With Tom Scharpling as Himself

Sometime after Tom Scharpling, host of the New Jersey-based cult call-in program The Best Show on WFMU, appeared on Marc Maron’s comedians-on-comedy podcast WTF in February of 2011, I convened with the friend who introduced me to the Best Show, and we found ourselves thinking back to the same moment in the interview. Speaking to Maron, Scharpling mentions that he believes listeners understand that his on-air persona–blustery, short tempered, and capricious; a “semi-benevolent dictator,” as GQ put it in 2010–is just that, a persona. To which my friend and I agreed: maybe, but it’s not always easy to tell.

This is not to say that listeners don’t understand that Scharpling is performing while on air. The Best Show features too many callers from the fictional Jersey town of Newbridge, and lately too many interjections from Scharpling’s prog-rock loving puppet Vance, to be heard as anything other than a comedy program. But callers to the show often approach Scharpling with real apprehension—so much so that Scharpling’s frustration with callers who led with ‘Is this me?’ and followed with ‘I’m a little nervous’ became a motif throughout fall ’11.

For Best Show coverts–and with each weekly episode at three hours long, it is a conversion process–Scharpling’s tendency to dress down and/or hang up on the most well-intentioned of callers is part of the program’s appeal. (Or at least some form of podcast Stockholm syndrome.) Most callers know they’re risking embarrassment once they get on air, even if many still sound surprised when Scharpling pounces. And if they’re nervous anyway–well, part of it’s probably stage fright, and part of it is that there’s no telling how serious Scharpling is in calling somebody a dumb-dumb. Inasmuch as listeners know that Scharpling’s adopting a persona while on air, they still don’t know where the persona begins and ends—and the occasional slippages of Scharpling’s mask can further confuse things.

Scharpling has played himself for three hours most weeks of the year for more than a decade, balancing bouts of working class indignation, nerd-minutiae mining, cool uncle sweetness, and occasional fits of egomania. His performances play like exaggerations of the self, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell what parts he’s exaggerating. The quotation marks around each boast, or each moan, are less easy to discern than, say, those around a Stephen Colbert bit.

Unlike the moments on Maron’s podcast in which a comedian drops his/her guard—surprising, often enlightening, at their best even cathartic—there’s something unsettling about the real-world intrusions into Scharpling’s Best Show monologues: moments in which Scharpling hints at professional disappointments or strained friendships rather than dropping anecdotes about the perils of roadside buffet pizza or a disappointing run-in with Mickey Dolenz. The AV Club noted that last week’s episode featured a few such moments, and writer Jason Diamond’s recap reminded me again of Schaprling’s comment during the Maron interview:

The show’s second hour hovers in a dark place, with Scharpling glumly looking back at a year that was especially dispiriting, and taking occasional tangents to (hilariously) read Aleister Crowley or mock the overly effusive praise of Louie (and sound jealous in the process). At times, Scharpling almost sounds like a DJ from a movie (Talk Radio?) who’s about to crack up on the air—genuinely hurt, at least until some of Crowley’s incantations pick him up.

Segments in which Scharpling’s discontent, amplified or not, overwhelms the comedy aren’t the most enjoyable that the Best Show has to offer. They aren’t the best entry points into the program either (for that, try the Best Show Gems collection). But they are the byproduct of Scharpling’s genuinely remarkable achievement: a semiautobiographical burlesque, sustained (more or less) since the year 2000. Whether The Best Show lasts for another decade, or whether Scarpling finally quits—as he often threatens to—in 2012, he’ll have left behind him a lengthy and sometimes vexing body of work.

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