A few years ago, I changed cable providers. While the procedure's been streamlined over the years to where it's relatively painless, a sadistic remnant still remains: The vague installation time window. So one day, AT&T asked me to stay home for a six-hour period on a weekday. Luckily, I'd just quit my job. I had plenty of time to spare.
Most of those early unemployed/"freelance" days took on a consistent pattern: Wake up, throw together a breakfast, sit in front of my computer for five hours trying to find work, grab a sandwich from the nearby bodega, sit online for another five hours, drink three beers, sleep. As any freelance writer can tell you, the job can be lonely. While the political nonsense that comes with a 9-to-5 office gig isn't great for the soul, what those jobs do do is force interactions with actual people. Self-employment does not. Meaning, I had a lot of time to fill, and a desperate need to connect to something. Luckily, someone somewhere recommended giving this New Jersey-based weekly call-in radio show a shot. They said it was the best thing in the world, but also warned that it'd take some time to acquire the correct palate for said humor. As I said, I had plenty of time to spare.
So, by the time the cable guy came, I'd already become accustomed to the odd indescribable rhythms of "The Best Show on WFMU." In fact, I'd become engrossed to the point where I wasn't going to put it on pause just because cultural etiquette recommends I do so in order to give a hired hand proper mental space to work. Fuck that. Instead, as the cable guy circumnavigated my 400-foot studio apartment, he was forced to listen right along. He kept his mouth shut until he was packing up his belongings to do.
"He likes to complain a lot, huh?" he asked, shaking his head on his way out the door.
Tom does indeed.
But "complaining" isn't the right word for what Tom Scharpling does. "Griping" or "grumpiness" isn't either. He's more of a cheerful tour guide into the dark places, the anger that bubbles in us, the nebulous feeling that something just isn't right. There's a certain innate ability few have that allows them to complain while still being hilarious. It's a gift they're born with. Tom is one of them.
"The Best Show" ends its 13-plus year run on Tuesday. I first learned Tom was putting an end to it—and, as anyone with experience listening to something obsessively knows, calling hosts by their first name despite never having met them is S.O.P.—through the medium that most news is broken these days: Twitter. Reading a mention of the show's end sent a cold rush of blood to my face. Moments before, I was about to start playing the latest episode—my routine is to listen to new episodes Friday afternoon—but now, I hesitated. It was no longer just a part of my life. Now, it was finite. It was ending. The episode I was about to start would be the beginning of the end.
Which is to say, writing a piece about the show's place in history, its relevance to the culture of comedy, its unique brilliance and proof of the lasting quality of call-in radio, especially in an era where even your barber has a podcast, is best saved for others. Frankly, I'm a bit too close to the subject matter, the wound's still so fresh. So, instead, I enlisted a handful of superfans and FOTs (Friends of Tom) to help out.
Here are their tributes.
I first listened to "The Best Show" on a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (don’t ask). I’d heard a lot of good things about it on aspecialthing.com, but honestly, it was a tough sell. A three-hour podcast/radio show by a D.J. from a market I’m not familiar with that sometimes has fake callers and sometimes not? Honestly, despite the five-hour ride which I’d hoped the podcast would eat up most of, I didn’t make it past 15 minutes that first listen.
"The Best Show," for me, was an acquired taste. And like most acquired tastes, you feel richer for having stuck with it through your initial misgivings and doubly rewarded once you know the silly little inside jokes that pepper each and every episode.
Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s labor of love is really something to admire. 13 years of broadcasting a three hour commercial-free program, pro-bono, with prepared and improvised comedy every week. Guest segments with many of alt-comedy and indie rock’s favorite sons and daughters. The amount of work for no financial reward is staggering.
My favorite "Best Show" memory of many takes me back a few years. Tom’s guest was Paul F. Tompkins, and a caller alerted them to a promo for that year’s "Gathering of the Juggalos" in Cave in Rock, Illinois. I was out on a run and had to stop to walk and laugh for minutes as Tom and Paul broke down the clip, moment by moment. When I got home, I listened to it again and again. Their unexpected joy from that ridiculous promo was so infectious that I still laugh when I think about it.
