Scharpling & Wurster: The Best of the Best Show

Photo: Rob Hatch Miller

Numero Group’s 16-disc box set of phone calls featuring Scharpling & Wurster is both the sort of product that might have been lampooned on The Best Show on WFMU as well as a great monument to their first, weird era together.

Scharpling & Wurster

The Best of the Best Show

Label: Numero
US Release Date: 2015-05-12
UK Release Date: 2015-05-11

An indispensable feature of The Best Show on WFMU, Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s double act originally ran from 2000 to 2013 and featured Scharpling’s often-outraged (yet perennially forgiving) radio host persona and Wurster’s multitude of strange fictional callers. Many of the characters they created lived and worked in, or were otherwise involved with, the imaginary town of Newbridge, New Jersey. The Best of the Best Show, Numero Group’s 16-disc box set of phone calls featuring Scharpling & Wurster, is both the sort of product that might have been lampooned on The Best Show on WFMU as well as a great monument to their first, weird era together.

The humor of Scharpling & Wurster exists largely in the world of music and popular culture. Scharpling’s radio show (which was also increasingly popular online before and throughout the podcasting boom) was bookended by memorable riffs on ostentatious box sets. In 2000, an eight-disc collection from Hermann Nitsch received Scharpling’s inaugural “unfair record review” and, in 2013, Wurster (as Todd from CD Submarine) shared his ambitions for a dignity-restoring/vengeance-enacting box set during the “Count Rockula” call (included here on disc four). That they’ve now edited their oeuvre into a 75-call collection with numerous extra features is indicative of their knowingness about their place within the very sphere they’ve spent so many years teasing.

Another bit of reflexivity occurs in the way this set was made available for review, which was in the form of an abridged sampler (best of best of Best Show?) or in full as several gigabytes of digital files. Host Scharpling might take offense at such promotion. On the air, he was quick to solicit promotional copies of any and everything. He once punished real-life guest Harry Knowles by muting each reference to the book title Knowles was on the show to promote. The reason for the omission? Knowles’ father hadn’t sent Scharpling a promotional copy of the book in advance of the interview.

Yet the digital-only form preserves the essential attributes of Scharpling & Wurster’s DIY interactions. These are archives of phone calls, many of which were conducted in less-than-ideal conditions for recording quality, so there is no expectation for pristine mixing. And in their original form, the calls came with no visual accompaniment or other accessories beyond the story being told. That the calls are presented here in an uninterrupted fashion emphasizes Scharpling & Wurster’s commitment to taking risks on content and delivery.

Some tangents go on so long that the original purpose of the call is forgotten. Other times, what seem like tangents are brilliantly designed detours that eventually lead back to the subject at hand. And the giggling of Scharpling (and guests in the background, such as Paul F. Tompkins) is evidence of the spontaneity and verve of their interactions. They’re playing to each other as much as they’re playing to the listener.

Volumes could be written on the scope of their decade-plus of world-building, which has now recommenced in a slightly new form on The Best Show podcast/webcast. But it is possible to summarize the major threads of their storytelling. Perhaps the most significant theme of Scharpling & Wurster’s output is authority and its many variations.

From the beginning of the show on WFMU, Scharpling affected an attitude of dominance over his show, his listeners, and his station. Though not stubborn in his musical tastes, his character pointed out perceived slights, repeatedly saying, “How dare you!” to offending callers. He targeted message board trolls, became committed to “telling it like it is,” used sound effects to gleefully flush (and machine-gun) listeners off the air. He threatened to beat up teenage listeners, some of whom called the show for the express purpose of being subjected to the abuse, hoping to be recipient of Scharpling catchphrase “Get off my phone!” More than once, like an angry father he threatened to go upstairs and get his belt.

At the same time, Scharpling was subverting that very crotchety character. Though The Best Show was filled with references to anti-authoritarian punk and hardcore music, a guest with whom Scharpling had excellent rapport was Officer Tom, a real-life police officer whose forthrightness and attitude towards his job complemented Scharpling’s playfulness with the concept of authority figures. And over time, Scharpling’s offers to arrange fights between teenage callers turned into brilliant acts of conflict resolution, creating so much entertainment around the planning of a fight that the would-be combatants found common ground in the shared fun of the setup.

In 2001, the newly established “Scharpling’s Army”, a quasi-fan club, transformed into “Friends of Tom” because the realities of war and peace suddenly eclipsed the way comedy could poke fun at them. It would be an overstatement to say that Scharpling & Wurster’s ascension necessarily coincided with the need to alleviate the dread and heaviness that permeated media and life in a post-9/11 reality. But episodes that immediately followed that date made clear Scharpling’s intention to find some way to move into a new reality in a purposeful way, a way that involved laughter. History has continued to shape these episodes’ meaning. For example, a 9/25/01 phone call from Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse is as lighthearted as the man ever sounded, despite being just two weeks on from tragedy, and with plenty of his own bad times to come.

