Friday, December 13, 2013

A lengthy, rambling farewell to the Best Show on WFMU

Note: This is my half-assed eulogy for The Best Show. It won’t be pretty and it probably won’t make much sense if you’re unfamiliar with the show, or even if you are. I’m not writing to tell you what the Best Show is. I’m not even sure I could. But if you’d like to know more, check out Jake Fogelnest’s 2011 profile of it here. If you want to read a more cohesive and moving eulogy of the Best Show, I’d check here and here and here and from just about every other great Best Show fan out there. And probably Patton Oswalt’s site in the next few days. There's also a great little interview with Tom here. For now, though, I just need to get my thoughts out regarding one of my favorite things ever.

The Best Show on WFMU is grinding to a halt in less than a week.

    The above sentence was written over an hour ago and it’s still sitting directly above my flashing cursor. It’s not like I have nothing else to say about it. If anything, I have too much to say. I could fill pages and pages about so many different aspects of the program, but instead I’m just sitting here and thinking of all the joy that the show has brought me.

    Like a lot of other people, I’m not entirely sure about what I’m going to do after the show ends. I mean, I know what I’m going to do: go to work, love my wife, raise a child, cook meals of varying quality… i.e. live my life. But the show’s departure leaves me with one less ritual in my home, perhaps my favorite, one that has come to mean a great deal to me. The Best Show is consistently the highlight of my week, a weekly call home to Mars.

    One of the reasons it’s so hard to really describe being a fan of the Best Show (Friend of Tom) is because it’s not like being a fan of anything else. The easiest comparison to make would be to that of being a fan of a television show, but that’s also probably the worst comparison. Watching a TV show is so passive and controlled, a polished product that is complete long before anyone sees it*. Even shows live SNL or Larry King (I refuse to name that other clown) seem to have been pre-planned almost to a fault.

    The Best Show, while clearly the product of two minds, has a huge margin of spontaneity that arises both from the creators themselves and also the callers. The show isn’t a finished product until Tuesday has become Wednesday, and sometimes just a stray thought or call can derail huge chunks of the show, usually for the better.

    I first encountered the Best Show about seven or eight years ago, but I have to admit that it didn’t really take for almost a year. I would listen to ten minute segments or cherry-pick episodes (usually ones with semifamous guests on them) from the archives and listen, but I’d skip around a bunch and listen mostly to the interview.

    The first time it totally clicked for me was during a Wurster call that would later be dubbed “Darren from Work Shakes His Moneymaker to the Greasy Funk.” I haven’t missed a show since. Suddenly, I wasn’t listening for the comedians that I liked to be on. If anything, I started viewing them as a speed bump that would interrupt the pace of the show.

    I think that every fan of the show has a similar experience, that sudden click where the show goes from a passing interest to something you suddenly want to know everything about. The archive is combed. Youtube clips are scoured, articles read, and for the first time you realize that everyone’s already been talking about how great this show is and how did you not know about this for so long?

    Another common experience for fans to share is tragedy. Not anything specific, but just those down times in our lives where shit just doesn’t work the way we’d hoped and nobody knows what to do next. It seems weird that a radio show (or a podcast) would be the logical remedy to that, but in times of despair, routine is often what gets us by. Sometimes you just need a break from feeling sorry for yourself. Sometimes listening to someone talk about how terrible Frank Zappa is can help to put the world into perspective.  Sometimes you know how fucked you are but you still need a laugh. I know this not only from firsthand experience, but also from the sheer number of people that has called in to thank Tom for what he’s done**. These calls are rarely explicit, but you can spot them from a mile away. You can hear a cracked voice and an earnestness that sounds almost out of place. Anyone that has ever been in a spot like that knows just how grateful you are to the person who helped you out, even if they’re completely unaware of doing so. You can tell these call mean something to Tom, but also that he is made uncomfortable by them. How do you respond to something like that on the spot, over the radio? Still, it obviously means something.

   It’s worth noting that the support system works both ways, as well. A few years ago, Tom’s friend Dogmo died and he started a few stories about what he loved about his dog so much. He clearly felt awkward putting this stuff on the radio, if it’s too personal or sad or whatever. But it was also weighting heavy on his mind and he had to talk about it. What followed were dozens of calls of support, and any apprehension Tom might’ve had about mourning a pet on his radio show vanished. In its place was an outpouring of grief and empathy so widespread and moving that it puts tears in my eyes to remember it.  We’ve been there too. We know how silly and painful it feels all at once and you do too.

