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Tom Scharpling Talks Classic ‘Best Show on WFMU’ Moments

It’s a bittersweet day in the world of radio (and streaming radio): Tonight at nine, listeners both in the Tristate broadcast area and streaming the world over will tune in to the final episode of Tom Scharpling’s "The Best Show on WFMU." For thirteen years, Scharpling has hosted this freewheeling three-ring circus of a weekly show that melds music, sketch comedy, interviews, call-ins from loyal (and, in some cases, famous) fans, as well as those from his longtime writing partner Jon Wurster, who regularly phones in as a wide array of ridiculous characters. During the lead-up to his radio farewell, Vulture called Scharpling to share his memories and thoughts on six of the show’s most iconic moments.

Let’s start with “ Rock, Rot, and Rule ,” a 1997 call in which Wurster played a music critic who’d written a book about how every musical act either “rocks,” “rots,” or “rules.” That actually predates "Best Show," right? You were just doing a more conventional show on WFMU, the free-form, listener-supported radio station in New Jersey.
That was three years before we called it "The Best Show." At that point, I was doing a music show with some call-in stuff and some talk, but primarily music. There was this thing where Oprah Winfrey settled some lawsuit with the beef council, where she'd slandered them and she won the case, and [in a press conference] she said freedom “not only lives, it rocks.” And that's all we could talk about, how dumb that sounded. So we just started joking around and came up with this thing that we could do on the radio, and we did it and at that point, it was something that came out of left field. Nobody thought that kind of thing would be on my show. It was like something that fell from the sky.

Moving on to 2001, that’s when you featured the first appearance of Wurster’s “Gorch” character , a violent, amoral man who claims to have been the original inspiration for Fonzie on Happy Days. What made that character interesting to you?
To me, the funniest part was really just taking on the fifties. The fifties gets so sanitized, and Happy Days is one of those shows that contributed to that. Everyone thinks of when JFK got assassinated as America losing its innocence or whatever, but that means, before that, it was a genuinely innocent time. But then you think about what was going on, and it wasn't innocent at all! It's like any other time in America: there's an underbelly to any period. The Gorch bit was the ugly side of the fifties. Fonzie would've been a terrible, scary creep if he was who he was supposed to be. And then, just the idea of having it be that classic type: a person who's tangentially connected to showbiz. People with their showbiz stories and showbiz nightmares: to me, that's just the funniest thing ever.

In 2007, you had Patton Oswalt on the show and he ended up riffing with one of Wurster’s most famous characters, the depraved entrepreneur Philly Boy Roy. Roy got Patton to improvise a scene from a proposed movie that would combine Rocky and Rambo into a single character called “Rambocky.”  Since around then, comedians have been a regular staple of your show, from Zach Galifianakis to Paul Scheer.
Patton’s been so insanely generous with the show for so long that I can't process it. To have him be a part of these things and loving it, it's like, man, that's one of the best things to come out of this show, to make things with people you idolize and think are brilliant. To have them like what you do in return? It's very hard to process.

To me, Philly Boy Roy is like Ralph Kramden or Homer Simpson or any of these guys who are schemers and they have these dreams and responsibilities, and they fall short. They're just too human. He's so satisfying. I love Philly Boy Roy so much. It's as satisfying as it gets, him doing things, because there's so much heart underneath it. Even though he's doing the worst things ever, there's still heart. To make something like that together, it's magic.

In 2009, your dog, Dogmo, died. The next week, you did a heartfelt on-air tribute to him. Were you nervous about doing a show that earnest and emotional?
No, not at all. It was this thing where I had built the dog into a character on the show, and it was something that had happened the previous Tuesday [the night "Best Show" airs], when the dog got sick and died within a day. I'd gotten someone to fill in real fast for me that night, and when I came back the next week, I had to talk about what happened, because that dog was the greatest. It's one of those things everybody can relate to. I always get e-mails from people who go through [the death of a dog], saying that show helped them out, to hear it, to hear me playing music about my dog and talking about it. I guess it gives people some kind of comfort. I'm really glad I did it.

Then, in December of 2010, you drank a bunch of Four Loko on the air and things quickly spun out of control. What do you remember of that night?
I remember getting the Four Loko, and I remember drinking it on an empty stomach. I drank two cans in a little more than an hour. And then I remember feeling great. And then I remember falling out of my chair. And then I don't remember things. And then I remember the show being over. I know there was some caroling going on there that I don't recall, and I'm pretty sure I sang part of a Barenaked Ladies song, but I don't really remember. I've never heard it. I probably never will hear it. It happened, and I can only pick up the pieces and go forward. [Laughs.]

You’ve really never listened to it? It’s become such a fan favorite.
I don't care! [Laughs.] It's probably the least appealing thing I can think of, to hear that. Also, it's nice to have a thing where you don't know what it was like. It's the one hour of all of the hours of the show that I've hosted that I wasn't conscious of. That's a nice kind of asterisk.

One last one: A few months ago, Bob Odenkirk called in to the show and had a conversation with Gary the Squirrel, a screeching puppet you regularly use on the show, and the two of them talked about Breaking Bad. Was it liberating to swap your usual role in two-person bits and have someone else play the straight man?
I wasn't even sure it was going to come together. He was supposed to call in earlier and got delayed. He knows what the show is to a point, but I don't think he was completely up to speed with certain things. But he played along well with it, and I think it adds up to something really funny. Because when I'm doing something like that, I'm feeling like, "I just hope this segment comes together and that Bob calls in." I can look back and be like, "This was this way or that way," but at the time, it's really just, "Man, I hope this doesn't fall apart before it starts."

But once Bob was on the line, did you get into the zone?
Well, to a point, it always feels stupid to have a guy like that, who you admire, and then you have him talking to this screeching voice. It makes you feel stupid on a core level. But it's also that much more satisfying that, here's this guy who's a comedy legend and is on everybody's favorite TV show, and this is how I'm using him! I'm having him be a prop for this squirrel to yell at and to lobby for showbiz connections. It's very unsettling, but then maybe it's more satisfying than anything, because it's as fun as it gets.

Photo: jvdalton/flickr