How do you explain The Best Show? Attempting to do so can be one of the most frustrating parts of being a fan of the 15-year-old WFMU show-turned-podcast, especially since all its fans want to do is share its joy. Good explanations usually just make it sound terribly intimidating: a three-hour comedy, music, and call-in program featuring a seemingly endless cast of characters, half of which are voiced by Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and the other half of which are real callers from around the country. Given that the show is based in the fictional New Jersey Suburb of Newbridge, the lines between the fictional calls and the real ones can really start to blur. Callers are screened by a light beer-guzzling associate producer by the name of AP Mike, and the man taking those calls is Tom Scharpling, our cranky yet enthusiastically optimistic host. Sprinkle in some guests like Ted Leo, Paul Rudd, Kurt Vile, and Patton Oswalt—to name a few—and you have all the ingredients that make The Best Show the best.
To the uninitiated, it might seem impossible to jump into the show’s world of countless recurring characters, inside jokes (some of which have lasted years), and intense arguments about niche pop culture topics. But trust: all it takes is one good Philly Boy Roy call, Gary The Squirrel skit or monologue from Scharpling and you’ll be looking back years later, an avid fan, wondering, “How did this happen?”
One of Best Show’s beloved guests, listeners, and fans is our friend and VICE reporter, Fucked Up singer Damian Abraham. Abraham sat down with Scharpling and Wurster to find out how they’re bringing this massive world of theirs from the radio to the stage for a West Coast live tour.
Read his interview with the guys and check out The Best Show’s West Coast dates below.
Damian Abraham: Having performed with Tom on stage at Matador 21 [festival in Las Vegas in 2010], and receiving a reverse German Suplex into the drum set in the process, Jon, how is Tom adapting to live performing?
Jon Wurster: Well, uh, he has sustained far fewer injuries. I wouldn’t dare try to grapple with him. I think he’s doing great! Neither of us have that gene/defect that makes us have to be in front of people and absorb applause. So it’s kinda something for us to get out there and actually do something like this, but we both really love it and it’s a lot of fun. I think the two of us are blossoming as stage performers.
Tom Scharpling: It’s not our default setting at all. It feels like at some point we just have to own this thing. That’s a part of owning it, it’s us taking it on the road and doing it in front of people.
Was Matador 21 your first [live show]?
Wurster: I think that was the first thing we ever really did that involved multiple appearances.
Scharpling: It was sold out already before we were added to the bill. So it was like, people were excited we were there, that’s nice, but no one bought a ticket to see us, so we cannot outstay our welcome on stage as if we are why people came out to this thing. So we made our thing so short. Right, remember that? It was like four minutes when we introduced the band. We gotta get on and off because people get restless, they wanna see Guided By Voices.
Wurster: The audience was really good until, like Tom said, in front of GBV, we could feel that after 20 seconds, that, “OK, it’s already turning, like, less is good, let’s just skip this one part and get right to the end of this thing.”
Scharpling: Now people are there to see us, and we can spread out as much as we want, and we can kinda take advantage of that and have fun with it, so it’s kind of a good combination of scripted stuff but then we also have fun. To me, it’s now at a the point where it’s kinda like what we do on the radio, where yes, it’s primarily scripted but we find these pockets that get wider and wider where we can do what we want within the stuff. I guess every show is unique in some way or another because of that.
When you talked about Matador 21, you were saying how no one bought a ticket to see you because you weren’t announced until after it was all sold out, but I would argue that 75 percent of the bands backstage were most excited to see you guys, and half of Matador Records, [co-owner] Gerard Cosloy, is one of the biggest fans of that show, one of the earliest, biggest fans that I’ve met. It’s kinda always been for the people that get it. And the people that don’t, don’t worry about em?
Wurster: I guess you could say that about rock bands too. People that are gonna get it are gonna get it, and you can’t force someone to be into what you do. So like Tom said, we’re very lucky that at this point now the people that are coming do want to be there, they know what they’re gonna get, they have some kinda idea, and they’re excited to be there. And that’s half the battle.
Earlier you guys both said that performance was not a natural thing… What has that been like trying to bring these inherently anti-performance things—the callers, the moments of adlib that might come up—to a stage? Is that something you’re trying to consciously work on or has it naturally come about?
