For two decades, Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster have proven to be one of the most consistently funny and hardworking teams in comedy. The pair performs their scripted phone calls each week on The Best Show and these segments remain as hilarious as they were when they started. The premise of each bit has Scharpling, the show’s host, take a call from a seemingly nice-sounding listener (Wurster). They converse for a few minutes about pop culture, politics, or whatever is happening in their lives. But as Scharpling inquires further into the guest’s life, the caller reveals himself to be a delusional egomaniac.
Wurster plays various residents from the fictional town of Newbridge, New Jersey, or will pretend to be celebrities like Gene Simmons (owner of Gene Simmons Toyota) or Elton John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (who helped start a music supergroup called MickNickPickMickNick with Mick Mars and Nick Hogan). Scharpling is the straight man who has to make sense of the absurd lines coming from that night’s caller. What makes Scharpling and Wurster’s phone calls work so well is how they let the conversations build to the point that when it becomes absurd, the comedy hits harder. The authentic sounding conversations help the jokes feel natural and earned.
Scharpling and Wurster performed their first phone call in 1997. Wurster played music critic Ronald Thomas Clontle, who had just released the self-proclaimed “ultimate argument settler” music book, Rock, Rot & Rule. Clontle told Scharpling which artists rocked (Ratt, Nirvana, Cheap Trick), which ones ruled (The Who, KISS, Everclear, Puff Daddy), and which ones rotted (Hanson, No Doubt, David Bowie). The call even sparked some on-air arguments with real listeners calling in, unaware they were arguing with a fictional music critic.
Since that first call, Scharpling and Wurster have mastered the art of their phone calls, scripting, performing, and compiling hours of material that have filled out the characters, history, and culture of Newbridge. One of my personal favorites is Wurster playing Danny Phipps, the leader of Glass Houses, America’s Number One Billy Joel Tribute Band. Phipps invests thousands of dollars into a cover band that’s constantly shifting members due to his absurd expectations and his 25-minute drum solos. Jon Benjamin then calls in, playing a member of a different Billy Joel tribute band that only covers “Captain Jack.”
The Best Show (previously on WMFU and now independently run on thebestshow.net) has also garnered the respect of notable comedians like Amy Poehler, Julie Klausner, Patton Oswalt, Nathan Fielder, Jake Fogelnest, and Conan O’Brien. O’Brien said the duo are “keeping the fine art of two-person comedy alive” and considers their work “some of the funniest stuff out there.”
The duo are now preparing for two “Rock, Rot & Rule” 20th anniversary shows at the Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn on October 21st. I spoke with them both by phone.
What was the motivation for doing a 20th anniversary show?
Jon Wurster: The 20th snuck up on us. I think at some point earlier in the year we realized it was the 20th anniversary and we thought, “Well, we should probably do something.”
Your calls sound spontaneous and improvised, but they’re mostly scripted. What do you think makes them come off so natural?
Wurster: That’s sort of the ultimate compliment when someone says that – that even though they are written out, that they sound pretty conversational. I think we just have it down to such a science at this point where we know how to make it sound conversational. The way it’s written is really not unlike how Tom and I actually speak to each other. That plays into it also.
Tom Scharpling: The twists and turns in the calls might make it seem crazier and more spontaneous in the moment when you’re hearing it. There’s all these strange paths that things go down, and it almost sounds like the kind of thing that makes people think it’s got an improvised spirit to it.
Are there specific calls fans will remind you about?
Scharpling: I hear about “Power Pop Pop Pop” a fair amount. There are certain ones that people gravitate towards, but then people throw a real curveball and I’m just like, “I honestly don’t remember that happening.” It’s kind of weird, but it’s nice. We just can’t sit around going down memory lane after [each call] happens. We kind of have to figure out next week’s show almost as soon as the previous show ends.
What I love about that first call, “Rock, Rot, & Rule,” is that callers come in and challenge Jon’s character thinking he’s real. You no longer have callers come on during the bits. What made you stop?
Wurster: It seemed, at least half the time, somebody would call in and, because it wasn’t established yet that this is what [we] do every week, casual listeners would think it’s a real call or they would think it was a joke and they’d call in and say that they knew it was a joke. In the middle of a bit we would get derailed by someone feeling they needed to chime in by saying, “This isn’t real.” The momentum of the calls was getting derailed.