Bad things do happen in Newbridge. Horrible things. Many of the phone calls included in this collection end with threats of violence or as scenes of certain death. But Scharpling & Wurster reach for weirdness, not darkness, and the effect is a particular brand of popular-culture obsessed gallows humor. In putting together the box set, Scharpling & Wurster foreground weirdness as the mission. “Coconut Water”, the first track of the first disc, ends with Scharpling saying, “Trust me, it’s gonna get weirder.” At the end of “Darren Takes the Van Mellen Cruise” from disc nine, he reiterates, “It just gets weirder and weirder.”

Quick-witted Wurster is the vital other half. Though his characters are zany (often in the extreme), he also exercises a sort of control over the cascading weirdness. The Best Show is a clean show, and when Wurster’s language gets a little too blue for the program, host Scharpling reacts with audible disgust (as in “Lady Wanesworth’s Desires” from disc six) or simply tells him to ease up on his language. But for the most part, Wurster leads the way when he calls, and the host is left to react and follow him down whatever rabbit hole he’s created.

As a performer/conversationalist whose primary job in reality is as a musician, Wurster possesses a keen ear for language. He is verbose when the character demands, but often he’s at his best when employing his gift for recycling a few words as seams for discussion. When listening to this set, count the ways in which he uses “what”, “why” and “yeah.” They’re among the simplest words imaginable, but his timing and the overtones he finds within the words (particularly “what” and “why”) make the options seem boundless.

Concerning the narrative of Scharpling & Wurster, Wurster contributes another major variation on the concept of authority. Several of his characters are authorities in certain fields, regardless of whether they’ve earned the right to be considered as such. This is an ideal springboard for characters, as The Best Show exists within and skewers a popular culture landscape full of experts.

As the show was coming into being, and continuing throughout its run, discussions were taking place in the media regarding the effects of the internet on amassing and sharing knowledge. In 2000, The New York Times’ Lisa Guernsey wrote “Suddenly, Everybody's an Expert”, in which she asked the question, “who is evaluating the evaluators?” And in 2007, Laura Sydell of NPR contributed “On the Internet, Is Everyone an Expert?” for All Things Considered. Her story included an interview with Roger McNamee, who claimed, “Everyone is an expert at something, even if the only thing they’re an expert at is understanding what their friends like or don’t like.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Scharpling & Wurster had already beaten these thinkers to the punch. In 1997, they recorded “Rock, Rot & Rule,” one of their earliest collaborations and a call that planted the seeds for their continuing partnership. In the call (included here on disc one), Wurster plays Ronald Thomas Clontle, author of Rock, Rot & Rule, a book he repeatedly calls the “ultimate argument settler.” The premise for the book is that he has categorized rock and pop music acts into one of the three titular categories. Nirvana and Guided by Voices rock. Kansas and David Bowie rot. KISS and The Ramones rule.

When Scharpling presses Clontle for his evaluative criteria, the rules are hard to follow. Bruce Hornsby is said to rule but not rock because he doesn’t play the guitar. It is possible to rule without rocking, but it is not possible to rock without ruling. An artist like Bowie rots because he went through “too many changes”. Clontle has not heard the entire catalogues of these artists and feels no responsibility to do so, as he has come up with his ratings by talking with his friends in Lawrence, Kansas and Gainesville, Florida.

The character Clontle is the embodiment of the sort of expert McNamee describes, and he drives the WFMU listeners crazy. Though most of the Scharpling & Wurster material involves only their voices, the presence of angry responders in this call only deepens the call’s exploration of the subject of contemporary criticism. Clontle’s “ultimate argument settler” is in fact a strong catalyst for arguments. Some listeners reveal their own condescending attitudes towards Kansas and Florida, as if people from those places cannot have informed opinions. Finally, one caller directly disputes the claim that the book is “definitive”, thereby voicing the satirical function of the call.

Online experts and Best-Ever and Best-Of lists have proliferated to an absurd degree in the years since “Rock, Rot & Rule” debuted, ensuring the call’s relevance for years to come. And while the call does not fully introduce the formal template for future interactions, Scharpling & Wurster do use some details from the conversation to set up later jokes. The best of these is the declaration that Billy Joel is the artist who rots the most. Joel would go on to “win” WFMU’s Artist of the Year in 2001 and 2002 and become the source of much Best Show mirth.

The most direct torpedoing of know-it-all critics occurs on discs eight and nine. In “The Springsteen Book,” which runs nearly an hour, we’re treated to untold adventures of Bruce Springsteen. Wurster’s character is Steven Jennings, an author who has researched the singer’s life. His stories, many of which seem like proof of Springsteen’s irrational dedication to a working-class identity, take a turn toward the very end of the call when the true face of music historicity and interpretation reveals itself as being nowhere near as entertaining as the legend.

