If you were to listen to WFMU, the legendary independent station out of New Jersey, and not hear something that you’d like, you could just return in a few hours and likely hear something you do like. Not only that, you’d likely hear something that won’t be transmitted across the airwaves no matter what city you’re living. In an era where it seems that every radio station out there is part of the Clear Channel family of networks playing the same tired playlist of forgettable pop, WFMU is a vital voice in independent art of all sorts. For 13 years, until the first incarnation ended its run in December 2013, WFMU was the home for The Best Show on WFMU, a three-hour comedy program hosted by Tom Scharpling. Billed as three hours of mirth, music, and mayhem, the highlight of The Best Show would be when Jon Wurster would call in, playing various characters that occupy the fictional town where all the madness of The Best Show takes place – Newbridge, New Jersey. After a year off the air, The Best Show returned late last year as an internet-only show — now just The Best Show. And in conjunction with the return of the show, the Numero Group released an expansive 16-CD box set, Scharpling & Wurster: The Best of the Best Show.
Over the course of The Best Show’s life, the show has built a dedicated following known as Friends of Tom, or FOT for short. I’m proud to say that I’m an FOT, but don’t allow that to have my objectivity of this box set called into question. I mean, this 16-CD box set isn’t cheap, running at $100. But, damn, do they absolutely give you your money’s worth and then some. I can’t think of a comparable box set in terms of content and quality.
The 16-CD set features over 24 hours of Scharpling & Wurster’s comedic mayhem. In the simplest of terms, the fictional town of Newbridge is very much like Springfield in The Simpsons, a reflection of America that is populated with an assorted collection of oddballs. While it may seem that show has a dense, impenetrable mythology, one can quickly pick up each of these characters, their schemes, and the show’s numerous in-jokes. Among the 24 hours of material are calls by Philly Boy Roy, the embodiment of everything about the City of Brotherly Love; The Gorch, the chain-slashing real-life inspiration for Fonzie; Zachary Brimstead, the boisterous barbershop singer; Barry Dworkin, frontman of the Gas Station Dogs and author of the magnificently convoluted rock anthem Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams’ll Come Through, and many, many more of the residents of Newbridge. Also on the set are a few of Wurster’s calls impersonating rockers Gene Simmons, Marky Ramone, and one where he calls in as Jimmy Crespo from Aerosmith.
Many of these comedy bits are built upon a foundation in reality then expand into this realm of the completely implausible. They’re also very specific in many regards. Having most of my family from Philadelphia, the amount of truth that is within the over-the-top eccentricity of Philly Boy Roy is astounding, right down to “wooder.” The duo of Scharpling & Wurster also have an encyclopedic knowledge of music and many of their bits are very specific to certain musical groups as varied as G.G. Allin and Bruce Springsteen. But these are comedy bits that toe the line between super specificity and broad accessibility.
As much as having 24 hours of comedy is already worth its price tag, The Best of the Best Show box set goes above and beyond with extras that make this one of the finest box sets I’ve ever encountered. There’s 108-page hardcover book with essays by Patton Oswalt, Julie Klausner, and more, as well as an in-depth interview with Scharpling & Wurster conducted by Jake Fogelnest, and notes on each individual call. Then there’s the artwork by Neil Numberman, Joe Matt, and many, many more, bringing these audio-only characters to life. As if that weren’t enough, the set also features temporary tattoos, a map of Newbridge, a collection of postcards, and a USB drive with the entire set and 4 hours of extra mayhem. The box set is shipped complete with packaging tape from Consolidated Cardboard, the fictional company where Tom works in the world of the show. It’s just that kind of attention to detail presents just how much effort went into making this box set something truly special.
The best way for outsiders to enter the world of Newbridge is through the discontinued podcast Best Show Gems, the archives of which are still on the WFMU website. The latest incarnation of the show has their own new variation of Best Show Gems, Best Show Bests, which is available on The Best Show’s website. Late last year, Scharpling & Wurster did a short for Adult Swim. But the short, We’re Newbridge, We’re Comin’ to Get Ya!, debuted a few days before Too Many Cooks took the internet by storm, obscuring their brilliant short. While Scharpling & Wurster aren’t household names, they’ve built their devoted following which includes a number of high-profile voices in comedy – Conan O’Brien, Patton Oswalt, John Oliver, and many others. As The Best Show moves forward in its current incarnation, Scharpling & Wurster: The Best of the Best Show is a perfect look back at 13-years of comedy. It’s essential for any devotees to The Best Show and an excellent starting point for any immigrants to the Newbridge area. Like the show itself, the box set is a dense labor of love, expansive, nuanced, and hilarious. It’s not often that you can spend $100 on a box set and feel like you got one hell of a bargain.