Tom Scharpling Interview: ‘The Best Show,’ Death, Comedy And Radio (Not Necessarily In That Order)
(Originally appeared in Dangerous Minds, July 9, 2015)
The long-form radio comedy and music program The Best Show ran on Jersey City, New Jersey’s WFMU from 2000 to 2013. This past year, The Best Show segued into the podcast-only realm, where it streams live every Tuesday night at 9:00 PM EST at thebestshow.net. Past radio shows, dating back to 2000, can be found at https://wfmu.org/playlists/BS.
In May, the Chicago-based label Numero released a glorious boxed set containing 75 incredibly nuanced radio comedic bits from The Best Show (spread over 16 CDs) between Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster that should be a primer for anyone interested in comedy. Fifty of these bits are previously unreleased or unaired.
For those not familiar, a typical episode of The Best Show consists of music culled by Tom, call-ins from listeners, some of whom are regulars, and phone conversations between comedy-writer Tom and comedian and professional drummer Jon Wurster. Over the years, the pair have created a virtual, three-dimensional world out of a proud, imaginary town called Newbridge, New Jersey. It’s Lake Wobegon without the nose whistling.
The boxed set, called The Best of the Best Show, contains a 108-page hardcover book, featuring essays by comedians Patton Oswalt and Julie Klausner, and a 22-page interview with Tom and Jon conducted by Jake Fogelnest.
Beyond even that, there are temporary tattoos, postcards, and four hours of bonus material, including the classic bit “The Bruce Willis Saga.” This boxed set will keep you occupied this summer—and beyond. I’ve been listening non-stop for the past few weeks. It has the comedic density of an imploded star. It’s the most impressive comedy album/CD/USB drive I’ve ever heard. The consistency and variety are amazing.
The Best Show is comedy in its purest form. It’s not possible that this show could be improved upon in a different format, whether it be television, movies or print. Or whether the show included a team of writers or a cast or performers. Long-form radio is the perfect medium for The Best Show, and if it has taken mainstream audiences awhile to find it (years after the comedy intelligentsia fell in love), then so be it.
I spoke with Tom one Friday afternoon at a noisy bar in the World Trade Center area about the new boxed set, the recent death of his father, and many other subjects. Much thanks must go out to my friend Michal Addady for her helpful assistance.
You’re now working as a writer on the new HBO show Divorce which will air this fall. Who else is in the writing room?
[Irish writer and director] Sharon Horgan [Pulling, Catastrophe] created the show, and she’s running it with Paul Simms. Sharon is incredibly funny and Paul’s never worked on a bad show. He’s written for Flight of the Conchords, Late Night with David Letterman, The Larry Sanders Show, NewsRadio. He runs a great room.
Another writer is Adam Resnick [Late Night with David Letterman, Get a Life, Cabin Boy].
I’m a huge fan of Adam’s work. It’s been great to see the recent uptick in interest and appreciation for Get a Life and Cabin Boy. It’s well deserved.
It’s funny. It’s almost had to reach the lowest possible level for Get a Life and Cabin Boy to bounce back to where they’ve always belonged. I have a lot of theories on why and how everything bad happened with Get a Life and Cabin Boy. People like to think they’re smarter than dumb Hollywood products, and these two got misinterpreted as being dumb comedies. Audiences wanted to be like, “How dare you push dumb things on us!” The difference is that Cabin Boy knows what it is. It’s not just a crass movie by Pauly Shore that’s trying to convince you that it’s smart but it’s also dumb. No, this was a smart movie made by smart people who were fascinated with the parameters of—who were so deep into comedy . . .
I sometimes wonder if one can be too deep into comedy when making a show or a movie intended to be a financial and popular success.
I don’t know. I think Get a Life and Cabin Boy have been vindicated.
It took a long time.
Sometimes it takes a long time, Mike. Sometimes you start doing a radio show when Bill Clinton is president and then you start finally getting attention when Obama is about to stop being president.
Well, let’s talk about your show and the attention it’s recently been receiving. And national attention. I saw your and Jon’s appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers [on May 15, 2015] to promote The Best of the Best Show. That must have been fun.
I don’t know if it was fun. I mean, that’s not fun, it’s terrifying.
It’s a strange thing to be on a show like that. It’s a fake conversation in a way. You’re taking a thing and you’re reducing it to two sentences. Our show is not an easy thing to talk about. It doesn’t necessarily translate that quickly, but we tried. It was great and Seth was great. I was excited about the whole thing. But I was also feeling like, This is not natural.
