The Best Show with Tom Scharpling: Mighty Hand, Mighty Heart, Mighty Comedy
Since it seems like forever, Tom Scharpling and his comedy partner Jon Wurster, along with an assortment of devotees, proteges and the occasional hangers-on, have been building one of the most amazing places in comedy — Newbridge, New Jersey, a place you can only hear about on The Best Show.
The Best Show is many things. A weekly call-in show, 3 hours long, broadcasting live every Tuesday from 9–12 midnight over the Internet at thebestshow.net, from an undisclosed location in New Jersey. It is a colossal and consistently hilarious artistic and comedic achievement that has spanned years and built up over 1500 hours of writing, improvisation, and conversation. It is also an indie triumph of outsider art, striving for commercial success and acceptance.
This can make it seem intimidating — where, after all, do you start to digest 1500 hours of work? Aside from the mythical community of Newbridge, there is a real community of fans who gather every Tuesday to listen across the U.S., Canada and assorted stragglers around the world. Friends of Tom, or FOTs as his fans are known, know that Scharpling has a mighty hand — and a mighty heart, and that the appeal of the Best Show is hard to explain, it is not like anything else out there, and never has been.
As one super caller said, “It takes you nine hours of listening to get hooked. Then you can’t stop.” This might seem like a colossal commitment, unless you consider all the other garbage you’ve binge watched in your life (every show on the cooking network, House Hunters International, Pawn Stars, etc.) or hundreds of hours of aimless podcasts that leave you off dumber and less of a human being.
So how to explain The Best Show with Tom Scharpling? First, it’s a parody of a call-in show with a grumpy host. The sort of thing that you might find addictive and compelling to listen to once, but you wouldn’t think to listen to the whole thing over again. But with the Best Show you might well listen to it live, then again because of the sheer density of the comedy going on.
“The comic is a man with a grievance,” said Marshall McLuhan, and Scharpling’s grievances are legion. The Best Show steals from the form of talk radio, but instead of talking about sports or politics Scharpling will usually rail against figures in show business whose work sucks but whose careers are doing better than his.
At his core, Scharpling is a punk: both in musical tastes and in attitude, winding up anyone who takes on airs.
His comedy career with Jon Wurster (in “real life” a drummer for Superchunk, Bob Mould, The Mountain Goats, Katy Perry and others) began with the legendary “Rock, Rot and Rule.” The two had originally met at a show in 1992 and had bonded over their love for the Chris Elliott show, Get a Life.
Scharpling had a show on WFMU — the precursor to the Best Show, and in November ’97 Wurster called in to Scharpling’s show as Ronald Thomas Clontle, a writer who had compiled the “ultimate argument settler” about what bands were good and which sucked. Def Leppard and ZZ Top Rock, David Bowie and Neil Young Rot. For the rock snobs among WFMU’s listeners, it went beyond enraging and verged on radicalization: they called in, dripping scorn, nearly spitting when Clontle claims the band Madness invented Ska. As callers call up to chew him out, Wurster continues to improvise effortlessly.
A recording of the call ended up going 90’s viral — being shared on cassette, by bands in vans, uncredited. Some thought it was David Cross of Mr. Show fame, and a reference to the gag popped up on the Amy Sedaris — Stephen Colbert show Strangers with Candy.
The restrictions of being on an actual radio show made the show better. Scharpling would warn callers and guests that the show was rated a “hard G” and anyone who cursed would be censored, and if a guest, sent out of the studio as punishment. Instead, (as with Seinfeld) the restrictions force Scharpling and Wurster to get creative with euphemisms that on satellite radio or podcasts often degenerate into lazy swearing.
(This sense of decorum has carried over to the internet show, where Wurster’s characters, when being censored, for saying things too disgusting for the web.)
While Scharpling had guests, played music, he and Wurster developed a cast of characters who populated the imaginary town of Newbridge, New Jersey. There are dozens, ranging from a morbidly obese Barbershop singer, a stoner who does bubbling bong hits throughout his calls, a two-inch tall genetically engineered white supremacist, a hippy who preaches peace and love while running an exploitive business, and Gene Simmons of Kiss, who for some reason has opened a Toyota dealership in Newbridge.
Scharpling has feuds and grudges, with a grab-bag of celebrities, many of whom ended up in the Best Show “hate pit”. There’s Mickey Dolenz, drummer from the Monkees, who dismissed Scharpling with a grunt at a party, or Garry Shandling, who was rude to Scharpling over Twitter. There was an ongoing feud with former Love Connection host Chuck Woolery, who blocked Scharpling on twitter. Scharpling’s workaround was to ask his listeners, en masse, to tweet at Woolery that Scharpling said he was a “wad”. They did. (They were blocked, too.)
While Scharpling shows remarkable patience with the abuse hurled at him by Wurster’s characters (who may threaten to beat him up or kill him) Scharpling’s treatment of callers runs the gamut between short-tempered and scathing towards callers who bomb and genuine relief and encouragement when a call goes well — someone tells a good story.
Scharpling’s ability to hang up on a caller is done with unerring precision and artfulness. He often lures them into a final word, only to cut them off midsyllable. When he detects a rambler whose story is going nowhere, he draws it out into a ritual: while encouraging them to run off at the mouth, he fades up the song “Bad Company” by “Bad Company,” hanging up on them.
But Scharpling’s interactions with callers and guests also highlight his improvisational comedy genius and his astonishing quickness. He seizes on a topic and runs with it.
Take this example from last week — February 9, 2016 — where a caller mentions Axl Rose.
He tees off on situations and spins them into insane hypothetical films and sketches. Not the hacky impressionists’ mash-ups “here’s Jack Nicholson as a grocery clerk” but “What if the characters from Martin Scorsese’s film universe had to team up to defend the earth against an asteroid? Multiple Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci characters work side-by-side together, like Marvel superheroes in an SCTV sketch: “The Scorsesables.”