I haven’t listened as consistently lately, as I guess I took that labor for granted. I just assumed it would continue on in the years to come, and that I could just check in from time to time and catch up when I had a chance. I’m sad to hear it’s coming to an end, but as long as the episodes remain available, I’m happy I’ve still got some catching up to do.
—Matt [Mondlock], from Los Angeles and Chicago.
I remember the early days of listening to the podcast: the dot-connecting, the lightbulbs that went on in my head as I got to know the residents of Newbridge. I walked around Toronto and New York with them countless times. I laughed hard, and quickly felt understood and represented by this stranger, Tom Scharpling, whose big-heartedness and tireless fight for the underdog pierce his alternatingly self-effacing and self-aggrandizing gruff humor every time.
Eventually, I started listening live. I lurked in the friendsoftom.com chat for ages before slowly starting to talk to other Friends of Tom (FOTs) as the show aired. All of a sudden, I was part of something big, and meaningful, and joyful, and important, and ever-evolving. I've never been part of a sports team's die-hard fan base; I've never been a church-goer; I’ve never even been a girl scout. The things I've loved and the very act of loving things has always been solitary. But now I get it. I get the sports; I get the book clubs; I get the Girl Scouts (sort of). It is an amazing feeling to have this world open up in front of you, made up of like-minded people who all come out of different circumstances that have led them to the same place: loving what you love, believing in what you believe in.
When Tom announced on-air that "The Best Show" was ending, I didn’t hear it. The truth is that for the first time since I started listening, I was on a self-imposed break. Sometimes this web formed of heartstrings, this easy closeness with people who understand your very favorite thing, can hurt you, and infect your feelings for the shared object of adoration. I longed for the days of the walking and listening, when "Best Show" was mine, all mine. But the truth is that even before, in the days of gripping the podcast to my chest with arms folded tight, "Best Show" was never mine, all mine. This web is not accidental. Tom Scharpling chose to make his creative expression about community, and ended up reaching the people who needed a community the most. He (and Jon Wurster) created the fictional world of Newbridge, but he also laid down the foundation for the very real world of the FOTs—a world where human connections are valued above all else, populated by people who might not always find it especially easy or natural to make those connections.
And that will be part of "The Best Show"’s legacy. The comedy will live on in the archives, the Scharpling & Wurster CDs, and its incredibly far-reaching influence. The celebration of community will live on in the way it re-wired so many of us to reach out, to share, to embrace and be embraced. There’s no shaking that, and I wouldn’t if I could.
—Meagan [Snyder], from Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, New York, L.A., and Halifax.
I started listening to "The Best Show" in 2004. I fell in love when Tom played a skip on a record for at least ten minutes. I thought it was genius and I wrote Tom a letter telling him how much I loved the show. Not only did he reply, he befriended me on AIM.
My favorite moment was when I got to answer phones at one of the WFMU marathon shows. I was sitting at my post and had handed my pledge card over. Rob Hatch-Miller was reading the pledges and said my name while I was on the phone, taking another pledge. Tom called my name and waited until I turned around to thank me personally.
"The Best Show" experience went far beyond just listening to the show. So many Friends of Tom are dear to me. The fun times I’ve had are watermarked and very memorable: doing a photo shoot in Times Square with Lisa Jane Persky, going to AP Mike’s birthday party with Susannah and Therese at Massa’s Tavern, giving Julie from Cincinnati one of my membership cards after she drove down to Kentucky on a whim. The crowning jewel for me was asking Tom and Jon for a picture during a live Terre T show. Not only were they kind enough to pose for the picture but they moved three different times until my crappy camera phone got a decent shot.
Tom went above and beyond for us, and because of that, Friends of Tom went above and beyond for each other. His marathon shows were a testament to his dedication to the station and to the music, mirth and mayhem he brought every week. "The Best Show" invited musicians, comedians and regular people, like me, to the same party near Brice’s lean-to and gave us all peanut chews. And we have Tom to thank.
Thank you, Tom.
—Nicole [Floyd], from Virginia, Kentucky and Brooklyn.
