There’s a moment in Jon Wurster and Tom Scharpling’s Rock, Rot And Rule when self-appointed “rock argument settler” and author Ronald Thomas Clontle (Wurster) declares that Madness rules because it “started ska.” Scharpling allows the preposterous claim to linger in the air until an incredulous listener calls to instruct the unflappable Clontle about his error. More than 16 years after the call, people could be forgiven for believing The Best Show On WFMU started comedy on the radio, a box where laughs are typically bludgeoned to death by tough-talking women-haters on classic-rock radio and shushed on the public airwaves. While The Best Show had its share of radio forebears, the show—which ended its long run Tuesday night—may have unintentionally birthed the comedy podcast with its wonderfully uncompromising style of long-form comedy.
What separates The Best Show from its podcasting offspring is its glut of excellence, comic singularity, and constant reinvention. But after listening to all the changes the show underwent since the 1997 call, I was impressed that Scharpling and Wurster’s chemistry and sensibilities were in place even before the show began. The 47-minute call is a master class in the understated, odd interplay that would grow over the run of the program. There’s the kind of momentum that builds throughout the call, partnered with Scharpling’s straight-man incredulity and Clontle’s unshakable sense of absurd absolutism. Several listeners are conned into berating Clontle, because he and Scharpling don’t go for easy laughs that would reveal the joke. They create a world that’s only slightly on its ear, and that’s the reason I believed a Wurster character the first time I listened to the show.
While The Best Show’s foundation was built during the Clinton administration, its true brilliance lay in its ceaseless evolution. A few regular callers seemed like an integral part of the show until it outgrew them. Several comedians seemed perfectly suited as Best Show guests, but the program never depended on any single collaboration beyond Scharpling and Wurster. Even Scharpling’s on-air persona changed with time, as he mellowed from his relentlessly confrontational character into a slightly less confrontational host who would perform impressions on demand. Each shift in tone, segments, and personalities felt natural, which is a credit to a host who toppled many versions of the show before they grew stale.
It’s that kind of growth and dedication to weirdness that helped develop one of the most fiercely loyal fanbases in comedy. During the program’s final episode Tuesday, #BestShowForLife trended nationwide on Twitter as an audience of well-known and anonymous fans shared their memories and love for the show. A program with an ever-deepening world and unrivaled durability inspired genuine reverence from comedians like Patton Oswalt, John Hodgman, Julie Klausner, Joe Mande, Marc Maron, and Jon Daly. As the tributes rolled in, it was clear that the program connected with its audience on a deeper level than most pieces of entertainment.
For me, the show moved from a piece of pop culture I passively consumed into something I actively loved in January 2010, when Scharpling delivered a sweet tribute to a recently deceased Jay Reatard. I didn’t really know Jay beyond appreciating his music and a few encounters around Memphis, but I felt his passing deeply. When I heard Scharpling’s tribute, it made me feel less alone in my unexpected grief, and the show morphed from a weekly amusement into something I felt emotionally invested in. It became a creative work that I loved and shared with people, and many other listeners had the same experience.
Some of that teary-eyed connection may be a product of a long run that inevitably becomes tangled with memories of the triumphs and failures of everyday life, but it’s also the result of a magnificent program that never condescended to its audience. While Scharpling may have screamed at some of his listenership at one time or another on the phone, there was an unspoken pact between the host and audience that prevented any backward-looking rehashes or excessive hand-holding. That meant the show skirted inaccessibility to new listeners, but was never impervious. Like a radio version of the golden era of The Simpsons, The Best Show managed to develop an world that could reward the dedicated without unnecessarily isolating novices.
While the show’s time on independent community-radio station WFMU has ended, Scharpling and Wurster have hinted that the world they built over 13 years on the air will continue. Whatever form that takes, the radio program’s archives are a treasure trove of inventive, evolving entertainment that is certain to draw a new crop of passionate admirers over the years. There’s a timeless quality to the Best Show’s greatest moments that lends credence to Scharpling’s claim that his show is the comedy version of Big Star, a band that found its largest audience after its demise.
During the call that helped shape an ongoing portion of the singular program, Clontle asserts that David Bowie rots because he underwent “too many changes.” During more than 1,600 hours of The Best Show, change became an abiding ethos, and the host’s painstaking attention to detail was hidden behind a veil of mayhem. Scharpling may have not started comedy radio, but he created the ruling gold standard.
Art by Kirk Demarais