Wurster: I think it comes about naturally because that’s how Tom and I work. That’s how we interact with each other, I think it can’t help but come off that way on stage too.
What has it been like, Tom, dealing with an audience without the power to yell, “Get off my phone!” and have to deal with a heckler that you can’t drop off the line and you actually have to deal with the unwashed masses in a very direct way? Is it different?
Scharpling: I think it’s different because everybody is. It’s not like we’re doing a thing on a chalkboard outside a comedy club that says, “Tonight Comedy!” [and] then people come in and they don’t like what we’re doing. People are there for a very specific purpose, so there’s not really an element of that in the mix, people are letting us do the show that we want to do. They’re really more excited than anything. Sometimes something will happen in the show between me and one of the characters in it, and someone will go “Oh shit!” Like actually reacting to what’s going on on the stage. Have you caught that Jon?
Wurster: Oh, yeah! It’s crazy. People who are there want to be there. We haven’t had a heckler yet I don’t think. It’s people who have already bought into it. And they wanna have fun just like we do.
Scharpling: It’s a fast moving show too, it’s not like there’s any kind of massive “Ugh, get on with it!” We are getting on with it, the thing moves pretty fast I think. We’re not outstaying our welcome.
You mentioned the excitement of some of the fans. The Best Show has a die-hard fan base. Jon, you’re probably experienced with dealing with punishers on the road? Tom, I don’t know if you’ve every experienced the phenomena of a punisher, but have you had to deal with any The Best Show punishers? If you aren’t familiar with the concept of a punisher, Jon and I could explain it to you.
Scharpling: Please explain the concept of a punisher. This is all new to me.
Wurster: A punisher is someone who, God bless them, [is] very enthusiastic, and they spend a lot of time telling you of their enthusiasm. We appreciate it.
Scharpling: Having been a punisher on various occasions, I’m conflicted about this. I’ve met them and been one too.
Wurster: I once walked up to the guitar player from The Knack in an airport and I told him that the solo in “My Sharona” was my favorite solo of all time and he was mortified for me.
Scharpling: I think I’m on record as humiliating myself in an elevator with Patti Smith.
Yeah, the Patti Smith story is a legendary one.
Scharpling: Yeah, I might have a pretty big trump card, and that happened this year…mine doesn’t even, I can’t even make an excuse that I was a kid when I did it. I did it seven months ago. People are into it, unless they don’t know where to go with it next. As someone who’s been in that spot, I get it, but I don’t know where to go next either if somebody is in that spot. A lot of times I’ll hug them or just tell them, “Don’t worry, relax!” And I think it just spooks people that I’m touching them. I break their rhythm with that.
Wurster: I try to be really nice and I always try to remember something that I did when I was 16. I went to see REM and this band called Let’s Active—this must have been 1983 in Philadelphia. I went to the show and I just struck up a conversation with the drummer from Let’s Active, and she gave me her backstage pass, and I think they left after the show, so I put the pass on. I just walk backstage, there’s no security, and I’m literally just standing in REM’s dressing room, and they’re all there. They didn’t tell me to leave, they were nice. I always try to remember that! But if someone did that to me now, I’d be so mad! [Laughs] “What are you doing here?!”
Get the fuck outta my room! At least you guys are going to see classic artists and doing this. I’ve punished lesser artists with far worse. It kinda brings up a good point—the show is something that means a lot more to people than just comedy. People find something in this show. Do you think it’s about being a part of something larger? Do you think it’s some sort of a secret society element? What is it to you?
Wurster: I think early on it was definitely a secret society kind of thing where a lot of people didn’t know about it, but if you did it was a really cool thing when you met someone else who was into it. Kinda like when you went to the mall and you saw someone with a Clash pin and no one else in your school was into it.
Scharpling: The show is kind of this ongoing thing and they just build and build and build this mythology, but you can still get into [it] at any point. It’s not like you need to know everything that happened to appreciate the calls. We try to strike a balance of it. You can always get on board, but there’s kinda no bottom as to how arcane factoids are that go back through the history of the calls. It has a sense of community and it feels like you want to hang out every week... There’s other shows that have a much bigger audience [but] I think their audiences are pretty passive and you don’t know if they’re just downloading the episodes and never really listening. I know with The Best Show that the people who are on board are totally on board and the show means something to them. And if I were to pick between the two, I’d pick less people who are listening and care.
