I tried. I really did. I tried so hard to explain why the end of The Best Show on WFMU is an American tragedy. But like anyone with a fervent devotion to something, it’s hard to make others understand.
I should say it wasn’t just about explaining the end of the show. I tried to explain why I am madly obsessed with and devoted to The Best Show on WFMU, and have been for many years. Why there are thousands of people all over the world calling themselves Friends of Tom (FOT’s), myself included, who tune in to a New Jersey radio station every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. EST for a 3-hour radio show which claims to be about three things: “Mirth, Music and Mayhem”, but is really about anything it wants to be. How these thousands of people, all over the world, have created a virtual community via the show message board, Twitter and other social media.
These compatriots in obsession adore the host of The Best Show, Tom Scharpling, with a feverish devotion. They follow every in-joke, and every nuance. They listen intently as he and his comedic cohort and world-class drummer, Jon Wurster, build the fictional world of Newbridge, New Jersey, one insane phone conversation at a time. They love every single person Tom interviews on the show, whether they are a comedian, musician, or just folks in and around The Best Show community. They love every time Tom hangs up on a caller, they love his stories, they love the pop cultural take downs, and the way they could be a part of the show if they are only brave enough to call in.
Now that the show is coming to a close, my friends and family have been asking me to explain the eternal torch I carry for The Best Show. I tried to tell them that The Best Show is unlike all other pop cultural obsessions. The Best Show is life changing. More than just the countless cyber-friends I’ve made in the FOT community via Twitter (#BestShowWFMU), the show gets into your bones. It makes you feel something so personal, and yet so intangible. It infects your life and becomes a weekly priority.
I’ve tried to put into words why. Why the show fosters this sort of reverence. Perhaps the best I can do is to describe the way the show makes me feel.
It’s the way you have to rush home with anticipation each Tuesday at 7:00; or you have to make the effort to listen as soon as possible once the archive or podcast is out. The way I always do the dishes to the music portion of the show. The way I catalog important life-memories around what episode I was listening to that week. It’s the ritual of it. The reverence. My pal and Denver comedian Kevin O’Brien learned to curb his gaming addiction through the magic of Tom Scharpling: The 3 hours of the show each week was all the time he was allowed to play Super Mario World.
Very few people get this, very few people get the show at all, and that only adds to the pleasure of being on the inside. You become loyal to Tom. The way his opinions and inflections and ridiculous self-aggrandizing statements sneak into your life. The way you have a shared language with anyone you encounter who likes the show.
“You know The Best Show?”
“Oh, you’re an FOT?”
“We are friends.”
I recently used a string of phrases like “Friends of Tom” and “the ritual of Best Show” to a guy I’ve been dating, and he said it sounded a lot like a cult. He asked me to substitute the words “Tom Scharpling” with “Jim Jones” or “David Koresh,” and asked me if I thought it all sounded a little fucked up.
But in the greater religion of Comedy, The Best Show has been my current congregation of choice. I have worshipped at the alters of Monty Python, SNL, Mr. Show, Bill Murray, Steve Martin. Tom is another profit of my chosen faith. I realize this may sound silly, or heretical, or even hysterical, but I don’t see the harm. For me comedy is the great uniting force of the human race. To point out that which is absurd, that which is ridiculous, that which takes itself too seriously is the highest command of this church. But rather than condemning the absurdity, embrace it, poke holes in it, take it for a nice walk and get to know it a bit.
Tom Scharpling often likes to say it’s him versus the world. He’s the “King of Free Entertainment”, out there steamrolling the chumps, in the trenches, doin’ it for the rest of us. He’s Joe Lunch-pail, fighting the good fight. But in the same breath, Tom will immediately turn around and laugh at himself. Laugh at the ridiculous heights he’s allowed himself to go on a microphone, in a room, by himself. It’s that inclusiveness that I love. The show acts as a great leveler. We’re all just people. We like what we like, as Tom says, and that’s okay. But it’s also okay to make fun of the dude who likes the thing you think is stupid, and why?
Because it’s funny.
I’ll be sad to see The Best Show go this Tuesday. I’ll miss the inside joke of a show, and I’ll miss the feeling that for three hours, anything could happen. I’ll miss laughing so hysterically that I end up falling and breaking things inside my apartment. I’ll miss the satisfaction of feeling like everyone who was listening, and everyone in and around The Best Show family gets it, and that the “it” is perhaps indescribable.
That was the conclusion of my attempt to explain the “Why?” of the show and its fans. I couldn’t do it. It’s something you have to experience every Tuesday night for three hours. It is a cult, and I’m a converted brainwashed zealot. I couldn’t be happier about it.