I discovered "The Best Show" in 2007. I had done some freelance sports writing and frequented an internet forum that was a gathering place for writers around the country. There was a thread dedicated to casting biopics that didn’t exist, and probably never would. Based solely on his performance in Guided By Voices’s "The Electrifying Conclusion" DVD, I proposed that Jon Wurster should portray Keith Moon. I searched YouTube for a clip to support my hypothetical casting, but while there weren’t any clips of that performance, there were several from something called "Best Show." I listened to a few, and while I found them amusing, I didn’t feel compelled to seek out the source.
But the seed was planted. I found myself returning to YouTube to make repeat listens and search for new uploads. (Podcasts were an alien thing to me, so I never sought one out.) Eventually I wised up to the fact that WFMU had an online stream and I started listening to the show live.
On December 14, 2011, I went to the emergency room after several hours of severe abdominal pain. I was passing a gallstone. The various tests conducted on me also revealed that I had type-2 diabetes (which was not a shock to me). As such, I had to make some wholesale changes in my lifestyle. "The Best Show" became my alternative to going out to a bar almost every night. I became part of the Friends of Tom (FOT) community. I started working my way through the archived shows. I hung out in the FOT chat room while listening to the show live. Eventually I started making the occasional call to the show. I have had the pleasure of meeting many FOTs and had the good fortune of being in-studio for the show a couple of times.
"The Best Show" is unique for what the show is, as well as for the community that has arisen around it. That’s something I don’t think Tom and Jon get enough credit for. The people that have been drawn to the show are some of the kindest, most loyal and supportive people you could ever encounter. It’s a refreshing change from the mean-spiritedness that takes place far too often on the Internet. When Tom made the announcement that the show would be ending I wasn’t as sad as many were. The sorrow I feel about the show ending is negated by the fact that the FOT community will continue. December 17, 2013 will not be a funeral; it will be a celebration.
—Randall [Zimmerman], from Dallas.
I'm 29 now, but when I was 17 I started having nasty health problems. Instead of planning for graduation, prom and my future, I was sleeping a lot, going through chemotherapy and spending a lot of nights in the hospital. Eventually we found out the health problems weren't going to end, and I had to apply for SSI and try to live a meaningful life of my own without college and careers. I ended up deeply connecting with stand up and sketch comedy, and developed quite a sense of gratitude to my favorites. At a time I was immensely lonely and in pain, these people put a smile on my face. I wrote a letter to one off favorites, who sent me a lovely care package, which the Scharpling and Wurster albums were included. My boyfriend and I devoured them and the archives, eventually graduating to the live shows. The more you listen the more you get it and the more you laugh your head off.
"The Best Show" has been there for me through thick and thin. Tom and Jon have a deep appreciation for that fans that is evident by the amount of time they've been doing a somewhat thankless job (monetarily). I truly don't have the words to express what listening for the last nine years has done for my quality of life. I adore every Friend of Tom, and of course, the men themselves.
—Missy [Narrance], from Spokane, WA.
As a long-exiled New Yorker in L.A., the miracle of broadband DSL Internet brought me back in tune with my beloved WFMU. It was probably the result of streaming it every waking hour that I came across "The Best Show." When my long, strange and wet trip on the "Friends of Tom" bus began it was all about waiting for the Tom and Jon segment, so I had little patience for Spike, Laurie, Julie, the guy who's name I thought was Newport Richie, and wanted to get to the bit, the schtick, the filet, the gem if you will. Occasionally, when JW was absent, without so much as a hint, I'd find myself at hour 2:45 with that sinking feeling.
So the Feb. 3, 2009 show was a sea change of sorts. Tom began with "I have nothing planned." I took that as face value, but halfway through the first discussion of the dreaded Wally Wackaman, the sinking feeling returned. Then, Tom started revving up on some deserved Billy Crystal beat-down ("… the only face who's worse than that is Joe Torre—that creep.")
But at some point he turned his attention to Springsteen’s Super Bowl Halftime performance:
"There's like seven people playing guitar and I don't think I can hear one guitar. Of course Bruce felt he needed a gospel choir to fill the stadium sound. Why do they get to high five the crowd? Hey did you see me at the Super Bowl? I got a high five from one of the choir members!"
