If drummers are your thing, you should get to know Jon Wurster. For decades, he's pounded the skins in Superchunk, the band that helped lay the foundation for indie rock as we know it. He has a musical resume miles-long, with his current employers including punk legend Bob Mould and indie poet laureates the Mountain Goats.
But he’s also one half of the writing duo (Tom) Scharpling & Wurster, the comedic engine behind The Best Show podcast. Covered before on this site, Scharpling and Wurster are godfathers of the medium, making mp3s of their long-running radio show The Best Show on WFMU available on their site before iTunes supported podcasts.
Though Scharpling is the host and main driver of The Best Show, the highlight of each episode are Wurster's pre-scripted calls to Scharpling as one of dozens of wacky characters, such as "The Gorch" (supposed inspiration for the Fonz), two-inch-tall racist Timmy Von Trimble and the Philadelphia-loving Mayor of Newbridge, Philly Boy Roy. (Listen to Wurster discuss the inspiration for Philly Boy Roy Below.)
After taking their show off the airwaves, retooling it into a web-only show and releasing a 16-CD Best Of box set this year, the two also began performing live in theaters around the country. Scharpling and Wurster bring their show to San Francisco's Great American Music Hall this week.
When I spoke with Wurster on the phone, I couldn’t help but ask about his long career in the music business before jumping into his comedy work. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get the name "Johnny Earthshoe?"
When I was a kid, probably 16, I was friends with Dean "Clean" Sabatino, who was the drummer in the Dead Milkmen. I knew him before he was in the band, and when he joined the Dead Milkmen, I'd go to his house and watch them rehearse. This was before they had a record out, and I'm actually credited with recording two songs on their debut album Big Lizard in My Backyard, which just means that I turned their tape recorder on while they recorded in their basement.
Around that time I started making up these songs and recording them using two boomboxes. I put a cassette out via Joe Jack Talcum (guitarist for the Dead Milkmen) who had a tape label. I chose to release the tape under the name "Johnny Earthshoe" because a kid I sat next to at school wore Earth Shoes, those rippled-soled shoes that were really out of fashion by that point. I think I was really fascinated that someone would still wear these things.
What was it like signing to Arista when you were playing with the Right Profile and having nothing come of it?
I was lucky I had my really bad music industry stuff out of the way early. We got signed, and it turned out to be a revenge signing against someone who used to be an A&R guy for Arista. A guy who I knew from Philadelphia who was familiar with the whole deal told me that this one A&R guy wanted to sign the band before I joined but someone high up at the label didn't want to. Then the guy left, having gone to a new label and was going to sign the band to it but that's when Arista got interested again.
I joined the band in January of 1986 and we got signed three months later. Imagine being 19, working at a toothpaste packaging plant and you move to this city you don't really know (Winston-Salem, NC) and you get signed by Clive Davis after a show at CBGBs. It was kind of like a movie.
And then it got bad. We had a few months of exhilaration -- "It's happening!" -- and then things began to drag.
We were in a red tape hell for years. We'd do these demos and we'd work with people like the guy that produced the Dwight Yoakam records and Jim Dickinson (producer of the Rolling Stones and the Replacements, among others). But it was just impossible to get anything done. I was seeing my friends in the Dead Milkmen coming to town, and they had a hit record and were drawing lots of people. My band was on a major label and we didn't have any money. We were struggling to even make a record.
That ended eventually and I moved to Chapel Hill, NC, where I got lucky: I met Mac (McCaughan) from Superchunk when I was cleaning the windows of the record store he worked at. They were having trouble with their drummer at the time and the idea came up that maybe I would want to play in Superchunk. Luckily it all worked out.
Did that experience prepare you for when Superchunk went on hiatus in the early '00s? You've described that as being a horrible time.
We put out a record in 2001 and unfortunately it came out a week after 9/11. To go on the road when the world is falling apart, literally... It wasn't a fun tour. Nobody was coming out because nobody wanted to see bands.
We had a meeting and I was secretly hoping that the band would end but we agreed to put it way on the backburner. Other things would come first and we would get back together if and when we wanted to, and that sounded great. And that's what we did for the next eight years.
