Lately, Tom Scharpling has taken to comparing The Best Show On WFMU, the three-hour radio show he hosts on the independent New Jersey radio station WFMU, to Big Star, the influential, now-beloved, then-ignored ’70s power-pop band. That’s a characteristically Scharpling declaration, with its layers of inflated bravado and self-deprecation. But there’s more than a hint of sincerity to it, too.
Scharpling used to be a DJ for WFMU, but since The Best Show’s première in 2000, he can be found most Tuesday nights talking to guests and listeners, spinning monologues about topics of his choice (returning regularly to the subjects of music, pop culture, and sports), or playing the straight man in extended comedy bits co-starring Jon Wurster, who’s drummed for Superchunk, The Mountain Goats, and others. Together, Scharpling and Wurster have created an extended cast of characters, mostly based in the fictional New Jersey town of Newbridge, which includes everyone from The Gorch—an aging greaser and self-proclaimed inspiration for The Fonz—to the hapless, principle-free would-be rock star Corey Harris to Philly Boy Roy, who takes great pride in taunting Scharpling with the superiority of all things Philadelphia.
Viewed from a distance, those disparate elements shouldn’t go together, but the force of Scharpling’s cranky, opinionated on-air personality helps keep them all in place. It’s also helped earn the show a following well beyond its home base. Recordings of Scharpling and Wurster bits—including the cult-favorite pre-Best Show album Rock, Rot & Rule—helped expand The Best Show’s following, but it’s found an even bigger audience via WFMU’s website and as a weekly podcast. Others have followed its example, and turned a profit in the process, which hasn’t escaped Scharpling’s notice.
Hence the Big Star comparison. Earning his living as a writer—he had an extended stint on Monk as a writer and executive producer, and currently has a project in development with comedian Paul F. Tompkins—and more recently as a director of music videos, Scharpling does The Best Show for free, and though its popularity and influence continues to grow, he’s been frank about the fact that the arrangement could become untenable. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Scharpling about his show’s past, present, and possible future—and inevitably, the infamous singer GG Allin.
The A.V. Club: You seem to have been attracting a lot of new listeners lately, so I thought it might be good to go back to the show’s beginnings. How did The Best Show begin?
We just could not believe how weird that sounded. So we started joking about rocking and ruling. Then we came up with “Rock, Rot & Rule” and were just doing it on the phone to each other, and we were like, “Let’s do that on the radio and see what happens!” A couple people who we told we were going to do it were like, “That doesn’t sound like a good idea. That sounds like it’s not going to go well.” We did it just in the context of my regular music show, so it wasn’t even a thing where people knew to expect some comedy element outside of me talking and being goofy on-mic. It’s not like there were guests who were doing funny stuff on the show. I think it threw a lot of people for a loop.
Then we kind of got the bug, we did a couple other ones, but I had to leave the station for a few years for a variety of things. I had to focus on trying to get a job. I was at a point where I was like, “What am I going to do with my life? Anything that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be part of the picture for what my future is going to be, I think I might have to put on ice until I figure things out, because there’s only so many hours in the day.” And then my wife got sick, and one year became almost four years away from the station. I never thought I was going to go back, after a point. I was like, “It just feels like it fell out of my life.”
I was friends with all the Upright Citizens Brigade people, the core—Matt Walsh, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser—and we would go see ASSSSCAT every Sunday. It was this thing where it was clear that they were doing something completely on their own terms, and it was my first time seeing something like that, where you know the people, they’re making something on completely their own terms, and they’re not doing anything they don’t want to do. It was kind of a revelation, because it was like, “What if I did that on the radio?” Exactly what I want to do, which would be to do a show based on what Jon and I had done on those couple calls. It’s like, “I want to do that every week, not just play records. I want to have a funny show with a lot of writing and me and Jon doing stuff together.” So it was kind of like this bolt of realization. Then things settled down in my life enough that I pitched it to the station, and they were like, “Yeah, okay.” They gave me a slot on a Tuesday night, where I have remained for the last 11 years.
AVC: Was it always a three-hour show? And was the idea always that it would largely be you and Wurster together?
