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Scharpling and Wurster bring The Best Show to the stage

Nov 23, 2015

Drummer/comedian Jon Wurster gives a career-spanning interview with surprising Canadian connections.

Since the saxophone-playing Clinton was in office, The Best Show has served up “three hours of mirth, music and mayhem” (almost) every Tuesday night. Tom Scharpling is the overlord of this on-air institution with a mixed bill of listener phone calls, F.P. (famous person) interviews, sketches, sound collages, and lacerating observations on anything rattling around under his dome.

Like most successful franchises and cults, The Best Show has found a devoted fanbase (“Friends of Tom”) by creating an elaborate inner world. For nearly 20 years, the fictional city of Newbridge, New Jersey has served as a breeding ground for cartoonish characters voiced by Jon Wurster (who also mans the drums for Superchunk, Bob Mould, and The Mountain Goats). In each week’s scripted call-in, Scharpling plays the increasingly outraged straight man to Wurster’s expert straddling of exaggerated tropes, recurring jokes, malapropisms, and obsessive attention to detail. It all began in 1997 with Wurster’s appearance as Ronald Thomas Clontle, author of the exhaustive music reference book Rock, Rot & Rule, who earned the ire of listeners with his absurd opinions (most notably: “Madness invented ska.”)

After a formative stretch with freeform radio station WFMU, The Best Show went independent last year while maintaining its Tuesday night 9 to midnight slot. A year of radio silence in 2013 gave Scharpling and Wurster the time to compile The Best of The Best Show, a Byzantine box set from Numero Group with 75 calls filling 20 CDs. As they continue to find new fans each week, the duo are also hitting the road for a series of live appearances. This will bring them to Toronto on Saturday, Nov. 28 at The Mod Club, which Wurster vows to tailor with as much “city-specific minutia” as humanly possible.

When I reached Jon at his home in North Carolina, he was preparing for their sole tour date north of the border with the same kind-hearted, overactive enthusiasm that he brings to his characters (and to the kit). At one point he asked if I had time to keep going for a story about the Barenaked Ladies, to which I respond with an excited “of course!” Our career-spanning interview over the next 45 minutes covered Charlie Daniels, the Calgary curse, a long lost screenplay, and ended with a Canadian lightning round.

AUX: I’ve heard how you and Tom bonded over your love of Get A Life and Smash from Headbanger’s Ball, but there’s one thing I’ve never heard you talk about: Did you have any experience with performing comedy yourself before Rock, Rot & Rule?

Jon Wurster: No! That’s what’s kind of odd and interesting about our story. Neither of us really had any experience in that world. Tom had a radio show on WFMU before The Best Show, from around 1996 on. He would do some funny things with the woman who would go on to become his wife, Terre T. One of the calls he made to her show is included in the box set. That’s a great example of his early attempts at comedy, but those kinds of things were few and far between. I didn’t really have any experience at all. When we did Rock, Rot & Rule we felt we had nothing to lose because we had no idea if anyone was listening. It turned out lots of people were, and they were very angered by what Ronald Thomas Clontle was saying. It just kind of rolled from there. Speaking for myself though, I definitely came into comedy through the back or side door.

Was this around the same time you were writing for the MTV show 2Gether?

Yeah, around that time. That came out of the blue as well, thanks to our friend Joe Ventura who actually appeared on the first call we ever did before Rock, Rot & Rule. He recommended me for the MTV writing gig doing funny ad spots for whatever shows they were doing at the time. I had no experience in that either. He thought I’d be good at that, and it turned out to be something I could do. Since then, my main inspirations for jokes are everyday interactions. One of the great things about being in a touring rock band is that every day something insane presents itself. I’ll meet someone who says something funny or behaves in a strange way, or I’ll simply mishear or misread something. Then I start thinking about what it would be like if that actually existed, and that becomes the kernel of a call.

You’ve mentioned that Robert Pollard’s hatred of the word “anyhoo” was the reason you started saying it so much on the show. Are there any other inside jokes you make on air to specifically annoy or thrill people?

Our tour manager Michael Slaboch hates the word “nummers” or “nummy,” which is one step worse than “yummy.” I’ve worked that into several calls in the last year because I know he’s listening. Tom and I will do that to each other too. He hates when parents talk to a child and call the toilet a “toity.” Right now we’ve been obsessed with the HBO show Project Greenlight that dramatizes the work of a young filmmaker. We’ve been sneaking in as many references to the current season as we can in our last few calls. Those things are fun because we know the audience for those references might just be the two of us.

I’m curious about your ongoing search for Bee Gees songs with filthy lyrics. How did that start?

I honestly have no idea! I think I made that joke off the cuff and it became a running thing. It was just funny to write these two-line parts of songs and work them into calls. We did it until we got tired of it, like the two horns thing. I’m pretty sure that died the other night with Darren. Did he die too? We’ll have to wait and see…

I only recently learned that you played with Rocket from the Crypt. Your Katy Perry collaboration is pretty well documented as well. Do you have any other music gigs that most people don’t know about?

