Inside the Last Days of ‘The Best Show’ with Tom Scharpling
In October, Tom Scharpling announced that his long-running comedy/music radio show, The Best Show on WFMU, would be ending its run tonight after 13 years on the air. Since it began, two presidential administrations ago as Scharpling often reminds listeners, The Best Show has become a staple of the comedy world with people like Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Tim & Eric, and tons more having become regular guests and fans of the program, which was doing what podcasts do but better years before podcasts were even a thing. On top of the show being a nonstop parade of some of the biggest names in comedy, Scharpling taking calls from the show’s loyal listeners and resident weirdos is always a delight, and his pre-written phone calls with comedy partner Jon Wurster have been some of the funniest stuff going these last 13 years.
Everyone has had a couple months to deal with Best Show ending, and with its last episode, which airs on WFMU and streams online tonight at 9pm EST, it’s the end of an era in the comedy world as this colossally innovative and influential show, which sees its devoted fanbase continuing to grow, comes to an end.
I talked to Tom Scharpling on Friday about what it’s been like recording the final run of The Best Show, what’s next for him, and his favorite moments on the show from the last decade-plus.
When did you decide that you were going to end the show?
I decided at the beginning of the year that I wanted to end it because of all the circumstances around what it takes to do the show. But I didn’t want to announce it too early because I didn’t want to do some lame duck show all year where people all are talking about how this is the last year and then you kind of can’t do the show if that’s the case. I also wanted to have the year to see if I changed my mind and if it made sense to keep doing it. I didn’t announce it because I didn’t want to go back and forth and back and forth and say I’m leaving then change my mind at the last minute and then when I have to leave, then it becomes the “boy who cried wolf” thing. I just wanted to make sure that if it was happening, that it was happening, and I’d have a good chance to say goodbye. I wanted it to be a full year of Best Shows that had nothing to do with the end of the show.
After you announced it finally, did you waver at all? Was there even a tiny part of you that wanted to double back on it?
No, not at all. It took long enough to come to that point. If anything, there was more kind of restlessness with getting to this point where I could say it. I was getting very stressed out in the weeks coming to when I knew I would announce it. That was the most emotion I’ve felt – after I’d made the decision, kind of stressing out about finally saying it to everybody. Once I said it, it just felt like it happened and something you’ve been thinking about forever happens and then “Okay, now we move to the next portion of this. This is underway now.”
What was your goal going into those final shows?
To kinda just do some version of the show. I don’t want it to not be the show. I don’t want it to just be some strange kind of nostalgia thing going down the final episodes ’cause I coulda done that in one week. If I was gonna just do a show of remembrances, that could have been a one or two week thing. But I wanted to do real shows and try to do as many as I could before the inevitable remembrance stuff sets in. I would say the goal with those shows has been to try to capture as many types of Best Shows as there are – to get all the different varieties in, whether it’s just me talking to callers or me having some friends in studio or having long calls with Jon. Just sort of get to all the elements, to do them all before ending it.
Were you surprised at all by the fan reaction? What were you expecting before the announcement?
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect, but I’ve been blow away by it. It’s just exceeded anything I could have imagined. It’s really been something else, and I was not expecting that at all. People write on Twitter all the time. It’s really just mind-blowing, and I get emails everyday from people now telling me what the show meant to them. There’s some really heavy stories that people are telling me, and to know that the show has that kind of impact is just unbelievable.
Has it been tough to keep people from eulogizing the show and to keep it from being that kind of nostalgia thing on air?
How do I keep them from doing that? I hang up on them. It’s actually kind of simple. I can just end the call. It’s always been something I’ve had on my toolbelt is the tool of terminating a conversation when I’m ready to do it. But in all seriousness, I’m trying not to do that to those people because they’re telling me something that’s really meaningful to them. I think I’ve let almost everybody who wanted to say that they love the show and that they’re sad it’s going – I’ve let them say some version of it. But I do try to hurry it along also because that’s not a good show.
If it’s just a show of people saying, “I like the show,” then there’s no show. It’s almost like Jay-Z now. All his records are about how rich he is, and then it’s like, “Well, you didn’t make a record though. You’re only talking about the external part of the thing.” It’s almost like he should talk about how rich he is in interviews, and then his records should be about anything other than how rich he is. He’s getting rich by talking about how rich he is. Look, that’s a pretty good situation to get into, but also, I didn’t want the show to become some version of that where it’s just a show that’s just about the show and then it’s like, “Wait, there’s no show there. All it is is a show talking about this show that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.” That’s what I was striving for.
Can you talk at all about what you have planned for the final episode, or do you want to kind of keep it close to the vest?
I think I’m gonna keep it kinda a surprise for everybody. I’m interested to know what people think the final episode’s gonna be more than anything. I mean, what do you think it’s gonna be?
I imagine there’s probably gonna be a long call with Jon, kinda tying some things together, maybe some good in-studio guests and a sound collage.
