Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
Tom Scharpling, Jon Wurster, and The Best Show are currently enjoying a lovely cultural renaissance over a decade in the making. After the show’s epic run on independent, listener-supported New Jersey community station WFMU ended in late 2013, Scharpling gloriously resurrected it as an online-only entity in late 2014. Earlier this year, meanwhile, the Numero Group paid tribute to the show’s impressive legacy with an insanely exhaustive 16-disc box set that compiles over twenty hours of the funniest conversations between host Scharpling and an endless series of fake “guests” voiced by Wurster, who moonlights as one of the most sought-after drummers in rock and a member of Superchunk and The Mountain Goats.
The duo have toured the country in support of the box set, appeared on Late Night With Seth Myers, and Jack White is putting out a live album of their Nashville Show at his Third Man Records venue – which means that technically the duo are label mates with Insane Clown Posse, who released a White-produced seven inch on Third Man Records as well.
The Best Show, in its various forms, does not lend itself to casual fandom. There seem to be two kinds of people in the world: people who don’t know Scharpling & Wurster and the kind of obsessives for whom a 16-disc box set is a nice start but only a start. It takes an intense investment of time and energy to be a Scharpling & Wurster die-hard, starting with the three hours a week it takes to listen to each show. To devotees, The Best Show offers a rich treasure trove of inside jokes and meta-references, from an ever-shifting and evolving sound collage rooted in Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” that also serves as a sonic voyage through the pop-culture-cluttered detritus of Scharpling’s psyche to a series of conventions that reappear over and over again in Scharpling & Wurster bits, like Wurster’s indignant cry of, “Wait, whut?” and tendency to end calls with threats, often of the murderous variety.
The nearly hundred-minute long “Newbridge Mayubinatorial Debate”, which can be found on the box-set and appeared in The Best Show’s best-of podcast, Best Show Gems, feels like a thank you to the show’s core cultists for their years of devotion. The debate is a deliberate attempt to summarize everything the show had done in one giddily overstuffed comic extravaganza.
The episode takes the form of a televised and radio broadcast debate moderated by host Tom Scharpling and featuring Wurster in a bravura performance as many, if not most, of the recurring characters he breathed life into as Scharpling’s ongoing comic foil. The only candidate not voiced by Wurster is voiced by The Best Show associate producer Mike Lisk (as himself), who is every bit as perfect a comic foil as Wurster, but in a less virtuoso, more everyman kind of way.
As befits a show hosted by a music obsessive and featuring a top-tier professional musician, The Best Show is obsessed with the world of music and the demented egos that occupy it. Accordingly, many of the candidates are music-related, including Hammerhead, an aggressive alpha-male whose primary concern in life is ensuring that hardcore mosh pits are sufficiently intense; singer-songwriter Barry Dworkin; arrogant, obese barbershop quartet enthusiast Zachary Brimstead Esquire; and The Ramones drummer Marky Ramone.
As with many cult phenomenons, the more invested you are in the world of The Best Show and its fictional hometown of Newbridge, a burgh every bit as lovingly developed and multi-dimensional as The Simpsons’ Springfield and SCTV’s Melonville, the more you get out of the show. The Mayubinatorial Debate is still funny if you’ve never listened to the show, but there is an additional level of enjoyment that comes from knowing the inter-group dynamics of The Ramones that Wurster’s Marky Ramone references, or that Dworkin is also the man behind a hilarious previous call where he chronicled his attempts to create an insanely specific American version of The Beatles to sing what he delusionally considers an automatic number one song that doubles as a parody of working classic story songs of the Bruce Springsteen variety.
It’s impressive enough that Wurster is able to get inside the minds of so many different characters on The Best Show. It’s even more impressive that he was able to switch between so many different personalities over the course of a single recording. Wurster’s performance here would be a remarkable feat of physical exertion and mental concentration even if it wasn’t also damn near flawless in its comic delivery and timing.
“The Newbridge Mayubinatorial Debate” is essentially a Best Show movie in audio form, in terms of ambition, effort and length. If, God forbid, aliens came down to earth and destroyed nearly all of The Best Show archive (and only most of the Best Show archive, strangely), leaving behind only “The Newbridge Mayubinatorial Debate”, there would be enough in that one individual podcast to convey the full extent of the show’s greatness. In that respect, the show’s magnum opus of an episode represents the box set in miniature form.
Photo by Jason Marck.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
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