(L-R: Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster) Photo by Mindy Tucker
Tom Scharpling aims to make you laugh, and he does so with an air of effortlessness. His larger-than-life radio program The Best Show lived for 13 years terrestrially on WFMU and is now enjoying its first year as an independent weekly broadcast on TheBestShow.net and in podcast form. The show is three hours of "mirth, music and mayhem," and that longform time frame allows the humor to feel novel and spontaneous over the course of monologues, listener phone calls and endless toe-dips into absurdity. But don't be fooled: it only truly succeeds because Scharpling is and will never be afraid of trying very, very hard.
Scharpling's adventurous spirit and ironclad work ethic are laid out in a brand-new 16-CD boxed set that features over 20 hours of on-air calls from Jon Wurster (drummer for Superchunk, the Mountain Goats and Bob Mould, among others) to Scharpling throughout the show's history. Wurster began sculpting the calls with Scharpling in the earliest days of the Show, and has phoned in as an impossibly strange variety of characters within the expanding fictional town of Newbridge, New Jersey. The calls are in the eternal tradition of comedic duos (see: Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's 2000-year-old man) and, like anything crafted in a unique voice, it will take a minute to adjust to the speed of the ride. But soon enough, you'll never want to get off.
Scharpling talked us through the new Best Show, his relationship with Wurster and dreaming up a two-inch tall white supremacist named Timmy von Trimble.
Your role in The Best Show is split between humor and sincerity, and from that post you truly reach a large group of people, especially with the music you play on the show. Do you find excitement in being able to expose people to anything new through what you're doing?
I'm flattered anyone would even see it that way. For me, that was always the way I listened to music. Just going after the stuff to get excited about. I'm just trying not to talk like some authority.
But what's noteworthy is that whenever you are excited about something, you make it audible, loud and clear to the listeners.
That's exactly it. It really doesn't go much further than stuff I'm excited about. When I started off making a fanzine, I would get excited and write about [new music], and now I can play it and maybe have more of a direct impact for the band, where listeners can check it out and get excited since they just heard it. I listen to a lot more stuff that's not as high-energy, but it doesn't always fit the mode of ramping up and getting ready to do three hours of the show. I like quiet stuff too.
You gotta have the full sphere. Because we're well-rounded human beings.
Exactly! I'm not just a goon...
Listening to goon rock...
That could be your biography title.
That might actually be my theme song, or novelty record.
Your relation with Jon Wurster is defined to so many listeners by the sound of your voices, the differing cadences and Jon's higher register that he almost never alters when he calls. Do you ever think of your relationship in those terms?
Not really. I can hear the speed of things, but so much of it has to be about what we're saying so it's hard to ever revel in the sound of it.
It's definitely a secondary notion, but it does give it an additional dimension, especially over the course of time, which this box set really documents. Do the concepts of the calls come easily to you and Jon when you develop them?
Relatively easy. There's a surplus of ideas at this point, and we keep coming up with new concepts. We hit walls sometimes. The challenge is coming up with the next layer so it can sustain the length of a full call, so that there's enough ideas at work.
Can you recall an additional layer that one of you came up with that was a sharp right turn or elevated the concept?
I would say the best example is for Timmy von Trimble, who's the guy calling and he's two inches tall. Then, all of a sudden we made him this white-power guy also. Which is like... definitely getting it to the next level. Because now you're just swinging back and forth. You're not sure if you think it's cute because everything he's doing is little, but then he's the most repellent person going, talking about his horrible, horrible worldview. That to me is a good example of one of us saying, "Hey, what if this guy was two inches tall?" And the other one of us saying, "And then... what if he was a racist?"
Much of the bloodwork of The Best Show is you putting yourself out there and not knowing exactly where it will go. How important is that risk of doing it live?
Taking a break from the show when we moved from WFMU to doing it as a standalone was the first chance to reflect on what had happened before. It became clear that my favorite part of the show is the live part of it. It adds a certain amount of energy. We need the calls because that's what makes the show so exciting -- doing it live. But when you're doing it, it's not the best thing to take a watch apart to see what makes it run, if you also need a watch. Either I need this thing to work and am just gonna trust that it's working, or I'm going to disassemble it and see what's in there.
With the loyalty of your fan base being so strong, and with you having been doing it for free for so long, how have you dealt with the shift into your new format?
It's pretty simple: I just want people to listen. That's how we'll get this thing on track. If the numbers are strong, then that helps with advertising and then the show makes money. I'm just trying to do it this way [as opposed to the monumental fundraising done while on WFMU] and ask directly of people, all they have to do is just show up and we'll keep growing.
I think that's the moral of the story: you're continuing to do what you do, and if the people who have been showing up keep showing up, being as excited as you are, then you can survive and be happy and proud.
I hope so too. We're at the start of it, so there's definitely a lot of challenges we're trying to sort through and get things figured out. I feel like everything's going to work; we just have to grow and keep settling in. Just like any other new endeavor, it doesn't start out at 100 percent. Every week it gets better and better, and I feel really good about where it's going.
The Best of the Best Show is out today on Numero Group. Details here.