Every Tuesday night, from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. EST, WFMU is the number-one stop for mirth, music, and mayhem, as The Best Show on WFMU’s Tom Scharpling confronts the world of absurdity that exists just a phone call away. At times, Tom speaks to Jon Wurster, his partner in comedy, who calls in on a weekly basis as one of countless bizarre characters who inhabit the town of Newbridge, New Jersey — the duo’s very own Springfield on the radio. Their exchanges begin with a simple greeting, perhaps some topical banter, or, as has been the case as of late, a mangling of some dialogue from Clifford. Soon, however, Tom begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right with the caller and he begins to investigate. Tom takes his time as though to ask the wrong question, or to hurry might frighten away the subject like a rabbit approached too quickly, but before you know it, the ridiculousness adds up and Tom, Jon, and their audience find themselves in a land where the only logic that governs is absurdity. Turns out, that place is the suburbs... Buzzine's Ben Kharakh took an intrepid trip to deepest New Jersey to chat with Tom Scharpling and find out what makes the show simply The Best...
Ben Kharakh: When you’re discussing the Best Show in interviews, do you prefer to remain in character or out of character? Would you, for example, reveal that, unlike the Tom Scharpling that lives in Newbridge and works at Consolidated Cardboard, you, the real Tom Scharpling, are a writer and executive producer for Monk?
Tom Scharpling: For interviews, it’s fine. If anybody just Googles my name, they’re going to find out my day job — it’s like the first thing that comes up. I have no problem talking about the theme of the show and especially the theme of what Jon and I have built up — that’s fine — but when I’m on the show, I don’t step out of it. When the three hours are going on, I’m not just going to suddenly wink at the audience. I never, on the radio, refer to Jon as “Jon” in any way. I don’t even play Superchunk records because I don’t want to acknowledge the reality of it. But I have no problem outside the three hours of the show.
BK: Do you and Jon think of Newbridge as a microcosm of America?
TS: It captures the sprawl of — and the over building of — America. You, as a New Jersey resident, have seen more than your share of over-development, where there’s a field one day and then they’re building the Ace strip mall when they just might as well have knocked down the old one and put a new one up in its place. I see a lot of that. I’m often inspired by the stupidity of life outside of a city; it has its own type of stupidity. It’s a very singular type of stupidity.
If you started listing the stupid stuff that goes on in New York, you would never stop. You would be writing until the end of your life. But there’s this thing in the suburbs that’s really funny in its own way, but we also do it without taking the approach of someone blowing the lid off the suburbs like, “It’s dark, it’s weird in the suburbs, and people don’t know it.” Everybody knows it. Most people are in the suburbs, and those people know how weird the suburbs are. It’s these people in New York and in big cities who have lost any reference; they think people in the suburbs think they’re normal! Everybody out here knows that everybody out here is crazy and they know it!
BK: What do you mean by “crazy”?
TS: Everybody knows somebody else is crazy. “Oh, these people down the street are nuts, and this person has this going on, and that person has that going on…” but then that person is saying the same thing about you guys to the point that everybody is nuts in the suburbs and everybody knows that everybody is nuts there too. It’s not some mystery. And this type of crazy is like a functional sort of crazy, not a loony-bin crazy. “Oh man, my neighbor’s kid just got arrested for abusing steroids…” [Laughs] Weird stuff like that. But these things are not secret shames the way some people think they are. Todd Solondz’s movies drives me nuts because he clearly thinks he’s lifting the lid off something. He thinks he’s holding a mirror to people that don’t actually know what they look like.
BK: Who are some crazy people that you would say live in your community?
TS: I lived across the street from this group of just horrifying guys who were clearly selling drugs out of their house. One of them was even under house arrest…and I was in a normal neighborhood. I was in the Suburbs with a capital S, and they were drag-racing up and down the street. Then there was a fight one day because they were driving all the other people with families nuts. Then the one guy called one of the neighbors the N-word and he just went off! And it was at like 3:00 in the morning. It went on for years; it was the greatest show you’ve ever seen.
