Critic's Notebook

Newbridge Calling: Scharpling & Wurster's 'The Best Show' celebrated

A conversation with Scharpling & Wurster

The fictional town of Newbridge, N.J., is the setting of "The Best Show," hosted by Tom Scharpling and featuring Jon Wurster, who together with an ampersand form the occasional comedy team Scharpling & Wurster.

The show, which aired from 2000 to 2013 on the oddball Jersey City, N.J., public radio station WFMU, since 2014 has run as a podcast, streaming live every Tuesday from 9 p.m. to midnight ET; before the Internet made it widely available, its fame was spread by shared cassette tapes and self-released CDs. Now its radio years have been memorialized in a 16-CD set, with deluxe accoutrements, "Scharpling & Wurster: The Best of the Best Show" (Numero Group), an event the pair are celebrating with selected personal appearances. They are in Los Angeles tonight, Sunday, for two shows at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater.

"The Best Show" exists suspended between two worlds. In the actual world, the one you live in, where Scharpling talks about real things and speaks with varying degrees of (im)patience with real-world callers ("the usual riff-raff") and celebrity guests, recently including Kristen Schaal, Ellie Kemper and John Oliver. And then Wurster will call, in one guise or another, and we are off to Newbridge.

When not making "The Best Show," Scharpling produced and wrote for "Monk" and has contributed to Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker's Adult Swim series "Tom Goes to the Mayor"; Wurster is also the drummer in Superchunk and the Mountain Goats. Music brought them together -- they met in New York in 1992, when Superchunk opened for My Bloody Valentine, but a shared love of comedy -- beginning with the Chris Elliott sitcom "Get a Life" -- cemented the relationship.

Newbridge was created to hold their growing company of characters, allowing a fictional proximity that adds reality and depth. (Not all live in Newbridge, but they all are part of Newbridge.) These include "The Gorch," the supposed real-life model for the Fonz; barbershop quartet enthusiast Zachary Brimstead, Esq.; low-budget filmmaker Trent L. Strauss; 2-inch tall racist Timmy von Trimble; Deadhead Bryce Prefontaine; Philly Boy Roy, of Philadelphia; TV executive Matthew Tompkins; and Rock Star in His Mind Barry Dworkin. (Other characters are not so much created as re-created -- Wurster also plays Gene Simmons and Marky Ramone -- music, from their very first call, the underground reputation-making "Rock, Rot & Rule," is a common thread, a motif, a theme.)

The town itself has its own stores, nightclubs, bands, politicians, history and culture. Last November, Scharpling and Wurster gave it a face, too, with the Adult Swim "Infomerical," "The Newbridge Tourism Board Presents: "We're Newbridge, We're Comin' to Get Ya!," in which Wurster appears in a variety of wigs and mustaches and Scharpling appears without them.

I spoke recently to them both -- by telephone, appropriately.

What did radio mean to you as a kid?

Tom Scharpling: I guess the earliest thing I listened to was Don Imus toward the end of his run on WNBC, and then Howard Stern was an influence, hearing him afternoons on WNBC and then he started on KROQ. And then also a lot of just straight up rock radio, like WNEW and WPLJ, then the weirdness of college radio. I guess WFMU would have been like the apex of that; there was so much weird stuff going on on WFMU that was close to comedy --  the concept of bad records that Irwin Chusid championed, he did so much of the legwork on that.

Jon Wurster: Those were great; those were big I think for both of us.

Scharpling: It's funny to think of now, but hearing William Shatner do "Mr. Tambourine Man" or something like that --you could not believe this stuff existed. And there were shows on WFMU that really researched it and chased after those things and brought them to people.

Before pop radio was totally formatted and corporate, you had a sense of every local station being its own little mythological kingdom, with a cast of characters, which is something I get from "The Best Show."

Scharpling: You want to know what's going on in the clubhouse. Whether it's Marvel Comics talking about their Marvel Bullpen or with record labels where you just stare at the PO Box of SST and wonder what's going on there, or the way SubPop would do things where they had a Single of the Month Club -- it seems like there's a place attached to these things as much as a product is. And that's always been appealing to me, the larger thing you want to be a part of, all the way in. Radio is such a strange medium. With TV, you have to watch it, it locks you into the chair. Radio, for us to be able to take 45 minutes to do a routine and then people fit that call to their lives -- they can be anywhere, doing whatever -- I think it just makes [it] that they kind of know us, in a way.

Did you have your eyes set on comedy from a young age or did you just back into it?

Wurster: Totally backed into it. I always liked comedy when I was a kid. I used to take baths and my brother would drag in this phonograph, like the one-piece phonograph and just set it up next to my tub and play me Bill Cosby records -- this was in like in 1970 or something. So not too dangerous right? I just kind of backed in in the easiest, most painless way. In terms of what Tom and I do, we were able to do it so organically and so unnoticed, in a way, that we were able to really build -- I hate to use this word -- our chops.

Scharpling: The two things I've always been interested in are music and comedy and pretty early on I realized that me making music was not going to be an option, so I think I became a fan of music. Strangely enough, starting a radio show that concentrated on music switched into a place where I could focus on the comedy side of things.

The musical references can be pretty obscure -- it's like an alternate planet on which everyone knows who Shonen Knife and the Minutemen are.

