Just before nine o’clock on an early spring evening, Tom Scharpling bursts through the door of the massive record room on the second floor of WFMU’s offices in downtown Jersey City. He’s been at the station for a little while, but it’s time for him to get ready for his weekly show, not-so-subtly entitled The Best Show on WFMU.
As he listens to some power pop emanating from his laptop, he peruses the racks to find the songs that he’ll play during the first 15 minutes of the program. After picking the music, he runs down the guest lineup with his associate producer and call-screener, “AP” Mike Lisk.
“Three calls in a row: Feuerzeig, Fielder, then Wurster,” referring to filmmaker Jeff Feuerzig and comedian Nathan Fielder. The third person is Jon Wurster, Scharpling’s comedy partner, who will be calling in from his North Carolina home as yet another character from the fictional New Jersey town of Newbridge, this time as abusive community college handball coach Orenthal Harrups.
Scharpling, who graduated from TCNJ in 1995, has been doing Best Show since 2000. The show has evolved a bit over time, going from two hours to three, and with Scharpling monologuing more and taking less calls. But two things have been constant: his desire to be himself and his partnership with Wurster.
“It was nice to have a thing where the buck stops with me and this is mine,” says Scharpling, who was a writer and executive producer on the USA Network show Monk from 2002–09. “If you just write for TV like that you feel like you’re very lost, your voice may get lost in there a little bit. I would recommend to anybody working on a collaborative thing like that to try to have a thing that’s your own on the side because you won’t feel swallowed up.”
The show, which airs every Tuesday from 9 PM to midnight EST on the public radio station, is extremely popular, at least by the standards of public and Internet radio. Between the broadcast, the station’s online stream, and the podcast of the show that’s available on iTunes and elsewhere, Best Show attracts an audience in the six figures. While Scharpling doesn’t know exactly what percentage of the audience comes from each format, he knows that he’s brought enough listeners to the station that his show alone raised over $200,000 during WFMU’s March 2013 pledge marathon.
“Those are my people,” the central New Jersey resident said over lunch at a local diner a week later. “They’re there for me. Hopefully they check out the station and fall in love with the station too, but I think I’m the one bringing them in the door to introduce them to WFMU.”
He may be speaking to hundreds of thousands, but when he finally opens the mike and starts talking, he’s a man alone in front of a mixing console. “It’s boring; just one person in the room,” he tells me before he goes on the air, but his actions once he’s live indicate otherwise. He speaks with his eyes closed, head moving back and forth like a concert pianist as he monologues about topics ranging from the death of legendary record producer Andy Johns to a small Twitter battle he’s having with Chuck Woolery. “Whaddya expect from a guy like that?” he says about the game show host. “He doesn’t bring anything to the table.”
As the show goes on, he takes calls from avid listeners, interviews his guests, and monologues some more. But the highlight is the comedy routine with Wurster, where they stray from the abusive coach routine to discuss a fake version of Saturday Night Live, rattling off lists of fake cast members and fake musical guests in the show’s fake history. They’ve been doing this on the radio since the late ’90s, when Scharpling had a more music-oriented show on the station. Wurster and Scharpling met at a Superchunk show in 1992, shortly after Wurster became the band’s drummer. They bonded over the Chris Elliot sitcom Get A Life and a very obscure MTV VJ.
“I had this kind of litmus test that nobody had matched, and Jon had the same one. It was VJ on MTV one summer named Smash,” he said. “He was this old dude who they plugged him on in the summer for some reason. I floated it to him or he floated it to me because we both had the thing and we both knew it. That was when it was like, ‘Oh man. I think we have a two person club here.’”
These sketches are planned for the most part, but just like the town all these characters reside in, they’re a natural product of the conversation between friends. “I don’t think we ever consciously set out to have this fictional town, it just evolved and seemed logical to put all these people in one place,” wrote Wurster in an e-mail. “I do remember Tom saying at one point that the town should have ‘bridge’ in the name because there’s so many places with names like ‘Old Bridge’ in New Jersey.”
Since Monk ended, Scharpling has had a development deal with Comedy Central that didn’t lead to a series; he’s currently producing and writing an IFC pilot with comedian Chris Gethard. But much of his creative energy has been devoted to writing and directing music videos, a mini-career that started in 2011 when Ted Leo asked him to direct one for his band. “By that point, I was thinking about doing a short film or something,” says Scharpling. “This will be the perfect way to do that because it’ll be something that gets seen by people. So, I put a little money aside to go do the short film,” with a little help from Leo’s label.
After that video came out, acts like The New Pornographers, Kurt Vile, The Postal Service, and Aimee Mann have asked Scharpling to write and direct videos for them. Scharpling sees the videos as something that could become a viable part of his career, but just like with the radio show, the fact that he’s currently making little or no money doing it is putting some strain on him. “I can’t do everything for free. I do the radio show for free. I do these videos for free. At a point, I’m the one who’s got to say I’m taking a step forward with this. You’ve got to take your lumps and learn how to do it and I feel like I did that. So, now it’s time to see what the next step is.”
Does that mean that The Best Show’s days are numbered? “I don’t know how long the show will go,” writes Wurster. “It seems to be more popular than ever and we are really grateful for that. We had absolutely no idea it would get as big as it has when we started all those years ago. But to this day we really only do these calls to make each other laugh. We’re essentially performing for each other.”
As the show wraps up for the evening, Scharpling is tired but happy that another show came together. It’s something he hopes he can keep going. “It’s really hard because the show’s special to me. It’s something I’ve built up and it didn’t exist before. It’s not like I am taking over The Tonight Show that some other dude got going and I’m on the continuum with it. It’s like, no, it didn’t exist and now it’s this thing that I love doing and that a lot of people love hearing.”