mike lisk

A Tribute to the Best Show on WFMU

Sunrise doesn’t last all morning
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day
Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning
Its not always going to be this grey

All things must pass
All things must pass away
-George Harrison

There is a song that is sung on the Jewish holiday of Passover called “Dayeinu” which translates from Hebrew to mean “It would have been enough.”  As the song goes on it  enumerates all the things that God did that the people are grateful for.  Any ONE of those things, taken individually, would have been enough, but God kept providing miracles to the people.  If God had only just let the Jewish people out of Egypt-dayeinu.  If God had created the sabbath day-dayeinu.  After last night’s announcement that the Best Show on WFMU would be ending on December 17th, after the initial feelings of shock and sadness, I thought to myself about Tom Scharpling and his collaborators accomplishments and thought “dayeinu.”

Scharpling, the New Jersey based talk show host who created the Best Show and has written and hosted it for 13 years, has created that rarest of beasts, a truly original comic vision.  The Best Show, on a weekly basis, lives up to its name providing a showcase for “mirth, music and mayhem.”  The Best Show frequently defies conventional description.  Its not just the most bizarre radio call-in show you’ve ever heard, or a phenomenal music showcase, or interview show, its also an ongoing comedy narrative that rivals (and surpasses) the likes of Lake Woebegone or Nightvale.  

Scharpling and comedy partner Jon Wurster (drummer of Superchunk and the Mountain Goats) have populated the fictional town of Newbridge with a cast of characters to rival the likes of the Simpsons’ Springfield or Parks & Rec’s Pawnee, Indiana.  A deep bench of two-inch racists, punk thrashers, former reality show contestants, talking dogs, chain wielding greasers, corporate stooges and one very confused resident of Philadelphia.  The calls from Newbridge are always a show highlight and both men use the long form of three hours to grow and develop characters, to slowly build jokes and reversals to a fever pitch and then unleash them on the ears of grateful listeners. Its not just straight conversations either.  Scharpling and Wurster are always looking for new means of innovating the form.  At one point they showcased nearly a dozen characters at once during the Newbridge Mayubanatorial debates, an election wherein callers could vote to determine who would be the new Mayor of Newbridge.  Newbridge calls are always funny, fascinating and pushing the envelope in a variety of ways.  Creating Newbridge, dayeinu.

Calls from Newbridge alone would make the Best Show a can’t miss proposition, but as often the case, fiction has nothing on real life.  The Best Show has, over the years, cultivated an audience of loyal (if periodically demented and incomprehensible) group of callers to alternatively torment and delight Tom.  Regular listeners quickly learn to love (and hate to love) regular callers like Spike, Laurie from Miami, Pastor Josh, Larry Da Perv, Dave from Knoxville, Jason from Huntsville, Fredericks, Wally Wackiman (a puppet), Auntie Laurie, the Jelloman and many more.  This group of oddballs and outcasts further developed the feeling of a community around the show, a feeling in no small part fostered by Tom, who, while he can get impatient or frustrated by the callers, ultimately cares for them and their well-being very deeply. The regular callers, dayeinu.

Scharpling has forgotten more about music than most critics and scholars could know in a lifetime and listening to the Best Show for the first time is a crash course in prog, punk, classic rock, disco or whatever Tom feels like playing or talking about.  A huge chunk of my music collection has been influenced by the Best Show which serves as a showcase for artists like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, AC Newman and the New Pornographers, Kurt Vile, Monster Magnet, Thee Oh Sees, the Ettes, Death Cab for Cutie, Damian Abraham of F****d Up, the Reigning Sound, Ty Segall and countless others.  Tom has talked about artists as varied as Ghostface Killah to the Byrds.  He can wax rhapsodic about the transition from Ziggy Stardust to Suffragette City or get deeply into the groove on Emerson Lake and Palmer.  Tom always comes back from concerts, conferences and music festivals with amazing stories.  On a personal note I want to have the song “Ram On” from Paul McCartney’s Ram played at my upcoming nuptials because Tom introduced me to it on the show as a song that can bring him to tears.  Loving music, dayeinu.

The show touts not only music, but mirth as part of its mission statement and in addition to being hilarious and absolutely riveting on the mic (you’d have to be go three straight hours a week for 13 years) Tom is deeply entrenched in the alternative comedy scene.  Though his on-air persona might deny it, Tom is much respected and has a huge following not only amongst musicians but comedians as well.  John Hodgeman, Patton Oswalt, Julie Klausner, Jake Foglenest, Chris Gethard, Kurt Braunholer, Todd Barry, Andy Kindler, Marc Maron, Jon Daly, Tim & Eric, Paul F. Tompkins, Aziz Ansari, Chris Elliot, Jason Woliner, Wyatt Cenac, Matt Walsh, Jen Kirkman and many more have either made appearances in studio or regularly call in.  As much as the show has a foot in the world of music, its other foot is deep into comedy.  Tom may whine and moan about “podtrash” honing in on his territory but the Best Show has always served as a home for new and exciting comedy voices.  Its not just comedy either, Tom finds a variety of writers like Matt Fraction (whose twitter feed initially hipped me to the show), directors, artists and authors that Tom is actually interested in, not just people making the rounds plugging their latest product. Comedy showcase, dayeinu.

I talked a little about the spirit of community fostered by the show’s regular callers but there is no bigger booster of the show than Tom himself. When public funded radio shows or podcasts have telethons to raise money it can be a drag or bore but not with Tom at the helm.  During WFMU’s pledge drive Tom and his cohorts (like Associate Producer Mike Lisk-himself a vital part of the program) turn the proceedings into a vital battle between heroes and chumps.  Its little wonder that the Best Show is consistently the biggest fundraiser.  Tom puts other hosts to shame with his rallying cries, personalized thanks, special guests, gifts and amazing broadcast acumen.  When the call screeners, guests and Tom join in song at the end of a night’s telethon it is as pure an expression of joy and relief as you’re likely to ever hear on the radio.  For all his bluster and on-air curmudgeonly behavior, Tom cares.  Tom cares, dayeinu.

Sometimes, in character, Tom will grouse about how the show is unappreciated.  That he was a “dollar-menu Dickens” entertaining “the lunch pail crowd.” He bemoans how the show is not appreciated in its time and only years after the show was gone that people would see “how deep the iceberg of the thing goes.”  Tom is absolutely correct in this assertion. I haven’t even touched on show favorites like Gary the squirrel (and his various spin-off shows within the show), the regular caller ban, the on-air dinner date, the protege contest, the sound collages, his feuds with the likes of Mickey Dolenz and Chuck Woolery and so much more.  “Hey Mike, beat feet!”, dayeinu.  For the adventurous and curious there will always be WFMU’s archive of thirteen years of extraordinary broadcasting.  I am indebted to Tom and his cohorts for this body of work that has brought so much joy.  “You just got James’ed”, dayeinu.  It got me through long nights of grad school, bad relationships and late night drives home from work.  I was proud to contribute to the show during the telethons (and treasure my Best Show cards, DVD and other special swag).  All things must pass.  I am sad but oh so grateful that I got to ride on this train for as long as it lasted.  Thank you Jon, thank you Mike, thank you Tom.  Goodnight Best Show, dayeinu.

“Tuesday has become Wednesday and I don’t want to go, but I gotta go.”-Tom Scharpling