The Best Show may not literally be the best show in the talk radio/podcasting universe, but it is arguably one of the funniest, most original, and enduring. It's now on tour, wrapping up with a performance Sunday at Union Transfer.
Since it left the nest at WFMU in Jersey City and flew off on its own, The Best Show has grown from a running inside joke among Eastern Seaboard scenesters, college-radio lifers, and the occasional underground rock band whose tour van inadvertently veered into its broadcast radius, to a coast-to-coast cult phenomenon.
The Best Show is written, hosted, and performed by the smirking duo of Tom Scharpling, a TV writer/producer (Monk and a coming HBO show he can't talk about just yet) and music video director and local-ish boy-made-good Jon Wurster, whose day job is drumming for indie-rock titans Superchunk, Bob Mould, and the Mountain Goats. You could call Scharpling and Wurster the Abbott and Costello of indie.
The Best Show is set in the mythical town of Newbridge, N.J., populated by a cast of hapless, deeply flawed but somehow likable characters, voiced by Wurster. These folks take turns calling in to the show each week to peddle their various strains of hilarious B.S. to a skeptical and bemused Scharpling. There's Philly Boy Roy, a Tastykake-chomping, Jersey-dissing, Rizzo-loving 700 leveler with a wardrobe composed entirely of Philadelphia sports-team jerseys and the occasional Wawa T-shirt.
There's Hammerhead, the aging hard-core (which he pronounces "hawdcaw") punk and arthritic mosh-pit habitué. There's Count Rockula, a.k.a. Todd, who has been stocking the shelves at Newbridge's CD Submarine in a sailor's uniform and name tag for 20 years, patiently awaiting rock stardom.
There's Dali-mustachioed Terrance Shropshire, his head crowned with a white terrycloth sweatband and his manatee-like physique disguised by an oversized Stryper T-shirt, who grew up in Brooklyn back before it was cool and he's doing his level best to keep it that way.
The Best Show is at its best when it locates the humor in the implacable hubris of white-male cluelessness, men so self-unaware they don't even know how much they don't even know.
"We've always been kind of obsessed with people who don't have the clout that they think they do," Scharpling says on a break from a table reading in New York for a coming TV show he can't discuss. "People who talk the talk, but they don't necessarily walk the walk."
Like the ambiguous geography of The Simpsons' mythical Springfield, the exact location of Newbridge remains a closely guarded company secret. "It's above Trenton but below Fort Lee," says Wurster, playing coy. Just think of it as the Lake Woebegone of Lame, with big hair, bad attitudes, and dangerously high PCB levels.
For its first 13 years, The Best Show had its home at WFMU, the seminal noncommercial station in Jersey City. In 2013, The Best Show consciously uncoupled from WFMU and is now a stand-alone webcast/podcast. In other words, a full-time job that pays nothing.
In the spring, the Numero Group record label released an epic 16-CD box set retrospective called Scharpling & Wurster: The Best of The Best Show. Since its release, Scharpling and Wurster have been taking their act on the road, performing live in some of the very same clubs that routinely host the show's original fan base: indie-rockers and people who like indie rock.
"It's kind of like an old-fashioned variety show," says Wurster, who grew up in Harleysville and who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. "You'll see a bunch of the characters you've come to know and, hopefully, love on the radio, and you'll hear some Philly-specific music from some special, spectacular surprise guests."
Wurster is keeping mum on who exactly they have lined up for the Philly show, but their track record is pretty impressive. In Portland, it was Pavement's Stephen Malkmus. In Chicago, it was Nirvana producer Steve Albini and Wilco's John Stirratt. In Brooklyn, it was Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.
"We've waited long enough so that people have been genuinely excited that we're doing this," says Scharpling. "It's kind of exciting how immediate the response is. When you do it on the radio you can't hear people laughing."
Although Scharpling had been spinning on WFMU's airwaves since 1995, it wasn't until 2000 that The Best Show found its mojo. That was the year Scharpling invited Wurster to perform a call-in comedy bit they'd written called "Rock, Rot & Rule."
Wurster pretended to be Ronald Thomas Clontle, author of a soon-to-be-published rock reference guide called Rock, Rot & Rule: The Ultimate Argument Settler, a job for which he is woefully unqualified. Clontle insists Madness invented ska (and is certain Gwen Stefani would back him up on this), that the Beatles merely rock ("they had a lot of bad songs") while Bruce Hornsby rules, and that Neil Young's first album was Trans, which is why, in Clontle's estimation, he rots.
Initially, Scharpling's music-savvy listenership was appalled - one angry caller dubbed Clontle the Jacqueline Susann of rock criticism - but later, when it became apparent it was a comedy bit, they were enthralled. Everyone told two friends - remember, this was before social media - and they told two friends and so on. Fifteen years and 600-plus episodes later, Scharpling and Wurster are selling out rock clubs, feted with celebrity accolades and a handsome, career-spanning box set with liner notes by master-class comedian Patton Oswalt. And it feels like they're just getting started.
Scharpling likes the way the show has inspired audience loyalty. Listeners don't listen, then "move on to the next big thing," he says. "It's grown steadily and consistently, and when people get on board, they seem to stick around."
Jonathan Valania is editor-in-chief of Phawker.com.
Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster perform their indie podcast live at 8 p.m. Sunday at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St.
Information: 215-232-2100 or www.utphilly.com.