It was probably during the deconstruction of the 8-minute quasi-epic "Outlaw Pete" that opens his "Working On A Dream" album that I forgot to wait for the Jon call. I just sat amazed at Tom’s extemporaneous technique. Even the calls that followed were handled perfectly. I thought, he’s up there with the greatest comedy radio artists and I don’t say that about comedy radio artists often, if at all. I’m pretty devastated the show’s ending. I may as well throw my broadband in the garbage.
—Gregg [Lopez], from New York, L.A., and London.
In his first call to the show, heavyset barbershop enthusiast Zachery Brimstead, Esquire, sang a paean to America’s 43rd President, which culminated with the lyric "H is for forgotten memories." With the show coming to an end, here are just a few of my favorite memories and recurring tropes, which may be lesser known than some others.
• I was always delighted when there were new additions to three particular lists, which just expanded and got more ridiculous and the show went on: the films of Trent L. Strauss, shows on the Shout! Network, and Newbridge-based bands. My personal faves: It’s Raining Membranes; 180 With Hulk Hogan; and I Hate You The Ghost Of Anwar Sadat, respectively.
• Related, I love Tom and Jon’s ability to come up with nonsensical, long-winded book titles, including Darkness on the River’s Edge in the USA: From Greetings to The Promise: Bruce Springsteen: The Story Behind the Albums and Twittering While Main Street Burns, Or, Look, I’m Sorry You’re An Obese Nitwit. Eat A Salad And Read A Newspaper: The Stupidization of America.
• The mystery that always surrounded the Lady Footlocker at Newbridge Commons: depending on who you talk to, it disappeared, exploded, got haunted out of existence, or was frozen and then replaced with colored marbles.
• In early 2009, every character would make reference to Matsuflex, a participant in the first and last season of VH1’s "Tool Academy." Listening back to those calls now, it’s wonderful that they got so much comedy mileage from a dude who would clearly be forgotten within months.
• A caller from South Carolina once suggested that Jack Nicholson should "go shop for a coffin," and Tom spun this ghoulish remark into a segment called 'Coffin Talk,' as a prereq for calling in, you had to be drinking a beer in your bedroom after a hard day.
• The cavalcade of kid callers, like Milo (big Beatles fan); "the Canadian Glenn Beck"; Caleb, the nine-year-old that played a song called ‘Explosion’ down the phone.
• Recurring gags about Clifford ("I wanna say… Mason"); the call-screener’s hard-to-remember name; and people taking drugs and then falling asleep (Blue) or spontaneously combusting (Emerald
• Tom’s feature-length movie reviews were always a highlight—if you haven’t heard his Mr. Brooks or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull play-by-plays yet, I strongly recommend that you do so.
• Robert Tru-Hee-Ho.
• A toss-up for most unlikely on-air interview: Sanjaya, Kevin Smith, "Uncle" Luther Campbell.
• Ted Leo performing the greatest song of all time, ‘Rock N’ Roll Dreams’ll Come Through’ by the Gas Station Dogs.
I could very easily go on for hours, but nobody wants that. Thanks to Tom, Jon, and Mike for creating and developing not just a funny radio show, but a real community and something that will live on long beyond 9-pm-til-midnight.
—Samir [Mathur], from Gainesville and Orlando, Florida.
Being a first generation Southeast Asian migrant and living/working in neighborhoods with the same regional ethnicities, "The Best Show" provided me with the best education in modern Americana. It is also one of the most difficult things to explain to the people around me.
I found it in an AV Club article about Ted Leo playing cover songs for donations during the 2007 marathon *slide whistle*. At the time, I thought it would be just a way to drown out the sounds of a warehouse job. But then, Tom started to slam podcasts.
