In an era before podcasts, comedy nerds looking for audio chatter clung to the absurdity of The Best Show, a scripted radio call-in show on New Jersey's WFMU. While shows featured comedian guests and actual calls from actual listeners, the show's signature element was host Tom Scharpling exasperatedly wading through calls from the bizarre residents of the fictional town of Newbridge, NJ (all voiced by his partner in crime Jon Wurster, known in rock circles as the drummer for the Mountain Goats, Superchunk, and Bob Mould). Calling the characters eccentric might be an understatement, and the back-and-forth between Sharpling and Wurster established the duo as one of the premiere purveyors of the somewhat fading art of two-person comedy.
After a 13-year run on WFMU, the program bid adieu to terrestrial radio in December 2013. It rose from the proverbial ashes a year later as a Internet radio broadcast and weekly podcast. Now Scharpling and Wurster hit the road in support of The Best Show’s new expansive 16-CD box set, and their tour makes a stop at Neumos this Thursday (Aug 27).
For the latest edition of our Points of Reference series, we chatted with Scharpling about five pop cultural touchstones that influenced The Best Show and helped the program live up to its name.
The Howard Stern Show
In terms of radio, Howard Stern was an influence; the idea of somebody just talking and talking, and really talking as themselves. Just letting something go where it went without the usual radio restrictions—all the traffic updates and the sports scores and all that stuff that just hinder getting to anything really funny. They were able to spread out on that show.
I guess they still are. I stopped listening a long time ago, but it was very influential to me. I stopped listening when I started doing my show. And I think I knew on some level that I’m just gonna be doing a Howard Stern impression if I don’t find my own path here. I’ve talked to a bunch of people who make things of all different styles or genres, and there’s that point where it’s like you’re either here to put things out or you’re here to take things in. If you’re gonna try to make stuff, there’s a point where you’re consuming stuff at this incredible rate, trying to learn how stuff works by studying the things you love and what makes them special. But then there’s a point where the balance has to kind of shift, and you’re like, I just can’t keep taking in influences because it’s time for me to put things out. I think that The Howard Stern Show has been one of the casualties of that for me. But it was very, very important.
With the SCTV [which was set in the fictional town of Melonville]… I guess we never consciously ever thought that we were modeling Newbridge after anything, but the world just grows and you learn how to fit things into the model of this town. We made Newbridge into the catch-all for all the characters, because it was just easier from a reality standpoint to just say okay, there’s this weird unrealistic place, rather than to try to keep saying this call is coming from Hoboken, and this one’s coming from…
It gives the show a unifying force, so listeners are immediately like “Oh, this is a Newbridge person, I know what’s happening.”
Exactly. Then we can have them all know each other also, because they’re all sharing the same town.
The Bob Grant Show
There was a local New York radio show, The Bob Grant Show. Bob Grant was this super conservative right-wing guy on WABC, which is AM radio in New York that launched Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Those guys ended up getting this national stage out of their thing, but Bob Grant kind of never broke out of being just New York. His thing didn’t translate. Politically, he was repellent as it gets, just a truly nauseating, hateful guy. But he was really great at doing radio. I guess it’s a testament to that how I never agreed with him about what he was saying, but would listen to how he was saying it.
He was super impatient with callers. He took a call and would be like, “Bill, in White Plains…,” and if the guy would say “How are you, Bob?,” just saying “How are you?” would drive him nuts. And he would just say [extremely aggravated] “What’s on your mind, Bill?” like so mad, because he looked at that as just being meaningless—some guy asking him how he’s doing. He would do a thing where if a caller was boring, you’d hear him pouring a glass of water in the background. Audibly you’d just hear a glass of water being filled as this person is rambling on and on. So like I think that level of just impatience influenced me.
Once every few months he would do this thing called the “GAG Hour,” which stood for Get at Grant. It was an hour where the callers got to give it back to him. They would call and he couldn’t hang up on them, he would have to take it from the callers. And they’d say, like, “Bob, that toupee on your head looks like a dead raccoon” or “you look like an orangutan with a dead squirrel on your head.” And he would just take it, and laugh at it. It was exciting to hear that. He was completely hateable, and I disagreed with him on all his politics, but I thought he was hilarious as a thing.
The stuff that Chris Elliott did on David Letterman and then Get a Life, to me, was the best kind of comedy. It was everything I wanted from comedy. It had targets and it made fun of them, but it loved stuff also. It still would have a weird heart, but these people doing characters were funny and sarcastic and goofy. It was smart and dumb at the same time.
The way Patton Oswalt carries himself as a comedian has been really influential to me, because once he kind of grew a platform with his standup where people were paying attention, he did something with it. He did the Comedians of Comedy shows, which then showcased other people. I mean you’re talking about Maria Bamford and Zach Galifinakis and Brian Posehn, and all these people who have gone on just to be enormous in their own right. He used his power for influence with such a sense of purpose.
And also, he’s not somebody who just criticizes things. He has a definite point of view on things and he makes fun of a ton of things in his standup—he can just be brutal and deconstruct things to the point where it’s just the funniest thing ever—but he strikes a balance where he also tries to make sure he’s telling you what the good things are also. It’s like, yeah, if you’re gonna complain about some terrible movie, well here are some good movies, and here’s somebody who’s writing comic books now that is as good as anybody ever, and I can’t stop listening to this band, or something. He’s so generous with his platform.
The easiest thing in the world, especially now, is just to crap on stuff. To say this sucks and that sucks, and this is terrible and that’s terrible. Look, I do plenty of that. I just also do try to strike a balance where it’s like no but these are great things also. And it’s just so much healthier of a place to just be, constantly keep trying to be excited about things that come out, rather than just saying everything sucks. When you stop looking for things that are great and just focus on what sucks, next thing you know, you can’t even tell what’s great anymore. So the way Patton approaches that has been very influential to the show and me.
Scharpling and Wurster
Aug 27 at 8, Neumos, $25