As unglamorous origins go, it's hard to beat Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster's start as a comedy duo performing lengthy, rambling bits on Tuesday nights via a non-commercial radio station in New Jersey. Yet The Best Show has been swept up in podcasting's relentless rise to fame, bestowing upon them respected-elder status – crystallized by their new 16-CD retrospective boxed set – and maybe even the opportunity to make a living from doing what they love.
If that doesn't bolster your faith in humanity even a little bit, you've likely never fallen in love with something unglamorous that few other people seem to appreciate, such as non-commercial radio, or New Jersey.
The Best Show's appeal comes in part from its languid pace and outsized characters, such as degenerate losers Philly Boy Roy and "the Gorch," but for many fans, the active ingredient in the duo's comic formula is their deeply self-aware satire of music culture. Rock bands were among the first listeners giggling over copies of Scharpling and Wurster's debut CD, 1998's Rock, Rot & Rule. The titular 47-minute live-to-air recording featured Wurster holding forth in character as self-appointed music expert Ronald Thomas Clontle, while Scharpling the interviewer goads the cluelessly obstinate critic on, with pitch-perfect incredulity.
Bands, which were painfully aware of the absurdity of some nasal-voiced twerp acting as though his opinions on music constituted some kind of holy writ – and who welcomed the show's unhurried pace, a respite for groups who had long since run out of tour-bus conversation – loved the show. Damian Abraham of Toronto punks Fucked Up claims in the Best Show box set's liner notes that, during a spate of wearying touring, listening to Scharpling and Wurster in the van "got our band to rally around something again."
Scharpling and Wurster's 13 years of the gig – formerly known as The Best Show on WFMU, after its then-home on the FM dial from 2000 to 2013 – have won them an ardent fan base, famous (Patton Oswalt, Conan O'Brien) and not (callers from Hawaii to Germany and beyond). Enough that the show was said to raise six-figure sums during fundraisers for the Jersey City community station, driven in part by elaborate promotional swag including a zine (complete with a flexi disc 45 record) and a star-studded Best Show DVD – all assembled by volunteers.
"It takes a pretty big time commitment to do that stuff at the level we ended up doing it at," Scharpling says. "To be honest, the station wasn't demanding that level of stuff. That was just the way everything grew. And it kept growing, and at a point it's not feasible to do the show at that level with no chance of having it be something that makes money."
The boxed set collects the WFMU years, the result of the duo and their archivist, Rob Meisch, reviewing 13 years worth of tape.
"It was pretty torturous. There's nothing worse than having to listen to your own voice every day for months on end," Wurster says.
The last WFMU show aired in 2013, with the duo asserting that this was really the end. But not long afterward, rumours started circulating that Scharpling was building a studio of his own, with the intention of streaming the show every Tuesday night – with Wurster calling in from wherever he happened to be, just like in the old days – and posting a podcast to iTunes the following day. With the first broadcast via thebestshow.net on Dec. 16, 2014, The Best Show is back, and the only thing missing is an FM transmitter; apparently they have the Internet even in New Jersey.
Podcasting is a bit like Etsy – it seems fresh and exciting, but beneath the surface it represents a sharp rejection of modernity. For podcasting, that means refusing the cynical manipulations and venal politics of modern talk radio and embracing instead non-commercial radio's amateurish aesthetic and openness to alternative politics and culture, such as left-of-the-dial indie rock.
Not surprisingly, both men have deep roots in the intersection of radio and indie rock. Wurster is a long-serving drummer for bands such as Superchunk and the Mountain Goats; he met Scharpling indirectly through Scharpling's music zine.
History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes, and it's no coincidence that the history of podcasting has mirrored the history of indie rock – aficionados such as Scharpling and Wurster toiled in relative obscurity, followed by a watershed moment that attracted epic inflows of imitators and carpetbaggers.
"I started working at WFMU back in 1994 and doing shows there, and was involved in radio and broadcasting for a long time," Scharpling explains somewhat wearily, "and then to have this whole podcasting stuff all pop and suddenly everybody in the world is interested in doing the same thing."
Scharpling and Wurster share elite status in the podcasting scene, alongside stalwarts such as Marc Maron and Paul F. Tompkins, and deservedly so. Seeing Hollywood B-listers rush the virtual stage rankles a bit.
"I think a lot of people just do it because they think they're going to get a TV show out of it. They're not actually in love with the form." Catching himself sounding like the kind of jaded hipster he and Wurster would mercilessly skewer on air, Scharpling takes a step back.
"If somebody's going to try something and they think they have something to say with the new technology or whatever, that's what this stuff is for. When it's done right."
Scharpling & Wurster: The Best of The Best Show will be released May 12 on Numero Group.