I would love if Spike was able to come in, but I don’t think that would happen.
Who knows about that guy? That guy never ceases to disappoint me. He thinks he’s famous, which is the problem. He thinks that he’s so busy and his time is so precious that to come into the studio, it just isn’t going to happen. “I’m so busy, I’m so sorry.” Not that he doesn’t have anything going on; he has as much going on as anybody, but there’s time to do things. He broke my heart.
Aww. You mentioned on the air you’ve been trying to get him to come in via Facebook. To what extent have you gone with these last shows?
I emailed him a couple times and would always write on Facebook whenever he’d put some dumb thread about how Sound of Music Live is terrible, I would write something in it. “Answer my email.” “Answer my email.” But at a point, I was like, “I’m not gonna bait this guy.” The show will go on without him, and it’s one of those things that if he doesn’t want to be there, then he won’t be there. It’s fine.
Looking back at the last 13 years, do you have one or two favorite calls with Jon?
What are some of the favorite calls? You know, they get so blurry after a while. It’s amazing that that would be that hard for me to answer. I like when we did the Mayubanatorial debate in studio. It had so many different moving pieces, and he was so many different characters on it. That was great because that was such a huge, huge undertaking. I like any time that we’re just really having fun in the calls where he starts laughing and I start laughing. We don’t make a habit out of that, so when it happens, I think it adds another layer of things because we’re having a good time doing it. I mean, we’re always having a good time doing it, but it just comes down to it’s funny for us too now. It’s not just funny for the people we’re doing it for, hopefully. It’s funny for us in the moment. Working with Jon is such a gift. I like all the calls we did.
What about other moments besides the calls? Do you have other favorite things that happened on the show?
Let me think. I know it sounds like such a cop-out, but my head spins when I start to think of it. I start to get like, I’m gonna have a panic attack trying to think of a specific thing because it feels like a giant mountain of stuff. A lot of the Gary the Squirrel stuff to me is so much fun. It’s just so ridiculous just to have a puppet on the radio. The show has a Fonzie on it now, the guy who pops in and out and scores and then splits. The sound collages are great.
You know, one moment that always comes to mind is when Patton Oswalt first came into the studio. I could not believe that he wanted to come in. He’s like, “No, I’ll come in.” It meant so much to me as a person and a fan of comedy that this guy wants to come and be a part of my thing. It’s like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And he’s been such a champion of the show that I still can’t believe it sometimes. When he came in this last time and changed all of his travel plans to phyiscally be in the studio, I could cry. He’s got a family, he’s working on a million different things, but then he’s like, “I want to be in the studio for this. This is what it means to me.” That just levels me.
Are you and Jon gonna be working on anything else after The Best Show wraps up? I think I saw you mention that on Twitter.
Oh yeah. I’m finishing the show, and I’ve kind of put any future plans off until I finish this thing the right way. I feel like if I had something up my sleeve and then this was just some sort of vehicle to kind of tee up what the next thing is, that would cheapen what we actually made the last 13 years. It would just undercut it. It would make it as if this show was just a gateway to the next thing. It was never a means to anything else for me.
A lot of people do podcasts and these things, and they’re just a means to another thing where they’re just like, “How can I turn this into a TV show?” We did this show because this show was what was important to us. The only goal was to make every episode of the show as fun and funny and interesting and kinetic as possible. That was the goal. We never were thinking, “People hear this, then maybe they’ll want to turn these characters into a cartoon or something.” It was all about the show, and anything that would diminish that to me would be so unfair to what we’ve put all this work into and what all the listeners have dedicated themselves to. It’s just like, “Let’s end this thing the way it deserves to be ended and then I’ll figure out what the next thing is.” I do know I’m not done, at all. Jon’s not done at all. So individually and collectively, we’re not done. The thing that we are unfortunately done with is doing this show for free. It just does not sustain anymore and what that means for the future, I don’t know. We’re gonna figure something out. We’re gonna try to figure it out sooner than later, but I don’t know what that is right now.
I didn’t assume you had something up your sleeve you were gonna use this to tee off to. When I first heard the announcement, I just suspected maybe you had something else in the works because you’re stepping down.
No, I’ve been able to work on jobs and still do the radio show. The entire run of me being on Monk, I was doing all my responsibilities there and still doing the show. I just work on stuff all the time. There’s no job that’s making me end the radio show or thing that’s up my sleeve. It really is just about having the chance to move forward and have my hat in the ring with everybody else’s who can make money off of their ability. That’s all.
I think I’ve heard you talk about this before, but how did you and Jon first meet?
I was friends with the band Superchunk before Jon was in it. I was seeing them play. It was at a show, I believe, at The Ritz in New York. The bill was Superchunk, Pavement, and My Bloody Valentine. Mac [McCaughan] from Superchunk was like, “We have a new drummer. Have you met him yet?” I was like, “No,” so he introduced me to the new drummer Jon. Afterwards, we were all hanging out, and we started talking about comedy. We were talking about Get a Life, and all of the sudden, he liked Get a Life, which was a litmus test for both of us for other people.
