A Love Letter To The Best Show On WFMU

On December 17th, 2013 a little piece of me will die. The Best Show on WFMU, which has appeared on the New Jersey freeform radio station for the past 13 years, will broadcast for the final time. To the uninitiated, it’s quite a difficult enterprise to nutshell (to use the parlance of the show itself).
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On December 17th, 2013 a little piece of me will die. The Best Show on WFMU, which has appeared on the New Jersey freeform radio station for the past 13 years, will broadcast for the final time. To the uninitiated, it’s quite a difficult enterprise to nutshell (to use the parlance of the show itself).

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Ostensibly it’s a listener call-in programme hosted by Tom Scharpling, a man who was perfectly designed for the radio. He can shape the show instinctively as it bounds along, taking his cues from the caller’s obsessions, intrigues and ludicrous stories or holding forth himself on the media’s indiscretions of that week. Tom’s determined and indeterminate rage fuels the show. That’s the nature of its genius. Just when it appears to have hit its lowest ebb, Scharpling’s utter disdain for whatever is being offered, powers it back over the parapet and takes it somewhere weird.

WFMU's Best Show Gems with Tom Scharpling from 7/22/2013

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It often walks this razor’s edge between glorious success and miserable, ignoble failure. This tension underpins everything. A welter of terrible, pointless calls will send Tom to the brink of reaching for Miles Davis’s Pangaea, or invariably threaten to quit. At some point during every week’s show it seems like he claims that particular edition will be his last. Then a few weeks ago he acted on his threat and pulled the plug on the Best Show.

It’s the sort of show that probably has to die before its influence is truly felt. The way Mr Show’s glory years were long after it had vanished, when it was shared like this precious little commodity only the initiated were worthy of. Certainly a large crop of the current comedy podcasts have taken liberally from the Best Show, but without the time restraints and FCC restrictions of radio, they have created enterprises more focused and saleable. But far less charming.

It’s one of those shows that feels like it slipped through the net, from the ‘how did this happen’ school of broadcasting, alongside gems such as Chris Elliot’s Get a Life, SCTV or Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job. Programmes that make no sense at all and have no right to exist, but somehow make perfect sense at the same time. In recent months, it has actually grown even weirder. As well as celebrity callers such as Patton Oswalt, Todd Barry, John Hodgman and Julie Klausner and regular contributors from around the world, puppets have now entered the Best Show fray, in the form of prog rock loving Vance and the comedian baiting Gary the Squirrel. There has also been an ever expanding experimental sound collage inspired by the terror-inducing Suicide track Frankie Teardrop and a terrible Grateful Dead bootleg featuring Pigpen scat-singing a cover of the Rascals Good Lovin’. (As stated, it’s a hard show to adequately explain).

As much as the show has developed into such a wonderful mish-mash of baffling elements, I also miss the sweetness of the show’s formative years, where Tom would crank call the WFMU kids’ show or sing along to Belle and Sebastian’s ‘I Fought in a War’ while in the background a caller would blather on incessantly about Studio 54. There was a little more space to the show then, it really felt like it was midnight at the end of the world and all that existed was Tom and whatever lunatic he happened to be talking to at the time.

WFMU's Best Show Gems with Tom Scharpling from 12/13/2010

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But the true genius of the show lies in Tom’s relationship with his comedy partner Jon Wurster. Each week Wurster calls in under the guise of a citizen from the fictional New Jersey hub of Newbridge, but conventional conversation soon slips into a disarming world of veiled threats, laser whips, cape wearing mice, GG Allin references and designer drugs.

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The beauty of these bits is that they have time to grow. Scharpling and Wurster will often talk for 45 minutes, expounding on some ludicrous topic that’s very often music related. And they go deep, sensationally deep, especially in their mention of obscure drummers from British New Wave bands of the 1980’s and the DC hardcore scene (I can’t imagine too many SNL skits mentioning French Toast or Rites of Spring). And they go dark. Most chats usually end with Wurster’s character threatening to murder Scharpling in some way (Exsanguination is particularly popular). And they can be filthy, as far as the radio will allow, with much mention of ‘mouth fun’ and ‘devices’.

WFMU's Best Show Gems with Tom Scharpling from 11/15/2010

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The humour plays on so many different levels, incorporating current obsessions and reverting to popular favourites, such as Philadelphia obsessed Philly Boy Roy, Tom’s workmate from Consolidated Cardboard Darren and the surprisingly erotic Marky Ramone. It joyfully bounces between being supremely smart and hilariously dumb; it’s almost perfect comedy. Just track down Kid Ebay for a perfect example of a sketch that no-one else could ever possibly write and perform, ideas that I couldn’t conjure in a million years. That’s always the most attractive comedy to me, stuff that surprises me to the point of envious rapture.

Elements of the Scharpling and Wurster lexicon have entered my regular vocabulary. I now say ‘hand-burger’ instead of hamburger (it makes sense, you eat them with your hand). I invariably call a toilet a ‘toity’ (or possibly ‘turlet’) and always refer to the main character in Happy Days as ‘Funzie’. It has had a profound effect on my comedy landscape and has been a constant source of inspiration.

These Wurster bits, plus celebrity guests, regular callers, the interjections of AP Mike, Tom’s tirades and musical interludes can often feel a little overwhelming. It’s not a show that can be easily digested, you have to grow into it and put in the work. It took a while for me, I have to admit. But it’s worth it. The second it clicks, you’ll suddenly find yourself rampaging through the hundreds of archives on the WFMU site. Then you know you’ve become a true FOT (Friend of Tom) and the gates of Newbridge will swing open wide to let you in.

So it makes me desperately sad that the show is leaving us, at least in its current incarnation. Though I am sure Scharpling and Wurster will continue to create amazing comedy and Tom’s rage will fail to be contained, it will sad to leave behind regular callers like Spike (the doo-wop loving, horror movie watching oddball) or Jason from Huntsville and his tales of monkeys in pick-up trucks or Fredericks from New Port Richey and his Christmas tree burning rituals. Tuesday nights will never quite be the same, but as Tom has taken to saying, he don’t wanna go, but he’s gotta go. Farewell then Best Show, for a while there, there was nothing better.

Best Show archives

Best Show Gems (A great place to start)

Friends of Tom site