I recently attended my first-ever broadcast of a late-night show, in this case Letterman’s. It was fascinating to watch the behind-the-scenes machinations. It’s anything but natural. At one point, Reese Witherspoon, who was promoting her new movie, Hot Pursuit, showed a clip from the movie. I kept watching Reese, off camera, who was staring ahead, stony-faced. No expression. And it was only when she knew the cameras were about to go live again that she lit up and started laughing, as if she found the clip hilarious and hadn’t already seen it a hundred times.
It’s presentation. It’s just all a giant illusion, right? All of it.
Not your show.
Sure it is. It’s all presentational.
It’s presentational, but it’s not an illusion.
No, it’s replicating a call-in show, in a way.
It is a call-in show.
Yeah, but it’s also a version of a call-in show. I mean, do I care about the answers to the topics half the time? Not necessarily.
But you do obviously care greatly about the details. I’ve also been lucky enough to attend a live taping of your show. I remember that you were in the middle of a bit with Jon—who was in character at the time—and, as part of the bit, he told you to climb beneath your desk. Instead of pretending to do so, you actually got beneath your desk and asked, “Okay, now what?”
Well, I wanted it to sound good. To get that sound across, that’s what that was all about. I didn’t need to do it for performance sake, but I wanted it to sound like I was actually under the table.
That sense of detail is what makes your new boxed set so amazing. It’s an entire, very believable world you’ve created. It’s like a comedic version of Westeros or Narnia. There’s everything in this town: factories, mountains, lakes, even a jungle. Scores of characters, many of whom are related. I’m almost surprised there aren’t Newbridge Larpers.
As a performer, Jon is fully formed. He’s as talented as it gets. He’s working on two different levels: he’s one of the best drummers going [for Superchunk, Mountain Goats, Bob Mould and others], but that’s just one half of who he is. The other half is that he’s one of the best comedians going. This never happens.
Ringo did okay.
Jon’s funnier than Ringo. And a better drummer.
Over the years, you and Jon have created over two hundred separate characters, with Jon playing most of them.
One of the great things about Jon is that he’s not showy about any of it. He’s just doing stuff because he wants to do something funny and he wants to make music. It’s not like he has some compulsion to be seen or heard. He’s doing it because it’s the talent that he’s got. I mean, at the risk of sounding corny, that’s his gift and that’s what he’s spreading and sharing. Most people don’t have one gift; he has two.
The Best of the Best Show boxed set consists of over twenty hours of material. And it’s heavy. When the shipping box arrived, I literally thought it was furniture for my daughter. Beyond that, it is beautifully designed. It reminded me—in its attention to detail—to the 2001 Revenant Charley Patton boxed set.
It’s substantial. It’s unbelievable just how much that thing feels like it’s made to last. This was a year’s worth of work.
The boxed set’s book contains a few scripts to various bits. I read the scripts as I was listening to the CDs. It’s fascinating how detailed these scripts are. This is not 50% written, 50% improvised. These bits are more like 80% written.
I guess it’s flattering that people can’t tell the difference between one or the other and it just seems like it’s happening in real time. It’s flattering, but still the work has to get done. We talk about it all week and then Jon spends Tuesday putting notes together like crazy. It’s hours of work getting this thing tight and ready to go.
You once mentioned that the only time you feel entirely free is when you’re on the air. That it almost feels as if you’re flying. Do you still feel that way?
It’s the best. The show is still the best thing I could do. There are times when I’m dragging myself there, but when the show starts, I could keep doing it all night. I love it. I love it so much. It’s just talking. Sitting there just talking is, to me, the funniest thing. And then doing the calls with Jon. It’s the absolute highlight of my week.
It’s amazing the energy shift that happens. I don’t even get to half the things I wanna talk about on the show. And I have so much real estate now that I could just keep going with it. I lose all sense of time.
There might no better definition of happiness: losing track of the passage of time.
Oh yeah. There are times when I’ll look and be like, “Wait, there’s only a half hour left?” It feels like we just started. It’s truly special and it’s maybe gotten more special in a way because now I put my money where my mouth is with this thing and it’s just . . . I’m just making this thing exist now.
When you were winnowing down the two thousand hours of shows to the twenty hours that made the final cut, did you come across many bits where you surprised yourself almost as a first-time listener? Were there instances in which you were genuinely surprised by a premise or a joke?
