From 2001 to late last year, Tom Scharpling hosted The Best Show on WFMU on New Jersey freeform radio. The show evolved over time, but consisted throughout of Scharpling riffing irreverently about movies and TV, taking calls from fascinating, often weird people (and some boring people, whom Scharpling would hang up on). He also staged hilarious conversations with Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, who would play characters like barbershop-music enthusiast Zachary Brimstead, Esq., and Timmy von Trimble, a two-inch tall racist.
Recently, Scharpling and Wurster put out a Best of The Best Show 16-CD box set; Adult Swim aired an infomercial for Newbridge, the fictional town Wurster’s characters often inhabit; and Scharpling announced the imminent return of the Best Show, which will be sponsored and which Scharpling will host live online from a studio he built, then make available in podcast form. I corresponded with him about having a punk rock ethos, managing a day job while working towards your dreams, and who would play him in a movie.
The Tusk: Tell me about putting the Best Show box set together. What was the experience of going through all those shows and bits like? Was there like a breaking point where you thought you couldn’t do it? Were there good surprises, great moments you’d forgotten about?
Scharpling: Working on the box was insane. Jon and I spent months listening to so many hours of calls. Since we never really had a chance to ever reflect on anything – there was always another show to start writing the next week! – this was the first time we really looked back and focused on the past rather than the future.
Listening to the calls was bizarre, to say the least. There were calls that I had completely forgotten about. Jon and I would talk about them as if two other people had written and performed them. And some of the calls that I had thought were total locks to make the box weren’t as hot upon hearing them again years later. Conversely, there were calls that I had underestimated that were much funnier than I remembered. And yeah, there was a breaking point for me – I was editing the calls and cleaning up the audio for about seven weeks. It was a round-the-clock job; I’m not joking when I say that I would spend sixteen hours a day listening and editing. You’re not supposed to hear your own voice that much, especially through headphones. It messes with your mind! I wonder if I will ever be the same. WHO KNOWS?!!!
T: You’ve talked about worrying about living up to a punk rock ethos in the past, “Nobody can ever be punk enough…” How has your conception of that ethos changed over the years? At the risk of sounding like a middle school writing prompt, can you think of an especially frustrating time where you had to sacrifice an opportunity in the name of believing in that?
S: I don’t think I worry about the punk ethos but it’s a very real thing. And I do think – when considered in a realistic fashion – it is an incredibly important thing to have in your life. There are times when you do need to ask yourself whether or not you should be taking a certain job or working with a certain company. I’ve had to deal with it in a variety of situations, and I either do the job or I don’t do the job. But there’s a point when you can box yourself in by trying to live up to a punk standard that is untenable in the real world. Everybody has to make their decisions and be able to live with them and look themselves in the mirror, I guess.
T: How have bad or mediocre callers in to the show changed over the years? Does everybody think they’re a comedian now?
S: I can’t get on bad callers too much. I’m the one giving out the phone number and asking them to call in. Sometimes people have an agenda and want to do the comedy routine they’ve mapped out in their heads all week. But that’s less offensive to me than someone who slows the show down by bringing nothing to the table. I’d rather deal with a caller swinging for the fences and turfing out than a caller who calls in to just say hi.
T: Who would play you in a movie about your life? Who would play Jon Wurster? AP Mike?
S: I have no idea who would play me. I would probably end up being a CGI character, like Shrek or the car from CARS. I think Jon could play himself. And I would want to see either Daniel Day-Lewis or the ghost of Grandpa Al Lewis play AP Mike.
T: Do you enjoy handling so much of the promotional and production aspects of the Best Show? Do you wish you could just write and perform and have other people take care of that stuff?
S: Yeah, I do. I wish that I had been able to step into a situation where there was a team around me ready to do everything for the show and to promote the show, and build the studio and all that stuff. But that’s not how it worked out, mainly because I’m very protective about what the show needs to be. I feel very selfish about that – I’ve done thirteen-plus years of shows so I don’t feel like having any discussion about what the show should or shouldn’t be at this point. I know what works and what doesn’t work and I want to see how far I can push things creatively.
T: You talked on the Todd Barry podcast about working at a sheet music store for a long time while writing at night and working towards building your career—what advice, practical or abstract, would you give to somebody who’s in a similar position now?
S: If you find you’re in a situation where you’re beholden to a day job, you need to look at every possible minute in your day and night and figure out how to maximize your time so that you can start to aim your future in the direction you want or need to take it in. That might mean texting people about work during your break or reading something that helps you learn about your potential future job at lunch. And when you’re done with your work day, you need to do as much work on your other stuff as possible. I looked at it as if I was working two shifts. It was exhausting but I was able to get through it. And it’s also a seriously helpful thing to know what your limits actually are. You’d be surprised how you can push yourself when backed into a corner. I never thought I would’ve been able to do all the work that I did on the box set – I co-edited a book and twenty hours of comedy – but then again I think I lost part of my brain in the process. So push yourself but don’t push yourself beyond the point of madness, everyone.
T: What’s your favorite hang-up of all time?
S: I feel like the Bad Company-ing of callers was a true highlight in the show’s history. Someone put together a collage of all the times I did that and posted it to YouTube. I listened to it last week and it just killed me.
T: Plug the new Best Show!
S: The new show is gonna be called The Best Show. It will air on Tuesday nights and it will start sometime in December. You can go to TheBestShow.net to hear it and to sign up for the mailing list and to get updates and whanots.