In 1999 or 2000 I played with Charlie Daniels in a commercial for UPS. As far as I know there’s no visual documentation of it anywhere. Charlie sang “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” but it was reworked with lyrics about the race car driver Dale Jarrett working for UPS. The band was Charlie, me, and Kyle Gass from Tenacious D. The great part was that Kyle’s agent fudged the fact that he could play stand up bass. We got there and the first thing we had to do was record an audio version of the song to make sure we were covered with the stormy weather on the outdoor set. The first time we ran through it I was playing a snare with brushes, Charlie was on the fiddle, and it started to become obvious that Kyle had never touched a stand up bass before. Charlie was awesome and sprang to action. He asked him “Son, have you ever played one of those?” Kyle said “Honestly, no.” And Charlie said “Well, let’s teach you right now.” Kyle picked it up in a flash, and I thought that was great because it could have so easily gone the other way.

I hope it leaks someday like the Paul Stanley Folgers commercial.

Me too!

You recently toured with Bob Mould opening for the Foo Fighters. Were those some of the biggest shows you’ve ever played?

I’ve played lots of festival dates over the years to crowds of 10-30,000 people, and back when I played with Robert Pollard we opened for Pearl Jam a few times. But those shows with the Foo Fighters had crowds of 30-40,000 people every night, and it felt pretty crazy. It was almost like playing to a painting of people. We weren’t the headliners so not everyone knew who we were, and lots of them would just sit there looking at us. Staring out at a sea of people who aren’t moving is a pretty unreal experience. It’s like you’re under a microscope, but the people looking at the microscope are really far away. We’re used to playing in clubs where people are going crazy right in front of our faces.

We end up writing about Dave Grohl a lot because of his constant shenanigans. You guys recently poked fun at him in the “Newbridge Wall” sketch with a device that could instantly insert him into music documentaries. Do you know how he feels about that friendly ribbing?

I hope he would know what we’re saying is all in good fun. I first met Dave years back when I played a Bob Mould tribute show with Britt Daniel, No Age, and Margaret Cho. We played a set with Dave on guitar, and it was awesome. I have nothing but good things to say about him.

You played with Superchunk in Calgary two years ago during the flood at the Sled Island music festival. What was your experience like there?

It was wild because I’m not sure if we knew in advance that it was happening. The day of the show we we started hearing reports, and a few hours before load-in our tour manager told us the venue was in the flood zone. We had to move to some kind of Calgary club.

That’s Flames Central. It’s probably one of the cheesiest bars in the world.

It was a really odd choice for a venue. We didn’t start until after midnight, so we just went to bed, got up the next day, and the power was out all over the city! We had to fly out that morning, and as we were driving to the airport next to the river, it became clear that it was seriously flooding. I remember hearing reports that the zoo was evacuated and that people still weren’t back in their homes over a year later. I played there again the following year with Bob, and my bag didn’t make it. I had to go to The Gap to buy a pair of pants and a short-sleeve button-up, because that’s what I like to wear when I play. That was just as bad, for me. There might be a Calgary curse! It’s a really nice place to play though.

I loved your Adult Swim infomercial and you’ve offhandedly mentioned the idea of some larger projects involving Newbridge. Is there anything in the works that you can talk about?

We definitely hope to pursue that dream one day. It’s just a matter of finding a block of time. The Best Show went off the air in December 2013 and came back almost to the day a year later. Without that year away from the show, there’s no way we could have done the Adult Swim thing or the box set. That took months of intensive culling and editing.

I guess it’s a catch 22 because fans might not get the regular show if you were busy working on a TV show or movie.

Right! We’d have to find a way to do both.

Can you tell me anything about the screenplay you and Tom wrote for Rock School based on Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube” video?

That happened around 1999 thanks to our friend Phil Morrison, who directed the movie Junebug. He did all of the Mac vs. PC commercials with John Hodgman, and also directed the Yo La Tengo video. The concept was that the band goes to a rock school taught by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. It must have been at the height of Mr. Show’s popularity. A film company ended up buying the rights to this idea and Phil was attached to direct, so he asked us to write it. Like 99% of the projects in Hollywood, it ended up falling by the wayside. I’m pretty sure it predated the Jack Black film by a few years though.

Were Bob and David going to star in your movie?

I don’t think so. We turned in a script and then it just died. The main thing I took away is that it’s a lot easier to make and release your own record, then go play shows. It might not up to the size or standard that you’re hoping for, but anyone can do it. Movies are just so expensive, with so many moving parts and red tape to deal with. I decided then that I liked music more. Now things are different though! It’s a lot easier to make a low-budget film and get it out there.

Here’s one more nerdy film question: Is “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams’ll Come Through” partially based on “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye” from Phantom of the Paradise?

No. I’ve seen that movie, but I have absolutely no memory of that song. There’s another song called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams Come Through” by Jim Steinman, who’s the mastermind behind the Meat Loaf records. My memory was that his was called “Come True” and we wrote our song based on how dumb we thought that title was, but when we were researching for the box set I realized that it was called “Come Through” all along. We wanted to poke fun at the unrealistic timelines of story-songs that have a kid become a superstar overnight.

