Over a year ago, BDCWire profiled The Best Show on WFMU in an attempt to define the radio program’s greatness during its final few weeks of existence. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to many when host Tom Scharpling announced, shortly after the final terrestrially aired broadcast, that he intended to bring the show back on his own terms. One year later, The Best Show relaunched at thebestshow.net as a live streaming call-in program on Tuesday nights, becoming available as a podcast the following day.
As the online promotional posters promised, everyone was back. Tom returned to the helm. The nervous, fidgety callers were back. Jon Wurster reprised his role as various dim-witted yet weirdly confident characters while Associate Producer Mike continued to screen the phone calls and make weird, barely audible comments from the next room. Even Gary the Squirell, a high-pitched, comedy obsessed puppet that Scharpling voices, wasted no time returning to the microphone. It all seemed pretty seamless and effortless, except it wasn’t quite like that. We spoke to Tom Scharpling on the phone to find out what it took to transfer three hours of mirth, music and mayhem from a well established radio station to an independent production at thebestshow.net.
In the year that The Best Show was gone, it seemed like you kept hitting these unlucky hiccups trying to get it back. I read in one instance a bunch of the gear you had bought was stolen? You had to repurchase equipment and move to a different location for the studio?
It did take awhile. It would’ve taken awhile to get it back anyway just because, additionally, we were trying to figure out where the show was gonna be, where the home would be for it. So, I was talking to a lot of people who were maybe going to host the [physical location] of the show and ultimately it just came down to doing it ourselves. That way we had more control over it and could make sure it’s the show I actually want it to be. Figuring that stuff out was the first hurdle. So then it was like, “OK let’s do the show in this house. This empty house that I have access to in New Jersey.” And we put the equipment in it that we accumulated so far. Then one day, the door was open and stuff was gone. So that was like, “Alright, we just got knocked back to the beginning again.” But I wasn’t gonna let some dirt bag who doesn’t even know what the show is knock things off-target emotionally, or anything like that. It wasn’t like a designed strike against me getting the show back. It was just someone stealing stuff.
There were frustrating things like but then there were good things too. Jon and I were working on the box set all year. That took months of focus. Working on that thing like it was a full time job. So when that heated up it was hard to focus on bringing back the show round the clock. We also filmed an informercial for Adult Swim which took a ton of focus. Those were good things that slowed it down. It takes as long as it takes, in a strange way. It was kinda good that there was that much time away, ultimately, probably because I got to reflect on what the show had been and really take in the stuff that Jon and I had built. Which is something we had never really done because there was always a show next week. That allowed for some perspective on what we had done over the previous 13 years. So even though it took a long time, in some ways, it wasn’t a bad use of time on the whole. I definitely could’ve done without the break-in. I also just realized a couple of other things they stole. Hey, what happened to that comic book art I had framed at that house? I had a Dr. Strange opening panel of an issue which was a single image of him, like, lying around [laughs]. I love that thing so much and then I couldn’t find it. Oh right, it’s gone forever.
It was also really nice for the first few months of 2014 to sort through business offers to realize that people really cared about the show. Also to see what the landscape was out there for to see what people thought of the show. I definitely learned from all of it. I do think there’s something positive about people missing the show for the amount of time that they did. Everyone who didn’t have the show really wanted it back, and then it came back! I think that wait was a really healthy thing.
It’s like that thing where a band can’t wait to come back out on stage for an encore. Like, they barely leave the stage before turning around. It’s more exciting when they make you wait at least a little bit.
Exactly. It’s like they come back too fast and you think, “OK, didn’t you guys wanna at least drink some water? You went back….you might as well not leave if you’re gonna come back that fast.” Which is not to say I was doing it as any sort of Machiavellian strategy or anything. But I didn’t go any podcasts or radio shows for a year because I didn’t want people going like, “Oh, I’m getting my fill of what Tom was doing on the show through these other podcast appearances. He goes on everyone’s show.” And then, also, maybe I wouldn’t wanna go through with the process all the way if on some level if I was being satisfied by jumping on a show here and a show there. I really wanted to be not just hungry, but starving to come back.
I think that was smart.
It really made sense to me. It helped me really, especially as we got closer, feel like, “Oh man, I can’t WAIT to come back now. This itch hasn’t been scratched in a year!” All those things weirdly worked out the way they should have worked out.
One thing I think that’s really funny and unique about the show is how you don’t care all that much about calling terrible things out by name whether it’s a band, a TV show, or a comedian. A lot of people in the entertainment industry are terrified to whisper even an insinuation about anyone being anything less than amazing. My question is: do you ever get flak directly from the people you criticize on the show? Do you think this kind of honesty is something that make people trust you and the show so feverishly?
There’s been times where I put things down and I know they’ve been low blows. I’m not happy with myself when those things go down because, for example, there was a show in maybe five or six years ago where I was on the air and started making fun of Vampire Weekend. I swear, at the point, I had never even heard their music. I was making fun of the way that they dressed. I think that’s a fair thing to tease someone about. I was equating how they sounded with how they dressed and those two are very different things. It was uninformed. I ran into those guys and they had not heard it. I just told, “look, this is what I did on the air.” The worst thing to me would’ve been to be the guy who’s like “Oh, hey, hi, everything’s great!” They didn’t know about it. That’s the kind of thing where I couldn’t look myself in the mirror. So I told them to their faces, “Hey, just so you know, this is what I said. I didn’t make fun of your music. I was making fun of your outfits.” Chris, the drummer, and Ezra were both like, “OK, that’s fine. We’re fine with that.” Then I heard their music and thought, “Oh, I like what they’re doing. I’m a fan of this.” Even if I didn’t like it, if I’m going to make fun of something I really want to have a point behind it. Not just have it be, like buckshot, firing and hitting anything vaguely in its path whether it’s the target or not. If I don’t like something and I see a way to have fun goofing around about it, I’ll do that. I’ll stand by it. I’ll own it.
