At the end of last Tuesday’s episode of The Best Show on WFMU, host Tom Scharpling announced the show’s final episode would be December 17th of this year. The show, which bills itself as “three hours of mirth, music, and mayhem,” has been on the air since 2000.
Each episode typically begins with about twenty minutes of music -- a lot of garage and punk rock, and almost always one Led Zeppelin song. Most of the show consists of Scharpling ranting about pop culture, interviewing people, and taking calls, frequently arguing with and hanging up on callers. Scharpling’s comedy partner Jon Wurster calls in as a cast of different characters. Throughout the history of Scharpling and Wurster’s staged conversations, an entire fictional community has formed: the characters reference one another, and most of them live in a fictional New Jersey town called Newbridge. Lately the show has gotten even weirder, with Scharpling incorporating puppets (who, of course, we can’t see, except that they have Twitteraccounts and make the occasional public appearance) and a series of anxiety-inducing sound collages.
The Best Show is not easy to get into. Scharpling’s vocal mannerisms and rhythms are unusual compared to mainstream talk radio -- he stumbles over his words and takes long pauses. The subject matter is often esoteric. “I have a theory, and I may have stolen it,” said caller Jason Sims. “It takes nine hours for your brain to reorient itself” to the show’s repetition and inside jokes. Being a fan of the show requires commitment.
Everyone I spoke to, like me, got into The Best Show in weird, transitional times in their lives. I discovered the show about two years ago, when I had just moved across the country to be in an MFA program. I was living with my aunt and my cousin, while my cousin fought a losing battle with cancer. At one point I got hit by a car. The show is like a much more brilliant version of the chaotic noise that occupies my head most of the time already: the voice of a man ranting bitterly against bad art and rude people, mixed with noise and rock music.
Sims, a Huntsville, Alabama resident who is known among fans for his chemistry with Scharpling, was working in accounts payable, “going crazy and listening to a ton of podcasts. There were times I think that The Best Show helped me cope and hang on to my sanity. So much of what Tom talks about and reacts to has to do with being in a situation you should not be in.”
After Scharpling's announcement that the show would end, Sims’ wife crowd-funded a trip to New York for the two of them to accept Scharplings’ invitation to come see him, and for the couple to meet up with other fans. “I am not a man of means,” Sims said, “and travel’s expensive. It was touching that people wanted to meet me and make sure I get to have that experience.”
Gregg Gethard, known on the show as “The Greggulator,” gained popularity with listeners by calling in to the show and acting like an antagonistic professional wrestler. He, too, became a serious fan of the show after moving for grad school -- in his case, for Central and Eastern European Studies. When his program ended, he had to start looking for more serious work than the secretarial job he held at the school, and he had just gotten married. “I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do with this dumb degree I just got?’ I was working for a hearing aid magazine. It was as terrible as you’d think it was.” Gethard was fired from the magazine job, and he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Meanwhile the comedy show he was hosting was gaining success. “I couldn’t sleep, I was staying in bed all day, I was trying to write a novel, I had all these weird thoughts of grandeur.”
He got medicated, and Scharpling took notice of him because of his basketball podcast, Holding Court. Scharpling named Gethard as a potential protégé, but ended up banning him for a time. “I totally flamed out.” Gethard remains a fan and occasional caller, and is grateful for the many friends he’s made through the show.
Geneva Marie Sarni started calling in after a breakup and a move. She was broke. “[The Best Show] anchors your life,” she said. “It’s a comfort.” Best Show fans call themselves Friends of Tom or FOT, which Sarni pronounces like “fought.” She says about “85%” of the FOT she’s met are very sweet, but also misfits. “We feel like nobody gets our sense of humor, nobody gets what we’re about.” She referred to an old Best Show intro that featured a clip of Scharpling saying, “I’m the king of the disenfranchised!”
Sarni met her boyfriend, Chris Lowe, around 2009, when she got into an argument with him on the Friends of Tom message board. The argument had to do with the actor Charles Bronson’s age. “I was like, ‘How does this pop culture guy know everything but not know when Charles Bronson was born? Who does he think he is?’”
As the show’s fan base grew, its guests became increasingly impressive: Todd Barry, John Hodgman, Aimee Mann, Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt, Ted Leo, and Paul F. Tompkins have all been recurring guests. To listen to an episode like this one from 2009 is to hear comedy guests as you rarely hear them: relaxed, not actively trying to work in a routine or riff on something, not trying to bare their souls, simply conversing and enjoying themselves. It’s incredibly refreshing. The Best Show is a precursor to today’s huge wave of comedy podcasts, but its tone is markedly different from any of them.
“It’s like Calvin and Hobbes for people who know who G.G. Allin is,” said Gethard. “It’s kind of whimsical, with its own weird universe and language. It’s really silly and playful but with a lot of layers and with deep emotional resonance.”
“If I could create any kind of entertainment, this is what it would be,” said writer Will Stegemann. “I probably spend way too much time thinking and talking about it.”
“I don’t expect to find another thing so in tune with my life,” said Lowe. “It’s going to be weird when some piece of pop culture comes out and I won’t get to hear Tom goof on it, even though he’s not dead.”
“There’s a certain amount of sadness, but there’s a certain beauty about a thing being done,” said Sims. “When Michelangelo finished painting the Sistine Chapel, it wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to mourn now.’ I trust Tom and Jon to put such a bow on this thing.”
He added, “How magical is it that they make Tuesday night special? Tuesday is the most pedestrian day of the week. That’s magic. That’s wizardry.”
If you’re in a weird place in your life, but even if you’re not, I highly recommend taking the theoretical nine hours, while commuting or doing chores, to listen to The Best Show. I think the clips below are exemplary, and I’d suggest going to the WFMU archives and listening to any of the Christmas party episodes from the past few years, as well as November 6, 2012: “It’s an odd one straight from the heart…” in which Scharpling, after Hurricane Sandy damaged WFMU’s phone lines, speaks movingly about New Jersey, then is driven to distraction by a burner phone.