I would watch, from my window, these insane fights and arguments of people just blowing up and ready to murder each other. And they had a park bench that they would clearly slide in their driveway to tell you when they were selling drugs. If the bench was there, they were open for business, and if the bench wasn’t there, don’t come by. It was just nuts. But we moved. Now I don’t see that level of excitement.
BK: I remember one night I was coming home at around 11:00 p.m. and there were two separate police cars for two separate events within eyeshot of my house.
TS: If you read the police blotter in your local newspaper, you can get a good taste of that sort of thing. It’s insane sometimes, the weird things that get stolen and reported, the arguments that cops have to settle…
BK: What sort of things get stolen?
TS: A lot of it is stuff off people’s lawns. It was always exciting to read that stuff because I was hoping I’d recognize people I knew in the blotter, which hasn’t happened. Hopefully it will happen. Maybe it will be you! That would be exciting; I’ll start reading the Middletown blotter…
BK: Your show is an outlet not just for crazies but for norms too.
TS: What I like to do with the show is not have it be a thing where I’m just making fun of the callers. If somebody calls up and they’re clearly bananas, I’ll tease them, I’ll have fun with them, but I don’t want to make them feel horrible about it. I think one thing I like about the show is when kids call, because a lot of times it’s hard being a kid who doesn’t have a completely defined identity. If you’re one of those kids where you’re not an athlete or you’re not in the theater club or any of the things where you’re a part of something, you just end up being a kid, and it’s always nice to just feel like, “There’s a thing where a guy has fun with me, but it’s not just at my expense. It’s like he’s on my side, but we can have fun with it as well.”
Maybe they can’t take themselves as seriously because they’re talking to some adult who is not reinforcing the things they’re worrying about — who is telling them to calm down about certain things, not take certain things too seriously, but not belittling them either, saying, “Oh, you with your dumb high school stuff — that doesn’t matter. That stuff matters completely when you’re in high school! You’re living and dying by that stuff, but you can’t beat yourself up about it if things don’t go your way.” So I like to add a little bit of levity and be inclusive with the younger callers.
BK: What have you learned from doing The Best Show?
TS: One thing I’ve learned is the line between what I find funny and what I find mean. I definitely have figured that line out for myself, and I think I can kind of dance on the edge of that line because funny and mean sit side by side. It’s easy to fall into meanness, and I don’t want to be mean. I never wanted the show to be something where it’s exclusive in any way or it’s about me just making people feel bad about who they are or where they’re at in life. I’ve been in not-good places in life too. We all have, but you’ve got to get through them, and I would hope the show would be the kind of thing where people could ultimately laugh. Like if somebody calls and I goofed on them, they would realize I wasn’t just putting them up there as pure sport.
BK: During the election, people were calling you about politics and you’d act like you had no idea what was going on or as though you had no opinion. And then someone like Spike would try to explain things to you…
TS: The great thing about Spike is, literally, that is its own section of the show now, where I can have one stand on things during a Spike call and then just shift it completely for the rest of the show, because I’m not sure how much he listens beyond his own call. With Spike, it’s fun for me to act clueless because it almost becomes some weird Abbot & Costello routine, like “Who’s on First?” He’s trying to tell me that Hillary Clinton is a Democrat, and then I’m not understanding what he’s saying. “Well, Hillary Clinton is a Democrat. What is Barack Obama then?” he says, “Well, he’s a Democrat too.” “Well, no they both can’t be.” Acting willfully stupid always makes me laugh. Or I’ll act just like every slob, right-wing person. I like assuming that persona on the radio. I don’t think anybody believes that I’m really an extreme right-wing Republican.
BK: I wonder about Spike because he seems like he’s got a normal job, but he’s also a male dominatrix…?
TS: I guess. Here’s what I think: that’s in his head a little bit. I would be shocked if this guy was really living out those fantasies. I think he has just created this persona, this idealized version of himself. I could be completely off base, of course, and I like him a lot, but he’s clearly being a character and he’s having a lot of fun. He wouldn’t call back if it was any other way.
BK: When it comes to what makes you laugh, what do you think makes good comedy good comedy?