    I can’t even get into the shows after 9/11 or Sandy without having to go back and listen through the shows. Sometimes you can hear people put down whatever bullshit and just come together to grieve or work on helping or just to get out of their own thoughts. These past few years, the Best Show has been my place to do that as well. The show is a public house, in the classical sense and not spelled all dumb with a k.

    To me, the show has several vital components. A better writer than me would be able to tie these all into a wonderful commentary about life and loss. Unfortunately, I am no longer a better writer than me, so I’m just gonna have to list them.

    The Best Show was probably a tough sell before it started and then evolved for 13 years. It has experienced growing pains, audience chances, personnel changes, etc… you probably couldn’t have paid a commercial radio station enough to put it on their airwaves. So of course it was a listener-sponsored radio station that put it on. Even if you’re not a fan of the show (and if you aren’t why are you still reading?), that station has such a diverse programming schedule that there is virtually something for everyone. Please go check it out when you get a chance. If you are a fan of the show, please don’t forget how much WFMU relies on donations. As soon as I heard that the show was ending, my thoughts turned to the station and how much money The Best Show brings in. This station is invaluable and should be supported forever.

AP Mike
    Associate Producer Mike is sort of the wild card of the show. He’s super contrarian and probably takes as much shit as anyone (often from squirrel puppets). He’s probably more known for the can of Coors he opens at the beginning of every show than he should be. He never fails to provide some perspective that might not have considered, and his voice is a perfect sounding board for Tom’s. I think one of my favorite surprises of the Best Show is how much I’ve enjoyed its fill-in show Depravity’s Rainbow with Mike and Therese. I can only hope that he’ll continue to appear on WFMU.

The Callers
    I had a whole thing written up about how I believe callers almost always fall into at least one of four categories (crazies, assholes, self-promoters, and FOTS), but it’s longwinded and unnecessary. What I will say is that the callers of the show (even especially the bad ones) are a vital part of it. Earlier I said that the easiest analogy to being a fan of the show is of being a fan of a television show. It certainly isn’t the best, though. Because being a fan of the Best Show is like being a fan of… I dunno, the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Hershey Park. You definitely have something in common with everyone there, but probably not as much as you would think. Aside from the show, the most unifying theme of FOTS is a fascination with the absurdity of Western pop culture. In this regard, it’s no surprise that GG Allin is the patron saint(?) of the show, or that KISS is a frequent topic of discussion. Tom will still occasionally reference that TV show Cavemen, or Hider in the House. Once, I heard him mention Vice Squad, which remains one of the most troubled and baffling films I’ve ever seen. I’ve meant to call in about that since he said it 3 years ago.
The callers of the Best Show are a disparate group, and that’s part of what makes the show work so well. They’re not just a sounding board for Tom, they make up a community of people that talk among themselves, that theorize, and all of whom want to make the show better. They don’t always succeed, but their efforts are usually in earnest.

    The regular callers, meanwhile, are frequently as entertaining as anything else on the show. There are too many names to list here, and too many names to insult by listing just a few.  In an earlier draft of this paragraph, I had named a list of like 25 callers that was still growing, and I’d feel terrible if I left anyone out. But they know who they are. There are voices that I love to hear on the other end of that line, and they’re the ones that I’ll probably miss the most after next week.

Jon Wurster
    I find Jon Wurster to be completely enigmatic. I’d be a huge fan of his for his Twitter account alone. He also happens to be a member of more than one of my favorite bands ever and has played with pretty much everyone. He’s also a Philly guy, which I tend to keep close track of for some reason. But more than any of that, he is the voice of Newbridge. In fact, I first started listening to the show because his most popular character, Philly Boy Roy, kept getting mentioned on Philly-area message boards. Like many people from the area, I was also appalled by the character until I realized what he was doing. Of course, it only took me about twenty minutes to realize that I know lots of Roys and that they’re from everywhere. The accent smarted at first, though. Still, it’s a testament to Wurster and the show that I can talk to people all over the country about Wawas, or that there are people who make pilgrimages to them. I don’t blame them. I’ve missed Wawa every day since moving to the west coast.

