IMPOSE: Tom Scharpling Interview

Tom Scharpling understands the arduous task of quickly summarizing The Best Show for the uninitiated. He acknowledges such only a few minutes into our conversation. It spent 13 years as a slow-burning comedy show on beloved freeform station WFMU, the national beacon for unencumbered disc jockey whimsy, and thus, dominated by deeply recondite and fascinating music programming that birthed outsider music stars such as Irwin Cushid and People Like Us, as well as DJs who, leading into The Best Show for years, preferred antiquated 78 phonographs only. Scharpling co-opted this ethos and synthesized it into a talk comedy format in October of 2000. Though reaction to this break in programming remained divided throughout the FMU listenership in Northern Jersey and New York City, The Best Show eventually clicked with those who figured out its novel approach that both embraced traditional talk and comedy radio while deconstructing it. Interviews and call-in conversations were as common as radio experiments that might include, say, broadcasting via a cellphone while driving around Jersey City blasting Physical Graffiti with listener and occasional guest “Officer Tom.”

The show caught traction with big names in comedy like John Oliver and Conan O’Brien, yet still acted as a sort of speakeasy of comedy and music. That shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. With three hours of radio to fill, a call from his comedy partner Jon Wurster in-character can stretch and breathe for 15 or 20 minutes before the punchline begins to reveal itself. The show can shift from candid interviews to scratchy punk records to cantankerous comedy to heartfelt anecdotes to callers getting hung up on as Tom hits play on Bad Company’s “Bad Company” on cue within a half hour span. It’s esoteric by design, but never exclusive.

Though The Best Show experiments with the medium of comedy and radio, Scharpling has the persona and speedy wit of a very traditional broadcaster. Unlike the current podcast culture of comedy, The Best Show in its latest form streams live at thebestshow.net, and Tom can steer the ship in an entirely different direction on a dime, riffing with callers and improvising when necessary – offering up the recorded archive the next day, warts and all. He also plays a brilliant straight man to Wurster’s arsenal of willfully ignorant characters, all of whom reside in the fictional space of Newbridge, and as the aforementioned O’Brien once lauded, “are keeping the fine art of two-person comedy alive.”

A loose sense of under-appreciation, whether feigned or sincere, has often percolated through Tom’s deconstruction of hack comedy – anything from dressing down phony podcasters to his bombastic 18-minute takedown of Billy Crystal’s highly #problematic “Jazzman” routine for Comic Relief in 2006. If anything, the end of the WFMU era has seen The Best Show getting its just desserts, ushering in a torrent of goodwill reciprocation – from countless press salutes to the show’s theme played during the 2013 World Series in Boston (not to mention a cameo in Nike’s Derek Jeter sendoff… that also featured Billy Crystal). After the goodbye, the duo got together with Adult Swim for an infomercial during their late night experiments (also the birthplace of Too Many Cooks) and put together a box set with the artistic and comic density of a worm hole, featuring essays from a menagerie of personalities as diverse as Patton Oswalt, Julie Klausner, Damian Abraham of Fucked Up, and others. Scharpling and Wurster will cut their live show direct to acetate at Jack White’s Third Man Records this Saturday night in Nashville for a forthcoming release. Yet all these high profile nods of approval or the notion of proliferating The Best Show beyond a respected and nuanced cult comedy phenomenon has never been the point.

“All I want is to do the stuff I wanna do and that its good and my friends are laughing at it – that the people who care about it think it’s good and to make some kind of living off of what I do,” Scharpling explains. “I don’t need to be rich or recognized by people. The best part of this is that its still anonymous – I can go wherever I go and people don’t know who I am. That’s fantastic. Like the guy from a commercial who’s doing a thing he doesn’t even wanna be known for is getting spotted everywhere – he got paid for it, but you’re known just as a guy who made a pile of trash. That sounds like the worst version of it and Ive got the opposite version – I get to make things, people like it, but I still get to go to Homestyle Buffet and no one knows who I am.”

Tom talked with IMPOSE about the future of The Best Show, the difference between the comedy and indie rock communities, what makes a good podcast, and an unlikely broadcasting ally.

IMPOSE: Why did you ultimately choose to go completely independent, and literally build the show and studio from the ground up. Is that in any way sort of carrying out the show’s comin’ out swinging, good guys win ethos?

TS: Yeah, you know, I think it really came down to just… I had been trying to figure out where the show could be in the next iteration of it, and we had a bunch of conversations with a bunch of different places. Podcast networks, some public radio, and it just felt like the kind of thing that I really had to take the reigns on this and do it the way I know it needs to be done, at the start.

