SCHARPLING & WURSTER
Motorco Music Hall, Durham
Saturday, Feb. 27, 9 p.m., $20–$22
When you’re about to interview Tom Scharpling over the phone, you might feel a twinge of anxiety. After all, on The Best Show with Tom Scharpling, he’s made an art out of creatively hanging up on poor, unsuspecting callers. It happened to me!
It was 2012, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was listening to the show on my computer, and Scharpling opened up the lines. Many callers failed to impress him and were GOMPed. (That’s shorthand for “get off my phone,” which Scharpling often yells before hanging up.) Still, I took a chance and called in, fully expecting the hang-up treatment.
As I began to tell Scharpling the story of a trio of women I knew who went to karaoke bars calling themselves The Crotchless Panties, he kept saying, “Uh-huh.” I kept talking until I heard the phone click. As I went back to the show online, I heard Scharpling giggling. It turns out that while I was talking, he was playing Bad Company’s “Bad Company.”
When I reach Scharpling on the phone this timehe assures me he won’t hang uphe says I was probably one of the first to receive the unfortunate honor of being “Bad Companied,” a fate reserved for boring callers.
“You might have been on the ground floor of it,” Scharpling says, driving home from his day job as a writer for the upcoming HBO series Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker. “Congratulations on being an early adopter.”
Scharpling has presided over The Best Show with mighty, cranky authority for sixteen years, first at New Jersey free-form radio station WFMU, where it was called The Best Show on WFMU, then on his own podcast. The show has attracted devotees from the worlds of music (Aimee Mann, Ted Leo) and comedy (Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt), who often call in or show up as studio guests. Celebrities like Amy Poehler, Conan O’Brien, Paul Rudd, and Zach Galifianakis are fans. Scharpling steers the ship as a curmudgeonly captain, throwing callers overboard if they’re bringing the show down.
“It’s all in the quest to try to put together the funniest possible show,” he says. “I’m sure you’ve wanted to hang up on people and couldn’t. But when I’m on the air, I can. It’s not the real world.”
There couldn’t be a more accurate statement about what Scharpling does every Tuesday night, fielding lengthy calls from the townspeople of Newbridge, New Jersey. But here’s the thing: Newbridge is fake, and the callers are usually portrayed by one man, Chapel Hill’s Jon Wurster.
When Wurster isn’t busy drumming for Superchunk, the Mountain Goats, or Bob Mould, he calls The Best Show in character as various Newbridge citizens, baffling Scharpling with all the weird, wacky things that go on there. There’s mediocre rocker Barry Dworkin and two-inch-tall racist Timmy Von Trimble (long since retired, for obvious reasons). There’s Horse, the muscle-headed computer repairman from Radio Hut’s “Jock Squad;” Roland “The Gorch” Gorchnick, senior citizen and alleged model for the Fonz; and, most frequently of all, hardcore Philadelphian Roy Ziegler, a.k.a. Philly Boy Roy (see sidebar). It’s apt that the most famous resident of a town as eccentric as Newbridge (he was even mayor for a while) is someone whoto paraphrase what W.C. Fields famously wanted on his tombstonewould rather be in Philadelphia.
When I meet up with Wurster at a downtown Raleigh eatery, he tells me how Newbridge came to be after the characters emerged.
“A few years into the calls, we realized these people should all live in the same place,” he says, citing the sketch-comedy show SCTV, broadcast from the fictional town of Melonville, as an influence. “It just made things a lot more compact and easier, and then we could have these people interact. A character could reference a character from two months ago that you had forgotten about.”
Wurster, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, met Scharpling in the summer of 1992, when Superchunk shared a New York show with Pavement and My Bloody Valentine. Contrary to what an old bio on their Stereolaffs website says about their first meeting, Scharpling didn’t actually shove Wurster’s face in a backstage toilet.
“We talked that night and got along great,” Wurster remembers. “We had a very similar sensibility in terms of what we liked, comedy-wise, music-wise, and we just kind of kept in touch after that.”
They did their first call together in 1997, before The Best Show even existed, when Scharpling was a DJ at WFMU. Wurster portrayed a pedantic music critic who’d written a book called Rock, Rot and Rule, which divided artists into those three categories. Wurster says the character was inspired by Jim Desmond, a critic for this paper at the time.
The calls, which are mostly scripted, can go for a couple of minutes or nearly an hour. They earned the duo a cult-comedy status that fed into mainstream careers. Scharpling has been a writer and producer for Monk and the director of witty music videos for Aimee Mann, The New Pornographers and Wild Flag. With Wurster, he’s contributed to Adult Swim shows Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Tom Goes to the Mayor. They had their own Adult Swim special in 2014, The Newbridge Tourism Board Presents: “We’re Newbridge, We’re Comin’ To Get Ya!” And next month, Scharpling and Wurster hit prime-time, appearing on The Simpsons as characters similar to those who live in Newbridge.