Then there’s “The Music Scholar,” a man who claims to have seen and/or known every legendary band in his youth and recounts his experiences with exceeding smugness. His first concert was the Beatles, but he shrugs them off as “ear candy.” As a preteen in 1968, he saw the Stooges and the MC5, both preferable to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. To reinforce his immersion in rock lore, he has a habit of referring to music figures by their birth names rather than their stage names. Richard Hell is Richard Meyers. Iggy Pop is Jim (Osterberg). Dee Dee Ramone is Doug (Colvin). Scharpling allows the jaded scholar to indulge in his memories, but the revelation of his present tastes proves to be a major reversal in the tenor of the call.

Other fringe characters join these experts and official opinion-makers, sharing their tendency to not let facts interfere with opinions. For these aspirational characters, saying something makes it so. On disc two, “The Gas Station Dogs”’ delusional Barry Dworkin (Wurster) asserts that Creedence Clearwater Revival “had no hits.” His rock 'n' roll dreams include a plan to assemble a band of precisely characterized figures, such as drummer Kid Thunder. Dworkin’s description of Kid Thunder is one of the most amusing utterances in the entire Scharpling & Wurster phonography: “This guy’s gotta have it all. And he’s gotta have the fusion chops of Terry Bozzio combined with Neil Peart. And he’s gotta combine that with the stripped-down thwack of Meg from the White Stripes. Okay?”

Some declarations cannot be confirmed or denied. The detailed description of events from disc two’s “Archie Bunker’s Place Finale” includes Archie having faced trial for committing murder and going to the electric chair. That the episode is said to have only aired once, against the M*A*S*H finale, creates the slight, very remote possibility that Wurster’s character might be telling the truth.

The Archie Bunker call includes numerous references to hardcore bands like Cause for Alarm and Agnostic Front. Hardcore music is a favorite reference for Wurster, who embellishes calls with acts from the genre, sometimes via characters who wouldn’t naturally warm to such music and in other cases, those like “Hardcore Dad” (disc seven), who misunderstand it entirely. For his part, Scharpling occasionally questions mentions of bands that seem out of place, relative to the story or character in discussion.

Perhaps the strangest and funniest call containing references to hardcore music is “Darren Takes the Van Mellen Cruise”. Darren, Scharpling’s co-worker at Newbridge’s Consolidated Cardboard, calls to gloat about winning a cruise vacation. But quickly he veers into a real-life anecdote about Harley Flanagan (formerly of Cro-Mags) and his alleged stabbing of current members of the band at Webster Hall. Wurster links this ripped-from-the-headlines violence with a fantastic tale about a fictional Golan-Globus production called Hardcore’s Eleven and a callback to the finale of Archie Bunker’s Place.

But the true reversal of the call is the revelation that Darren is on a Van Mellen Cruise, lorded over by Van Morrison and John Mellencamp, who are forced to smile and participate in the proceedings despite their naturally surly dispositions. The degree to which Darren tests their ability to keep up the pretense of fun, results in his being thrown overboard by Van Morrison. It's another in a long line of phone calls cut short by a threatened or imperiled Wurster character.

The structuring of the narratives justifies the countless allusions to popular culture figures. Scharpling & Wurster rarely include a reference for the sake of an easy joke. Their commitment to mining music and entertainment for humor creates vivid contrasts, absurdities, and continuing narratives that zigzag and turn in a way that could only have been the result of copious thought and discussion. Another call in the set (“Kidebay” from disc five) has as its premise the potential for pop culture trivialities to exhaust a person’s energy and cloud their priorities. It’s an hilarious exhibition of the lure of music and entertainment chit chat, even during dire conditions.

The Best of the Best Show achieves in miniature the effect of listening to years worth of the show in full. One gets acquainted with the mythology of Newbridge, with its factories, ridiculous stores, and local heroes. We succumb to the authoritative voices of people who seem to know so much about the icons of music and entertainment, even if their knowledge is thoroughly unfounded. Scharpling & Wurster isn’t escapist entertainment, but rather a comical alternative history of the culture that inspired the show. In short, listening to Scharpling & Wurster weirds the world.

It's not being able to drive past a Wawa without thinking of Philly Boy Roy. It’s watching the season five finale of The Walking Dead and picturing the Gorch as Daryl uses a chain to fight zombies. It’s finishing this write-up about The Best of the Best Show on National Barbershop Quartet Day and hearing the voice of Zachary Brimstead, Esq. ringing out in celebration.

In the '90s, '00s and '10s, there were other like-minded duos and double acts that paved the way or existed alongside Scharpling & Wurster. Hale and Pace, Bob and David, Adam and Joe, and Tim and Eric all come to mind. And while all of those acts were responsible for some classic comedic moments, none of their catalogues rivals the depth and breadth of what Scharpling & Wurster created in a series of phone calls, with limited technology, and limitless imagination.

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