The Best You Can Do Is Be Worse Than The Best Show

tbsowfmu.jpgThis week marked the tenth anniversary of the birth of the one of the most unique pieces of entertainment since sliced bread (which was once considered very entertaining). I speak of The Best Show on WFMU, which made its debut on October 10, 2000. If you read this site, you know I’m a huge fan, and I’ve written about the show or alluded to it hundreds of times. But I felt I couldn’t let this date pass without marking the occasion in some way, because it is literally one of my favorite things ever, for many different reasons.

It’s hard to even describe what it is to someone who hasn’t heard the show. The vital statistics are this: It’s a three-hour extravaganza of “mirth, music, and mayhem” hosted by Tom Scharpling. Phone calls are taken, some from for-real listeners (usually on some sort of topic), some from the imaginary citizens of Newbridge, New Jersey, a town whose wealth of intertwined characters put the Marvel Universe to shame.

There’s more to the show than this. Much, much more, but don’t worry, we’ll get there. But you should probably know, if you don’t already, that it’s the funniest thing going.

I came fairly late to the Best Show Bandwagon, which makes zero sense because I’ve been listening to WFMU since college. I probably listened to every show on the station but The Best Show–not on purpose, just out of happenstance. Not only that, but I was also a fan of many people and things in the realm of comedy who were either fans of the show or associated with it in some way (like Jon Benjamin and Jon Glaser, who used to be on the show quite often). I even took an improv class at the UCB Theatre, which has many Best Show fans amongst its faculty. Against all odds, I remained impossibly, blissfully ignorant of its existence.

Then, three years ago, I saw Patton Oswalt announce on his MySpace page (that’s how long ago this was! MySpace still existed!) that he was going to be an in-studio guest on The Best Show. Since Patton is one of my favoritest comedians of all time, I gave it a listen. By the end of this episode, I had the same feeling I had when watching Kids in the Hall for the first time, or Mr. Show or MST3K. That wonderful, almost frightening sensation of “where has this been all my life?”, something that seems to vibrate on the exact same wavelength as you.

tomggw.jpgThe backbone of the show are the calls between Tom and Jon Wurster (also drummer for Superchunk, among other bands) as he plays one of Newbridge’s residents. I recently heard someone compare these bits (for lack of a better word) to a Ted Knight or Edgar Kennedy
slow burn, which is probably their closest comedic parallel.

A Newbridgian will call Tom and, at an extremely slow pace, reveal themselves to be a deluded, self-important monster. When Tom dares to call them on it, he is inevitably shouted down and threatened with severe bodily harm. Like being screamed at “I’M GONNA MAKE YOU EAT A LAWNMOWER!” or being sung to the tune of The Cars’ “Let’s Go” “buh buh, buh-buh-buh, buh-buh-buh-buh, YOU DIE.”

More often than not, the calls reference one another, creating a labyrinthine universe unto itself. The show lets things play themselves out over long periods of time, like when The Gorch (an aging greaser who claimed to be the inspiration for The Fonz) would periodically call Tom to remind him he was on his way to “get” him, and finally showed up at the WFMU Studios a full 7 years after his first call (his only means of transportation was a Rascal). Or how several callers over a six-month period mentioned a line from the Martin Short/Charles Grodin movie Clifford, each one getting the quote wrong in a slightly different way. Or how nearly every Newbridgian seems to have fond memories of infamous scum-rocker GG Allin. (“I hear he passed on,” they will say sadly.)

The sheer mass of humor the show has produced is mind boggling. On Tuesday, Ted Leo started the Twitter hashtag #BestShow10 to celebrate the anniversary. Within minutes, it exploded into a frenzy of folks quoting and naming their favorite segments. But as Ted pointed out when he called the show later that night, the amazing thing was how little overlap there was among these tweets. The volume of comedy The Best Show created is so vast that literally thousands of people were all naming different things.

I remain amazed that this show exists in the first place. It’s completely antithetical to not just entertainment, but culture in general nowadays. In a world where brevity is king (see Twitter, YouTube), The Best Show crafts comedy that requires acres of time to unfold. It rewards patience and attention to subtlety, which few people even attempt anymore, let alone succeed at so spectacularly.

fotship.jpgThis luxury of time (afforded by WFMU, a freeform, listener-sponsored station) also allows Tom to launch on monologues that are every bit as hysterical as the Newbridge calls. For example, unveiling of the worst song ever: Neil Diamond’s “Porcupine Pie.” Or explaining why the sleaziest rocker of all time was Gary Puckett. Or telling the harrowing tale of his first and last foray into the ugly world of ticket scalping.

