On Radio: “Mirth, Music, and Mayhem”: In Praise of The Best Show on WFMU
Broadcast over Jersey City’s listener-supported radio station WFMU, The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling is what happens when many of commercial radio’s most noxious elements—bizarre callers, comedy routines, running gags, and irascible hosts—transform and coalesce into a singularly entertaining program perfectly calibrated for cult attraction. Hosted by comedy writer, music-video auteur, and NBA enthusiast Tom Scharpling, The Best Show has presented “three hours of mirth, music, and mayhem” once a week for over ten years. Beginning with a half-hour or so of music (usually garage-rock, punk, classic-rock, and hip hop) and continuing through two-and-a-half hours of callers, interviews, and pre-planned comedy routines, The Best Show contains so many pop-culture objects of my adoration (e.g., musicians Ted Leo, Kurt Vile, Black Flag, and Big Star as well as comedians Paul F. Tompkins, Julie Klausner, Patton Oswalt, and Todd Barry) that I almost hesitate to recommend it to anyone whose taste doesn’t align perfectly with mine. Still, my love of the program–and what it represents in a media environment driven by conglomerate interests–compel me to proselytize.
In a recent Spin magazine feature on the program, Tompkins suggests that The Best Show is “fully exploiting its medium.” It’s true–the affordances of live radio (and the free-form format of WFMU) are well suited to the program’s patient, ambling, and understated approach. Most episodes include a lengthy back-and-forth comedy routine between Scharpling and his comedy partner, Jon Wurster (who doubles as drummer for Superchunk and The Mountain Goats). In fact, The Best Show grew out of a 1997 Scharpling and Wurster routine from Scharpling’s pre-Best Show WFMU program. Playing a rock critic named Ronald Thomas Clontle, Wurster called the program to promote his book Rock, Rot, and Rule, a categorical guide to which popular music acts rock, which ones rot, and which ones rule. A recording of the routine became an underground hit, and The Best Show began as a going concern in 2000. Many of Scharpling and Wurster’s successive bits follow the general format of Rock, Rot, and Rule, with Scharpling as the straight man and Wurster calling the program as one of many hapless characters hailing from fictional Newbridge, New Jersey. In over ten years of these routines (some of which can be found on the duo’s self-released albums), Scharpling and Wurster have created an impressively fleshed-out narrative universe.
Although comedy podcasts and public-radio interview/variety programs represent seemingly obvious points of comparison for The Best Show, Scharpling often distinguishes his program from these genres by mocking the off-the-cuff nature of the former and the slick, genteel sleepiness of the latter. Indeed, Scharpling professes little love for NPR, dismissing Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor as a “hate-monger” and skewering the canned enthusiasm of programs like Car Talk. Alternately, he pokes fun at the amateurish nature of podcasts, albeit in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner. Still, The Best Show’s syndication within that format (as well as Best Show Gems, a podcast collecting many of The Best Show’s “greatest hits”) has expanded its audience over the past few years and helped contribute to the recent popularity of comedy podcasts.
Nevertheless, while the program’s online distribution has boosted its popularity, The Best Show’s status as a live, terrestrial radio program is fundamental to the program’s aesthetic. With its unpredictable callers and comedy routines, the program incorporates a volatile liveness that thrives on the combination of Scharpling’s gift for storytelling, his limited patience with bad callers, his intricately plotted routines with Wurster, and the contributions of a constantly evolving group of “Friends of Tom” or “FOTs” (including comedians, musicians, artists, and even puppets) who participate in the program on one level or another.
While Scharpling’s on-air persona (inhabiting a state that comedian and FOT John Hodgman refers to as “aggrieved”) may indicate a certain level of misanthropy, a humanist–and, yes, mirthful–current runs through the program. The Best Show often celebrates “the little guy” in the face of political and corporate bullies, and Scharpling has no patience for callers who espouse misogyny, racism, or any of the lowest-common-denominator approaches that draw audiences on other comedy radio programs. Ultimately, it’s not for nothing that writer Jake Fogelnest, in the aforementioned Spin feature, compares The Best Show to DIY indie/post-punk band Fugazi. Like that band, the program is an inspiring testament to the beauty of DIY art, community-supported media (whether that community is bound by geography or common interest), and non-corporate entertainment. And like Fugazi, The Best Show holds pleasures well beyond the particulars of its politics and mode of production—it’s a fantastic listen.
(The Best Show on WFMU runs every Tuesday night from 9pm to midnight, EST. Live-stream links and a nearly complete archive of the program can be found here.)