TS: Jon, with a couple of exceptions, has not usually lived where I’ve lived, so we’ve just talked on the phone endlessly. For the last 15 years, we’ve had this relationship where he might as well have been here. That was the comedic hook that would make it different from a call-in show or just a radio talk show. This was going to be comedy-based, and that was going to be the primary source for where the comedy was going to come from in its first form. And it was a two-hour show at first, and then a year or so later, it became a three-hour show just sheerly because there was a shift on the schedule, and all the evening shows from that timeslot went from two hours to three hours. I inherited an extra hour not because I had earned it or demanded it. Everybody got an extra hour. The thing that came out of it was that I realized if I was going to do it every week, it couldn’t just be that me and Jon is the good part of the show, and then everybody’s staring at their watch waiting for Jon to call, and then they can shut it off the second he hangs up. There’s a whole other side of this thing. In a three-hour show, it’s actually the majority of the show. It’s three-fifths of the show—I gotta step up that part of it. That became a priority, to make sure the whole three hours was consistently entertaining.
AVC: One thing you do lose from having a regular show vs. the one-off that was “Rock, Rot & Rule” is the element of surprise. That bit has listeners calling in completely baffled. Have you ever tried to recreate that?
TS: Initially, there was a real thrill for me when people would get fooled by it. It was really exciting to have that be an element of it. Unfortunately, one part of me thinks that, yeah, there is something special about surprising people with things and tricking people with things, but ultimately I feel like that’s a chump’s game. It’s for people who aren’t good enough to come up with actual comedy. Even somebody at the level of Sacha Baron Cohen, because he’s going after the right targets, and he’s trying to make a point with all of these things and revealing larger injustices, and even with a guy going forth with that sort of mission, you feel bad for those people sometimes, you know? It’s like, “These people didn’t ask for this, they’re trying to live their lives.” They might be horrible people, and that’s the guy who’s doing it at the most noble end of the scale, but it still makes me queasy sometimes when I see him do it to people who aren’t asking for it.
And we were not operating at anywhere near that level of nobility. We were just trying to get people to call in and argue about a thing that they think is the way it is, and it turns out we’re just being wise guys and jerking them around. It’s got a very limited shelf life. You also get brought down by these lesser guys doing the same thing. People who aren’t funny mistake meanness for comedy. Ultimately, I’m better than that, and Jon is better than that. We don’t have to just jerk people around for the laughs. We can actually write something that’s funny and have people be a part of it, instead of the butt of it.
AVC: To fill the rest of the time, you had to essentially craft your version of talk radio. Were you always interested in talk radio?
TS: Oh yeah. I was just always a big fan. In New York, there were a lot of people like Bob Grant. He was the guy in the ’70s—well, he started in the ’60s. He was this right-wing creep on WABC, and he was just the most—his views were horrifying, but he was really funny. He would do these things where, like, people would call and he’d pick up and go, “Bill from Forest Hills, you’re on the air,” and they’d go, “Hey, Bob, how are you?” And it drove him nuts that people would even say, “How are you?” ’Cause in his mind, he’s hearing, “How are you?” 90 times a show, every week. But in their mind, they’re just being polite. He would get mad at that. In the first five seconds, he’s already, “What’s on your mind, Bill?” Like, that was his way of cutting through it. So I would listen to that guy all the time, and I would be screaming at the radio over his horrifying views of things politically and socially, but it just was like, “Man, this guy is funny when he argues with people, and he knows how to hold an audience.” So I listen to guys like that.
AVC: Are right-wingers inherently better at that sort of thing than left-wingers?
TS: Um, you know what? I think there’s an element of “You are not beholden to be a good person,” and they kind of know that. If you’re going to be a right-winger, there’s a certain amount of “It’s every man for themselves in this world, so I’m just going to bring that with me to the radio. I don’t have to worry about somebody else’s feelings or how I treated somebody else on the radio. If I’m not acting that way with my tax dollars or who I vote for, why should I care about it when I’m talking to them?” And I think a lot of people on the left are clearly, “Hey, I’m concerned about other people, too. And maybe that extends to me not just screaming at people when I’m the one with the problem.”
For a while on the radio, I would goof around and pretend I was a right-wing guy, but too many people were getting confused. It’s not fun when people actually think I’m some Republican. [Laughs.] And then, also, [Stephen] Colbert came along, and when his show started, it was just by that point like, “Well, he’s doing that in the way that it’s meant to be, and I don’t like doing it anyway, so I’m going to stop doing that.”