As a writer, one of my favorite Tom stories was his tale of being the low-man on a basketball magazine’s totem pole and being forced to cover an event no one else wanted to write about–a game of pickup hoops between a few bored contest winners and the members of Papa Roach. It was laugh-out-loud funny and yet poignant, showing how your dreams can get cruelly twisted by fate, happenstance, and just having to pay the bills.

Tom often describes his show as a “snobs vs. slobs” fight. It’s mostly said in jest, but in many ways it’s true. That’s another respect in which it differs from modern culture. Nowadays, the quickest route to a laugh is to mock the losers, the lowest of the low. The Best Show prefers big targets, the schmucks in charge, the idiots who fail upwards, and the entitled who blither through life thinking it owes them something.

Oh, and did I mention that nobody makes a thin dime from this show? WFMU is an all-volunteer station. Ten years of awesome, done for free.

Radio is an ephemeral medium. People basically get it for free, and so they tend to devalue the worth of both the material and the people who create it. There are some obvious exceptions (Sound of Young America, This American Life), but in general it’s not something from which people expect–or even want–art.

I’m convinced that if The Best Show was in some other medium (if that were possible), it would be placed on the same pedestal with shows like The Wire or Mad Men or (maybe a closer comparison) Louie. If someone like me–both an WFMU listener and a huge comedy nerd–could miss The Best Show for so long, I can’t imagine how many other people who would love it have never even heard of it.

However, this “smallness” is in part what allows the community associated with it to be so amazing. The show has celebrity champions like Paul F. Tompkins and Patton Oswalt and John Hodgman, all of whom call in and appear in studio and even help out with WFMU’s annual pledge drive, not because have to promote some TV show or movie, but because they love the show that much.

The show has so many inside jokes, a vocabulary all its own, and appeals to both comedy nerds and music nerds–generally, not the most welcoming, forgiving people in the world. And yet, it is anything but exclusionary. In the relatively short time I’ve been listening, all of the Friends of Tom I’ve met–both in person and online–have been great people.

This includes people of varying degrees of fame who otherwise wouldn’t know me from a hole in the ground and have absolutely nothing to gain from being friendly with me, and yet have been extremely kind and gracious and giving of their time. Not to mention Tom himself, who let let me visit the WFMU studios during this year’s marathon, so I got to see the magic up close and in person (and take that video above).

When I was jobless earlier this year, tons of FOTs reached out with tips and leads and genuine sympathy. Not to mention all the little things they’ve done–turning me on to great music (new and old), answering dumb questions about old commercials, and reading and commenting on things I’ve written here and elsewhere. It reminds me of being in a hardcore band, being part of a scene. It’s that type of unity and community, although with far fewer elbows to the back of the head.

It’s not often that you love something and can say everyone else who loves it is great. The Best Show is one of those exceedingly rare things.

So I’d like to close this out with a few brief clips from the handful of times I summoned up the courage to call the show. Not because I think these are so fantastic, and definitely not because I love the sound of my voice (I was blessed with both a face and voice for radio). I’m posting them because I think these are a perfect demonstration of what The Best Show does so well: Build a direct relationship with its listeners, making them a part of the show, fostering community.

In this first one from December 16, 2008, I tell Tom about the ad campaign for Mamma Mia on DVD (Tom being a huge, unironic ABBA fan; his take on the movie from earlier that year was great, especially his imitation of Pierce Brosnan’s song stylings). The conversation veers toward Best Buy and ESPN: The Magazine. It’s the kind of rambling, riffing chat that would be impossible on any other call-in show. I can’t imagine calling up, say, Mike Francesa and talking for several minutes about nothing in particular.

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The next two clips are family stories that I was delighted to get the chance to tell on the air. They’re the kind of stories that I could write about (and have, on occasion), but which really need to be shared verbally to fully appreciate. First, a clip from October 27, 2009, when I called in response to the topic “Oh No!”, inspired by Tom’s attendance at a Jimmy Webb concert (listen closely and you can hear “Macarthur Park” in the background). This tale is known in my family simply as “Mice on Ice”. Now, it belongs to the ages.

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And finally, from June 15, 2010, I tell a family funeral story. (If you’re wondering why I just plowed ahead with my story, it’s because on my end of the phone, I actually thought Tom had give me “permission” to do so.) Inducing laughter from both Tom and Paul F. Tompkins (who was in studio) is one of the highlights of my year, and I’ve had a pretty good year (brag).

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Thank you for ten years of chain fights, belt whippings, chump steamrolling, batter-butled fare, and fuuuuuuuuuuudge.