Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster Tell Us What Rocks, Rots, and Rules
Ahead of two shows celebrating the 20th anniversary of their legendary skit, we speak with Scharpling and Wurster about 'The Best Show,' Ed Sheeran, and Mac DeMarco.
Photo by Mindy Tucker via Pitch Perfect PR
Not everybody knows about the comedic duo of Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster or the most popular showcase for their joke-making, The Best Show. But to those that do, these men are the greatest stars on Earth. When VICE's Thomas Morton was introduced to Tom Scharpling for the first time all he could muster in response was a grimacing smile of exhilaration and fear. Damian Abraham from Fucked Up once told me that Tom Scharpling is a person who makes the stars get starstruck. One thing is understood in the world of music and comedy and that's that if you know about The Best Show with Tom Scharpling, you are probably a cool, smart person. Being an FOT, or "Friend of Tom" as fans of the show are referred to, is like being part of a secret society of people who are really into jokes about obscure rock trivia and also aren't uptight dicks about it.
The Best Show is a weekly call-in show which began on WFMU and now exists online in which colorful oddballs, famous people, and comedians call in and discuss various topics. It's all very funny but what makes the show so special are the pre-arranged comedic skits that are done over the phone between 48-Year-old Tom Scharpling and 50-year-old Jon Wurster, the drummer of Superchunk, Bob Mould Band, and Mountain Goats. Wurster calls under the guise of a number of different characters both real and fictional. He's called in as Gene Simmons, Marky Ramone, and Todd Palin as well as invented characters like Philly Boy Roy, a Philadelphian ne'er do well.
The first call-in skit they did together was called "Rock, Rot, and Rule." It involved Jon Wurster playing a self-proclaimed rock expert named Ron Clontle who had written a book in which he declared which rock bands rocked, rotted, and ruled. In 2014, that call was released as a vinyl record. This Saturday, Jon and Tom are hosting two events at Murmrr Theater in Brooklyn to celebrate the call's 20th birthday. Both shows are sold out but we interviewed them about it anyway.
Noisey: Would you recount how you two met?
Jon: We met at a show. I'd only been in Superchunk for a year by this point in June or July of '92. It was what would now be the powerbill of My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, and Superchunk at the second Ritz in New York City. Tom came to the show and we immediately hit it off over Get A Life and this now forgotten VJ, the original host of Headbangers Ball, who was named Smash. Tom and I were the only people who had any working knowledge of Smash.
Tom: MTV went and got this guy Smash who seemed like he was pushing 50. He was one of those guys who just looked old and nobody knew about him. It felt like two tennis players just tying over and over again and there was nowhere else to go but I guess this guy is now my friend.
Jon: Sidebar—I was in St. Louis in 2000 or so and I turn on the radio and Smash is the DJ. I frantically called Tom: "I found him!"
Have you reached out to Smash?
Jon: We never have! Now I gotta look him up!
Tom: As important as Smash is, we have never done anything with him.
It might be time to incorporate him into the comedy trio of Scharpling & Wurster & Smash.
Tom: Yeah he was the missing partner the whole time.
How long did it take after meeting each other did it take for you to start writing comedy together?
Jon: Five years.
Tom: Jon was in Chapel Hill and I was in New Jersey. We would joke around about stuff and eventually I got a show on WFMU. I started taking calls and tried to get bits of pieces of my non-musical interests on the show in but it was still mostly music. I think everybody believed the Rock, Rot & Rule call was real because why would someone have a prank comedy skit on a music show? Once the phones lit up it became a prank but it didn't set out to fool people.
Jon: My memory of it was that it was meant to be a stand alone performance piece and we never factored in that there would be calls. Once the guy called in to argue the fallacy of Madness inventing ska it opened the floodgates of people who were enraged by this idiot I was playing.
One of the things that made your show so ahead of it's time is how you mix in real callers with the pre-planned comedy routine phone calls. You were creating a sort of soft-reality decades before social media where everything is semi-fake.
Tom: What!? I thought I was doing something wrong. Everybody's got perfect lives and on vacation all the time. One thing I think we might have been ahead of with was how everyone is an expert now. It's one of the most important things that we make fun of is the know-it-all who doesn't know what they're talking about.
Jon: And they'll double down on their opinion. They are convinced they're right even though they're not.
There's a world of men who hang out in record stores whose opinion is the only thing they have going for them.
Tom: All they have to differentiate themselves from others is whether they have that record or know about the record and you don't. That's actual capital to them and they use it to make other people feel bad.
Was the character of Ron Clontle, know-nothing expert, based on any specific person or people?
