On some level, it doesn’t seem possible that The Best Show could spawn a comprehensive box set. It doesn’t lend itself to easy organization or whittling. Each episode is a chaotic three hours of shambling stories that often veer into rants, phone calls from fervent fans, debates with guest comedians and musicians, and, of course, visits from fictional characters. There’s also 13 years worth of archives to parse in deciding which gems should be considered for inclusion. If Tom Scharpling has been able to play ringmaster to this sprawling audio circus for so long, though, all while maintaining an eclectic career beyond the show, anything is possible.
In its current form, The Best Show exists as a weekly live Internet stream and a podcast, but for years it was a terrestrial radio program on Jersey City’s WFMU that Scharpling put on with the help of creative partner Jon Wurster. The two met in the late ’90s and bonded over shared sensibilities in music and comedy. (Wurster is the drummer in several bands, including Superchunk and The Mountain Goats.) Their very first collaboration proved how potent the two were as a team, and set the tone for what was to come. Wurster called into the music show Scharpling hosted at the time and posed as the author of a book called Rock, Rot, and Rule, a supposed argument-settler that sorts all bands into the titular categories. Other callers to the show were not amused, unaware that they were being trolled, which helped create multi-level comedy for the listeners who were aware. After The Best Show began in earnest, the pair continued planting similar calls in each episode, cultivating a vast galaxy of characters in the process–the residents of made-up town, Newbridge–along with one of the more loyal audiences in modern fandom. (Some of the most ardent admirers are comedians, including Seth Meyers, who recently had Scharpling and Wurster on his show to talk about the newly released box set.)
The experimental nature of The Best Show makes sense in the context of a career marked by creative restlessness. Aside from hosting the show, Scharpling has kept busy writing for TV, directing music videos, working on pilots with the likes of Chris Gethard and Paul F. Tompkins, and other projects. As the Best of the Best Show set hits stores, Scharpling talked to Co.Create about his constantly evolving career and why the worst thing you can do is get complacent.
Before Tom Scharpling wrote comedy professionally, he started out writing anything he could. When he discovered he was able to get published in basketball magazines, he started to wonder what else might be able to do.
“I wanted to write for movies or TV, probably more movies in the beginning. I was writing comedy things that didn’t have any particular destination. Just really trying to figure out some kind of voice,” Scharpling says. “I started writing for a few different basketball magazines—Slam Magazine, Inside Stuff Magazine, and Hoop Magazine. It helped me realize that I could get paid to do this on some level, just doing some kind of writing. As time went on, the pieces would get larger, but at first it was just about getting in the door any way at all. I had a full-time job and having some sort of thing that spoke to this place I wanted to get to, even a hundred dollars at a time, was like, ‘Okay, at least I’m in the mix with this.’”
Only after a burgeoning comedy movement inspired him did Scharpling make good on a long-brewing plan to start a radio show that was not strictly about music.
“After we did Rock, Rot, and Rule, I thought, ‘What if we did that type of call every week and that became the focus of the show?’” Scharpling says. “I stopped doing the music show because I needed to clear space in my life to be able to focus on writing and give that the attention I needed to give it. So I said goodbye to the station. But in the two years between stopping that show and then starting The Best Show, there was just so much comedy in New York that was really exciting. I’d go to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and watch them do their show, and they were doing exactly what they wanted to do, how they wanted to do it. I wanted that too, and that’s why I went back to radio.”
Meanwhile, Scharpling’s writing career was also developing. He’d begun writing funny promos for MTV and working as an assistant to former SNL and Letterman writer Andy Breckman a couple days a week. Acting as Breckman’s sounding board proved to be a stealth audition for Scharpling’s capabilities as a writer. When Breckman sold his show Monk to the USA network, Scharpling found himself on staff as a writer. It was a big change, and the more comfortable he got with it, the less comfortable he wanted to be.
“It really was the kind of thing that I just jumped head first into,” he says. “I was trying to give it everything I had and just do what I could. There was never a moment where I felt like I fully had the hang of it, though, and that was a good thing. I think if you’re trying to do anything right in a creative field and you feel like you’ve got this figured out, that’s probably he time to kinda shake things up. If you’ve got it figured out, the audience is gonna have it figured out too and then they’re gonna be done with it. They’ve gotten their fill of it and they’ll never come back. Once they feel like they know what the show’s gonna do as much as you know what you’re gonna do, then you’re just cooked. Why watch anything that’s predictable like that? When you add new elements, it gives the show a sense of going into the unknown and if you don’t know what’s gonna happen, neither does the audience. It becomes exciting. There’s no substitute for it.”
The entire eight years that Monk was on air, Scharpling did dual duty working on The Best Show. Some of the weekly on-air calls between he and Jon Wurster were off-the-cuff affairs forged on the strength of the pair’s chemistry; others were carefully scripted out. Rather than a burden, however, The Best Show prep was a creative outlet that helped Scharpling do better at both jobs.
“When you work on a TV show, there’s like a hundred people also working on it and you’re one voice out of a hundred,” he says. “And then to go from that atmosphere, to go do a show where the only voices that matter are mine and John’s was very liberating. It’s great to just have your own thing when you’re working on something that’s so collaborative, like TV. I’ve got my thing, I know I can be heard somewhere. Knowing that made me feel less tortured over trying to make sure every one of my ideas got on Monk.”
After years of working in a visual medium on a writing and production side, Scharpling decided to get behind the camera and direct music videos, synthesizing both the comedy side and musical elements of The Best Show.
“Directing music videos probably came from just wanting to have ideas that I would have all come to fruition exactly how I saw, from beginning to end,” Scharpling says. “So that’s where it started and then as its gone on, I’ve gotten much more enthusiastic about directing as its own skill and art form or whatever you want to call it. There’s something very exciting about it. I don’t know what I’m doing, I didn’t go to film school, but I think I know what looks good and what’s funny when I see things that are funny, so I should be able to make things that are funny and just trust my instincts on it—without any kind of safety net. On some level, I’m learning on the fly. So yeah it’s very scary if you think about it but I guess I try not to think about it.”
The most consistent thing in Scharpling’s life over the last 15 years has been The Best Show, and even that has been through momentous changes. Before the recent shift away from radio and WFMU, and into a purely podcast space, The Best Show went dark in 2010. Doing so only reaffirmed why Scharpling created the show in the first place.
“Walking away from the show for a while was really me trying to figure out whether I wanted to do this anymore or not,” Scharpling says. “In 2013, I knew I would like to keep doing this but doing it at WFMU was unfortunately not an option anymore. [Ed. note: For a fuller account of why the terrestrial version ended, see here.] But in 2010, things were very different things. At that point, it was just like, ‘I don’t know what I want to do here, and if I don’t know, do I want to keep doing this thing?’ But I thought about it a lot, and the pros outweighed the cons. So then I made some adjustments in terms of just how I thought about things personally, and then it made more sense again. I cut myself some slack on stuff. It’s very easy for me to create a sense of obligation that I’m locked into, that nobody else is actually putting on me but myself. So I had to identify that. I’m the one putting more pressure on myself than anybody by far so I just have to recognize that and if I don’t like it, I don’t do it to myself anymore.”