Strapped In, Helmet On: Tom Scharpling Talks the New ‘Best Show’

The last thing listeners heard during the final episode of The Best Show on WFMU was Black Flag’s “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” – a sign-off but not exactly a goodbye. For several months, fans of the program wondered what host Tom Scharpling would do next. The answer is a revived Best Show, debuting soon on rather than the New Jersey radio station on which it aired for more than a decade.

The original Best Show combined the call-in talk format with written segments by Scharpling and comedy partner (slash indie rock drummer) Jon Wurster. In the course of a typical episode, Scharpling would hang up on a series of well-intentioned callers and interview (Wurster as) one of the many deviants inhabiting the fictional Jersey town of Newbridge. The show featured guests such as John Hodgman and Julie Klausner, developed an international fan base, and produced more than 1,500 hours of strange but highly-quotable radio. Now, fourteen years after The Best Show on WFMU premiered in 2000, Scharpling is preparing to make a career out of it.

What have you missed most about doing the show in the year you spent away from it?

It’s really the purest thing that I’ve had in my life in terms of getting to do comedy the way I would want to do it. There’s no barriers – outside of the FCC stuff, which has never been a problem for me. Not having that in my life, I kind of realized what it was.

I have a question about those [FCC] restrictions, actually. It’s a little surreal listening to you on something like Todd Barry’s podcast or listening to you talk to Marc Maron and just hearing you curse. Doing an Internet show, you’ll have no outside broadcasting restrictions, so I’m wondering – how crucial to the original Best Show was the “hard-G” approach you used?

I think it helped in a lot of ways. I mean, the “hard-G” – there was always a little smudging going on there. It’s a PG-13 show, ultimately. I’ve always liked approaching the stuff as a broadcaster – it’s not a conservative thing, but you respect the language and the choices of words. There’s a consideration that has to go into it. To not use curse words for adjectives when they don’t need to be there. I think it’s helped me learn how to get an equivalent impact from non-swear words.

Have you thought at all about how much more latitude you’ll give yourself now? Whether the days of pretending to mute Jon Wurster during some of those calls are over?

On the whole, we’re not going to change the thing. I think that would feel a little hollow – suddenly start to curse up a storm just because I can. Because we were more conservative than we had to be, really. We were not pushing things right up to the edge of what you can and can’t say on the radio. I could have said “asshole” on the radio if I wanted. There’s certain ways you can say it. (It can’t be scatological.)

Also, the FCC was like a sliding thing. It’s not some uniform set of rules. They would get conservative and they would get loose with stuff and then they would get conservative again. I didn’t want to play with that. It was like, ‘We’ve established a way we talk here, so let’s hold onto that. It works for me.’

Although the new Best Show won’t be subscription-based, it will be something that every listener has to opt in to – you’ll no longer have callers who discover the show while moving across the radio dial. [The new version will stream live online.] How much do you expect to miss that contingent of callers?

The impact of what that was has diminished over the last bunch of years. I just don’t think people listen to terrestrial radio in the way they used to. The idea of the dial scanner is still real, but once the show was kind of rolling, those people might not have been able to get through. If they heard it and wanted to call back in 2001, they’d get through, but later, the lines were always packed, so it wasn’t really an option for them to get on the air and go, ‘What is this?’

I’ve been listening to some of the archived shows, and it’s really nice when callers stop calling to try and poke a hole in whatever scene you and Jon Wurster are creating.

That was a very conscious thing. When we were putting this boxed set together, we heard it in these calls – there was a point where, if we were going to take the calls where we wanted to take them, we couldn’t invite the audience to be a part of it. And we had to close the door on those [audience] calls, because so many people did not stop saying ‘This isn’t real!’ Of course it’s not real. You’re really blowing the lid off things be deducing that … Zachary Brimstead was one where people were like, ‘This is fake! What is this?’ Yeah. How hard is it to figure out that it’s not real?

It was also good for us because it took any kind of prank-ish component to the show off the table. It was me and it was John, and the conversation didn’t go past the two of us. We could take it where we wanted to without having to also battle the audience at the same time.

After that real sea change, when the show had built up a sizeable cult following, what do you think changed most about how you approached the show?

It took longer to do things – there were more emails, more to sort through. Even the responsibility of what the show was in terms of fundraising [for WFMU] was a little more intense. But in terms of the actual product, I don’t know. I always wanted to keep pushing with the show and what we could figure out that would be new, so the thing was not set the way Saturday Night Live is. Saturday Night Live has structure, and it’s the variety show structure, and it’s always worked, but we didn’t have to obey that. We’re doing something that’s open ended and can go wherever it wants to go. It doesn’t have to be, ‘An hour into every show, this is the exact moment that Jon calls, and then this is the moment I put a topic on the table’ – you can’t set your watch to it.

The goal was to add elements, whether it’s sound collages or puppets or whatever weird stuff made sense. I don’t know what’s going to stick when I try those things. And it’s humiliating doing a puppet, on some level. Totally humiliating. You’re so vulnerable, you look so stupid for the first thirty seconds – and then the power balance shifts. The greatest thing with Gary the Squirrel would be, after about a minute, [a guest] would start talking to Gary, not even look at me anymore, watching the puppet. It was insane to watch that go down every single time. I’m not even there anymore; I’m like a bystander.

I like the idea that [The Best Show] was open ended enough that something like that could suddenly take a big role in the show.

