The Best Show on WFMU
Comedy team Scharpling and Wurster release another compilation of staged radio call-ins and interview spoofs
Published: May 5th, 2007 | 10:10am
Since October 2000, the cult radio show appropriately titled The Best Show on WFMU has been making listeners laugh throughout New Jersey, New York City, and eastern Pennsylvania via radio stations 91.1 FM and 90.1 FM as well as throughout the world via wfmu.org and podcast. Every Tuesday evening from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern, DJ Tom Scharpling hosts three hours of “mirth, music, and mayhem,” which mostly consists of Scharpling’s rants about various topics such as Kevin Smith, the new Killers album, and NYC grocery stores, interactive games like “Come On, Guys” and “I Don’t Get It,” and frequent call-ins from “celebrities,” including Ted Leo, Mr. Show‘s Paul F. Tompkins and Chunklet editor Henry Owings. Scharpling has also interviewed comedians Zach Galifianakis, Matt Walsh and Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tom Goes to the Mayor and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
While many diehard fans, dubbed “Friends of Tom,” are devoted to Scharpling, religiously tuning in each week and discussing the show in an online chat, the main attraction often comes in the form of audio sketches involving Superchunk drummer–turned–comedy writer Jon Wurster. He and Scharpling first became friends in 1993 when they bonded over their love for the TV series Get a Life, and in 1997, the duo debuted “Rock, Rot, and Rule” during Scharpling’s first WFMU radio show. The call featured Wurster as Ronald Thomas Clontle, a terribly misinformed music critic who had written a book dividing bands into three categories: those that rock, those that rot, and those that rule.
“We’d been talking on the phone for months, and eventually it was decided that we should probably try to do something on the air,” Wurster recalls from his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “And it went fantastically, and people were calling in to argue with me. And so from there on out we just kept doing it.”
Over time, the duo have developed a structure for its comedy bits that basically goes like this: Wurster calls into Scharpling’s show as a new or recurring character, and the initially innocuous conversation devolves into a tale of utter absurdity, culminating in the “caller” either threatening to physically harm Scharpling or getting harmed himself. The natural rapport between the two comedians would lead any unsuspecting listener to believe the call is real … at first. But after while, one learns to discern Wurster’s casual tenor from that of the average caller, no matter how it’s disguised.
Amazingly, the pair never rehearses beforehand. “We’ll kind of talk on the phone and one of us will have an idea,” Wurster explains. “[Then Scharpling] gets kind of the layout and I’ll actually write a lot of it down, how it’s gonna flow, some actual lines here and there. And then I’ll send Tom some notes on it, and we’ll discuss it a little more the day of the call, and then we’ll do it.”
“When we go into the calls, we know the spots that we have to hit to tell the story,” Scharpling adds. “Sometimes there’s 15 things to hit, and the calls are pretty much scripted out beat for beat. Other times we can keep them pretty loose just as long as we get to those spots, and the rest can be improvised and filled in and that keeps it really exciting.”
The fifth and latest release on Scharpling and Wurster’s own label, Stereolaffs, guarantees plenty of laughs for new and longtime listeners alike. Titled The Art of the Slap, this three-disc, super-sized compilation features some of the best bits the duo has performed on-air since October 2005. Scharpling does a follow-up interview with a man who got sucked up into a tornado and uses his second chance at life to start his own version of Girls Gone Wild. Regular character Philly Boy Roy talks about “The Running of the Cheese Steaks” and the psychic abilities of his chain-smoking 15-year-old son. And Corey Harris from major label alternative rock band Mother 13 calls in to gives a two-part account of his band’s trip to the top of Mt. Everest with the Polyphonic Spree and Buddy Guy, who all suffer terrible fates.
Scharpling and Wurster’s progressive, somewhat nerdy humor seems perfect for a listener-funded, freeform radio station, but both comedians have expanded into other media. In 2002, Scharpling was the first writer hired for the TBS television series Monk, having previously worked as a writer’s assistant to the show’s creator, fellow WFMU DJ and feature film writer Andy Breckman. Wurster is currently working on an episode for Cartoon Network’s Squibillies, and both helped write episodes for the next season of Tom Goes to the Mayor. Wurster also contributes to Modern Drummer magazine and plays with the likes of Robert Pollard, Rocket from the Crypt, and Jay Farrar.
But they’re not ready to stop doing The Best Show on WFMU … yet. “We’re planning on doing some visual stuff for later in this year, and it would be nice to see what we could do with that, but I wouldn’t want to end it right now,” Scharpling says. “I still think we have stuff to do. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, [but] I think we have worked it up to being something that’s kind of special, and we’re at full-strength right now.”