I didn’t remember quite a few of the calls. I would’ve bet the farm that we never did certain calls and then I’d come across a certain bit and it was like, Nope! Here it is! You did it. We clearly wrote and performed it and here it is but I have no memory of it. We didn’t have the luxury to be nostalgic for anything that we did. We always had to move on to next week’s show.
That’s what I find fascinating about radio, as opposed to other mediums. It’s so instant and then it merely disappears into the ether. I mean, when you think of all the material that’s now been lost for Jean Shepherd or Bob & Ray . . .
Sure. And that’s the rewarding thing about having this product, this box, to have something tangible in your hands. Sometimes it takes a thing like this to validate what you’ve done. For some people, the work isn’t enough. It takes this type of thing to explain and represent the most presentable and easily accessible version of what we did, rather than just people hearing, “Well, it’s all online. Go figure it out yourself.”
Was there a frustration on your part at the time that some of the bits that you really liked weren’t heard and appreciated enough?
I don’t care about that. I honestly felt, We did it. I know people heard it. If everybody didn’t hear it, it’s not going anywhere. They’ll catch up to it when they catch up to it. Or not. And there’ll be another one next week. I never really felt like, Why haven’t people talked about this one thing or gone crazy for this other thing? I’d feel like an ingrate if I was like, “No, you guys need to focus on this thing, you’re focusing on the wrong thing.” People focus on stuff and I’ll take that. That’s enough. That’s flattering.
Those that mattered in the comedy community were certainly listening. Among others, I know Patton Oswalt is a big fan.
Patton and I will talk about bits and he’ll really listen closely and just be running it through his head. That to me is inconceivable; that I would’ve ever had somebody like that who’ve I’ve admired forever, who’ve I’ve always been a fan of, to have that guy be a fan of what I’m doing . . . it’s just, on some very core level, inconceivable.
He probably feels the same way with those whose work he loves. I think everybody still sees themselves as that person outside looking in and trying to get people to pay attention, and then you still can’t believe that people are paying attention. Maybe that’s just me feeling that way, but I still see myself as the person knocking on the door. It just took so long to get to this point.
Isn’t that interesting? Success takes so damn long. It’s incredible that it arrives at all, but by the time that one does achieve success, half your family is gone.
That’s true. My dad died at the beginning of the year, in January. It’s the absolute worst. It was just like, you cannot believe it. Your parents, I mean . . . those are the first two people you’ve ever met in your entire existence.
And in some ways they remain the most important audience.
Yeah, and now you see the world as a different thing. My wife’s father died ten years ago, and I was with her for that. I thought I knew intellectually what it would be like. But you are just not ready for the cellular thing that hits you. It just hits you on the most basic of levels, like unbelievable.
How did you deal with switching your show over to a podcast format, while also working on your boxed set, while also creating funny content for fresh shows, all after experiencing an event that devastating?
That’s the thing. This year has been the strangest year for me, where it’s either been really great stuff happening or the absolute worst stuff happening—nothing in the middle. My father dies and then a week later my grandmother dies, and then it’s like the whole family gets blown up. And that was just as the show was coming back and I couldn’t stop. I’d think, The last thing I wanted to be doing is this radio show right now, but I’ve invested years of my life to get it to this point.
We did a few shows in December to be like, All right, we’re working the bugs out of the equipment and when January starts we are going all out on this thing . . . and then four days into January everything changed forever.
You posted on Twitter and Facebook about the death of your father. When my mother passed away recently, I did the same. It’s interesting, to grieve in public. In some ways, it might be healthier.
I did find it very helpful. But it has to happen within you. Nobody can give you the healing. Knowing you have people in your corner is fantastic and it helps in one definite regard, it definitely helps, and it’s truly valuable, but the shifts that have to happen for you to be able to pick up the pieces and move forward and deal with this, it has to happen from inside you and nobody can do that for you.
And yet you’ve really cut back on social media recently, certainly the less serious side. You posted fewer jokes and anecdotes. Was this the healing process you’re talking about?
To me, cutting back has been just awesome. I have a three-hour radio show at my disposal. If there’s a thought I have or something I want to talk about or make fun of or whatever, I have the forum to be able to say it exactly how I want to say it. When I’m done, people can say, “Okay, I get where he’s coming from.” So if I have that, why would I choose to try to say things on this platform that has been proven to create misinterpretation and every lousy thing that comes with social media, whether it’s people trolling you or people hoping to get a rise out of somebody, or people not knowing that I’m playing around?