“Who would’ve ever thought this would lead to that?” Wurster says. “It’s justI can’t believe it.”
Scharpling and Wurster have released compilations of their calls for some time, but last year they got the proper box-set treatment from Chicago reissue label The Numero Group. The Best of the Best Show includes sixteen CDs’ worth of calls, and its release prompted the pair to take the characters on the road to appear in front of live audiences.
“We’d been talking about doing live shows, but we didn’t know how to do it, or if people would like it or get it,” Wurster says. “This was the perfect opportunity to actually try it.” The experiment wraps up Saturday night at Motorco, with a house band that includes several notable locals, including Peter Holsapple, Ben Folds Five’s Robert Sledge, and a couple of Pressure Boys.
As they give their old characters a workout on tour, Scharpling and Wurster continue to introduce new ones on The Best Show. Earlier this month, Wurster called in as extreme-sports athlete Rad McKinney, talking to Scharpling about a thrilling yet ill-fated stunt he pulled on top of Mount Newbridge.
“We’re not in it for the money,” Wurster says of their long-lasting enthusiasm, laughing. “We just love to do what we do, and I’m so lucky that I found this guy to be in my life and to help create this stuff for the last fifteen years or soand hopefully, fifteen more.”
Even after all these years of playing the crabby foil to Wurster’s ridiculous townsfolk, Scharpling agrees that The Best Show will always be a labor of love. “It’s still fun to do, and it’s still funny,” he says. “It’s still my favorite thing to do, and it’s still satisfying.”
Talkin’ With Philly Boy Roy
Roy Ziegler, or “Philly Boy Roy,” has been The Best Show‘s most incessant caller through the yearsmore than a hundred times and counting. So we weren’t too surprised to hear from him when he found out we were doing this story, and he insisted we print the unedited emails below.
INDY: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. First off, how’s the family?
PHILLY BOY ROY: Oh, you know, for every good thing, there’s somethin’ not so good. For example: my wife Rhoda is lettin’ me sleep in our bedroom again. On the minus side, Roy Jr. is in juvie for trying to steal a decommissioned WW2 tank from the park down the street. They should let him out because 1) he only drove the thing two blocks before crashing it into a gas station, and B) hardly anyone was hurt.
What made you want to start calling The Best Show?
I didn’t like that Tom never played no Philly music on his show. I mean, who don’t wanna hear a Hooters/Todd Rundgren/Dead Milkmen rock block? So, I called to complain and we became what you might call best of enemies, like William F. Buckley and Al Gore.
How do you feel about a lot of your calls appearing in the Best of the Best Show box set?
On the one hand it’s cool because people are finding out more about how to party Philly-style. But on the other hand it sucks because I don’t get no money from the box set. It makes me feel like the artist formerly known as and also currently known as Prince when he was mad at everybody in the ’90s.
Since you’re the expert on all things Philly, I was wondering, do you know where the hell actress and South Philly native Linda Fiorentino went?
Oh, she’s still around. I actually helped her pick out a new hockey jersey for Kevin Smith a couple weeks ago at Foot Locker Behemoth.
Speaking of Philly and Hollywood, are you pissed off Creed was nominated for only one Oscar?
Damn right I am. But how can I take serious an institution that don’t give Eddie Murphy Best Actor for sayin’ “I’m a karate man … karate man bruise on the inside” in “Trading Places”the best Philly movie of all time?
Are you going to be at the Scharpling and Wurster show? If so, what can we expect?
Oh, yeah, I’ll be there havin’ a tailgate party outside Motorco. You should stop by and have one or fourteen Yuenglings with me. But don’t be surprised if I get onstage and tell those two dips to take me to where my box set money’s at, like in “Jerry MacGyver.”
What do you want people to know the most about Philly Boy Roy?
Look, I’m just a normal guy. I put on my Phillies sweatpants one leg at a time before goin’ to church just like everyone else. I try to do what’s right, but it’s hard because the wrong way is, like, always 100% more fun. That phrase is chiseled onto the Liberty Bell, by the way. Ben Franklin had them add it at the last minute. You know he was doin’ bong hits when they was writing the Declaration of Independence, right? All those guys partied Philly-style. I’m just keepin’ our four fathers’ dream alive.
This article appeared in print with the headline “A Cast of Thousands Built for Two”