To go into some relationship with somebody, it’d be like – if anybody had any thoughts on [the show]… like with public radio, there’s so much there in terms of it being such a big entity, there’s no way this show goes through without somebody suggesting changing stuff on it. Ya know, we did this for over 13 years, I kinda don’t feel like changing anything at this point since somebody said “change it” because they don’t get it. No, I like it. The stuff Jon and I do is my favorite stuff. We don’t take notes from anybody and we’ve got to earn that right to not do that. I don’t feel like hearing someone who isn’t up to speed being like “eh, I don’t like this. I like when you do this, but don’t like when you do that.” Well, we’re doing all of it. It felt like there couldn’t be any sort of compromise on the creative side. Ultimately that leaves you with being like “well, I guess I’m doing this myself.” That’s the price you pay for freedom.

IMPOSE: Going out on a limb like this, completely DIY, does it feel more liberating, or does it feel more taxing because everything is on you?

TS: It’s definitely both. Definitely a lot more taxing. There’s so much stuff that has to be done to make this happen. That part of it is undeniable, there’s just so much. I’m on the hook for everything now with this. Just getting things done and up and out and the way I want it to be – yeah, the buck starts and stops with me now. There’s a lot of people helping me on this, it’s not like I’m alone, I don’t want to make it sound like that. But there’s not a parent corporation or anything that’s fielding this stuff or I can just lean on for help. We are out on the tightrope now and there’s not much of a net down there.

But it’s also free because I know this show is mine. Nobody’s gonna say what happens on it. Whatever I wanna do and whatever Jon wants to do – that’s what we’re doing. I own the equipment now, and I can do a show as short or as long as I want. And that part of it is fantastic. That’s the most exciting part – the future is ours to determine, in terms of what we do with it.

IMPOSE: You can Half Hour of Power and auxiliary ideas and shows…

TS: Oh yeah, absolutely. And the show could also be shorter. It doesn’t have to be three hours, I could do an half and a half show now because the show is what I say the show is at this point. With that stuff, it really comes down to… yeah, the show can be 3 hours and 15 minutes because we’re not done talking about this thing, or it can be 2 hours because that’s all the show we’ve got. It’s wide open. That part I can’t wait to get into and what there is to do.

IMPOSE: So you foresee the show morphing into, I don’t want to say a completely different format, but playing with what you’ve built with WFMU over the years into something organically changing?

TS: Who knows. I have the option of it. The part of the show that’s exciting is just doing it and going where the show goes and not just following the plan. Whatever ideas there are, let’s just try it! And suddenly there’s puppets on the show and suddenly there’s sound collages and all these different things that just show up, and we can go where they go. It’s not “well you can’t do that” for any reason now. There’s nothing prohibiting anything. The length of the show was determined because it was on radio, so there was a 3 hour time slot, with a show on before us and after us. We had these 3 hours, but there’s nothing dictating any of that.

IMPOSE: Even though everyone’s back, AP Mike, Gary, the old features – is there anything on the dot net that feels intrinsically different not being on terrestrial radio or WFMU?

TS: The one thing I’d say is that there’s… being a part of the WFMU community is different. That’s new in terms of… when we get there, we turn on the equipment, and when we’re done, we shut if off. To not see these other people I’d normally see… it’s like being on an island. But we’re building our own community now. Being outside that WFMU family and being in that building that’s open 24-7, that’s not happening now. It’s not better or worse though, just different.

IMPOSE: And I think anyone who’s done college radio before probably identifies with that. It’s like the difference between going into a building and playing records versus podcasting with GarageBand in your room.

TS: But it’s still a weird thing because… I don’t know who else is doing what we’re doing. It’s a radio show, but it’s not on the radio. Then it becomes a podcast, but it’s not a pure podcast because we have phone lines and we’re taking calls from all over the world and talking to whoever calls up. So it’s alive in that regard, but then it’s not part of a radio station so it’s its own thing, and then it becomes a podcast the next day. It’s a podcast for most people – that’s how they hear it, but it starts off as a radio show that’s not on a radio station. There’s not a lot of other shows I can be like “oh hey, you’re doing the same thing we’re doing, it’s a weird set up, right?” Nope, there’s nobody else replicating a radio studio to make their podcast.

IMPOSE: You know just announced that they are doing something similar to what you’ve established with The Best Show? Your friend Art Bell! 