With Vance and Gary [Tom’s puppets], did you know from the second you started that you had to have those puppets on your hand while you were doing them on the radio?

Oh, yeah. As embarrassing as it is to do a puppet, it would be exponentially more humiliating to do the voice without the puppet on your hand. That would feel truly stupid. That would be shameful.

I’d like to talk about the boxed set for a second, too. The best of the WFMU years. Putting this together, reviewing old work – you’re looking at a reflection of yourself; yourself and Jon Wurster, anyway. Is there anything about what the two of you do together than you noticed or understood for the first time?

The volume of it was the big thing. It hit us: ‘There’s so much of this.’ That got lost in the process of doing the show each week – [the Newbridge sketches] are thirty, forty minutes at a time, and then suddenly you’ve done seven hundred of these things. Hundreds of hours. The scope of it was crazy.

Also, hearing how we play off each other – hearing that evolve to where… We’re putting the box together, reviewing all these calls – ‘What do you think of this one?’ – and there’s this comfort between us on those calls from the last few years. We can really take control of the thing, and it’s not rambling like it would be sometimes. Just locked in, an ESP-kind-of thing we grew into. Which we always had, but to me, it’s highly advanced in the last couple years.

You can find, on a place like YouTube – [crashing sound] – sorry, my cat just knocked a box of thumbtacks over.

That’s a fun thing to have on the floor. Not like it would hurt to step on them.

[Sound of thumbtacks being collected] Okay, I think they’re all accounted for.

Good… That did not sound like many thumbtacks.

No, no. It was a dwindling supply.

Okay. But a pretty underwhelming box of thumbtacks, if you picked them up in four seconds. It sounded like you might have had a box with two thumbtacks in it.

It only takes one to stick a hole in your foot.

Look, that’s exactly it. One thumbtack – ‘It only takes one.’ Sounds like a poster.

What was I asking? Interactions with callers, all of the times you Bad Companied somebody, all the things that were a huge part of the show but you can’t compile for something like a boxed set… Is there anything that didn’t fit the boxed set, that retrospective format, that you really hope new or new-ish callers find their way to?

This boxed set is Scharpling and Wurster stuff – it doesn’t encapsulate all these different things from the show. I don’t think there’s any place for those other things in that form. I don’t think it would translate nearly as well. I think those things are meant to be heard in the context of a show, or as things people compile onto YouTube clips, like you said. On a CD, those things might be underwhelming. [The Scharpling and Wurster sketches] – that’s all written comedy. And the other stuff is much more spontaneous.

I’m really happy with where all these things seem to live. I think having YouTube compilations of that stuff is just spectacular. [Because] I never hear the stuff back. So it’s funny to hear it [on YouTube] – sometimes it’s my first time hearing it.

Many of the calls you and Jon Wurster did over the years find the humor in repetition like nothing else I can think of. The way, year after year, Jon’s characters would ask you if you were “strapped in,” or the way he would say “he passed on” at any mention of G.G. Allin. I was wondering when that really clicked for you guys – if there was anything like an ‘a-ha!’ moment about the way you reuse lines or gags.

I don’t know. I might not want to disassemble the watch and not be able to get it back together again. But it’s funny to us, and I guess it’s funny because we’re beating ourselves over the head with it. Funny references, and they become funnier because they hang around.

I’m not great at analyzing the mechanics of some of these things. I can feel it – the rhythms and stuff. We know when it’s working.

This is maybe too much of a job-interview question, but it might be a good note to end on. How have you measured success with The Best Show? And has that idea changed as you’ve built this new version?

I think creatively, the show’s been a success. I’m super proud of everything we’ve all accomplished with it – and turned this blank slate into this world. That three hours on WFMU, you can do whatever you want with it, and this is what we did with it. To me, that’s as successful as anything else I’ve had in my life in a creative or professional way.

In terms of it being a career, it hasn’t had a chance to be successful. The terms of the deal did not allow for that. I’m not complaining about it, that’s just how the setup worked at WFMU [a listener-supported station]. I’ll always think of it as a privilege to have been at the station, a place that I looked up to for a long time as a listener, and then I got to do a show there. Got to do a popular show there. My relationship with the station – I look to that as a success.

We’ll find out what we can do with this other area that we haven’t had a chance to explore. I really want to make a run at it and see what it can be. See what I can turn this thing into. I feel like I pushed pretty hard on the show in a lot of ways, but I don’t think I’ve pushed the way I plan on pushing. I’ve [recently] passed on stuff in my life that would pay – a real job that I really wanted – because I had to give this thing a chance. I can’t go thirteen-plus years with it and then, at the last second, not give it the shot that I have to give it.

For a long time, I thought of the show as a complement to my career as a writer rather than the other way around. But I’m friends with Paul Simms [creator of NewsRadio, writer for The Larry Sanders Show]. That’s one of the best things that’s come from it. My life changed with all the people I have as friends because of the show. He said to me, you’ve got to think about, ‘What’s the thing that only you can do? That’s what you’re supposed to be doing.’

A lot of people can staff up and write on a [television] series. But I think I’m the only one who can do this show. And Jon and I are the only ones who can do the calls the way we do them. I want to really give it a chance to be everything it can be.

Greg Hunter is a writer-editor from Minneapolis.

Strapped In, Helmet On: Tom Scharpling Talks the New […]