of 2014.”
“Ultimately the way I can guarantee it will be what it’s supposed to be all the way down the line is if I start it myself.”
The greatest strength of The Best Show isn’t Scharpling’s quick wit when on the phone with a listener or the surreal directions that Wurster’s calls invariably head in. It’s the easy rapport between the two. That connection is the result of a long friendship that predates the show and can be traced back to Wurster’s day job as the drummer for Superchunk. The two met at a show Superchunk played with Pavement and My Bloody Valentine in New York in the early 1990s and quickly bonded over a love of rock ‘n’ roll and the same comedy shows.
“We always joke about how wasting most of our teenaged years reading rock magazines like Circus or Creem or Trouser Press has finally paid off,” Wurster, who now also drums for the Bob Mould Band and the Mountain Goats, tells me. “And we both really loved shows like SCTV and Fernwood 2 Night as kids. We both love the classic years of Saturday Night Live. The first thing we really bonded over was a show called Get a Life, the Chris Elliott show [that aired on Fox in the early 1990s]. For me that’s the definitive comedy TV show, the one that got me really excited about comedy after SCTV and those other ones.”
Get a Life let Elliott expand the postmodern sensibilities he had fitfully indulged in on Late Night With David Letterman into a full half-hour weekly sitcom. It looked and felt like a sitcom but destroyed the form, starring Elliott as a thirtysomething idiot who still lived like a child, putting him through mutant versions of familiar sitcom storylines and often killing him in increasingly absurd ways at the end of episodes. It was a show built on the ridiculousness of both the sitcom genre and life itself.
“I think I was the first person he met who was just a devotee of that show and he was the first person I met who felt the same way about the show,” Wurster continues. “We clicked from there and found more and more common ground. I think the one thing that we both have is we both realize how ridiculously funny and stupid life is. And that’s the basis of a lot of our calls and a lot of the work that we’ve done is just how ridiculous people are.”
Their working relationship flows so easily from their friendship that Scharpling “hardly think[s] of it as work still,” almost brushing off the many hours of writing and preparation that go into every episode. “It’s still us just doing stuff to make each other laugh,” Scharpling tells me. “Maybe also still not getting paid for anything might reinforce that feeling.”
The lack of money, and the hope of someday making some, is what drove The Best Show’s move away from the radio. Scharpling and Wurster both profess their love for WFMU, which is often hailed as the best freeform radio station in the country, and which provided them the freedom to create one of the most unconventional radio shows to ever exist. As a non-commercial station that depends on listener pledges to stay on the air, though, it can’t exactly pay its talent. After 13 years of finding free time in their increasingly busy schedules to produce three hours of radio a week, developing a large fan base and receiving increasingly rapturous praise from other comedians and the press, it was time for Scharpling and Wurster to make some money off their passion project. And not just to turn a profit, but to be able to embrace whatever creative urges come their way.
“It’s nice to have the potential to turn it into some sort of income for me and for Jon and for the other people working on it to whatever degree we can get it to, moneywise,” Scharpling admits. “When that’s a possibility you can think of other places to go with it. It was hard on the station because the fundraising became a focus of things. It was almost a year-long focus for me. It really became a campaign that would start up months before the fundraising shows and then would carry on for almost the rest of the year as I had to make these insane premiums that I would put together, and get all this help from people to do that, and having that take so much energy and time. To channel that time and energy into other things where there’s the possibility of doing whatever we want is very exciting.
“I know we would’ve never been able to put the box set together if I was still doing the show on WFMU. There’s just no way I could’ve had the focus to do that and to do the show when there’s no chance of getting paid in the equation.”
The box set comes out through Numero Group in March, and even though it’s an overwhelming chunk of history, it might be the best way for a new fan to get into The Best Show. Immersion therapy, and all that. The Best of the Best Show is 16 CDs, 20 hours and 75 calls of essential Best Show, but don’t expect Scharpling or Wurster to ever listen to it. Just picking out what made the cut was almost more than they could stand.
“It was the most torturous thing I think we both have probably ever had to endure,” Wurster says of sifting through the last 13 years of work in search of the hits. “We’ve done so many of these calls over 13 years that we forgot over half of them. Thankfully we have this guy who’s kind of the show archivist, Omar. His real name is Rob. So we just contacted him and said ‘are there like 70 or something calls that you could list for us and tell us what they were’. And being on tour I’ll have people come up and say ‘I love this specific call’ and I’ll have no memory of it. And so Rob was indispensable for this. I’d say ‘someone mentioned this call and the character’s name is Brock Puke’ and he’s like ‘oh yes that’s this call, this is what happened.’ So we’ll give that a listen for possible inclusion in the box set.
“Rob put this graph chart together for us, which was fabulous. He would just find MP3s off the archives and other places and send them to us and it felt like we spent from June until September just listening to these things and making notes. But it all paid off and it’s going to be great. There’s nothing worse than hearing your own voice every day for three months.
“When we started doing these things we had no foresight that in 13 years we’d be putting this in a giant box set,” Wurster continues. “We knew it was important but we never anticipated revisiting it to the level and under the microscope that we had to do for this.”
As much effort as they put into the show, as seriously as they take the scripted material and the sound collages and the listener calls, The Best Show essentially grew out of the lack of foresight that Wurster mentions. “I don’t think either of us had a plan when it started out,” he says. “I think of Superchunk. We didn’t really have a plan when I joined the band. There was never a long term goal of world domination. When people or bands or artists fall into that kind of mindset, it rarely pans out. I think if you can be happy with little victories then it’s very satisfying and you’re able to keep going.”
The plan now, though, is clear. Scharpling and Wurster completely own The Best Show, from the means of production to how it’s distributed. They’re in complete control of what comes next, and like the Hawks flying into the NBA playoffs, they’re trending up as they head full throttle into the future.
“You know what a governor is on a go kart?” Scharpling asks. “When they put a thing that just makes it so go karts can’t go past a certain speed? It feels like the governor has been taken off the go kart of the show and now we can drive the go kart as fast as we want. And I’m interested in seeing how fast we can make The Best Show go kart go, just so I can keep that metaphor going way past when it seems to have run out of steam.”
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He is on Twitter.