TS: Good! That’s awesome! I think Art has been looking for a home long time, and he ended up on Sirius XM and that did not work because I think he felt he couldn’t reach his people. They were not able to hear what he was doing. Now, if he does this thing, it’s like, yeah why shouldn’t someone who is a giant in that world – I mean, his name almost means something else beside his name. If you’re talking about supernatural stuff, crazy stuff like that, you just say Art Bell, everyone knows that’s what you’re talking about. Yeah, that’s Art Bell stuff. The guy is enormous. He should just take ownership of the thing. The technology now favors guys like that, just building their thing and just having people come to them. They’ve already done the hard part. The hard part is not building the studio – look, that part was very hard, but that’s not the hard part. That’s just equipment and money is all that takes, which I know that sounds insulting on some level. But the hard part is coming up with a show that people want to hear. You could have all the equipment in the world, and if you can’t put together a show people are interested in then what good does it do you? That’s why there’s all these companies with their platform where they can host this or showcase that, but they don’t have the talent to showcase their platform. It’s meaningless without the thing people want to hear, and Art Bell is something people want to hear. The other stuff is just a matter of building the infrastructure, and he can do that. I think that’s awesome.  I thought you were gonna say someone worse than that, I was ready to just wanna throw up when you’re were gonna say some name of who was doing that.

IMPOSE: [laughs] I wasn’t gonna say something to, like, rile you up like a caller might. I just really love Art Bell and I was very excited when saw that announcement over Facebook and it got me thinking how my worlds would really collide if Tom ever interviewed Art Bell because I feel like there’s a crossover there in some weird way.

TS: Oh I would do that in a second. I love Art Bell. He’s great. He’s a legend. Nothing like when he’s just talking about the grays or the chupacabra or Mel’s Hole and it’s 3:30 in the morning and you’re like “this is stupid” [laughs] and then you’re like “I’m scared.” There’s that shift… I can never ever listen to Art Bell when he plays those tapes…

IMPOSE: EVP!

TS: Yeah, where they’ve trapped people talking on recordings from the afterlife. Nope! Can’t hear that. Shutting this off. I hate the sound of that hiss of a cassette and then you just hear this weird sound on it. Oh, that spooks me! To me, that is the definition of terror, is hearing those segments. Shut that off, can’t hear it!

IMPOSE: I also think there’s something about Art Bell broadcasting from his, like, double wide trailer in Pahrump, Nevada versus George Noory in a studio in Los Angeles. It has that extra creepiness to it.

TS: Yeah, and George Noory seems like he’s perfectly fine on some level. But I feel maybe he took the thing in a direction that isn’t what people got on board with to hear. His show is not nearly as fun as Art’s was. His thing doesn’t interest me nearly to the degree in which Art’s did.

IMPOSE: Listen, I could talk about Art Bell all afternoon…

TS: This is not you interviewing me for a piece about Art Bell [laughs].

IMPOSE: Talk shows on talk shows!

TS: But suffice to say, if Art Bell is reading this or anyone who knows Art Bell is reading, please put me in touch with him. I would love to have him call into The Best Show. That would be a career highlight.

IMPOSE: I’ll post it on his Facebook wall.

TS: Yeah, just to get him to [impersonating Art Bell] “ha ho ho ho,” that Art Bell laugh.

IMPOSE: OK, I need to ask a question about Jon Wurster. I know that you all met initially over a shared love of Get a Life, but when was the first time he realized that he was actually hilarious?

TS: The first time we met! We started talking and he was really funny. I met him [at the time]as the drummer of Superchunk and this guy was really funny. He has the same sensibility and we started talking and became friends. There was a feeling we had to do something together. It was like what can we do – we’re not comedians and we’re outside the system. I had a show at the time [on WFMU], which was music based so it was like why don’t we do this one call about a fake author? It was like using the tools available at our disposal, which is what became Rock, Rot, and Rule. Right from the get-go I knew he was funny.

IMPOSE: I wanted to talk about outside the show projects – you’ve got the box set, the infomercial [with Adult Swim], you’ve got the live shows, and now the live record with Third Man. Are all these meant to test the waters for more sketch-based comedy coming down the pipeline?

TS: The live part has never been the goal with any of this stuff, but it is something that we kinda left on the table and didn’t pursue. It’s funny, getting ready to do all this stuff, I talked to John Hodgman and he does something different than what I do, but what we do have in common is that we have these careers that are hard to sum up. They don’t come down to just “oh he’s a blah blah blah.” My thing doesn’t make sense and takes people a while… I know with my agent when they’re trying to explain to somebody what I do because it’s hard. “Well he does a radio show. It used to be a show on a non-commercial station now it’s just its own thing and a podcast also. And he writes and directs things.” It’s all over the map and not easily defined. Hodgkin said one thing that was really invaluable: ‘when you have the type of career that we have, you can’t leave anything on the table.’ You have to maximize every possible avenue to put yourself out there and make money and put yourself in front of people and express yourself. You can;t leave live performing out of the mix just because it’s not your primary interest. So it was – and Jon agrees with this – we were limiting ourselves and you just gotta try stuff and take a shot. But live performing has never been something I was interested in. There’s a reason why I’m on the radio. I write, I direct, and I’m on the radio, and the one common thread between those is people don’t see me. You’re behind the scenes on all three.