We did one final tour with the Get Up Kids in the summer of 2002. I honestly didn't know about them, but they named one of their records after a Superchunk lyric and they were big fans. So when they asked us to tour we thought maybe we'd pick up a new, younger audience by opening for them.
The first night of the tour was in Orlando. We drove all the way down there. The first band plays, this band called Hot Rod Circuit. They were a young, pop-punkish kind of band and everyone loves them. So we're thinking "This is going to be great. If they like them, they're gonna love us!" [Laughs]
We get up there and it was like playing to a painting for 45-50 minutes. And every show was like that. They'd never heard of us, we were old and just not their scene. That was tough, and after that is when we took the next eight years off.
I understand you got your start in television writing for MTV?
In 2005, I was lucky a friend of mine put my name in for a gig writing funny commercials for MTV. So every six months or so I'd get a decent-paying gig writing commercials for the MTV Movie Awards and stuff like that. I was doing that while I was playing in bands.
I'm guessing it helped that you were doing the The Best Show on WFMU at that time.
Yes, that helped, because both the MTV commercials and the Best Show calls were written. The calls were less written-out in the early days of the show, but there's a degree of writing involved in both. So I was able to take what little experience I had writing comedy and put it into these spots.
Why did you start completely writing out the calls? Is it about quality control?
Well, we do have spaces where we can improvise in these tightly scripted calls. But for me, the reason for tightening the calls up came about when I would edit the "Best Of" CDs we'd put out every couple of years in the 2000s. I just realized that the calls could be tighter. There were a lot of digressions and little off-roads that were funny, but they didn't really further the story that much.
Also, we like the idea of these crazy, involved stories that have all these layers to them. I think when you're able to think them out beforehand, it's easier to tell those stories than if you just have a kernel of an idea and you're trying to come up with stuff as you're going.
What about those calls where you're listing off a lot of things, like the guy who wrote all those "___ sucks" songs?
If there's ever a big list of anything, those are written out. But one of the greatest compliments we'll ever get is that people think that the calls are just us talking. They're not, but it's great that people think they are.
Especially with the running gag about the "mouse with the cape," which you'll say you saw if you find yourself laughing too hard during the call. Where did that come from?
I don't remember. We didn't laugh during calls for the longest time and then around '09 or '10, we just got comfortable enough that we just started laughing more. In the past I think we were more focused on just getting through them and making sure we hit all the things we wanted to hit. Now that we've done it so much, we know each other's buttons so I'll sneak in stuff he doesn't know about and he'll do the same for me. Any time you hear us laughing, that's real and it's usually someone being surprised by something.
But I think I was just laughing once and I needed something to cover those six seconds I lost -- some sort of dumb explanation as to why I stopped talking. I came up with that I just saw a mouse scurrying across the floor wearing a cape. a) That's stupid, and b) why is that the funniest thing you've ever heard?
How has it been doing the show live? I was surprised to hear that Tom wanted to do these live shows because he had always said that he didn't like being the guy on stage; he'd rather be behind the scenes as a writer or behind a mic.
Well, I don't want to use the word "force," but we were definitely... I'll use the word forced. [Laughs] We were kinda forced into doing these live shows to promote the box set we put out in March. We always talked about doing a live show but we never talked about it in any kind of depth. So when the box set came up and we had to do some kind of personal appearances to promote this thing, that's when we really got to thinking about doing a live show.
I'm a little like Tom in that doing this over the phone is way easier than doing it live. I don't think either of us have that gene/defect where we need to be in front of people, basking in applause. But once we got past that apprehension, it became much easier and a lot more fun.
After we first wrote the show out in March, we did four shows in Brooklyn. We knew what we were going to do, but we never ran through it. We never timed it or anything. We didn't know if it was going to be a half-hour or three hours. And we had two shows a night.
When we did that first show, it was just over 90 minutes and we realized that it was working. We got five minutes into the first show, and we knew that we could do it and people liked it. That was a huge load off, and the fact that it was a reasonable amount of time was even better.
'An Evening With Scharpling & Wurster' comes to town on Thursday, Sept. 3, at the Great American Music Hall. For event details, visit The Do List.