AVC: What are the most notable changes that the show has undergone over 11 years?
TS: Some of the changes are people liking it. People not hating it and me was a change. People getting it.
AVC: You’ve addressed this on the air before, but how real was the hate?
TS: It was real! People didn’t like it! People were either disinterested in it, or they were like, “Okay, I see what you’re doing here, but seriously, play some records. Nice try with this thing. You gave it the ol’ college try, now go back to playing records.” “No, I’m honestly not going to play records on this show! That’s not what this show is.” And then it would be these guys who would write me stuff and just say, “Your show’s terrible! Maybe you don’t realize it, but it’s horrible and you’re not funny and these bits you guys are doing on the radio are pointless, and they don’t end.” People really didn’t like it. But then there were always these pockets of people who did like it. Honestly, I didn’t care, though. I knew it was funny. If it was making me laugh and it was making Jon laugh, that’s kind of all I care about. I could not worry about waiting for other people to catch up to it, or never catching up to it, or having it go away. That was on them to get up to speed with it.
AVC: What was your first indication that it was picking up a following?
TS: I guess hearing from people from outside of the New York/New Jersey listening area. WFMU, when I grew up listening to it, it felt like it was New Jersey’s radio station. It was like New Jersey/New York, this is the alternative to even college radio here. And then when the station started broadcasting over the web, it was one of those rare examples of when something can get bigger, but not say goodbye to its core audience in the process. Like when a band signs to a major label or makes that big move, they run the risk of saying goodbye to the people who were there when they were a small band. But the station did not have to say goodbye to those people. It was still the same station, but just being heard by more people. There was no compromise involved in that expansion. So when the station was on the web, I would get people from Toronto, and they would be really into it, and writing nice stuff. That was the first time I was like, “Huh. It’s weird there’s these couple oddballs in every city. They seem to be into it. That’s kinda exciting.” And that worked as the counter to the people who were like, “This is horrible.”
AVC: A number of obsessions come up in routines you do with Wurster. Which are yours, which are his, and which do you share? I have a short list, if you don’t mind going over a few of them, starting with Gene Simmons.
TS: Jon started doing a Gene Simmons impression because we would talk about Kiss. Jon’s probably more conversant in Kiss than people who were in Kiss. He’s read every Kiss book and knows everything, but I don’t think he’s an actual fan of Kiss. I think he was when he was a kid, but it’s such a compelling world to get caught up in. Like, the people behind this thing, I guess you’re selling a thing to dirtbags, and then you start selling it to 7-year-olds. And you’re wearing makeup, but the music is completely secondary. It’s so fascinating in so many ways. Jon definitely got me more interested in Kiss. And if I remember correctly, I think we started with this band that was, for all intents, Kiss, called Pout. Jon started calling himself The Creature from Pout. And it just transitioned into Gene Simmons. That’s his obsession that has rubbed off on me.
AVC: GG Allin?
TS: I think we both kinda shared GG Allin as an obsession. I might’ve listened to more of his actual records than Jon, I think. He might’ve watched more GG Allin videos than I have.
AVC: Did you ever see Allin live?
TS: No, I never did. I was such a coward. That’s the other thing. When these things would come through, like, bands would play Trenton—City Gardens was this nightmare of a club in Trenton that everybody would play. It was basically this black box in the middle of a parking lot, and when some of these bands would come through, I was terrified. I was a complete chicken. I’ll admit it. I was afraid I was going to get beat up, because why wouldn’t you beat me up at a thing like that? I’m the person that should get beat up at those things. I was not the aggressor, so I clearly would’ve been at the other side of things. So I would end up going to different hardcore shows at a community college, which would have an element of being controlled. But I was always more the type to listen to things at home when it was scary to go to it. And GG Allin would have topped that list.
AVC: Synthetic drugs?
TS: I forget where that came about. We just like to do these extended runners on the show of the things that can happen to the town of Newbridge, to all the people in it. And it just seemed funny to have coke go through the town at one point, and then coke transitions into something harder, which was called Blue. And now it’s this thing called Emerald Nightmare that ends in an explosion on every one of Jon’s calls now, which just kills me. So yeah, we might share that one.