But then ya know, I gotta take the leap here. We did it. The box set was the impetus for this because we gotta promote the box set. But it also feels like the start of something new. We don’t want to stop the live shows after the box is out. No, honestly we like doing those shows and we’re gonna do more and its something we can grow and see where it goes. Its a lot of fun to do because its a version of what we do. Its not like Im suddenly doing stand up and its so far out of my comfort or Jon is doing something that doesn’t make sense to him. Were taking what we’ve done for years and adapting it to the stage  and it felt very natural regard. I feel good about doing more of them.

IMPOSE: And I’m sure there’s something to be said about seeing peoples reactions to your punchlines and routines that radio just doesn’t allow you to do.

TS: Oh yeah. When we do the show, it’s in a vacuum, it’s just silence. I love that part of it, and I know some people are terrified of that part of it. I trust the silence. But of course hearing people laugh in real-time is really satisfying. It’s like “oh that’s a nice feeling, to hear that.” Yeah I love the energy of that, and I love trying to compress the show and make it work live. We’re not doing what a lot of podcasts do when they do a live show, just putting a table out having a group of people just shoot the breeze-I’ll say breeze. And those shows are a lot of fun too. We were like, let’s do this more like a show where we’re not sitting and we’re up in performing this thing, rather than do a full 45 minute version of a call like it would play out on the radio. People wouldn’t get restless with that live. We are trying to keep the energy up and keep it exciting and have it move. It is different than the radio show in that regard, the live show moves a lot faster.

IMPOSE: Considering your history with WFMU and running a zine, but also your involvement with the New York City comedy scene, do you feel more of a kinship with the comedy community or the indie rock world? Or is it equal.

TS: Hmmm. Because of what I do, I feel more of a connection with comedy, because those people are making what I make. I can relate to the idea of navigating to that world, from the creative side of things and the business side of things. So on a professional level I get where the company people are coming from, working in the same trade. Where I don’t have as much in common with those people and more with the indie rock people is the DIY side. So many people in comedy go and do their thing that gets them noticed, then they go and get a job somewhere, and they’re on a show and some big company is paying for everything and they’re working for a corporation now. Not saying that in a judgmental way I work with corporations all the time. They kinda jump on that train and don’t look back and other people’s money at that point. The you go to the indie rock side of things and it has much more of that DIY quality where you sink or swim based on whether you can do everything that job requires you to do, not just the thing you got hired to do.

To get the Best Show back up and running to the point where it resembles the show, it’s inconceivable how many areas I had to learn about and go to school on. Like playing music on the show since there’s advertising, and making sure everyone’s covered – BMI, ASCAP, all of that. Learning about tech stuff. All this stuff that’s not what I got into this, but if I wanna do the show, that’s what I have to do. I’m not complaining, but I don’t always get to think about the show. I can spend all day sorting out administrative stuff and then “oh yeah, I’ve got to do the show now.” There’s a lot, but I feel like it will settle down into just maintenance. But just getting the mechanic sent to place has been no small feat. But that’s the indie rock thing and that’s the DIY thing.

