For the uninitiated, a box set is probably the least ideal place to do a dive into the work of any artist or band. And that might go double for anyone looking for an entry point into the comedic world of Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid The Best of The Best Show, the massive 16-disc set that Numero Group just released, compiling the best bits that these two wrote and performed as part of The Best Show On WFMU (and are continuing in the radio show’s current online version). If you fancy yourself an enthusiast of the current comedy boom that keeps delivering greatness in TV, podcast, and standup form, you need to familiarize yourself with the curious and often-screwy world that Scharpling and Wurster created over the course of 13 years.
Still, 16-discs and 20 hours of material (that isn’t even counting the extra bits tucked on to the USB drive that comes with the set) is a lot to consider. So, allow us to help ease you into this massive amount of greatness with our picks for the 10 best moments found on The Best of The Best Show.
Like some of the best calls that Scharpling and Wurster did over the years, this one from a 2007 episode of the show starts off pleasant enough but then builds and builds into something far more sinister and hilarious. The caller is the genial promoter of a music festival who slowly reveals the deep, dark underpinnings of a power pop scene under the thumb of one of the angriest and most dangerous music fans in the world, Power Pop Pop Pop or “Quad P.”
The framing device for this call is funny enough, with the titular delusional cretin relaying his ability to flip items and block other people from winning any auction he cares about. But after he falls down the stairs, breaking his legs (and conveniently landing his head on the phone), he and Scharpling engage in a silly, and almost entirely improvised, conversation about pop culture minutiae from the British pub rock scene to their favorite member of The Bangles.
Scharpling & Wurster tend to avoid a lot of comedy traditions, preferring to use their chosen platform of radio to spin their routines into unique directions. This bit from 2010, though, leans on the power of repetition, that unwritten rule that doing something over and over and over again can turn from funny to not funny to annoying and then back to funny. Here, all it takes is Wurster, in-studio and in character as recording engineer Rick Spangler, simply rattling off a list of things that suck.
While this call from 2001 requires your patience, the payoff is so fantastic. For the better part of this 30+ minute conversation, Wurster’s character Charles R. Martin talks up his acumen as a connoisseur of music: He saw and dismissed The Beatles at an early age, convinced Big Star to play the ‘73 rock writers convention, and spent some quality time with his buddy Doug at CBGB’s. Oh you know him as Dee Dee Ramone. I won’t spoil the big and hilarious turn that this call takes, but rest assured, it is priceless.
As a purveyor of pasta sauces and someone needlessly fanning the flames of his still beloved former band, Marky Ramone has become a bit of a parody on his own. But through the skein of Scharpling and Wurster’s comedic minds, he becomes even more ridiculous as they lay out the current career path of this punk rocker: as a writer of erotic fiction. Wurster simply ups the ante by reading a segment from his latest tome Lady Wanesworth’s Desires in a thick Noo Yawk accent and revealing that the young stable boy in the story bears a striking resemblance to a certain shaggy-haired, Converse-wearing drummer.
An unplanned moment on a 2005 edition of the show turned into one of its greatest moments. A young music nerd calls up to do a little book report about Aerosmith, leading both Tom and Jon to wind the kid up in the best way. Scharpling plays dumb, pretending not to know any details about the band, and Wurster calls up, pretending to be Jimmy Crespo, the guitarist who took over for Joe Perry in 1979. The apoplectic responses from young Mac alone (“I ain’t on cocaine! I’m 13 years old!”) are worth the price of admission.
This is one of the greatest ideas that Scharpling and Wurster ever cooked up. Roland “The Gorch” Gorchnick, the supposed inspiration for Fonzie from Happy Days, calls up the show to promote his new book, The Real-Life Fonzie’s Guide To Real Life. Sure enough, things go completely off the rails with The Gorch turning out to be the worst kind of greaser (the kind that loves chain fights and dropping cars on people) and getting so incensed with Tom that, like many fake callers to the show, he threatens to murder the radio show host.
This segment from an August 2008 episode of the show features a tour de force performance by Wurster. For weeks, his many characters, from two-inch tall racist Timmy Von Trimble and former Ramones drummer Marky Ramone to eventual winner Philly Boy Roy Ziegler, announced their candidacy for mayor of fictional Newbridge, New Jersey. So, during a rare in-studio appearance, Wurster, Scharpling and associate producer Mike Lisk (also in the running) staged an on-air debate. The brunt of the work fell on the shoulders of Wurster who giddily bounced between characters and slowly devolving the whole affair into pure chaos.
2. Mother 13’s Mount Everest Adventure
CORRECTION: The Mother 13 call is an all time classic, but it’s not actually included on Numero Group’s box set. Sorry. We goofed.
Another slightly ambitious concept that spread out over two weeks of shows begins with Corey Harris, the leader of middling, desperate for stardom alt rockers Mother 13, boldly announcing his band’s plan to scale Mount Everest to stage a concert, with special guests like The Polyphonic Spree, Travis Barker and Clarence Clemons in tow. His initial boasting gives way to a follow-up call that relays the horrible fate that befell virtually everyone that attempted the climb. Rest peacefully in your blues igloo, Buddy Guy.
It feels a little strange to put the first thing that Scharpling and Wurster did together in the top spot, considering how much stronger their material and creative relationship became over the years. Still, this provides the template for so many of Wurster’s other characters, the type of people who hold strongly to one paper thin principle no matter what the consequence. For Ronald Thomas Clontle, it was simply getting many angry people calling him and berating him for his narrow perceptions of an artist’s work through his simple, “Rock, rot, or rule” rubric.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.