AVC: Over the years, it seems like death threats from the callers have given way to the people calling you actually dying at the end of the calls.
TS: Yes. Exactly. [Laughs.] Look, I think nothing’s funnier than Jon saying all these things that he’s gonna do to me. Now the callers are the victims of drug-related explosions. And I’m sure it’ll be something else within the next couple months. We actually talked about there being some other thing in Newbridge that may be the dumbest one yet. [Laughs.] I don’t wanna reveal what it is, but it is so colossally off. I would say it’s just off. That, I’m sure, will happen at some point.
AVC: Have you ever mapped out the geography of Newbridge?
TS: No, and I think that’s what has made it funny. That it’s in everybody’s imagination, including ours. There are things that are way too big for the town to have in it. I think there are three arenas in Newbridge, just in this one town. There’s these horrible areas of town, these districts. Jon said Muffler Row at one point, which I think is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, that there’s a stretch of town called Muffler Row. I think we leave it up to everybody’s imagination, including ours.
AVC: Getting back to the call-in portion, you get a lot of listeners and fans on the Internet who have turned to you for advice, or looked up to you as someone who knows how the world works. Why do you think that is?
TS: I think part of it is because I seem relatively in control of myself, and even if I seem far from perfect, I’m at least not losing my mind over—like, little things are not bringing me down. And I seem to be relatively in control of my life. And I write in TV, and that seems to be impressive to some people. So they might think I have some things figured out.
Look, I will try to help people. If people need advice or something, I will honestly try to help people. I’ve tried to help a lot of people off the air. Answer stuff for them, whether it’s career stuff or personal stuff. And I think it’s really because I’m talking to them through three hours a week, and there’s a connection that happens there, where you really feel like you know the person. And, you know, they kinda do.
AVC: Have you ever been surprised by your experiences meeting listeners?
TS: You know what? Everybody’s pretty cool. The vast majority, everybody’s really nice, and I would say that’s the one thing that maybe is surprising. That everybody kind of gets it, and they know what it is, and they seem to be respectful of who I am. And that’s awesome. ’Cause look, there’s this thing where I’m doing this basically for free. This radio show. So I’m glad that there’s people not trying to murder me on top of that. Because Alan Berg got mowed down, and that was a horrible tragedy, right? But at least he was drawing a paycheck when he got shot. [Laughs.] That was a horrible statement. But I don’t wanna die over a free thing. That would be the ultimate indignity. “He lost money on this thing every year, and now he is dead because of it.”
AVC: You don’t talk about this over the air because you don’t do self-promotion, but you have a career as a writer, from a long stint on Monk to some projects in development. How do you balance that with this thing that is clearly more than three hours a week out of your life?
TS: It takes a lot of time. It takes so much of my time. I don’t know if I do balance it. It just means I work a lot. Sometimes it’s very frustrating that I work so much on the thing and don’t make money on it, when there’s other people who are monetizing their things that I feel are just not as good as my thing. But I don’t know why you’d want to do something if you thought your thing was just sort of crummy and in the middle of the pack. I wouldn’t want to do it if that’s how I felt about it.
I’m really proud of the show, and it does feel like something special that is there. When I see people doing these lazy, kinda roundtable goof-offs where they don’t come in with any prepared material and they’re monetizing, that does bum me out sometimes. But look, if I don’t wanna do it, I won’t do it. I clearly want to be doing it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t. Because there’s stuff that I stopped doing because I didn’t want to. I know I have the ability to not do things when I don’t want to do them. So something is outweighing that frustration.
AVC: That said, you have been fairly open about the possibility that this might not go on much longer.
TS: Yeah, there’s only so many hours in the day, and I’m getting older, and there’s things I want to have in my professional life, and there’s things in my personal life I want to have. I can’t do all of it at this rate anymore. And that means something’s gotta come out of my life, and I gotta figure out what that is. But the struggle with that is that I know the level I want the radio show to be on. I don’t want it to be something I’m disconnected from. That I’m half-assing it to keep doing it. I definitely won’t keep doing it if it’ll be at a lesser level. That’s the crux of the whole thing. I know the level that I need it to be at for me to proud of it. If it’s not gonna be at that level, I’ll stop doing it in a second. Kind of like an all-or-nothing thing. Either I’m all in with it, or I gotta stop doing it. And some of these professional developments: I’ve got to see where they take me, you know? I love doing the show more than anything. It’s truly the most satisfying thing creatively that I’ve ever had in my life. It’s not some cavalier thing, to say, “Well, I’m done with that.” It would kill me. But sometimes you gotta move things forward, also, and see what the next thing is going to be.