Scharpling: There’s a path to these bits. People who knew about it would call and thought it was the perfect chance for them to do their character within the body of [our call]. We had a beginning, middle, and end ready to go and then it’s just hard to get it back on target.
Wurster: But there are some times when it worked. Like in “Rock, Rot & Rule” it couldn’t have worked any better. And the Gorch call was great for that, because people were calling in and adding their two cents and The Gorch really interacted well in that situation, but most of the time it didn’t really work.
Over the years fans will call in during The Best Show to do their own comedy bits. I know Brett Davis got hung up on several times, but kept calling and eventually got more time on the show. How did you decide, when people called in and did bits, if you’d hang up on them?
Scharpling: Brett Davis might have been the last one to get through the door, and that was probably about 11,12 years ago. It just doesn’t feel like something I’m interested in having the show be. It’s not a talent show where I’m just hosting this thing and everybody’s calling up doing whatever thing they can come up with. Our thing is predetermined and written and planned out, and then the calls that are not me and Jon I just end up taking a different approach with. [I’m] not really looking to turn it into a thing where everybody’s calling doing characters. It loses what’s special about what [Jon and I] are doing.
When you’re structuring the calls, is there a hesitation in repeating yourselves by calling back to previous bits?
Wurster: Sometimes it’s fun to do that because it helps to re-establish this crazy world of Newbridge where everyone lives in the same town, and when you refer back to another call it just kind of adds to that. And the trouble with it is, because we’ve been doing it so long and there have been so many calls, we never know what we’ve already done. Luckily we have a guy named Rob who is kind of an archivist for us. I’ll always reach out to him and say, “What was the last we heard from so and so? Did he die?” We try not to repeat things that way or try not to contradict something that has already been established.
Was there any call you remember that contradicted something you’d previously done?
Scharpling: There’s probably like a hundred things that have just like…characters have ended up dead. [laughs] There’s been some pretty heavy duty contradictions of reality. I think The Gorch was coming [to the studio] and it took forever.
Wurster: It took him years. [laughs]
Scharpling: It took him years to get there. And then he showed up and then he never was currently in vicinity to me. There’s kind of a reset button on some of the things like that.
There seems to be the idea that you have to follow a certain path into comedy, taking classes at UCB or doing open mics as a standup. Did you ever feel you need to do improv or standup?
Wurster: Not on my end. I never had any aspirations for anything like this. I just feel so lucky that I found, through Tom, a way to do it. I think it proves that you don’t need to go that route if you can come up with something different and original. It took us however many years of this to forge our way through it, and people seem to like it, which is great. I don’t think we ever really expected it to end up where it did. We were just doing it for ourselves for so many years. There was no payoff. We didn’t even know if there was an audience. We just did it because we loved doing it.
Scharpling: Everybody’s gotta figure their own way to whatever their thing is. It depends on what your goals are. If your goals are to get on Saturday Night Live then you probably should go to UCB or go get some real improv training so you can be good at that, but then there’s people who have gotten through the door without any of that too. There’s no right way to get wherever you want to get. You just got to stay in it. Anytime anybody asks for advice, I have literally no idea. I’m not even sure how I ended up where I’m at, how we ended up where we’re at. It’d be like one of those maps in a movie where somebody’s going cross-country, but then they show the path and they’re all over the place and they finally end up there. I don’t even know what the map was. But then you look back and it’s like, suddenly there’s 20 years and a legit body of work we’ve done. Very strange.
When Best Show started people would write you with negative opinions of the show.
Scharpling: Yeah, people didn’t like the show. It was not a popular show. And for it to be called The Best Show on WMFU, it was kind of a big joke early on. There were so many popular shows and this show wasn’t one of them.
Sometimes when people consistently receive negative feedback it makes them want to quit. What made you guys stay with it?
Scharpling: We always had positive feedback from people we trusted. I think that was what made the difference.
Wurster: And also, we were lucky that this all started at a time when you weren’t instantly under the microscope. Now you do anything and it’s filmed immediately and everyone knows about it immediately and the only way to really hear us, early on, was on the radio. I don’t think it was archived at that point, was it?
