The Wrong Show is an independent and alternative comedy night in Leeds. This is our blog. Here you will find comedy reviews, features, and interviews. We were formally known as HOWL. Our home is The Fenton, Leeds.
By Michael Sterrett
I am in love with a man and his name is Tom Scharpling. Apart from watching Seinfeld when I was a kid no-one else has given me more big proper belly laughs than him. Scharpling is the host of The Best Show, a weekly three hour programme on the New Jersey based radio station WFMU. I came to the world of The Best Show by way of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast upon which Scharpling was a guest, presenting himself as a refreshingly grounded writer, radio host and all round comedy gentleman. The chemistry between Scharpling and Maron was such that I decided to check out his show. I popped an episode on my MP3 player and hit the street.
Within five minutes I was deeply confused. What the hell was this thing? The show began with a hard rock theme tune and slowly segued into an utterly bizarre phone-in talk show with Scharpling as host repeatedly hanging up on the callers, engaging in furious free form rants, taunting his call screener, threatening to quit and extolling the virtues of a host of underground American bands. And silence. Long silences that are so alien to the ears of anyone raised on commercial radio or contemporary podcasts. I gave the show fifteen more minutes of bewilderment before my confusion gave way to actual physical anger. I turned it off in disgust. Who the hell did this guy think he was? What the bejesus was it supposed to be about? I was certainly not entertained. “I don’t know what this Scharpling character is trying to achieve but I’ll stick with WTF from now on”, I thought.
But here’s the thing, I couldn’t get The Best Show out of my head. The theme song (#It’s Tuesday night, nine o’clock yeah. Shut your mouth ‘cuz it’s Tom’s turn to talk yeah#). Those long grinding silences, the oddball callers and the way he intoned the phrase “WFMU you’re on the air” with such insouciance. What was I missing? I felt angry at this Scharpling fella but browsing through the list of amazing comedians who appeared regularly on the programme (Todd Barry, Jen Kirkman, Zach Galifianakis) I knew there had to be something there. Maybe I had taken on too much at once. The full three hour show to my uninitiated ears had left me scarred so I headed for Best Show Gems; bite sized morsels that would perhaps be more palatable or at least help me understand what it was all about. The majority of names mentioned were alien to me. Philly Boy Roy? Maurice Kern? Zachary Brimstead? Never heard of them, so I plumped for an instalment featuring Patton Oswalt and Aimee Mann. Once again I put it on my MP3 player and headed out.
What unfolded was one of the funniest things I have ever heard. A pizza delivery man somehow gets into the WFMU studio and begins a staggeringly ludicrous conversation with Scharpling, Oswalt and Mann. I won’t deconstruct the scene but before long I was desperately trying to suppress gales of laughter as I walked the streets of Leeds, the passers-by looking at me like I was nuts. It was my first exposure to the finest and most original comedy double act out there – Scharpling & Wurster. A quick Google brought me up to speed. During Scharpling’s days as a fanzine writer he became friends with John Wurster, the drummer from American alt.rock pioneers Superchunk. In their extended on air dialogues, often featuring characters from the fictional New Jersey town of Newbridge, Wurster usually takes the role of antagonist with creations like Philly Boy Roy – the Jersey hating Philadelphian mayor of Newbridge, Maurice Kern – an evil pharmaceutical magnate or Zachary Brimstead Esq – an obese barber shop singer. Scharpling is not so much the straight man as the pilot and navigator for these conversations, reacting with indignation, scepticism and anger at Wurster’s increasingly strange and elaborate pronouncements.
I devoured Best Show Gems, in the process uncovering recurring themes like an obsession with the Martin Short film Clifford, the life of GG Allen and the suggestion that Scharpling is both bald and uses a voice modulating apparatus to alter his natural speaking voice. Sounds mad doesn’t it? And it is, but the deeper I went into Best Show Gems the more fervently obsessed I became, quickly graduating to the full three hour programme in which aside from regular conversations with Wurster Scharpling fields calls from regular contributors and random lunatics from across the globe. Here-in lies one of the Best Show’s great strengths. Unlike so much talk radio Scharpling rarely deals in politics, sport or innuendo filled celebrity gossip. Instead callers are asked to contribute interesting anecdotes or discuss one of the topics Tom has put on the table. Furthermore as The Best Show is broadcast on public radio there can be no swearing or ‘toilet mouth’ as Scharpling has dubbed it. This restriction actively serves to improve the content, forcing callers to utilise more creative language and allowing Scharpling to assume an austere, paternal authority – a position he wields with thrilling contrariness.
To be dumped mid phone call, an act known as being given the Heave-Ho, is a pleasure afforded to regular contributors, first time callers and celebrity guests alike. This unpredictability lends an anarchic air to each instalments proceedings and is in fact the very essence of both Scharpling’s assumed character and the show itself. I am endlessly surprised and delighted by Tom’s take on things, his defence of Christian Bale’s on set rant being a perfect case in point (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0dYf0X0CdE ). His frequent assertions that he is a show-biz outsider, a ‘ham and egger’ toiling in obscurity for free on a publically funded radio station serves only to render his claims as to his and The Best Show’s greatness all the more hilarious and true.
Whether skewering the likes of Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand, or simply ‘steam-rollering chumps’ who ring in to pointlessly antagonise him, Scharpling brooks no dissent. Some memorable occasions include offering to beat up the Zodiac Killer and knock one arrogant caller’s teeth down their throat. The Best Show is about as far away from the increasingly lazy and misogynist content pedalled by the like of Opie & Anthony on satellite radio as it is possible to get. That’s before even mentioning the series of puppets (yes, puppets on the radio) who frequently appear on the programme, or the particularly sparkling repartee between Tom and his eccentric call screener AP Mike.
The Best Show is truly a cult phenomenon in the best sense of the word. It remains for now relatively underground, inspiring intense devotion from its listeners and raking in obscene amounts of cash during its yearly fund raising drives. And like all great cult artefacts it is almost impossible to explain. This piece barely scratches the surface of what makes it such a brilliant programme so I’ll leave you with a final thought.
About five months ago I was up late enough to listen to The Best Show live for the first time. When the theme tune kicked in and I knew that the show was happening RIGHT THEN, that AP Mike was working the phones, John Wurster was getting ready to call in and Scharpling himself was readying his chump steamroller I got goose bumps and there was literally nothing else I would rather have been doing than sitting down for three hours to wallow in the singular brilliance that is The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling.