Today is something of a milestone, as it marks the end of a peerless 13-year run of the mirth, music, and mayhem that is The Best Show on WFMU. Hosted by former Monk producer and genius comic mind Tom Scharpling, the three-hour radio program has been a mainstay of the freeform Jersey City, N.J. radio station WFMU, helping to bring in thousands of dollars during pledge drives and providing thousands of hours of entertainment for a still-growing cadre of FoTs (Friends of Tom).
As great as Scharpling is on his own, he really shines when going back and forth with his regular comedic foil Jon Wurster. The erstwhile rock drummer (Superchunk, The Mountain Goats, Bob Mould) has been with The Best Show from the beginning, phoning up the show in a variety of guises, from a ‘roid raging computer repairman named Horse to vengeful DJ Hot Rockin’ Ronny to various members of Tom’s family.
The many calls that Scharpling and Wurster have cooked up over the years (some of which you can purchase on CD here or download as part of the Best Show Gems podcast have also engendered a number of recurring characters whose story arcs and general buffoonery are recounted joyously by the show’s international fanbase.
To commemorate the final edition of The Best Show, here’s a non-scientifically compiled list of Scharpling & Wurster’s 10 best comic creations.
I’m not sure that this one is a fan favorite, but I’m adding it here at the end as my personal. The premise of an executive from a TV network calling in to tout the new slate of programming allows Scharpling and Wurster the opportunity to go off on some amazing flights of fancy with shows like The Reggae Kid, Jerry Van Dyke’s Crime Crunchers, Celebrity Buried Alive and Guitar Dad.
Like Zachary Brimstead and Pudge, Bryce can be a bit of a one-note character. But there’s something almost endearing and strangely compelling about hearing the travails of this Deadhead who spends most of his time getting stoned in his home, a lean-to that sits behind the abandoned Lady Foot Locker at Newbridge Commons. Every Bryce appearance is full of surprises, as when he calls in sounding clear-eyed and a little intense after swearing off weed for a stretch.
Although Wurster tends to shy away from sending up celebrities, you hear the delight he has in strapping on an over-the-top “Noo Yawk” accent and poking good-natured fun at the former Ramones drummer. In this writer’s view, no call comes close to topping the night Marky rang in to promote his new series of adult fiction, “Marky Ramone’s Erotic Knights,” which included a dramatic reading from the first volume “Lady Wainsworth’s Desires.” Listen here.
How about this for outlandish? In 2005, Wurster introduced Timmy Von Trimble, a two-inch tall failed genetic experiment by his scientist parents. He lives in a dollhouse, drives Hot Wheels cars around and, oh yeah, is an absolutely unapologetic white supremacist. His first call to the show is a classic example of the Scharpling and Wurster slow reveal. It takes a full seven minutes of cute chatter about life as a very tiny person before he finally unveils his unctuous racism (“Let’s just say I’m not a fan of Margaret Cho…or Cheech Marin.”).
Another mainstay of Wurster’s work on The Best Show is how absolutely outlandish his characters are. Even when he’s portraying an actual person like Todd Palin or Marky Ramone (see above), there’s no mistaking them for the real thing. That’s what makes his character Corey Harris cut so close to the bone—this could be a real guy. The leader of a has-been/never-was alt-rock band called Mother 13, Harris is shameless in his desire for stardom, willing to ply his wares at ridiculous events like the Bud Light/Snickers Dancin’ in the District Festival. Wurster finally sent Harris completely off the rails when he had the band stage a concert on the top of Mount Everest, an epic journey that resulted in the deaths of The Polyphonic Spree, Clarence Clemons, and Buddy Guy.
With a few exceptions, Jon Wurster tends not to do many “voices” with his characters, only pitching his speech a little higher or lower to suit the needs of the bit. But when he does go all-in with an almost cartoonish vocalization it is brilliantly outlandish. One of the best examples is his thick, glottal voice work as Zachary Brimstead, a corpulent barbershop quartet enthusiast who loves to call in to torment Tom with disturbing renditions of originals (“Barbershop Lover”) and cover songs (Death Cab’s “Soul Meets Body”), or unnervingly releasing his massive gut from the grips of a cummerbund. Listen Esq.%28originally+aired+on+November+28,+2000%29+from+May+16,+2011">here.
Depending on how patient of a person you are, Pudge could be one of the funniest or one of the most infuriating characters ever conceived for the show. A young genius that dabbles in literature and modern classical composition but suffers from some serious self-confidence issues. He punctuates every topic of discussion with stuttering and hedging interjections. For example, here’s Pudge discussing part of Mahler’s Symphony #5: “Well, it’s like, it’s like the seventh note of like this, I don’t know, it’s like, you know, of this scale, and there’s like, you know, after like that note happens, there’s like this, I don’t know, there’s this big desire like to kinda resolve to the tonic. You know, the tonic and stuff.”
If the majority of Jon Wurster’s characters have a connecting thread, it’s a determination to still be considered “cool” even as they approach middle age. No one exemplifies this better than Darren Ploppelton, Tom’s constantly put-upon and easily riled co-worker from Consolidated Cardboard. When he’s not hectoring Tom to take their band more seriously, Darren rhapsodizes with great delusion about attending a rock fantasy camp or buying a tour bus to take his band to L.A. for a potential audition for Poison’s bassist Bobby Dall.
Roland Gorchnik first called into The Best Show to promote his book “The Real Life Fonzie’s Guide to Real Life,” claiming, as the title should tell you, that he was the real inspiration behind Henry Winkler’s iconic character on Happy Days. To hear The Gorch tell it, they got it completely wrong. No chain fights, no boozing, no making your friends “wear a car.” As with most calls, the initial interview ended badly, inspiring The Gorch to make a memorable in-studio appearance to promote his film The La-Z-Boy Killer and wheeze his way through a rendition of his single, ”(Gonna Have A) Chain Fight Tonight.”
Possessed of an inordinate amount of pride for his home of Philadelphia, the thickly accented “Philly Boy” Roy Ziegler has gone through quite the story arc over his many years calling into the show. He’s dealt with the torment of his supposedly psychic son, was elected Mayor of Newbridge, was hired as CEO of Wawa Records and Filmed Entertainment (with plans to release Rambocky, a delirious hybrid of Rambo and Rocky) and dabbled in all manner of illegal and unsavory activity. Through it all, he maintains a wonderfully chipper demeanor and always takes time to extol the virtues of Philly’s greatest exports: hoagies, cheesesteaks, Peanut Chews, Yuengling beer, Rocky Balboa, “nem Eagles,” “nem Hooters,” and, of course, TastyKakes.