That is the other side of The Best Show that is so great: that Scharpling offers extended riffs, painting out sketches and characters. One of my favourites Scharpling has proposed a reality show called “Staten Island Garbage Rats,” a reality TV show like Pawn Stars or Storage Wars, except the characters are digging through mounds of trash on Staten Island.
These riffs are the kind of flights of fancy that remind you of sitting around shooting the breeze with your best friends when you laugh until your abs ache, if only your best friends were genius comedy writers who worked at a level with Letterman, SCTV, Mr. Show or Colbert.
Kid Jersey, as Scharpling has been called a champion of the disenfranchised, a dime-store Dickens. He’s a David slinging rocks at some unexpected Goliaths. The Best Show theme says that if you’re home alone, you can “take a hold of Tom’s mighty hand and let him take you to the promised land.”
Scharpling’s crusty exterior drops when a caller reveals a loss — an illness or death. His tone shifts, he expresses genuine sympathy. And this is at the heart of the show and the man.
Fellow comedian and son of New Jersey, Chris Gethard told Scharpling they were alike, because they kept fighting even when they felt like giving up. But there are moments where Scharpling’s sympathy and understanding for others — and his admirable sense of what is right and wrong — shine through in ways that are revealing.
There was the show he put on after Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey in 2012. There was the time, when Marc Maron was on his show, that he talked about how doing the right thing is hard. And there was the time when he offered a sympathetic insight into Glenn Beck, of all people. Beck was not an easy target like everyone thought, said Scharpling: look at him, he’s clearly miserable. Why else would he be crying all the time?
Scharpling has shifted and adapted to change things up and make the show fresh — he once banned all regular callers, two puppets became part of the show — a green alien obsessed with progressive rock and a squirrel, Gary, who is obsessed with box office returns while peppering AP Mike, and comedians Andy Kindler and Kurt Braunohler with stale gags from a Milton Berle’s joke collection.
Scharpling also kept changing the show to keep it from growing stale. In addition to the weirdness of puppets on the radio, he started adding a sound collage, mixed live, a trippy and bizarre mix of music, sound effects, and bleak comedy clips. The collage usually starting with the terrifying mechanical throbbing intro to Frankie Teardrop by Suicide. There’s snippets of KISS’ Paul Stanley stage banter telling some scandinavian audience saying he likes Gløg, or the ever genial Chris Hardwick telling nerds how much he loves Harry Potter, artists pandering so hard it makes your teeth hurt.
In 2013, Scharpling announced he was bringing the show to an end on WFMU. There was an outpouring of sentiment from people who talked about how the show had helped them get through periods of grief — depression, withdrawal, the death of loved ones. This is in no small measure to Scharpling being a champion and a defender, who condemns his fans as mutants in one breath and lifts them up in the next.
If Tom Scharpling can do the Best Show while passing a kidney stone (as he did) you can soldier through the next day, too.
The WFMU finale was extraordinary and triumphant conclusion, even more so because Scharpling said he was going to find a way to keep the show going. It took nearly a year, but he built an independent studio, reviving it online at thebestshow.net, where it has continued to scale new heights.
It is every bit as good as it has ever been — eclectic, weird, personal, hilarious and unique.
There is a case to be made for Scharpling to be considered the Bernie Sanders of Comedy. Like Sanders, while others have come and gone, Scharpling has been doing this all along, and he has been consistently good, right and unwavering. He is fundamentally humane, and sympathetic and understanding. And he has managed to be hilarious by poking fun at human frailties like hubris, big egos and the obvious and sad absurdities of the entertainment business. And while Bernie Sanders is blowing up, it’s high time Scharpling and the Best Show did too.
(I haven’t even mentioned the other aspects of the Best Show, like the Half of Hour of Power, celebrity interviews, and an ongoing tour of live shows.)
You can buy The Best of the Best Show — an incredible 16-CD collection that includes even book and temporary tattoos as well as bonus material on a specially designed USB with the full collection available in MP3 format.
You can subscribe to the Best Show at iTunes here
The Best Show airs live every 9pm — midnight EST, and takes live calls at 201–332–3484.
The entire archive of the Best Show on WFMU is also available online at WFMU.org
(And if you don’t believe me, you can ask these people)
“Scharpling & Wurster are keeping the fine art of two-person comedy alive. Some of the funniest stuff out there!” — Conan O’Brien
“Listen, I’m not going to sugar coat it; this is a 16 CD boxed set of phone calls. Almost everything about this is technologically redundant. However, I promise this is one of the funniest things you’ll ever own. Scharpling and Wurster are the greatest.” — John Oliver
“Scharpling & Wurster are like an old married couple. Except when they argue it’s funny and not depressing. This collection includes hours of fake calls, fake outrage, and fake knowledge. The real part is that it’s always funny.” — Amy Poehler
“I love Scharpling & Wurster. Their comedy has brought me so much pleasure over the years. And now with this boxed set, you can either relive the magic or experience their classic comedy for the first time. All for the price of $2,500.” — Paul Rudd
“Scharpling & Wurster are purveyors of some of the most bizarre and brilliant comedy I’ve heard in ages. If you want your brain thoroughly melted, this collection should do the trick nicely.” — “Weird Al” Yankovic
“These twisting, strange, impossibly funny dialogues describe a world as complete as any novel, and a style of comedy no one has ever done before, because no one else can.” — John Hodgman
“Scharpling & Wurster (not in that order) are top shelf comedic surgeons.” — Zach Galifianakis
Dougald Lamont is a writer, communications consultant and lecturer at the University of Winnipeg in Canada.