    For me, it’s impossible to see Jon Wurster playing drums on TV or something and not think about some of the characters he’s come up with. The mosaic of degenerates and weirdos that he and Tom have constructed over the past 13 years is nothing short of genius. I feel like he must have had a spasmodic imagination as a kid that, instead of being suppressed by medication, was fed Miracle Gro or something. Yes, Newbridge is a festering place that is inhabited by connivers, scam artists, copyright infringers, and more than one belt whipping league, but it’s also one of the greatest places on earth. It’s a horrendous place with inexplicable pride in itself. It’s a Mayberry that enacted Marshall Law after a tire fire, and then never really got over it. I know that sounds like hell on earth, and I’m sure if would be, but I cannot help but absolutely love the idea of it.

    I think the things that tend to crack me up the most about his calls are the waves of idiosyncrasies that have his characters have shared:  frequently mishearing words or phrases, repeatedly offering to “wiki” things, giving out absurdly long URLs (usually featuring at least 5+ tildens) over the air, or stopping a line of conversation with “Wait. Whuuuuuuut?” Many of the characters tend to use “pants” as an adjective. Since I started listening, he’s probably called AP Mike at least 200 different names (“Call Screener Pierre” being my favorite). These little quirks aren’t even the punchline to Wurster calls, just little bits of weirdness to add to the surreality of Newbridge.

    My favorite Wurster appearances have been in-studio. He was a sound guy working on the station’s mixing board who just happened to get caught up in the show, and Matthew Tompkins from the Shout! Network, promoting a new show. But the most jaw-dropping example of Wurster’s in-studio performances has to be the Mayubernatorial debate show, where he played what felt like all of his characters fighting with one another (and Tom, of course). That show was radio history and should be remembered for decades as the crowning achievement of the medium. Take that, Herbert Morrison!

Tom Scharpling
    Forget Newbridge for a second. Forget the music that he’s exposed us to. Forget that Tom just riffing on stuff in the studio is funnier than most standup albums (and that he does it every week). These are all qualities that deserve their own essays and I’m sure they’re out there. It’s testament to how talented and funny the guy is that I’m not even going into those aspects of the show, which have brought me countless hours of laughter and joy. But there’s something else.

    The first thing to note about Tom Scharpling on the Best Show is that he is the most genuine human being to appear on mass media in the past generation. If you turn on the TV or radio or whatever***, you hear a script. You hear synergy and corporate tie-ins. You hear people suppressing their humanity in order to present a generic and likeable face. Everything, for the most part, is so deliberate that your brain tunes it out. The only time we ever really take notice is when something unplanned happens, like an errant curse word or a lunatic is interviewed on a news channel. The rest, though, is like focus-grouped white noise.
Except for Tom. As The Best Show has progressed, we have heard Tom’s on-air personality has become more and more sincere and realistic. Instead of suppressing the components of personality that make him an individual, he airs them out for exploration.

    A lot of the criticism that I’ve seen online or the Best Show is that Tom is always cranky or complaining about something, which has its merits I guess. But to me, that’s what’s so great about the show. Complaining is human nature, and if you don’t have a little voice in your head that complains about everything in your head, I neither trust nor believe you. Personally, I harbor ridiculous grudges or explode with rage sometimes at the dumbest stuff ever. Why is this person acting like such a clod and why isn’t anyone saying anything? How does this person have a book deal? Why can’t I stop watching this garbage TV show? Imagine if you had to deal with some of the mutants that call into the show, and think about how long you’d last before exclaiming “what am I supposed to say to that?”

    Tom gives voice to the same frustrations and anxieties that most of us share, but rarely say. He’s the little guy too, just as appalled by internet commenters and what Subway calls bread as I am. And more importantly, he’ll be the first one to admit how dumb it is to be so worked up over something so insignificant. Instead of storing anger, he vents it briefly before pointing out how absurd the reality of it is. 95% of anger in this world is completely fucking ridiculous, and that’s something that everyone needs to hear at some point. I’ve disagreed with Tom on plenty of things over the years, but it’s never mattered, since the big stuff is what counts. Try to be a decent human being, and who gives a shit whether or not we like the same movies.
And it’s not like it’s all negative, either. Anyone who’s listened to Tom rave about good music or Clifford or SCTV knows just how giddy he can get about something he loves. When Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life came out, I didn’t really pay attention because it was a band that I’d never really gotten before. I think he played a track from that album every week for a month before telling the listeners just how incredible the rest of the record is. I ended up buying the album not because I felt like I was supposed to, but because I wanted to hear anything that could inspire such a reaction from anyone, let alone Tom.