It’s the well-intentioned things that are as bad as anything. If you write something and somebody writes back and then it looks mean and they’re like, “Oh, I thought I was keeping the thing going. I was trying to be funny,” that’s fair, but that’s the problem with the forum. It’s not the person’s fault, it’s the flaw in that forum. It just does not allow for accurate expression.
For many, it seems to be more of a marketing tool than anything else.
Sure. But that’s the thing, everybody sees it as a different thing. Some people see it as a way to express their innermost thoughts and feelings. Some people see it as a way to get business. At its worst, to me, it feels like people go on there and they tap dance when they don’t want to be tap dancing, because they feel compelled to be entertaining and to be a part of it. And then you just end up trapped. No one’s holding a gun to my head to be writing jokes on Twitter or to be live Tweeting something, but I’m doing it for some compulsion that this thing breeds.
It presses a button. It’s giving you a certain amount of satisfaction when you say something and somebody re-Tweets it or writes something back to you. It’s validating. But it’s just not how you’re supposed to achieve that satisfaction. Because it’s not actually satisfying. To me, I try not to talk about things I’m working on because I feel like you reach a point where you talk yourself out with it.
Like if I were talking about a movie I was in the midst of writing, I wouldn’t want to give you every part of it. If you were laughing and you were on board the whole way, I’d then be slightly less motivated to write it. By telling it to you, I already received all the reactions that I would get out of sliding a script across and saying, “Can you read this?”
You think it dilutes it?
It’s not actually making something, it’s talking about making something. On a chemical level, it feels like they’re similar. Everybody’s known people who have just been talkers: “I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do that,” and they’ll walk you through everything they’re going to write or everything they have in their journal, and they never do any of it because they talk about it all the time. And then they have all the satisfaction of watching you react to it without them ever having to be truly judged.
If you grew up with Twitter and Facebook, do you think your comedic sensibility would have been different? More connected with the rest of the world?
Sure. I think you need to be alone, to live with all this stuff. I was just in the office [at HBO] and a few of the writers were watching clips from SCTV. We were saying things like, “Oh, my God, I remember that and it was so great,” but all of these experiences were lone experiences. We were not originally watching that show, or any other shows, as a group. Everybody there had their own experience watching SCTV alone as a kid at home and then happened to live with it and then waited to talk about it with somebody maybe for half of their life, and now are finally able to do so.
I suppose you’re lucky, in a sense. A lot of people never find anyone to talk about it with.
Yeah, that happens too.
Do you think that the next generation of comedy writers or comedians, who are very much connected, will come to their comedy sensibilities differently?
I don’t know. I think funny people are funny people and talented people are talented people, and the forms can provide ways for untalented people to masquerade as talented people, but then it all shakes out. I do think talented people get recognized and untalented people eventually weed themselves out, no matter what the form is.
Whatever hand you’ve been dealt with is the hand you’ve been dealt, and you either do it or you don’t do it. In the ’80s and ’90s there was a whole culture surrounding entertainment that wasn’t there in the ’60s and ’70s. There was already cable TV, so I already got to see more comedy than somebody did twenty years earlier. At least I got to see stand-up comedy on Comedy Central for hours at a time. I got to see Mr. Show. HBO wasn’t a thing for someone in the 1960s, but it came right into my house. So I really didn’t have to dig that deeply for the most subversive and revolutionary show during that formative structure for me. So it’s easy to think that things are more accessible now than they were twenty years ago, but things were not inaccessible twenty years ago either. You just had to do maybe a little more work for it.
I think if you’re in it, you’re in it. I’m sure some kid will be beating himself or herself up over feeling like they’re some dipshit who doesn’t fit in just like I did and just like people did twenty years before me.
It might look a little different, but if you feel like you’re the outsider, you’re gonna be the outsider and you’ll figure out ways to express it in a funny way. Just because some dummy can do something flashy online and trick people into thinking it’s good, well, that doesn’t last. Just like some unfunny comedian up against a brick wall in the ’80s. They were terrible but you don’t even know who they are anymore. Those people all burned themselves out. If people think the internet is bad, no, there was a version of this endless unfunniness back then also.
Everybody’s got some version of the same story. Everybody’s thing is different, but the same. Everybody feels like they’re outside. And I don’t think that goes away.