TS: I like people who have an opinion and who aren’t afraid to be smart, but they’re not beating you over the head with their intelligence, or their intelligence isn’t smothering the comedy — people who aren’t afraid to have peace in what they do but they’re not being gross for gross’s sake, or shocking for shocking’s sake. Any comedian who says their primary goal is to make people think or to expose the truth is a comedian I generally have a hard time getting excited about. I’m interested in people who are trying to make people laugh and trying to make me laugh first, and the other stuff is hand in hand with having an opinion and believing in truth and honesty and all that stuff. It’s not like you’re either honest or funny, but you’ve got to be both.
I’ve been wrongly labeled by a few people as being a “crab” or a “crank,” as though I hate the world. I don’t hate the world at all. I like as much stuff as I hate. I always try to mention stuff I like as much as the stuff I don’t like. It’s not like I’m just running down a list of, “This sucks and that sucks, and this sucks and that sucks,” and not giving any alternative, because, first of all, I’m trying to do a show that’s actually entertaining, and I hope my show is an alternative to bad stuff. I talk about stuff I like and performers I like, and movies I like too, but I think what it comes down to, for me, is that I know how I would want the world to be, and how I think it could be, and I guess I get disappointed when it falls short.
BK: When it comes to the sort of patience that’s required to be won over by The Best Show, do you think there’s something about modernity that cultivates impatience?
TS: Definitely, and I think this might make me sound like some 80-year-old guy whining, “Bleh bleh, the MTV-isation of the world…” Kids don’t even watch MTV anymore! But it is as though people’s attention spans are getting… It’s not even that they have short attention spans — I think it’s that people think they have short attention spans, so that’s what they give them, or they have the capability of being able to digest things in small, quick doses, and not think, “What was that? What just happened there? How come it’s still not going on?” so that’s what they’re given. People are given 30-second sketches and they can get into the rhythm of them, but they can also get into the rhythm of a five-minute sketch. There’s a weird shift now where people think the only rhythm that young people can understand is a fast one. So that’s what they’re presented with.
BK: How would you describe your relationship with the callers in general?
TS: I have a few responsibilities when I take a call: one is to keep the show interesting, so I can’t just hand the phone over to someone and let them go on and on and on, even though they might be the nicest person on Earth, and I wouldn’t be like that to anybody at any other point during the week, outside of those three hours. I wouldn’t be interrupting or rude to that person, but during that three hours, my responsibility is to keep that show just popping as much as I can, and not have any dead spots.
I have to be like the editor and the judge, and just say when this call is done, and when we’ve got to go to the next one. So I have that responsibility, but I don’t want people to just be props for me. I actually would like to talk to them, but also, if I think of a place I would like to take it or some funny stuff I would like to do, I can’t limit myself to the point of worrying about their response to things. I can start teasing somebody, or saying or assuming some dopey persona, like suddenly pretend like I don’t know what they’re talking about. If I think it’s going to be funny, I have to do that because that outweighs me being a hundred percent the most polite person and fair person that they would talk to.
I’m a nice guy. I’m a normal person off the radio. It’s a weird thing to have a radio show where, in any walk of life, no one would come up to you and go, “Hey, remember that time you yelled at that guy? It was awesome.” Or have people go, “Hey, I called up and I made a mistake and you hung up on me and it seemed like you were mad. I’m really sorry about that.” People will e-mail me and apologize for the fact that they made me hang up on them. It seems like the only place that this behavior is rewarded — where hanging up on someone is actually celebrated and people actually feel bad about making me do that.
BK: How does the off-radio you compare to the real you?
TS: The radio me is just a version of me. Even when I’m acting dumb or acting goofy or whatever, that’s still me. I’m not going off trying to be some guy that I’m not. It’s just a version of me talking out loud into a microphone. It may be a louder version of me, but the thoughts I have on the air are the thoughts I have off the air, even if I know they’re just thoughts to be funny and they’re not my actual opinions. They’re thoughts like, “Oh that would be funny if blah blah blah…” or, “Isn’t that funny?” I’m just not saying them into a mic then, instead of keeping them in my head. In a weird way, the show is actually always going on in my head. Some people ask, “Do you go back and listen to the show when you do it?” and I don’t because the show never stops.
'The Best Show' airs on Tuesdays from 9pm-Midnight EST on WFMU in New York and online at WFMU.com