Jon: There were a couple people I won't name but there was one specific person we toured with we referred to as the Punk Rock Scientist. He wielded the possession of an early Misfits single like it was currency.
Tom: It's weird how possession of a thing is just as important as creation of a thing in certain circles.
Like people who would ask you which cover of Flex Your Head you had.
Jon: Yeah. "You got the violins cover?"
Tom: One of the good things about music being everywhere is that it's diminished the ability of people to do this and now people can just talk about music for the music's sake.
How did you come up with the three options of rocking, rotting, and ruling instead of just two?
Jon: We were talking on the phone with each other while watching TV and Oprah Winfrey had been sued by the Texas Beef Council. She won and she came out of the courthouse saying something like "Freedom not only rings, it rocks." And we thought that was really funny and that led us to a discussion about what rocks and what rules and what sucks, which later became "rots."
Tom: Although someone claims that happened two months after we did the call. I think the root of the humor is that you take someone with this varied body of work and then come along and boils it down to one word. You're just going to say the Beatles rock. Discussion over, case closed.
It's amazing how fast people decide that they're experts and also how much they want to view the art they absorb as somehow being more important to how it affects people's perception of them than a connection with the artists who made it.
Jon: I feel lucky to have grown up when I did when you'd find a thing and like it and want to learn about it but you wouldn't say "Now I need to take a photo of me with the record and take it to the Photo Hut to get developed and then somehow get it out there into the world so that people know that I own this."
How tight was the script for Rock, Rot & Rule?
Jon: Not super tight, more of an outline. We also had these calls coming in that took the bit in a whole different direction.
Tom: When the call became interactive with the un-screened callers. It was the greatest early example of how funny Jon was. It was like Jon had said, "I'll fight anyone," and a line of people showed up and he was fighting everyone on the line. I realized Jon was a master at doing characters completely in the moment. He was this jerk who was so wrong and wouldn't give an inch to anyone disagreeing with him. When Jon said that Christmas isn't a big book buying season we thought it would be clear that this was clearly fake but people kept arguing with him.
How long did it take for the call to get popular? I know Conan O'Brien was an early proponent.
Jon: Well we had a tape of it. There were a couple of lost minutes we had to find because it was live on the radio. We started giving it to touring bands like Guided By Voices and Spoon and that's how it found it's way out into the world.
Are the live shows you're doing on Saturday going to be similar to past Best Show live performances?
Jon: Somewhat. It's more a celebration of our partnership but there'll be other stuff. There'll be music and some funny stuff and maybe friends from the show.
Both shows are sold out so there's no real point for this interview to even exist.
Tom: Not unlike what we were saying about people who own records other people don't have, this interview is just a weapon to make other people feel bad.
Jon: It's a "face rubber" as we call it.
May I throw out some names to see if they rock, rot or rule? How do you feel about Ed Sheeran?
Jon: I'm a little tired of seeing his face. He doesn't look like he rocks. I'd say he soft rocks.
Jon: I've seen her with a guitar and with the Flaming Lips who have a couple guitars. Let's just say she rocks.
How about Bruno Mars?
Jon: He's performed with Sting and he's basically performing a Sting song. He might "reggae." That's the new category. "Rock, rot, rule, or reggae."
What qualifies someone to reggae?
Jon: They have to have the tiniest bit of it. There's a 38 Special song that has a ten second reggae upstroke on the guitar. There's also "Spirit of Radio" by Rush.
Have you noticed the increased influence of reggae on current rap music?
Tom: This is good news for trombone players. "The phone's ringing again. I knew the slump would end at some point."
How would the Foo Fighters rank?
Jon: They'd have to rule because they're rock's only band.
Tom: In the new issue of Rolling Stone they said that they're like IBM or Coca Cola.
What would Jack Clontle think of Mac DeMarco?
Jon: He would think that's a pizza place down at the shore.
Tom: Yeah, "I'm not a food critic."
What would he think of the Get Up Kids?
Tom: "Too Enthusiastic."
Jon: He would comment on how they wear jumpers.
What are you listening to lately?
Jon: I saw some good shows but they're all legacy acts. I saw the Psychedelic Furs and the Church. We both like A Giant Dog.
Tom: Nobody else has the theatricality that they have and the songs are really well written, full and lotta vocals.
Does A Giant Dog rock or rule?
Jon: They rule.
Is there another twenty years of comedy in you two?
Jon: I'm hoping there's another twenty years of life in us. I just turned sixty.
Tom: I'm at double seven now. Hanging hard at seventy-seven. I'm like George Burns at this point. I just want to get to a hundred and do a show.
Jon: At that point you're a legacy and you can just do what you want to do.
Tom: Everything you do that isn't dying is an accomplishment.
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