It’s a Tuesday in early December around 9 p.m., and in a small radio studio in Jersey City, N.J., Tom Scharpling is about to host something he calls “The Best Show on WFMU” for nearly the last time. The difficult-to-pinpoint nature of the show is without a doubt part of its appeal and cult following, but also perhaps why it’s still held so firmly in the hands of its fans as something of “our secret” after 13 years. Whatever it is, after nine more hours of broadcasting over the next three weeks, it will conclude its run on WFMU.
[Above, listen to the author’s call to “The Best Show”]
On one hand, the notion that it’s hard to describe “The Best Show” is not accurate. Here’s how it looks on paper: Tom Scharpling hosts a call-in radio show for three hours a week on a free-form radio station in New Jersey. He plays about 20 to 30 minutes of music, and then begins to talk and take live callers. The callers try their best to engage Scharpling with a story or question or observation. For most, the goal is to not get prematurely hung up on by Scharpling, which happens a lot. All of the calls are real, save for one, in which rock drummer Jon Wurster calls in with a prepared character who leads the host on (often long) journeys through an absurd world where the jokes are in the ridiculous minutiae of the story. Sometimes there’s guests in the studio with Scharpling (a comedian, filmmaker, or musician). Other times, it’s just Tom and associate producer Mike Lisk, who sits in the adjacent room screening the telephone calls before they get to the host. While Scharpling clearly adores Lisk, he often serves as Tom’s foil, expressing opinions that slightly offend Scharpling’s sensibilities and cause Tom to mutter, “I gotta make a change.”
The two inherent problems with the above description are that one, that is far too long to serve as an elevator pitch to new fans and two, it in no way conveys the true magic of the show, most of which lies in the inescapable fact that Scharpling is very funny in a very particular way. Whether he’s unpacking the sliminess of certain pop culture events or acting as the straight man to someone else’s nonsense or even when he’s legitimately upset, Scharpling remains subtly hilarious. Longtime listener TD Sidell recalls discovering the show, “At first I thought it was strange — this kind of angry dude taking calls that he mostly hates about outlandish, made-up topics.”
On the Nov. 22 show, the second episode after Scharpling announced the end date of the program, a string of incredibly bad callers stacks up early in the show, and a tangible combination of delight and dread forms. It’s a fine line between enjoying Scharpling’s comedic frustration but also not wanting it to go to such an extreme where he becomes legitimately bummed out (this is not unheard of, “Best Show” episodes have ended early with Tom admitting total defeat). It’s here that a caller who seems like he might have something interesting to bring to the conversation (he has apparently captured KISS member Ace Frehley on video saying hello to “The Best Show”) tries to step out of the moment and get Scharpling to reflect on his time on the air: “So, I wanted to ask you, in your 13 years, I know your show has layers and lots of fresh things, and it builds on itself, but is there a moment where you’ve been most proud, like, ‘Yeah, I did that.’” Scharpling is in disbelief. “No,” he says bluntly, hanging up on the caller without another word. He sighs and wonders aloud, “Is everyone just doing their own thing tonight?” More sub-par callers appear and he hangs up on them in rapid fire manner, allowing one to simply declare they were calling from Colorado as justification for getting dumped. Scharpling sighs and continues, “It’s your show just as much as mine, guys. Is this what you wanna do to it?” More callers get on the air. The hang ups continue. If this description doesn’t convey how entertaining all of this, I understand, but I assure you it’s a total delight.
There have been four distinct methods Scharpling employs to hang up on his callers.
1) GOMP – The angriest, and most direct form of the “Best Show” hang-up, where Scharpling simply screams, “Get off my phone!” and the caller is disconnected.
2) Heave-Ho – A more subtle form of GOMP which arose as the GOMP method began to fade. Without warning, Scharpling off-handedly says “heave-ho” and the call is ended.
3) Make The Caller Say “Hang Up” – A trap in which Scharpling gets the caller to wonder out loud if they’ll be hung up on. Scharpling disconnects the line just as they say the words “hang up” which gives him so much joy, it’s often followed by nearly a minute of audible studio laughter.
4) Bad Companying The Caller – In which Scharpling quietly plays the song “Bad Company” by Bad Company (!), allowing the caller to continue their story, feigning interest, and cutting them off as soon as the chorus hits. This is perhaps the most convoluted form of getting rid of the caller, but also one of the most rewarding.