You have to like things and dislike things. If you’re not doing both, you’re not doing either. They’re both just as dishonest: to love everything or just be a sour person and hate everything. I really do try and talk about things I like just as much as I talk about things I don’t like— records, movies or comedians. Patton Oswalt is a big influence in that regard because, when he got his platform that comes with getting more popular, he has gone so far out of his way to promote things he loves. Seeing him do that, it’s like, “Yeah that’s how you use attention you get.” You tell people. And he’s got a critical eye on the culture as much as anyone too. To me that’s a fair way to be. To me, that’s the worst when people try and tap dance their way out of things because they’re getting called on it. There’s comedians I can’t stand, and I goof on them on the air. There’s people who like me and people who don’t like me, which I think is a compliment. If people talk about whether you’re any good or not, it’s validating. More validating than a few people saying, “that thing is alright, I guess.” I don’t like it on a human level, but it’s completely fair for someone to say I suck, because I’ve said plenty of things suck on the radio.
There’s nothing worse than someone who can dish it out but can’t take it.
Exactly. For real, that is such a bummer to me.
Did the “you as straight man, Jon as character dynamic” make itself apparent right from the beginning? I ask because you’re both so funny, I wonder what it would be like if you two switched roles for a call? Could he do straight man, could do character?
For the two of us it’s just the way it makes sense. Because I’m the host of the show, from a structural standpoint I couldn’t see it going the other way. We play with it in our own way. But, on the whole, I think it’s always gonna be some version of the way we do it now. It’s hard to have the host be…you can’t have two crazy people in a thing like that. There’s no entry point for anybody. It’s funny, I never think of myself as the straight person with it.
We just build the things together and then these are the roles we perform when we do it. I know what’s coming because I wrote a lot of it. We’re coming up with the stuff together, so I don’t think of myself of being outside of the funny part of it. I’m thinking about it from the construction of it.
One of the funniest moments from last week is when Jello-Man’s call started to sound like a Jon call and you acknowledged it.
(Laughing) Yeah that was…I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged…I don’t think I’ve said that to another call before. It sounded like Jon, in a way, telling some larger than life story. That was ridiculous. I like that guy a lot.
In the past six months, podcasting has enjoyed a huge profile bump from Serial. There’s been a lot of joking around from longtime podcasters how Serial is getting credit for inventing the podcast. But this is how you must have felt for over ten years as you continued your radio show during the first wave of podcasting popularity in the ’00s. Are you surprised that people talking into microphones has become this deeply beloved art form again and again?
I guess…I would be interested to know…I guess the numbers for Serial were just bigger than anything else, right?
I think it’s that and the unprecedented press coverage.
I think people like hearing stories. Every two years there’s the book that everybody reads, right? It gets bigger than everything else and then it just runs through the culture. When they hit, they hit. It’s not anything to get too twisted about, really, because you can’t control something getting that big. They had no idea what was gonna happen with that thing. So when it happens, it’s outside of anyone’s control. I don’t have a lot in common with Serial, so it’s not like, “yeaaaaaaaaaah, I wonder where my piece of that pie is?” Serial is such a different thing that I don’t even feel remotely competitive with it. They’re speaking to entirely different people.
Anytime something succeeds I guess it’s good because it shows that the people are out there. When I see something in comedy succeed I think that’s good because that means there’s room in the marketplace for me.
And that goes back to something I’ve heard Patton Oswalt say, something like the biggest mistake is to think that people’s fandom is a scarce resource to be fought over. As if it could run out.
Sure, exactly. If you want a piece of it, sometimes you need to out work people. If you’re good, you can find your place in the world. You just need to start working and you don’t get to say when you’ve made it. You don’t get to say, “I’ve paid my dues!” Well? That’s just how it works.
And now my mom knows what a podcast is, thanks to Serial.
See? Now you can transition her into The Best Show.
I should actually! Here comes a good segue: I’m sure she’d love the sound collages. One thing I’ve found fun about them is that you include elements in them of stuff you adore, and stuff you can’t stand. Half the fun is trying to figure out WHY it was included. Can you talk a little bit about how you select the clips for those things?
I think it’s just like the rest of the show: one minute I’ll be talking about things I like, then next the things I don’t like. I’m just doing it in this audio context. Sometimes hearing certain things is just funny to me. Playing music I like, and looping it, and then putting audio of people talking that I don’t like over the top, there’s something funny about jamming those things together. It just sounds strange! I kinda love that they don’t make sense, you can’t figure out a message behind it. It might be really be looking into my head.
They’re kind of like those Magic Eye 3D images where you have to unfocus your eyes to see what it’s a picture of.
Yes, no one has a handle on what those things are, the intent behind it. I’m sure there are plenty of times I don’t either. They just sound cool. We’ve grown to love noise in different forms and I think it just goes to that, a little bit.
OK, here’s my dumbest question. I know you love pinball. If they made a Best Show pinball machine, what would be some of the features and rules and special effects?
Well…that is a pretty stupid question, to start.
I wouldn’t want it to be too gimmicky. The way some of these machines have this magnetic thing on it that traps the ball. I always find that not fun. What if it was all multi-ball? You just start playing and it’s never not multi-ball (laughing). And then when you get to a multi-ball level, like you would on a regular machine, then it’s just one ball. That’s the reward you get. (laughs)
And then, in that case, the balls would have to launch from a little illustration of the call room with AP Mike firing them at you.
Well look, that’s for the designers to decide. I just sign off on it and cash their checks.
The Best Show airs every Tuesday night at 9PM EST on thebestshow.net. The Numero Group box set of the best of the WFMU years is out in March, 2015.