‘The Best Show,” a weekly music-and-comedy program on WFMU, has no budget, doesn’t advertise, and is recorded in a cramped studio in Jersey City, with a perpetually at-wit’s-end host who likes to hang up on callers mid-sentence. And yet somehow it’s become comedy’s go-to talk-radio program, attracting such top talent as Zach Galifianakis, Paul F. Tompkins, and Patton Oswalt, all of whom are fans of Tom Scharpling’s irritable soliloquies on everything from Odd Future to ice cream to the hand dryers at Baja Fresh. “People who like ‘The Best Show’ don’t just like it,” says Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari. “They want to turn it into a woman and make love to it on a beach on some weird magical island.”
On this particular Tuesday night of his weekly three-hour show, Scharpling is shilling for the station’s fund-raising drive. But as the evening kicks off, the phones are basically dead. “Unbelievable,” he says. “Physically sickening, that there is only one phone ringing right now. I am trying not to throw up.” A few feet away, John Hodgman sits at the phone bank, while Ted Leo and the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman wait to perform. “When I first listened to the show,” says Hodgman, “I imagined Tom as an extremely angry bald man of about 55 and that he’d gotten angrier and angrier as years went by. It’s very endearing.” Shortly after Scharpling’s threats of regurgitation, the phones start ringing; by the end of the fund-raiser, he’ll have raised nearly $200,000.
At lunch a few weeks later, Scharpling, who is actually a boyish 42, is genial and menschy. “I feel like I have an obligation to be extra-nice to everybody,” he says. “I can be pointed and jerky on the radio.” (“Get off my phone” is a frequent brush-off to annoying callers.) “I don’t want people to think that’s actually me.”
He grew up in the suburb of Dunellen, New Jersey, and in high school became a fan of Howard Stern and Bob Grant, a talk-radio right-winger whom Scharpling abhorred politically but admired as a broadcaster. “Grant made the show fit him,” he says. “He did not try to fit into the talk-radio-show [format].”
Though Scharpling prefers the Central Jersey suburbs over New York City, he commuted here throughout the early nineties, immersing himself in the comedy and indie-rock scenes. In 1997, while he was D.J.-ing a music show on WFMU, his friend Jon Wurster, drummer for pop-punk fixtures Superchunk, called in; the resulting 45 minutes—in which Wurster impersonated a bizarrely opinionated music snob—quickly reached comedy-gold status with bands killing time on the road. “They hit so many of the notes that musicians joke and complain about in the van,” says Leo.
Scharpling and Wurster’s tightly constructed, long-form call-in sketches have become a staple of “The Best Show,” which launched in 2000 and had a slow build. The program’s format—amorphous, agenda-free interviews with comedians and the occasional punk or bubblegum-pop records—is a radical departure from the autopilot zoo crews that dominate morning radio. “Tom converses on a non-superficial level,” says Wurster, unlike “the idiots on morning-drive shows who know next to nothing about you.” But when “The Best Show” began podcasting, in the mid-aughts, it blew up; WFMU isn’t rated by Arbitron, but Scharpling reckons the audience could be as large as 500,000—big numbers for community radio.
Scharpling doesn’t get paid for his radio gig, supporting himself with various writing jobs, including an eight-year stint on TV’s Monk (he also recaps The Apprentice on Vulture.com). With two series in development at Comedy Central, he’s expecting to be spending more time in L.A., which could mean the end of “The Best Show.” “There are other things I’d like to do,” he says, including the farcical music videos he began writing in 2007. Last year, he added directing as well, with a string of funny, low-budget clips for Leo and the New Pornographers (including the recent “Moves,” featuring a host of comedian cameos, including Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, and Donald Glover). Their viral success prompted an inquiry from Camp Ke$ha: Did Scharpling have any ideas for the pop star? He half-seriously pitched a video involving time-travel and people wearing horse heads. “They said, ‘That sounds pricey. We only have $125,000,’ ” says Scharpling. “I was like, ‘The way we’ve been shooting, we could do it for that and probably build you a house, too.’ ”