At the end of 2013, fans of The Best Show on WFMU heaved a collective sigh of regret and a small collective “Wow.” For 13 years, its host Tom Scharpling took the airwaves of this noncommercial radio station in New Jersey, playing music, interacting with various callers and guests, and, on almost every show, performing elaborate and hilarious routines with his writing/performing partner Jon Wurster. And now it was all coming to an end.
These weren’t improvised bits or silly conversations, either. Almost all of Wurster’s calls or occasional in-studio appearances were meticulously scripted and planned out, and eventually worked to build out this expansive universe of strangeness and disrepute centered around the fictional town of Newbridge. Considering that each did it while also maintaining thriving careers (Scharpling as a writer/producer on Monk; Wurster as one of indie rock’s most in-demand drummers) makes their efforts seem even more Herculean.
So, when Scharpling wrapped up the last WFMU show on Dec. 17, 2013, after a rare not-in-character appearance from Wurster and a spin of Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” fans of the show were disappointed but couldn’t complain. After so much free entertainment from these two and their many friends, what more could we ask of them?
What we didn’t expect was that, nearly a year later, we would get the two surprise announcements that Scharpling was resurrecting The Best Show as an online radio venture, and that Numero Group would release The Best of The Best Show, a comprehensive 16-CD collection of the work that Scharpling and Wurster did during their WFMU run.
If you’ve followed Scharpling online during the period since both announcements, you know of the trials he went through to get both the show and the set into the world: the death of his father, having all his broadcast equipment stolen, and having to turn down a number of job offers to concentrate on these projects. If that weren’t enough, the release date of the set had to be pushed back because the finished product was stuck on a barge in Long Beach Harbor due to a stevedore strike.
Now, Scharpling is the one breathing his own sigh, but this one of relief. The show has been up and running for a few months now, and the sets are finally arriving in stores this week. That palpable sense of calm and slight excitement was evident in his voice when we spoke to him recently about the newly-released The Best of The Best Show.
When I heard that there were delays with getting the box sets delivered, I thought, “That sounds like something Tom and Jon could have written for one of their calls.” I’m sure you must have heard that from other people.
Tom Scharpling: We did hear that. When we were trying to figure out how to tell people that this was happening there was discussion of, “Hey, what if it gets worked into a call and that’s how the news gets announced?” Well, no, then nobody will believe it and they’ll think it’s a routine! This needs to be said as straight as possible that this is where it’s at.
How does it feel to have this thing that canonizes that work that you and Jon did while you were on WFMU?
Scharpling: It’s really just sinking in now. Hearing people’s actual response to the thing is the first time I have been able to appreciate it as anything accomplishment-wise or the magnitude of it. I haven’t been able to appreciate any of that ‘cause it’s just been…it took forever to do it. It took so much of last year for me. But just recently Patton Oswalt got his copy and he’s, like, “This is a statement of your existence!” And giving one to my wife. The best was giving one to my mom. She just started crying. To her, it was thing that her kid made. I’m finally starting to see what we did and that people are into it. All I could see up to that point was me at five in the morning with headphones on, listening to me go, “C’mon…no….what are you saying?” over and over. You’re not supposed to hear the sound of your own voice in headphones that much. It’s like torture.
How did the idea of putting this set together get started?
Scharpling: Numero Group came to us. From friends I would hear very loosely that there was some interest in doing something at some point. I really do feel like ending the show back in 2013 put such a point of re-framing what the show was. You can actually see it now because you’re not just seeing it one week at a time. You’re seeing 13+ years of a thing at once. We were able to see it also. Ending the show made it clear what we had built. Then they came in early 2014 and were, like, “What about some kind of Best Show box?” Then from April to November it was really working on that thing. August, September, October, I was working around the clock. We’re talking 17 hours days. I was going days without sleeping. It was very unhealthy the amount of time working on that thing.
It seems like the most important thing was that you had your hands in every part of this like editing the calls.
Scharpling: Nobody knows better than me or Jon what makes this thing work. Michael [Slaboch, a producer with Numero Group] figured it out, but it’s not the kind thing you can do by committee.
Were there calls that you listened back to that you completely forgot about?
Scharpling: Most of them. We would do the show on Tuesday and then on Thursday we’re working on next week’s show in some capacity. There was just no chance at any sort of nostalgia for the calls we did. I never would listen back to them because there was a show to do next week. I definitely forgot a lot of them. One of my favorites going through the whole thing was this call where Jon plays for the Washington Generals, which is the team that the Harlem Globetrotters always beat. I would have bet the farm that we’d never done that.
The set is obviously just dedicated to the work that you and Jon did on the show, but throughout the history of The Best Show, you had other people like Andrew Earles and H. Jon Benjamin doing call-ins or comedy bits. Is there any notion of compiling those in some similar fashion?
Scharpling: I love all the stuff that’s happened on the show. That stuff was great, but there was just a point where I just had to say, “What Jon and I are doing…that’s the thing. This is the special thing. Let’s embrace that part of it.” That’s why the calls just became Jon-based. I said to those guys, “Of course I love everything we’ve done. But Jon’s my partner here and I think I just have to go all in with my partner.” All that stuff is online. It’s not going anywhere.
The best thing for me is how you do get this sense of the universe that you and Jon built just expanding and expanding as you went along. The best example I can think of is Pudge. If I remember correctly, he started off as Jon calling up riffing on some callers you were getting one night and then he turned into this amazing recurring character.
Scharpling: Exactly. Pudge grew out of this one kid who would call up, a really smart kid but was really indecisive on the radio. And just that thing where he just be so non-committal to anything and Jon was doing the most exaggerated version of that on the heels of that call. That was totally him throwing a curveball at me. We just rode it and it grew into this other thing. The thing that Jon and I do, it just feels to me like it’s ESP at this point. We can go so far off script and I know how to follow where he’s going and he knows how to follow where I’m going or open it up for me to put him under the microscope on the dumb thing he’s saying. However we want to take it, we can go there. That’s a once in a lifetime creative relationship.
The Best of The Best Show comes out on 5/12. New episodes air live at thebestshow.net every Tuesday at 9 PM ET.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.