Scharpling wasn’t bemoaning the nascent digital form, but balking at the rich/white/straight/male first adaptors whose constant back-patting and self congratulation was drowning out the very premise of access and agency that technology gave for the unheard. He was a righteously indignant voice of consternation on how new media was becoming a repository for creative runoff, or a bully pulpit for amateurism and mediocrity. When these nerd overlords carved out their self-referencing fiefdoms, they didn’t understand or care that the easy pandering to their chosen niches wasn’t just oppressive and exclusionary, it was uninteresting and unfunny. He called out the hypocrisies and the lack of discussion of the –isms that pervade yet another counter-culture moving towards the center, and he defiantly cast out to the edges in response.
Scharpling didn’t look to occupy an echo chamber, but railed against the popular opinion held on the popular opinion by what self-identifies as an unpopular crowd. "The Best Show" wasn’t the local dive becoming warped in a gentrifying neighborhood, it was the bar in an industrial area, serving needful patrons. The façade of this comedy monolith is by design, built with incongruous bricks. Tuesday nights was a chance for junkies, drunks, a puppet, a perv, and every phony with a phone line open to occupy a free-form forum and have their voices heard (and then subsequently faded out to Bad Company's "Bad Company"). I didn't know it was going to be the final year of its existence, but I'm glad I finally gathered the courage to call and talk about rap skits in the back stairwell of my workplace. I'm still waiting on that Wu-Tang/Bon Iver mashup, sir.
Scharpling didn’t set out to gather a cult, but he did want to summon a minor demon. I hope he finally gets the means and access to do so, in whatever he does next. Newbridge never dies, son.
HAIL, AP MIKE LISK!
HAIL, JON WURSTER!
HAIL, TOM SCHARPLING!
—Fred [Carlos], from Honolulu.
A few weeks ago, I attended karaoke with a group of people. Some were locals, and some traveled as far as Alabama and Hawaii. There was also a puppet. The reason for the party: "The Best Show."
I’d started listening around the time of the 2008 Newbridge Mayubernatorial election, but I didn’t feel like a true FOT (or Friend of Tom) until fall of 2009, when I called into "The Best Show" and asked Tom, on-air, whether he needed an intern. To my surprise, he said yes, and on the October 6th, 2009 episode, I was in studio, witnessing Tom dissect awful Brad Benson ads, choking down ridiculous laughter in an effort to stay silent. Then, I was brought on air. I sat quietly, desperate not to ruin the delicate chemistry of my favorite thing. It must have been terrible radio.
That fear of an on-air screw-up is visceral in every call I’ve made. Most recently, I called in about my experience on a game show (Episode 5 of NBC’s "Hollywood Game Night"). I can tell you, being on a national televised program is a cakewalk compared to the butterflies I get calling into "The Best Show." The millions of anonymous faces judging me is no biggie, but bringing a lackluster call? Incurring the wrath of Tom’s mighty hammer of judgment? I’d have a pit in my stomach for weeks.
It’s a little weird, I understand. Upon hearing I’m an FOT, someone once asked, "Isn’t that some kind of cult?" She’s not wrong. It’s in the grand tradition of high-quality entertainments with small, devoted followings. Scharpling made you care. As fantastical and absurd as things got—and holy moly, this final year’s been delightfully bizarre—it felt filtered through his world view. He’s the good guy in a sea of trash. The intellectual working class. As he’s put it, "The Dollar Menu Dickens." Sure he’s funny, but he’s also right.
So at karaoke, when I screamed Paul Stanley stage banter and droned on like a bad caller while someone sang Bad Company, it was greeted with knowing recognition by the room. And when someone picked Queen’s "Don’t Stop Me Now," our group of close-knit strangers belted out those lyrics with the passion of Freddie Mercury. We all get it. We know what we’re losing. We’re losing the best show.
—David [Clarke], from Montclair and Verona.
The first time I tuned in to "The Best Show," Tom was playing with Toblerone.
He was talking to the candy as if it was a person and providing a high-pitched voice for the triangular chocolate. I began listening regularly. In fact, I never missed a show after hearing that bit. That was ten years ago.