Which is why I feel like I do get along with Chris Gethard in addition to just getting along with him because we’re friends and because I think he’s hilarious and he’s a great guy, it’s like, he also just has that thing where, I wanna do a show, nobody is asking me to do a show, so I’m gonna do my own show and then he just didn’t stop. He kept growing the thing and pushing to make that thing as crazy and big and kinda magical as it could possibly be and now his show, finally, somebody else is gonna host that show, it’s gonna be on this network, Fusion, finally, but that’s after years of putting into that thing to get it to be what it could be. I do believe that he wouldn’t take a show to a place that wouldn’t be a good fit for it because he loves the show too much. And that’s that DIY thing full-on, like, no I care about this thing, I’m not gonna sell it out or I’m not gonna compromise it. Just because somebody’s offering me a deal doesn’t mean I have to take the deal. I’ll take a deal that makes it so I can do the show the way I wanna do the show. If somebody had come along and offered me the perfect deal to do The Best Show with, like, we won’t ask you to change anything on that and you can come do it at our studio and we’ll do this part of it and you do what you do best…yeah, I would have tried that out. But that never showed up so I didn’t take any of the deals that didn’t…like, I couldn’t feel good about it, so I know Chris feels good about it. That’s the only way he could do his show somewhere else is because he says, “No, they’re letting me do what I do,” and that’s how I feel about it. You don’t just sign with somebody because you can sign with them. You gotta sign with somebody because it’s gonna help you take your thing, and protect your thing and help you grow your thing. Not change your thing. I mean, how many bands are there that had a following, signed to a major label, didn’t blow up and then also lost their audience, because the audience felt like in the DNA of the thing, “No this is different, I’m not interested in this, this isn’t what I liked about them before, so I’m out.” And then they’ve got nobody. It’s not worth it if it’s not the right fit. Well who knows, maybe the right fit will come along for the show, somebody who’s, like, “You came back, you grew it the way you wanted to grow it, we appreciate all the stuff that you did, we’re not gonna interfere with it and we just wanna help you take it to the next level,” I’d be open to that. Not closing the door to anything like that but I also am not counting on it. I know that if I want this to be the way it’s gotta be, it’s on me to make it that way.

Tom: Was that boring enough for you?

IMPOSE: No! That absolutely, it’s interesting because it kind of…I learned a lot but at the same time it’s kind of the direction of what I expected you to say, as well, and that’s one of the things that’s always been appealing to me about the show and about you as a host is that sort of uncompromising, champion attitude, like, I’m gonna do this myself and I’m gonna come out fightin’…you know, like, Joe Lunchpail make it out on top and my way. And I’m gonna do twenty minute sound collages that someone is just tuning in who’s gonna be like, “What Is this? I don’t understand this” But whatever! It’s what I’m doing. I think it’s fun and it makes every week a little unpredictable.

TS: Sure. I mean, look, I know the show could be a lot bigger, or whatever you want to call it, if we had done certain things with it. But we didn’t so this is where we’re at and this is where I want it to be. And I know it’s like a broken record, I made fun of podcasts for so long. And there’s people, like, “Oh, you’re doing a podcast now,” it’s like, first of all I’ve been doing a podcast since 2005, we started podcasting shows. I was doing a podcast way before 99.9% of you guys were doing podcasts. And, the thing that just gets me is people doing podcasts because they think it’s gonna get them a tv show or something. That’s like, no, I did this stuff because I loved radio and I love comedy and that’s the only reason I’ve done these things. Not to get to that next place with it. Because we’re doing a good thing. That’s it/ It answers its own question. We wanna do something good so we do something good. Wherever that takes us, that’s where it takes us. Wherever it doesn’t take us, then it doesn’t take us. But it’s never been, “if we do this, then we’ll get a tv show and then screw that, screw the podcast” and we just move on and have the conventional career we always wanted to have. The only beef I’ve ever had is with people who are just doing it with an ulterior motive. I did it because I loved it and when I see people doing it for other reasons than loving it, that’s what really drives me up a wall. But the medium of podcast is perfectly fine. I listen to Julie Klausner and she is doing her show and she put it on ice while she was working on her tv show and then she started doing it again. It’s like, if I don’t wanna do it anymore, I’m not gonna do it anymore. But that’s exactly it, you do it because you love it. If you don’t love it, then you don’t do it. That’s the way you’re supposed to do these things, in my opinion. When you clog up the market to do it as a means to some other end, you’re only making it harder for the people who love the thing and are gonna be here after you’re gone because you’re polluting the market. I gotta barter for the people who do it so well to be able to get recognized. And a guy like Gilbert Godfrey, his podcast is like, of all the people in the world to start doing a podcast, that seems like okay well another actor, another comedian just doing a thing, he’s jumping on the trend…well, no. He figured out the very specific and very personal thing he does with his podcast. Have you ever heard his show?

IMPOSE: No, I haven’t

TS: He’s been doing it a couple years now. He interviews these Hollywood people, these actors and comedians, who are forgotten about where he’ll talk to like Larry Storch from F Troop who’s like 92 and he’ll ask about these old showbiz stories. Its really interesting – he’ll talk to these people with stories to tell because he wants to hear these stories because he loved them as a kid. No one else is asking them to tell their stories. And that’s what Jake Fogelnest did too, he talked to people he wanted to get stories from, not talking to just someone who has a movie out. As long as people do it for the love, make it their own, and it’s personal – thats great. Outside of that, its just platforms.

Scharpling & Wurster perform this Saturday, May 16th, at Third Man Records in Nashville at 7:30 p.m.