Scharpling: When the show started in 2000 that was the beginning of the archive. Everything we did before that, including “Rock, Rot, & Rule,” kind of laid the groundwork to do this on a weekly basis. That stuff was not archived. Even then you have to remember how slowly the internet moved. If you wanted to hear something it took a while for your computer to upload it. Early on it really was off the radar. That was a good thing, because by the time people started getting on board we were really cranking.
Jon, you said you were happy to achieve success at a later age because you were able handle it better. What do you think you can handle better now that you couldn’t when you were younger?
Wurster: I think you realize that whatever fame or notoriety [you get] is fleeting or is sort of bullshit. It doesn’t really mean anything. You have to be happy with yourself. I see the success for us coming in 2009 or 2010, which is a long time after we started. I was in my mid-40s by that point. It didn’t have the same impact as it would have in my 20s. You’re able to appreciate it more. When you’re young and you become successful you think you deserve it and you don’t know why there’s not more of it, whereas if you’re later in life you appreciate it more. And you’re more thankful for it, I found.
Your expectations are higher when you’re younger.
Wurster: In terms of music, I thought I’d be where I am now in my late 20s. It came about 20 years after I thought it would. [laughs] Which was great because hopefully I’m not a dick about it.
Tom, you said you felt you lost your 20s working at a record store and not going to a school like Harvard still bothers you.
Scharpling: Look, I’m happy with where I am ultimately. All the things got me where I am now. I will take it if that’s what led me to be where I am now. I will forever be bothered by a certain kind of school, it will hang around my neck for the rest of my life. But it’s not like I’m thinking about it all day long. It’s just there. I wish it went differently, but it didn’t.
Is it related to successful people in the industry going to certain schools and being able to follow a certain track?
Scharpling: I know people who went to Harvard who are some of the funniest people I’ve ever met or worked with, but then some of the dumbest people I ever met went to Harvard and had a pretty clear path and the door just kind of opened. When you have that network it’s shocking how it’s like a fast lane for certain people’s careers. It’s a real thing, but it’s also something that you can’t get too worried about either.
I always hear people say that in order to be successful just work hard and be nice. But there’s a luck aspect too. Did luck play a factor for both of you?
Wurster: For music, it’s a lot of right place, right time in my case. You have to have the talent to pull it off once you make that connection. I think it’s both. I think there’s luck, and then once you get lucky, you also have to have the goods to do it.
Scharpling: Nobody’s going to give you a pass because of what got you in the door.
There’s an overlap between music and comedy. You guys have seemed to fulfill both passions. Did you ever feel like you had to choose one?
Wurster: No, because I’ve always seen myself as a music guy first. I was lucky enough to meet Tom and we figured out a way to do something. I never felt there was any conflict really. The only conflict really comes in that now a lot of times the bands I play in, we go on stage at 9:00pm and I’m done at midnight so I can’t always call into the show Tuesday night.
Scharpling: I had to make a choice when I was doing the radio show before it was called The Best Show. It was taking a lot of time and it was a music show, records for the most part. We did “Rock, Rot, & Rule” within that show, but on the whole it was still a music show. There was just a point where I quit doing my show because I wanted to focus on writing. I wanted to aim my energies in one direction. But then, strangely enough, the radio show came back again and that was the ticket for so much of the stuff that I’ve done in my career. That was something I thought was getting in the way of what I needed to focus on.
So what will fans see at the show later this month?
Wurster: It’s more of a celebration of our partnership. That’s the big part of it. It’s making note of our 20 years together.
Anything else you’re working on?
Wurster: We’re always hoping to do more things. The hard part is getting our schedules in sync. Tom’s always got a lot going on and I’m on the road a lot touring. There’s the issue of finding the time to actually get together and do those things. We definitely want to do more live shows like we did a couple of years ago.
Scharpling: It really is finding the balance. I think there will be another run of stuff that we’ll do over the next year, but right now we’re just going to do this and the show every Tuesday.
Photo by Rob Hatch Miller.
The Best Show airs Tuesday nights from 9:00pm to midnight on thebestshow.net.