"I need Paul to tie my ascot when he gets here.”Tom Scharpling enters the room a quarter of an hour before show time, big and booming and frantic, sweating slightly, dressed in a yachting outfit. Plenty of nautical lingo will be bandied about before the end of the pledge drive edition of The Best Show—what the Jersey City radio station affectionately and accurately refers to as its ‘marathon’—“Starboard” and “mizzen mass” and, yes, “poop deck.”
It’s the second week of an annual drive aimed at keeping WFMU in the black, and once again the weekly comedy call-in show has positioned itself as one of the top moneymakers for the nonprofit freeform radio station.
Scharpling’s getup, of course, is a less-thansubtle allusion to what he has long happily asserted with his three-hour weekly mix of mirth, music and mayhem: “This is a tent pole show. The tent don’t stay up with out the tent pole.”
Fellow WFMU personality, DJ Terre T— hostess of Saturday’s Cherry Blossom Clinic— passes out multi-colored sailor hats to the staff of phone volunteers, who, by the show’s end, will reinforce Scharpling’s boast, collecting nearly $61,000 from pledgers on this week’s show alone.The sum is no doubt bolstered by the cavalcade of celebrity Best Show fans—Ted Leo, Aimee Mann, Paul F.Tompkins and John Hodgman—who have come out to Jersey City to help raise money for the station and the show. They proudly don the brightly colored “Friends of Tom” sailor caps.
Scharpling, for his part, spends the lead up to tonight’s show running around the studio he affectionately refers to as “the submarine,” prepping guests, thanking pledge takers and searching frantically for a recent misplaced cell phone—a whirlwind of activity only made more immediate by the cameraman constantly trailing the host, capturing footage for an upcoming documentary on the station. “He’s in a whole different mode,” explains the show’s associate producer, AP Mike. “This is ‘Don’t get in his way mode.’ He’s in the zone.”
After 13 years with the station, Scharpling is unquestionably a pro, but tonight is different, in a room swarming with volunteers, station staff, celebrity guests and a small handful of media types. It’s something that the host, traditionally calm and levelheaded, dreads. “Nobody wants to do those shows,” says Scharpling. “If you could press a button and not do them, you’d do it in a second. But there is something that comes out of those shows that’s so exciting. It’s really alive then, everyone comes out to get onboard and be heard with regards to how important the station is to them.When it goes the way it went the last two weeks, it takes my breath away.”
The two week pledge total for the show will ultimately hover around the $120,000 mark, a far cry from The Best Show’s humble beginnings more than a decade ago, when Scharpling’s friend, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, first called into the then musicdriven show in character. “I always have that in the back of my mind, and that’s not that long ago, when the general consensus was, ‘you’re just not good at this,’” begins Scharpling. “But we just did what we wanted to do, and we were right, I guess. [Because,] thankfully, people found us.”
It’s those bits with Wurster, long and seemingly meandering, with no discernable end, that are the backbone of the show, a sense of free-form comedy that keeps listeners tuning in one week to the next. “From both the comedic and the radio point of view, it’s so rare to be so immersed in something for three hours,” says Hodgman. “It’s something you do while driving or walking down the street or doing your taxes, or, as I do, cleaning the azaleas, and it sort of weaves itself into your life.The stuff that Tom does with Wurster is so wonderful. It’s a slow build, and it sort of worms itself into your brain.”
Tompkins adds, “Thanks to Internet, we now know there’s over 100 shows to listen to, and the thing that makes Tom’s show number one is Tom. I can just listen to him talk forever. I’m always sad when the show ends, because I really could listen to him for another few hours.”
By the end of tonight’s show, Scharpling will lead his four guests in a fairly impromptu cover of Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Leo plays the song under the shade of his sailor cap and explains Scharpling’s magic succinctly: “He’s an amazing conductor of energy. He’s just got one of those personalities where he can get people together in the right space to deliver.”
>The Best Show
airs every Tuesday from 8-111 on 91.1 and online at WFMU.org