Scharpling & Wurster Talk 15 Years of Trolling Rock Geeks With 'Best Show' Box Set

Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR
Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster.

While rock stars been subject to endless parody ever since Elvis Presley stepped in front of a TV camera, fewer barbs and smirks are directed toward an equally deserving target: The obsessive fans who pore over rock history with the pedantic fervor of a career academic.

Thankfully, Tom Scharpling and Superchunk drummer Jon came along to combat that inequity via The Best Show, which debuted as a WFMU radio show in 2000 and morphed into an online-only entity in 2014.

In case you're unfamiliar, the bulk of Best Show's comedy comes from seamlessly executed faux interviews between Scharpling, the host, and Wurster, with the latter playing an assortment of recurring characters. Some characters are believable (there's the blustering Philly Boy Roy), others are more ridiculous (Timmy von Trimble, a two-inch racist, comes to mind), and a few are absurdist impressions of real-life rockers (Wurster's take on Marky Ramone as an erotica author is inspired).

Without tipping too far into broad parody, the duo skewers everything from Bruce Springsteen biographers to Billy Joel tribute band leaders to cynical Gen X-ers who think everything sucks.

It's niche comedy, for sure -- while rock music obsessives are a familiar target on Best Show, Scharpling & Wurster's humor requires a healthy familiarly with the subject material to even get the joke. (Plus, it's a testament to the subtlety of their execution that more than one listener has called in to argue with Wurster while he's in-character.)

Which probably explains why it took more than a decade for Best Show to develop something approaching a sizable cult audience. But now, 16 years after Best Show's start, Scharpling & Wurster are getting an honor some rock bands can't even claim: A 16-disc retrospective box set. Featuring more than 20 hours of their best calls (plus temporary tattoos, paper dolls of characters and essays from Patton Oswalt, Julie Klausner and Fucked Up's Damian Abraham), it's a mammoth tribute to the most idiosyncratic, underappreciated comedic duo of the 21st century.

With the box set out now, Billboard got on the phone with Scharpling and Wurster to learn how closely they script each call, where their characters come from, and how Scharpling managed to humiliate himself in front of Patti Smith during his own fanboy encounter. 

Congratulations on the box set. Sixteen discs, that's like a Miles Davis box set.

Jon Wurster: I know, what is this, a Blue Note jazz box? It was quite an endeavor. Suffice it to say, we both hate the sound of our voices after listening to every track. Once we do these calls we forget about them. It's on to the next one, week after week. So we forget about them unless someone comes up to us and reminds us about a call they liked. Luckily we have a guy, Omar, who is kind of The Best Show archivist. When the box set idea came up, we messaged him and said, "Can you put together a list of what you think are the best calls?" So he did that and then we found mp3s of these calls, tracked down the original source tapes, and listened to calls from what felt like May to August [2014]. And then we picked the ones that we thought were crucial, that we liked, or maybe we didn't love but we know people like. And that's how it all came together.

A lot of your comedy is based off of apocryphal stories about rock stars. Do you ever hear back from any of them, or people who know them, about the fake stories?

JW: The only…There's the call on the box set where Tom thinks he's calling the author of a Bruce Springsteen book, and I'm posing as the author, making up all of this stuff about Springsteen. Just giving him an incredibly ridiculous onslaught of weird facts.

Like the story about Springsteen wanting to be a stock boy.

JW: Yes! He's terrified of going broke so he's always looking for part-time work when he's off the road as a stock boy. The fictional Bruce Springsteen fanzine Backstreets -- which is oddly based here in Chapel Hill, NC -- I sent a link to the guy that puts it out. He loved it but I got the impression that the diehard Bruce fans didn't see the humor in it. I can't imagine Bruce has seen it, but I'd like to think he would think it funny.

One time I did Marky Ramone live opening for Yo La Tengo at Maxwell's, and someone put a video up of it. This was about 4, 5 years ago. He saw it, I guess, and he might have appreciated the humor, but he asked that the next time I did it to bill it as a Marky Ramone impersonator. [laughs] Make it clear it's not the real thing.