At this point you might be asking yourself, “What kind of audience enjoys being hung up on?” which brings us to another interesting point about the show: While you’re on the air with Scharpling, there’s a very good chance you will become the enemy. The number of regular callers who have a friendly rapport with Scharpling are far outweighed by people who are treated as suspicious goofballs who are completely expendable as fodder for Scharpling’s comedic ire. As bleak and mean-spirited as that sounds, it’s not. There is an unspoken wink that accompanies all of the hang-ups and rough treatment. After a call ends, when the caller rejoins the audience, they are instantly pardoned, taken back into the fold. There have been moments in the show’s history where one of Scharpling’s most notorious hostile callers is on the line and refers to a real life malady they’re dealing with, at which point Scharpling drops all hostility and makes sure it’s known that behind all of this angry showmanship, there’s a kindhearted guy who is truly fond of his fan base.
The aforementioned fold, officially, are known as the FOTs (an acronym for Friends of Tom) who congregate on the FOT message board, and communicate during live broadcasts of the show on a live chat site and by tracking each other via the #BestShowWFMU hashtag on Twitter. This element of in-the-moment fellowship lends The Best Show a bit of that great feeling you get when you’re sitting around with good friends late at night laughing about whatever comes to mind. This is why the fact that The Best Show is a live radio program is such an important factor in the show’s uniqueness. People who are starved for for shared human experiences (i.e all of us) are often only able to scratch that itch is via some big time televised sports moments or a celebrity scandal- in other words, some universal pop-culture event that you can talk about with your co-worker on the elevator ride up to your floor. The fact that this kind of shared experience can now extend to a very weird, specific thing (i.e The Best Show) by combining a radio program with live internet chat is a simple trick that gets a lot of mileage, a tool for connectivity so simple (and now ubiquitous) it seems obvious and old fashioned even as I type this (on the night in December when this piece was written, the FOT’s are on Twitter utilizing the hashtag #BestShowPets which are simply pictures of their pets listening to the show, which perhaps isn’t the best example of the point I just tried to make [or maybe it is?], but is nevertheless the actual example that came up as I put this piece together).
In recent years, besides Scharpling’s particular sense of humor defining the show, other very odd additions have been introduced to the format, kicking it just a few more inches outside of the mainstream. For instance, two puppets became recurring characters with Scharpling lending voice to both, holding the puppet up to the microphone, fully aware that radio is not in any way a visual medium. Both characters were break-out successes. Then, in the last six months, Scharpling began dedicating large portions of the show to an audio collage he creates in the moment, on the air. For instance, the cello from Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” gets looped while Scharpling places audio clips of Kelsey Grammar falling off a stage, Garrison Keillor wistfully remembering making out with a girl in a car, and his producer Mike Lisk creepily asking, “Do you have puppy dogs?” It’s an intersection of unsettling and hilarious not often explored. On the Dec. 3 show, comedian Patton Oswalt is in the studio with Scharpling, and when their conversation stops so that Tom can create the audio soup, Oswalt tweets, “Can’t believe I get to be here for The Collage.” Meanwhile, on a message board thread about the show a user remarks, “My girlfriend just walked in while I was listening to the audio collage and asked what it was. I’ve never been at more of a loss to explain something.”
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) December 4, 2013
Aaron Perrino, frontman of local rock band The Sheila Divine and a fan of the show, says, “I feel like ‘The Best Show’ is to comedy what the Replacements were to music. It’s so honest and real. He has dedicated 13 years of his life to something he does for free and created basically his own comedy world, like a hipster Howard Stern with Ted Leo instead of Jenna Jameson.”
Perrino’s not wrong to highlight the fact that Scharpling has not made a dime off “The Best Show.” WFMU is a free-form radio station which operates on a budget fully funded by listeners during a once a year fundraising effort. Scharpling is not only unpaid for the work he does on “The Best Show,” but broadcasting rules prohibit him from promoting events and endeavors he does outside the show which ostensibly could make him money. In other words, there is essentially no way to monetize “The Best Show” as long as it remains on WFMU. And that, in part, might end up being the biggest reason the show will conclude. You can trace a through line from Scharpling’s joking around that he was “The King of Free Entertainment” to his explanation of the show’s end from the Oct. 29 episode: “It’s hard to do something that’s more or less a full-time job for free. I’ve done it for as long as I can do it.”
And whether that means Tom Scharpling is closing down “The Best Show” in a final, complete way or simply changing it to a different platform where it will no longer be 100 percent volunteer work remains to be seen. While the aim of this piece was supposed to be a celebratory eulogy for a show that’s meant a lot to me over the years, I’d be just as glad if it ended up serving as a transitional look at “The Best Show on WFMU” right before it morphed into something brand new and reached new heights of absurdity and hilarity. In either case, I’d love to thank Tom Scharpling personally, and I’d call into the final episode to do so, but I know he’d hang up on me in disgust.
The Boston listening party for the final episode of “The Best Show on WFMU” will take place at The Midway in Jamaica Plain, Tuesday, Dec. 17 at 9 p.m. (Facebook Event)