That’s why they have memories, I guess. [Laughs.] ’Cause sometimes you look back at a thing and realize, “Yeah, that was the best thing that I did.” You won’t have those good memories if you do it beyond when you should do it. Or if you’re mad at it while you’re doing it. Because of the realities of life compromising your enjoyment of it.
AVC: Let’s talk about your music videos. Did you get into that through Ted Leo? Or is it something you wanted to do anyway?
TS: I’ve always wanted to make things on film. I think there was a point where I was just afraid to pull the trigger on it, in a way, because I didn’t go to film school or anything like that. But I’ve been around it. I’ve been on sets enough, and I’ve watched enough stuff. I know what good stuff is like. So maybe I can’t talk about lenses, or that shop talk that camera aficionados can talk about. Because there’s that kind of director where they can… Like my friend Jeff Feuerzeig, who directed The Devil And Daniel Johnston. I worked on a couple of commercials with him. He would out-talk the DP when it came to cameras. It’s like, “Oh my God. The director knows more about things than the guy who is in charge of the cameras.” He knows this stuff inside and out, and I don’t have any of that. And I don’t have the capacity to have any of that.
I didn’t go to film school. But I know when something is good, what it looks like. And I think I know how to assemble something good. And there’s plenty of directors who are performance-based, I guess you could say. I know I could live on that side of things. So we did a Ted Leo video a few years ago for “Colleen” that my friend Michael Bellino directed, and I wrote and produced it. And I just didn’t have the guts to direct anything at that point. Then Ted asked me last year, “Hey, you wanna do a video for ‘Bottled In Cork?’” ’cause we had talked loosely about it, and he kinda called my bluff on it. And I said to him, “Yeah, give me a couple days to think about this,” because I was terrified. It was one of those leaps forward you have to think about.
That’s why Sarah Palin is so scary. The scariest thing about her to me is that when they called her and asked if she wanted to be vice president, she’s like, “Um, that’s cool. Sure, I’ll do it.” Like, everybody in the history of politics has been like, “Okay, I need to talk to my family about this, and sit quietly in a room and just meditate over the pros and cons of what this would mean to me.” And she’s just like, “Yep. Sure. I’ll do it.” It’s like, I didn’t want to mess that up for him. But then I thought about it, and it’s like, “I can do this. I can work with the right people, and we can make this happen.” That’s when I started working with Rob Hatch-Miller and Puloma Basu. Rob’s an FMU DJ. He makes films now, and Puloma produces stuff. We talked about it, and they’re like, “We can do this. Let’s do this.” And they kind of shored me up to have the confidence to do it.
Ted and I were talking at dinner one night, and we’re just goofin’ around about the Green Day musical. “What if that’s the video? What if it’s you guys trying to do a musical out of your album?” We thought it was so funny, and we did it. But it kind of grew out of him calling my bluff a little bit. ’Cause I always did want to do it, and I think I talked about it, like, “I wanna direct a video for you!” And he’s finally like, “All right, hey, it’s time for you to direct that video!” Like, “What? Gulp.” I am indebted to him for that.
AVC: With Titus Andronicus’ “No Future Part Three,” did you make a conscious decision to not do something overtly comedic with a lot of guest stars to see what else you could do with music videos?
TS: Yeah! I just didn’t want to do, “Hey, he does funny videos where he gets friends to be in them.” We did the Ted Leo & The Pharmacists video, then the New Pornographers video [“Moves”] was like the ultimate version of that. But ultimately, for me, it comes down to what is right by the band and by the song. And doing a funny video for Titus Andronicus would not have been the right thing at that point. You don’t want them to be goofing around and stuff. They’re young, and they’re exciting, and you want to see them at their best, filmed really well, doing what they do. And we came up with enough of a hook to have it not just be a performance with no other element. We did this tour of New Jersey, which is exciting and really seat-of-the-pants. So there was an element of danger to it that I wanted. ’Cause it’s like, “Hey, if we don’t get this thing today, we’re kinda screwed on this.” ’Cause we actually did do it in one day. It actually happened. A lot of people thought we were faking it, but no. We started really early in the morning, and we ended at 11 o’clock at night in Jersey City.