Oddly enough, many of my favorite moments involved Tom talking to objects rather than people. There was the time he was excited about getting a Faces box set. Tom talked to a photo of the band members on the box as if they were guests on his show. I still remember him saying, "Hey, Kenney Jones, you going to play the drums later?" This sort of thing killed me. I would cry from laughing so hard. He used to talk to the Scratchy Record which concluded the old timey radio-themed show prior to his. The record became a regular character. He talked to the ABBA Box for weeks. He once had a craving for a McFlurry and imagined it covering the entire area that made up the radio console in front of him. He talked to the McFlurry that wasn’t there! Listening to a man sitting alone in a studio talking to things that can’t talk back to him is simultaneously hilarious and intimate.
My favorite of the contrived Newbridge, New Jersey phone conversations between Tom and Jon Wurster is the Hippy Johnny call. Tom talks to a hippy living in a place called Mellow Grove. As the conversation unfolds, Hippy Johnny exposes himself to be not so much about "peace & love." Instead, Hippy Johnny is sexist, litigious and forcing children to box up car parts for the purpose of selling. I culled the conversation from the original three-hour show and burned it onto a CD-R. I passed the CD around work and even played it for friends in my car. One friend asked if it was real.
I loved and looked forward to many of the regular callers. Tom had an ability to pick a good caller from a bad caller within seconds of the caller opening their mouth. Some were able to stick it out and were complimented by Tom at the end of the call. Others got GOMP’d (before Glenn Beck stole it) or heave-ho’d. Regardless, good callers, or bad callers, Tom made them all entertaining.
I will always love "The Best Show." Tom Scharpling will forever be one of my heroes. There will never be another. I will miss it. FOT for life.
—Andy [Mascola], from Nashua.
Let me walk you through the heart-throttling, Dockers-soiling terror of placing a call into "The Best Show."
First, there is the decision whether or not to call. Perhaps you saw Gary Sinise yell at a hot dog vendor. Is that topic worthy of a call? Maybe, because it involves a famous person acting like a jerk. But maybe not because Tom could be a Reindeer Games fan and come to the actor’s defense. Next question: Does Tom sound like he’s in a good mood? He’s been laying into Dan Ingram (who you had to Wikipedia) for ten minutes and now he’s unceremoniously hanging up on every caller. Perhaps it’s best to hold off. After all, you’ve heard rumors that there are enough people listening to fill two Rose Bowls. But you have faith in your ability to keep cool and deliver on the Sinise goods, so you place the call.
You dial. You get a busy signal. You hang up and hit redial. Busy signal. You hang up and hit redial. It’s ringing. The first wave of regret arrives and—to paraphrase George R.R. Martin—your bowels turn to water.
Mike picks up the phone and whispers, "Best Show."
"Hi Mike. It’s [your name here]."
"What did you want to talk about?"
"Gary Sinise yelling at a hot dog vendor."
You must have made the first cut and now are on hold to talk to Tom. Like a lobster watching his brethren get thrown into the pot before him, you are able to listen to the show while on hold. You are jogging in place to calm down.
Don’t take all of this the wrong way. In real life, Tom is friendly, polite, and off-the-charts altruistic. But on the air, it’s all business. He wields his wit like a truncheon, smashing famous people and callers alike who commit the sins of arrogance or general stupidity.
"[Static] FMU, you’re on the air."
This is it. Tom is talking to you. Say something.
"Hey Tom, it’s [your name]."
"What’s up, buddy?"
"I saw Gary Sinise yell at a hot dog vendor."
"Ok. [pause] Anything else?"
That’s not the response you had hoped for and there’s nothing to be done about it. Just answer.
When you go to listen to the call on the archives the next day, you hear your last utterance come out as "not r-" followed by Tom hanging up on you and complaining about the sub-standard quality of the callers Mike is letting through. While you reel a bit from the drubbing, you also see that it was not all about you. The hang-up was serving a bigger purpose: Tom was creating a story. It was a story about awful people, legions of imbeciles, everyone from you to Mike to Dan Ingram, trying to wreck his show. It was a funny and tragic story. Thank your lucky stars you got to play a part in it.
—Jon [Bloom], from Maplewood.
Rick [Paulas] from L.A. and Oakland has listened to every episode of "The Best Show" since late 2007. He's going to miss the hell out of it. Special thanks to Julie from Cincinnati for help with this piece.