Do you find yourself responding or reacting to the audience at all now? We’re laughing at home with the phone calls, but now with a live audience, do you find yourselves laughing with certain bits? Do you find yourself reacting more like a comedian would?
Wurster: Yeah, I think you can’t help but do that, you’ll kind of hone in on one particular person sometimes and like you’ll know that person is really responding to it. We do songs during the show and sometimes you’ll just get in that one person’s face and sing to them, cuz they’re so into it, but when you do that, they instantly kind of recoil, even though they’re into it. I think that’s a fun thing on our end to do.
Jon, why have you never really sung in a band?
Wurster: I’m terrible. I have a terrible singing voice. I can sing funny songs, but like actually singing I’d be terrible. As anyone will learn when they come to these shows.
Scharpling: I think he’s got a great voice.
I think what everyone now has learned is that you don’t need a great “singing voice” to make it in this biz. I might know a thing or two about that, too.
Scharpling: Damian, I think you have a great voice. One day I challenged you on the air and you backed away from it. I want to hear your version of when Bob Dylan just changed his singing style to sound completely different from one album, suddenly you’re singing differently like he did on Nashville Skyline.
Many a’ hardcore band have done that. That’s called the sell-out record that no one ever likes.
Wurster: [7 Seconds’] New Wind?
Exactly, New Wind. Or what’s the SSD one, How We Rock?
Wurster: There were two, How We Rock and Break It Up.
Abraham: I think Fire & Ice might be my favorite DYS record though.
Wurster: Was that the metal one?
Scharpling: I don’t remember that one.
It’s like a total metal-rock record. It’s pretty good. It had some songs.
Wurster: Oh my god…
So when you guys do live songs, you have bands come in and perform. It’s kinda like a multimedia performance?
Wurster: It’s a variety show of sorts!
It’s a variety show, that’s a much better way of putting it. What was the process of trying to bring the Best Show universe to stage?
Wurster: I think we kinda built on what we got away with at that Matador thing. That kinda worked there and that was a real confidence booster for us in terms of showing us that we could do it live. So I think we started with, “Well, what characters could be a part of this that could interact with Tom in a live setting?” And we wanted to add music and have some of the characters do songs, and things, and that’s where the band came in. And we just kinda built it out from there.
Scharpling: When we were talking about doing this as a way to do stuff around the release of the box set, [but then] we were just like, “What if we just kinda went for it?” and we just made us the show. We didn’t make it something that we were just one of a bunch of elements of a show. I’m so glad that that’s what we did with it, because it’s the kinda show that if I was the fan of the show I’d feel like I got everything I want out of seeing the radio show live.
It’s staggering the run that you two have had. And it’s really just you two, with obviously once in a while another comedian in the mix. You think about shows like The Simpsons and you think about Seinfeld with like crazy-long runs, and it’s just like, they all had writers rooms. Are you guys blown away by that run you guys had and consistency of ideas?
Scharpling: It’s never been like a nostalgic thing around the show, it’s always been we do this show on Tuesday, and next week’s show is coming right up. There’s never been even an opportunity to be nostalgic about stuff. It was the first time to really go deep into what everything was.
I think for me as a fan of The Best Show, one of the greatest things to me was discovering it and how it kinda fit together so many different things that I love from comedy that I didn’t know had any connection. Has that happened in the last couple of years—that the kind of comedy championed and embodied by The Best Show has kinda become the comedy of now? You look around and it’s like comedians that have been associated with the show are now experiencing tons of success and the best show has become bigger than it’s ever been.
Wurster: I think so. I think Tom and I… had a real respect for Mr. Show and that specific style of comedy. I think maybe in our own way, like you said, we have. Not gonna say we pioneered anything, but I think I’ve seen things in TV shows and in peoples’ acts that were probably inspired by The Best Show. I don’t think that’s out of line to say... [We] never had a goal to be at this place in five years, or "here" when this happens. We never had that. We always just liked to do what we did and somehow it caught on. It took a while, but it did.
The Best Show airs every Tuesday from 9 PM to 12 AM EST. Find out how to listen here and check out their West Coast tour dates below:
Andrew Courtien thinks The Best Show is the best show. Follow him on Twitter.
Damian Abraham is the lead singer of Fucked Up. Follow him on Twitter.