AVC: It’s a nice piece of filmmaking. Not that the other ones weren’t, but the emphasis is definitely on the images.
TS: Yes. Thank you. That was a very conscious thing. That’s where being a rock fan kinda took over, rather than the comedy part of things. Because ultimately, my whole life, music and comedy have been the two things I’ve been interested in since I was a kid. And this one definitely tilted toward the music part of things, where all the great performance videos, whether it’s The Beatles on the roof of the Apple offices, or some hardcore band like Minor Threat playing with the kids flying all over the place, or Pink Floyd’s Live At Pompeii. There’s certain things like that that each convey a different thing, and I tried, in the back of my mind, to put those things into this even if people didn’t notice. I was trying to make subtle distinctions in each location. To highlight one of the things that made a big impression on me from those iconic performances.
AVC: A lot of people who have been music fans for a while find their tastes ossifying. How do you avoid that?
TS: You just keep going to shows and keep listening to stuff and pushing with it. I don’t get out as much as I would like to, because I’m working all the time. I only have so much energy, and I just don’t have the next morning to burn like that if I’m out all night. But it’s like, you can either say that things are never going to be as good as they were when you were 20, or you can admit to yourself that that’s never the case for anybody. And if you look a little harder, they’re always out there. And they’re not that hard to find, once you start looking for them. One after the other, they just keep revealing themselves. Once you’re in a groove with finding things you like, you’ll find more things you like. It just takes a little effort. You just can’t be so proud of what things were like when you were 20, and try not to look from on high about that.
There are albums that are shockingly awesome in the first six months of this year. To me, it’s like when somebody’s doing something well, even if it’s in a completely different medium, it makes me want to be better at what I do. It’s like, between Ty Segall and Wild Flag and Fucked Up and Thee Oh Sees and Death Cab For Cutie and all these, everybody’s put out these amazing albums this year. People are doing the work, and whatever your part of the thing is, just do your best version of it. I get so much inspiration from people working hard at music, even though it’s nothing to do with what I do.
AVC: On the show, you frequently return to that theme: doing the work. That seems to be what earns your respect more than anything else.
TS: You get so many people who talk about what they are going to do. I think they get the same kind of emotional, almost chemical, satisfaction out of when they say, “I’m gonna write this thing, and it’s gonna be like this, and this is gonna happen, then that’s gonna happen.” They talk you through it, and they’re getting the same satisfaction from your reaction as if they actually did the thing. And that drives me up the wall. Then they never do it, because they’ve satisfied themselves by talking about doing it. I’ve known a bunch of people like that in life who start a thing, and they’ll talk all day long about the thing they’re gonna do, and how great it’s gonna be. But they’re not doing the thing.
It’s hard to do stuff. That’s why everybody stops doing it. ’Cause it’s hard. So I always have a lot of respect for people who do things. Even if it’s the worst garbage on earth. I give Insane Clown Posse a lot of credit. Nobody wanted them to stay around. Nobody wants that. It’s terrible. And they’ve got every reason in the world to go away, and after a few years, they could’ve left and everybody would’ve said, “Of course they’re leaving.” That’s what you do. You do a dumb thing like that for a couple of years, and then you leave. I think they make some of the worst music I’ve ever heard, but if it means something to some fan, if that’s their favorite thing, it’s not for me to take that away from them. It’s like, I’m glad they found something that they enjoy. And they’ve built this horrifying thing up to where they have the Gathering Of The Juggalos every year, and it’s really successful, and all those people get together, and they’re real happy smashing fluorescent light bulbs over each other’s heads. [Laughs.] That’s apparently what they do there.
But I’ll rank them above somebody who I know has impeccable taste and all they do is talk a good game. Insane Clown Posse gets more of my respect than that person, who’s just nothing but hot air and good taste. I might rather talk to the person with good taste than some fat Insane Clown Posse fan, but I actually give more respect to them for doing it if it makes people happy. Just keep those other people out of my neighborhood. Because I take property values very seriously.