Wurster: We did a call called "Kid EBay," which I think is on our second CD, and that has a ton of music references -- it's my mom's favorite call of ours, and one of the reasons she loves it is because she doesn't know of any of those bands and she just thinks it's hilarious that we talk about these groups that in her world no one has ever heard of.

Scharpling: It's like when you were a kid and you'd watch Bugs Bunny and there'd be references to things that meant something from the '40s or '50s -- I didn't know what those things were, but it was still funny, they clearly meant something to Bugs Bunny to make fun of them. It's like what Jon said about his mother -- even if she doesn't who these bands are we can kind of tap into the enthusiasm of things, and that's the way in. We both watch a lot of British comedy, and I don't know every reference -- like [Steve Coogan character] Alan Partridge mentions Bill Oddie, and I have to go learn who that was. But the intent was clear -- I knew who Bill Oddie was in the world by the way he referenced him. [He was in the comedy group the Goodies.] You can get jokes even if you're not at home staring at your Minutemen albums while you listen to the show.

Are these characters based on people you've encountered in the real world? 

Wurster: I think they're all kind of partly based on someone or something we've come into contact with. There's an early call that we did called "The Music Scholar," and it was just the guy who was the insufferable music store clerk and kind of knew about everything and was really pompous; he's not based on one particular guy, but the idea came from a guy that I knew in Chapel Hill who went to high school in Detroit in the late '60s, and amazingly the bands that played one of his dances were the Stooges and the MC5. And that was kind of the initial kernel to that idea -- a guy that saw that and thought already that that was kind of lame. And we kind of built that up. We've always put something at each character’s core that's somewhat real.

Many of them seem quite real to me -- like Barry Dworkin and the song he's worked on for 19 years for an hour every day, "Rock & Roll Dreams'll Come Through," which he's aggressively certain will be a hit and make his own career, and which is so terrible and so sincere without sounding like a parody -- it's exactly the song that person would write, and I've met that guy.

Wurster: Yeah, totally. Tom and I never actually discussed this, but when you were describing him just now I flashed back to 1984 and I was standing outside of the Tower Theater in Philadelphia in front of R.E.M.'s bus, and it was me and this other guy that now as I remember really looked like Barry Dworkin. He was an older guy and he was waiting to give R.E.M., I think he had a cassette or he had lyrics. And maybe subconsciously that guy is Barry Dworkin. But there are a lot of people like that out there who just have that idea and they get obsessed about it; and it's really weird and probably misguided, but they follow through on some level.

It's impressive how genuine these conversation can seem. Jon sits way inside his characters and Tom seems to be hearing what they sat for the first time -- his astonishment feels real.

Scharpling: I have to believe in it. If I act above it or mock it, there's almost nowhere to go with it in a way; I'm the one puncturing the balloon before anybody else could, even. I just want to support the character. Early on, at the very beginning of the show, I would be a little more mocking of [Jon's characters] when they would call, almost like, "Can you believe this guy?" -- assuming I was talking for the audience. But there's no reason to do that; everybody wants to hear the funny part, they don't need me undercutting it.

Some of Jon's characters remind me of people you'd hear calling in local late-night radio phone-in shows; you had a sense of them out there in the dark, looking for someone to talk to. It can be kind of poignant.

Wurster: I think that's there. Tom and I meet people all the time who say, "You know, the show has really helped me get through tough times. So I think there's an element of that from the listeners also. It helps me, too, being able to work on these calls. I think it goes both ways.

What is the attraction between musicians and comics? Is it that they have the same experience of bad dressing rooms and hotels?

Wurster: When Superchunk was really touring a lot in the '90s, we were playing music every night, so [in the van] we'd just listen to comedy tapes and whatever. Every band would have different things they'd discovered and pass them around. We were always coming up against something incredibly ridiculous every day on the road, some new weird person or incident, and you have to be able to see the humor in everything. And that's how we got our stuff out early on, too -- we'd make tapes and give them to bands -- "Rock, Rot & Rule," "Conventions, Inc." That's how we got that out there. They go hand in hand, somehow, music and comedy.

Were you the funny guy in the tour van?

Wurster: No, I don't think I've ever been that, I've never been the outgoing funny guy. That's why the radio thing is perfect because I don't have to be seen. I was always reading something or listening to a "Celebrities at Their Worst" CD. That was probably my main listening for a lot of those years.

Scharpling: The funny person probably isn't funny anyway right?

Wurster: No, I think the funny person is probably annoying.

There are so many pop cultural references in your exchanges -- do you have heads that are crammed with old movie and TV trivia? The names of game show hosts?

Wurster: Tom and I always joke that our teenage years spent reading Creem magazine has finally paid off. That stuff will never leave our brains, I don't think, so we're fortunate we found a place to put it all.

Scharpling: I guess it's just a lifetime of being fans of TV and movies and music and just accumulating just the dumbest database of names that don't help you in any way in life, and finally we've found a way to have them help us in life -- to be able to talk about whoever, to talk about Bobby Blotzer from Ratt -- you see that name on an album cover in 1985 and you think it's funny. And then, unlike everyone else, we didn't stop talking about it. And then it just paid off. For a lot of people maybe the first time they've thought about it in 15 years is when we say it and we awaken a memory of a name they haven't heard in forever.

Robert Lloyd tweets like a novelty bird call @LATImesTVLloyd

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