You guys have been doing this a while. What compelled you to start making up these stories about rock stars and fictitious people?

JW: We got into it purely to amuse ourselves. Our first call was the Rock, Rot and Rule call. We had no idea if anybody would be listening, and luckily people called in that night thinking it was real. And they argued why I was an idiot for having this book about who rocks, who rots and who rules. To this day, it's always been to amuse ourselves. We do the calls in a vacuum – there's no audience except each other, so there's no laughter or immediate response that most comedians would get when they perform. It's a weird situation, but when we're done, we know if it was good or not. We'll IM each other saying, "That was really great, that was really funny."

Do you ever IM during sketches?

JW: Rarely. I'm sure we have in the past, but not in years. We usually have them pretty well mapped out and scripted at this point, so there's not a ton of room for changes. We'll improv though, because it's fun to go outside of the lines every now and then.

So how tightly scripted are the calls?

JW: Very scripted. Ninety percent scripted. We will usually come up with an idea, something we've seen or experienced that has bothered us. And then we'll come up with an idea that can utilize that annoyance and make a call out of it. And then we'll work on it for a few days. It usually starts on a Thursday. We'll go back and forth, and by around Saturday or Sunday, I'm writing it in script form. Then we go back and forth a little more and it's usually being written back and forth until about 6 or 7 on Tuesday night.

Tom Scharpling: And then we do the thing. The fun part is that we know where it's supposed to go, but we can also see these chances to have fun within it for ourselves and take funny side trips. But we also know where to get back on the road. That's always the funniest for me. No one would know, but we don't know where we're going for a few minutes. But we know where to pick it back up. And it's nice that people can't tell the difference.

I had no idea it was that tightly scripted.

JW: That's kind of the ultimate compliment. When people just assume we're making it up as we're doing it. It's flattering it comes off that way.

TS: If we could do that, we should probably be in some think tank somewhere, paid 50 million a year to change the shape of the world. If we can think of all that off the top of our heads every week, we're clearly in the wrong field.

You've definitely fooled plenty of listeners over the years. My favorite was when Jon pretended to be the person who writes the CNN news crawl, and when a guy called in who actually worked for CNN, you convinced him you were the real deal.

JW: I'm not sure I remember that. How recently was it?

Years back. [The call was from May 30, 2006]

TS: You got me.

JW: It was probably a real person. I don't remember. I vaguely remember this, but I don't remember someone calling in.

TS: I don't remember this at all.

JW: I feel like we stopped taking calls early on, like 10 years ago.

TS: By 2003 we were done trying to make it interactive.

JW: They'd always get derailed, because someone tries to say, "This isn't real."

TS: My favorite is someone calling in, saying, "This isn't real." And then you're like, okay, so this two-inch guy calling us --

JW: Who is also a racist.

TS: -- Is not real. Really, you pieced that together? You figured out that the caller is not actually a fish in a lake? They're being heroic by informing the rest of the public of the truth. It's like Paul Revere. So this 400-pound barbershop singer talking about doing barbershop songs is not real.

JW: They have to alert the citizens.

One of the best 2015 episodes featured you telling a very awkward story about running into Patti Smith.

TS: This is going to haunt me.

JW: [laughs] I was privy to the beginning of this.

You asked her for her thoughts on the band Humble Pie. Why…

TS: That's why the topic was "I wish I could take this back." I have not wanted to take a moment back more than that one. I've probably had five whoppers like that throughout my entire life, but one of the five happened recently. It's crazy, these things that happen to you when you're like 13, and now one happens a few weeks ago [at the time the interview was conducted]. Someone wrote to me after that, "My aunt is best friends with Patti Smith, do you want me to pursue this. Your story broke my heart, I can get into touch with her and we can figure this out." I did not write him back, but I guess I will?

JW: It will be worse when you find out she had no memory of it.

So why Humble Pie?

TS: I don't know. I thought of an angle.