In my opinion, some podcasts or radio shows making the transition from audio to stage or screen really don’t work. Sometimes they’re best left to the mind’s eye. Did you and Tom have any worries about that when you started doing live shows?

Oh yes. We’ve only done things like this a few times before. A few years ago, we hosted a Matador Records anniversary show in Las Vegas. We came out before the bands and did maybe 2-3 minutes of stuff with Philly Boy Roy and Gene Simmons. Some of that has carried over to these current shows, but otherwise we didn’t have any experience. We wrote these shows that we did at the Bellhouse back in March to promote the box set, and they sold out super fast. We had no idea if it’d be 30 minutes or three hours because we hadn’t timed it. The shows were twice per night, so that was our main concern. We hadn’t factored in stops when people laughed, because when we do the radio show there’s no live reaction and it ends when it’s supposed to end. Luckily the show ended up being about 90 minutes. It’s a bit longer now because we go down side roads when they present themselves.

Neither Tom or I are super outgoing people publicly, so we had to get over our nerves, but now it’s really fun. Like any performer, you just get used to it and your confidence builds. Having people react to what you’re doing in real time is the greatest thing. We realized there was actually an audience for what we’ve been doing for so many years because we could finally see their faces.

Canadian Lightning Round

Sloan

You’ve mentioned that “The Marquee and the Moon” is your favourite Sloan song, which is a pretty deep late period cut. Are you a big fan?

I’m not super knowledgeable about their entire oeuvre, but my former girlfriend was a huge fan. That song really gets me. I’ll cry every time I hear it, and I don’t really know why, which is cool. I also have a funny story about Sloan. I was playing with The Mountain Goats in Brooklyn, and we were leaving the next day when I heard someone from a tour bus call my name. It was Chris Murphy sticking his head out the door, and I’d never met any of them at that point. I went on the bus and we had the best time hanging out for an hour.

Drake

Tom recently appeared on Damian Abraham’s podcast and called Drake the King of Canada, Mr. Everything, and a sad rapper. What are your thoughts?

I don’t know Drake’s music at all, so my only knowledge is that forehead tattoo that the woman got. If he can inspire that sort of devotion in a human, I’m all for him.

Snow

When asked about other Canadian rappers, Tom also mentioned “Informer.”

I feel bad for him because he’s probably not doing much right now. It’s always that thing where you ask yourself if you want the taste of massive success and then nothing at all, or to never have the taste. I feel like I would rather never have the taste.

Hitchbot

Did Philly Boy Roy kill Hitchbot, the Canadian hitchhiking robot?

I can’t confirm that and would be very disappointed if it was true, but you never know. He might have been on one of those Tastykake/Peanut Chew/Frank’s Soda sugar-highs. He can’t be held be responsible when that’s happening.

The Barenaked Ladies

Tom knows the lyrics of “One Week” and thinks Stephen Page listens to The Best Show.

I think he does too! I’ve met Stephen a few times and he’s a super nice guy. One of my first times playing with The Mountain Goats was on the Barenaked Ladies Cruise. This was maybe 2009. We were the only American band along with Sloan, The Odds, and Sarah McLachlan. It was really fun! I also have another funny story – do you have time? I had a band that played once a year and we would do all of the big alternative rock hits of that year. We did “One Week” and for some reason George Clinton was at the show. He was watching us, and afterwards he turned to whoever he was with and said “That is fucked up.”

Toronto’s Sex Dwarf Alex

Are you familiar with the recent Best Show caller who also happens to be my bandmate?

What’s his story? I knew a dwarf from Canada in the ’90s – is he the same person?

Oh, no! He told a story about being in the middle of a break-up at a restaurant when “Sex Dwarf” started playing, and now Tom has dubbed him Toronto’s Sex Dwarf Alex.

Sometimes you get stuck with those nicknames. He should be careful with that.

SCTV

Tom has said “SCTV meant more to me than SNL.” Do you agree?

Yes. SCTV was the first comedy I ever connected with. That must have been around 1980 or so. I still love it and watch those clips almost every day. Their game show sketch High Q is so brilliant. I think SCTV had a bigger influence on me and Tom than anything else. The great thing about it, and I forgot about this, is how long some of those sketches or segments are. There are pieces on that show that go on for nearly 30 minutes. Several commercial breaks worth of an idea. It was almost like a mini movie of the week in the context of SCTV. There’s one called Lust for Paint, which is the story of Toulouse-Lautrec. There are some long stretches without any laugh out loud moments, and that had a huge influence on our calls doing the same thing.

SCTV were also referencing current, kind of hip things. Rick Moranis did a commercial where he sang a lounge version of “Turning Japanese”, which was a somewhat obscure song at that time. Just hearing references to new wave bands was amazing. There’s another sketch about a Perry Como live show where John Candy comes out and says how much he loves it and calls him Mr. Relaxation. Then he says “Oi!” That was mind-blowing in 1980 or 1981 to see someone on TV referencing oi. Sorry if this was the slowest lightning round of all time.

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