    And I think that’s what a lot of the cult of Best Show fandom is. People identify with him mostly because he’s sharing his thoughts in earnest and he’s trying to stand for something. It’s just people relating to someone who isn’t gonna bullshit them. We gravitate to the show because hearing someone be truthful about their frustrations and insecurities is so refreshing and human. We tune in because for three hours a week, a normal person gets complete control over his surroundings, talking about what and with whomever he wants to. He has no problem hanging up on someone who wants to discuss something he doesn’t care about, which probably a personal fantasy for all of us. He does things exactly how we all like to think we would, although way better and much, much funnier.

    It is empowering to listen to. The good guys win on Tuesday nights, that’s just how it feels. And that’s a very hard feeling to walk away from.

    This is gonna be a weird story, but bear with me. Years ago, I read a reprint of an article about John Belushi in a Rolling Stone collection. I don’t remember much of the article other than the writer describing being terribly depressed and upon seeing this, Belushi told him “don’t take shit from anyone”. The writer (Charles M. Young) eulogized Belushi with that same phrase later in the article. These words had a profound effect on me in spite of the somewhat juvenile sentiment (I was 14, give me a break), and I’ve repeated them plenty over the years. Of course, the rub of it is that we all take shit from plenty of people in our lives. Try getting a bank loan or getting pulled over without taking a certain amount of shit.

    Years ago, I bought some show merch from and it never showed up in the mail. I sent Tom a sheepish email explaining this and apologizing for the confusion. His response was terse, apologizing in kind and saying he’d re-ship before adding:  don't ever apologize for writing about getting something you paid for, no matter who it is you're writing to! That's your money! It was totally true and I was embarrassed immediately. Sometimes we grow so accustomed to deferring to people that we expect it, which should never be the case.

    I think one of the big things I’ve learned from the Best Show is that there’s a difference between not taking any shit and not rolling over.  That you and I have every right and dignity afforded to us as the assholes who don’t know how to act like civilized human beings. What’s more, we outnumber them. I’ve learned that sometime the world puts so much attention on terrible behavior that we lose track of the fact that the overwhelming majority of us are considerate, decent people. Keeping that in mind makes life a lot easier sometimes.

    I’m gonna miss Tuesday nights because we’ll never have something like this again. I’ll miss Tom’s astonishment of how a show like Sons of Anarchy can exist, and Spike’s bad celebrity nicknames. I’ll miss Ploptron 5000, Roy Jr, and all of the other morbidly obese, drug-addicted denizens of Newbridge. I’ll miss deconstructing “Chestnut Mare”. I'll miss the theme song(s).

    I know that it has to end, and I know that we’ll all get to experience some amazing new things. I can’t complain about a show ending that has existed so consistently for so long. Nobody from the show owes me anything, and I thank everyone for making my world a better place. I’m just happy to have been a part of it, even if I didn’t participate. Scharpling and Wurster will continue to work together, and I know that I’ll love whatever they do. But I don’t think any of their future work will allow their personalities to shine through as much. There can’t be as much interaction with such a giant cast of weirdos, outcasts, and FOTS. There will never be another Best Show, and if you missed it, I’m sorry. If you caught it, I’m glad we all got to share it together. I’ll see you in the archives.

*As I wrote that, I realized that the closest TV analogy to The Best Show is probably the Chris Gethard Show, which also features a cast of lunatics and people who are fascinated with them, just in a different ratio.
**This was made even more in the most recent show, when several calls came in to that effect.
*** I’m discounting podcasts, which one could easily argue he is the godfather of (Suck on that that, Adam Curry). The show is a precursor to podcasts, but it’s worth noting that podcasting also helped the show develop an even more massive audience.

1 comment:

ib said...

Being a contrarian, a curmudgeon of sorts, is the surest test of humanity.

"If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.

—Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power (Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale translators). New York: Random House, 1967. pages 532–533"

A better writer than me.