JW: He got up and with incredible confidence and determination said, "I gotta ask Patti Smith about Humble Pie." [explodes into high-pitched peal of laughter]

TS: I'd been thinking about them a lot, watching videos online. I met this cabbie in Memphis. He was an older guy, said he'd seen Led Zeppelin, et cetera, and of all the bands, by far the best band was Humble Pie. Steve Marriott did splits between songs. People could not believe what they were seeing.

So you wanted to confirm?

TS: I don't know what I wanted.

So where did these recurring characters originally come from, like Philly Boy Roy and Timmy von Trimble?

JW: With Timmy von Trimble, one night Tom called up and said, "What if you called in as a two-inch man?" And I said, "What if he's racist?" It came from that and we made up a story about what this offensive miniature person could be and say.

TS: It was so funny to think he'd be cute one minute, with tiny versions of things -- tiny bed, tiny clothes -- and then he's just repellant. But a two-inch guy would run out of gas [for jokes] after a few minutes, so what's after that? If we're doing a full call, it has to be more. That's what comes out of the back and forth between us. It's finding that next level. We don't stop after getting the first idea.

JW: What more can this person be? Philly Boy Roy was one of the first things we came up with. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, so he's based on a lot of people I knew growing up. He might be the best embodiment of the type that Tom and I love to go after, which is the person who is way too confidence for their skill set. They have this thing verging on arrogance but nothing to back it up.

TS: No clout, infinite confidence. And they're the last ones to realize it, if they ever realize it. Everyone sees it but them. There's always the most fascinating person to us: the person who doesn't realize they're going 90 miles an hour into a collision, and everyone can see it coming.

Have you ever gotten backlash from people in Philly?

JW: Oddly no. Philadelphians are cut from a different cloth. You're under the shadow of New York and D.C.. There's an inferiority complex, which I experienced in bands out of Philly. You kind of don't get out of there. I'm not saying nobody gets out of Philadelphia, but there's an odd pride that goes along with it, too. One of the first lines we ever had for Roy was his excuse/explanation for his behavior: [affects Philly Boy Roy voice] "I'm from Philly." That's just why I behave this way.

TS: And I felt the Philly thing being from New Jersey. But it's funny, I felt Philly as being one of the places that made Jersey feel less. There is that thing of being outside where things are happening.

What is it that makes you bring back certain characters?

JW: A lot of times it's practicality. I tour a lot, so I'm on the road three quarters of every year. And the easiest to write, backstage or in a van or in an airport, are ones like Darren from Work, Philly Boy Roy, the ones Tom and I know so well and can write quickly for. But we love those characters. Darren especially is a blank slate, you can do anything with him.

TS: Some calls start with an idea and then we find the right character to bring that idea to life. Some calls start with a character, and those are the ones that we can go back to and build a whole world for. Darren from Work is a blank slate, and he can get into anything he wants to. And Roy is the ultimate version of that. Sometimes we don't even know. Like Matthew Tompkins from Shout [another invented character]. While doing illustrations for doing characters in the box set, we realized what a blank slate he was. We'd never described him. He's all concept, no character. Who knows what he's about when he's not working at Shout network?

In 2013 you brought The Best Show to an end on WFMU, and then brought it back, online only, in 2014. What was the impetus for that?

TS: We felt like the show just was not something we could do at WFMU anymore. For the amount of work it took to do, between writing the calls every week and all the stuff I had to handle, it turned into more or less a full-time job. It's a non-commercial radio station, and the show was a new thing for them in that it kept growing and growing in ways shows usually don't for them. There's no model in place for the station to sustain something like that. We couldn't make it happen there anymore, but we never felt like we were done doing stuff. We'd talked about the end in vague terms. But at the beginning of 2013 I brought it up to Jon and said, "I'm done." The fundraising is taxing on me, too. I couldn't keep doing it every year. So it was, let's figure out what the next chapter is. We'll end this the way it should end, but it was ending one version of what we do and what the show is. You can't do both. We couldn't have done this box set while still doing the show. You have to be all in on one thing at a time.

Listen to new episodes of The Best Show here, and check out the extensive archives of Best Show Gems here.