I forget who mentioned it. We were just seeing how deep we could go — where the other person stops — and there was a mention of this guy who was a DJ on MTV called Smash. One summer, it was MTV clearly trying new DJs out. They had asked this guy who was clearly this old radio guy. He looked like a DJ. Like, DJs have the worst looks imaginable. This guy was not meant for television. I’m not saying he’s ugly, but he just looked like an older dude trying to look cool, still trying to be a rocker. It was one of the most ridiculous things watching this old guy be a DJ and being like, “What is he doing there?” Someone asked the other one, “Do you know this guy? Have you ever seen this?” It was like the holy grail for either of us to find someone who knew what we were talking about. We were both saying, ‘This other guy is on my level at a very deep level, that he thinks about this old DJ who was no place on MTV just eating it every time he went on camera.’ That was the first bonding moment.
How far ahead of The Best Show starting was this?
Oh, that was years before the show started. Then, he live in North Carolina; I was still in New Jersey. We would talk on the phone, and I started doing this music station shortly after that, and then, we were joking on the phone about Oprah Winfrey settling the lawsuit with the beef manufacturers ’cause she had said something that they considered libel or slander, whichever it was. She said, “Freedom not only rules; it rocks,” and we just started joking about that.” And then, we came up with the first call we did, which was “Rock, Rot & Rule.” We kind of had the chemistry down from joking around on the phone for years at this point. He did that call during my normal music show, which nobody expected ’cause it was a show where I played records and then talked and goofed around a little bit. There was never extended stuff like that, so that was the first thing we did in 1997.
It’s pretty cool that a lot of people still talk about that call. I feel like a lot of people’s first thing is not something that stands up with the rest of their work.
Yeah, that some version of it was formed — right out of the box, there was some version of it was successful. It’s like our first album or our first single hit, so yeah, it was kinda awesome because I would never have thought that, “16 years from now, you’ll still be doing this.” But here we are.
You mentioned Get a Life being a litmus test for you years ago. What are some comedies either on TV or recent movies that you enjoy?
I like Eagleheart a lot. The new season of Eagleheart is great. I worked on it for a week as a consultant, but I was just watching those guys more than anything. They’ve really done something so amazing this year. So ambitious. Every episode is like a standalone movie. And I really love The Eric Andre Show. It just kills me. It’s so funny. And it’s got such a good spirit. It’s got prank-y stuff in it, which is not always my favorite stuff, [but] I feel like he doesn’t punish people with his pranks. He makes himself the worst person in the show. I love that show.
Did you have a hand in choosing Dave Hill to take over your timeslot, or was that just the station picking him?
No, that was the station talking to him, and they agreed on that.
Do you plan on doing his show once it gets rolling?
Honestly, I have no idea. It has absolutely nothing to do with Dave Hill or anybody who would be doing that show. It’s just like, I’ve been at that place on and off since 1995. I need to just get my legs under me. I need to just take a step away from WFMU. Absolutely nothing personal about anything except for what I need for myself. It has nothing to do with the station or Dave or who’s hosting it or anything. I have some business I have to take care of that has been a long time coming.
And that would be up to Dave also. I can’t invite myself onto Dave’s show. I also don’t want him to — he needs to build what he’s gonna build. I almost feel like if the shadow of The Best Show‘s hanging over it, that’s almost gonna do him a disservice. He should do his own thing, and I know he will. He doesn’t need his thing to end up feeling like some hybrid thing where you’ve gotta still work with the elements of my show. I would hope he would just jump in headfirst and do his thing the way he would do it ’cause that’ll be the best version of his show, if he’s just owning it and making it all him. People will all listen if you kinda do your own thing. It takes a little bit of time for people to get up to speed, but then they do. When I first started my show, nobody was knocking the door down for it, but then it grows and they get into it and they get onboard. That’s all. It really is his, and I just hope he feels free to do whatever he’s gonna do. That’s all.
What’s the thing you’re gonna miss most about The Best Show?
I have really no idea, and hopefully, I miss none of it because I’m just figuring out some way to do a version of what we’ve been doing that makes me happy and can have a chance to make a little bit of money. I really don’t know. I’m not a sentimental person at all with stuff. I’m always looking forward, and I’m really looking forward now, seeing what 2014 is gonna be. I hope I miss none of it, really. Look, it was something that will never happen again in my life — not to mention at all.
It was really special, and I think it’ll always be special no matter what the next thing that we do is. But I’m the one that’s still gotta figure out what that next thing is; I don’t have time to just sit and stare at what happens. Its like, we’ll figure something out. I’ve always thought of it — at the risk of sounding jerky — it’s like, we are the show. It’s not the microphones or not that studio; that wasn’t the show. Wherever we are, that’s where the show is. That’s what I want to focus on: getting the next version of the show going, in whatever form it happens.