“WFMU, you’re on the air.”
With that simple phrase, delivered honestly and expectantly, host Tom Scharpling starts most of the phone calls in to his Best Show on WFMU (iTunes link here). The voice that chirps up is often idiosyncratically familiar, one of a cast of regulars checking in to offer their opinion on topics that Scharpling, in his singular style, has offered his own stance on. In a recent August 16, 2011 episode, old people stealing cookies at the buffet earned a ten-minute lambasting. Callers also take some of Scharpling’s mild ribbing in exchange for a chance to catch Scharpling and fellow listeners up on the comings and goings of a cadre of musicians, comedians, and fellow regualars that make up a lion’s share of the content on the three-hour weekly program. Often celebrity friends of the show call in for a bit of comedic ramble. Folks like Patton Oswalt, Zack Galifianakis, Paul F. Tompkins, and John Hodgman.
Scharpling openly derides some of his non-famous callers. The nasal-voiced curmudgeon Spike, who uses every opportunity to hype John Wesley Shipp, the star of The Flash television series, and the awkward if game “James from Southwest PA,” whose cell phone connection is often as wavering as his tone, take their share of abuse. Another category of participants enjoy the “quality caller” label, and they tell jokes and cheer Scharpling up when his tone sags under the weight of the decade of unpaid three-hour weekly gigs with famous guests and the “mirth, music, and mayhem” that he promises at every outset. These callers, giggling ladies earning their Master’s degrees and hipster dudes in Brooklyn, urge Scharpling back on to the conversations that are the heart of the show, like the buffet discussion, and his stories of pinball in Asbury Park, that remind me, at least, that regional culture is still one of the strongest American forces, made stronger by those who don’t necessarily leave home. Home is a topic close to me, that being the place I’ve just recently returned to.
In sum, the Best Show is a three-hour comedy program that is at once an old school radio outpost, a community radio phenomenon, and the product of the online age of digital media and RSS technology. Tom Scharpling started a radio show on the independent station WFMU out of Jersey City, New Jersey, around 2000. Either WFMU already streamed live on the Internet, or they started to, and the show built an audience beyond the traditional broadcast region in New Jersey. Then, according to Wikipedia, Scharpling and Co. began distributing the show via podcast around 2006. The show is rooted in the region, with much conversation surrounding local shows and field trips to nearby points of interest. The only way to relate to a huge number of people is to be as specific as possible. I am very surprised, for example, that I enjoy Scharpling’s discussion of Jersey tourist outposts, but without them he wouldn’t be Scharpling. As I drive around Houston, scanning the buildings, street corners, and alleyways that I’ve haunted since my youth, Scharpling reminds me that it’s not a crime to stick around.
I can’t recall how I was turned onto The Best Show. Probably a confluence of commentary from those who have been influenced by it mentioning the show frequently enough for me to seek it out in podcast form. Like many, I started with the latest episodes, got hooked on the vocabulary of the show, on Scharpling’s palette of quips–my favorite being “Heave ho” to those callers who earn themselves a hang-up–and DJ tricks–my favorite being the way he intentionally cuts off the final syllable of every caller, be they welcomed or heave hoed. Scharpling, who I heard from him an interview somewhere took his style cues from the bombastic, bull-headed, egotistical talk radio show hosts of an earlier era1–the influence of prototypical radio prankster and manipulator Phil Hendrie is ubiquitous if subconscious–commands the air, one minute heaping praise on his favorite regular callers and another minute bellowing self-aggrandizing testaments to his own brilliance.
Comic routines staged as phone calls from the absurd panoply of characters performed by Scharpling’s comedy partner John Wurster intermingle with phone calls from the regulars and interviews with celebrity guests. The show rolls along like a social evening until the sun has set and a sense of calm comes with Scharpling’s introduction of Solid Gold Hell, the show that follows his. The endorphin glow of intermittent laughter and aural satisfaction fades into the night. The experience is a complete one, with rounded corners.
All of this in the name of comedy, and it really is brilliant. Scharpling, by being hilarious and doggedly pursuing the comedy that he enjoys, the comedians that he likes, and the callers that stir him in whatever manner that they do, has done what great artists do, what community does: he has engineered a creative universe. A universe to me is metaphysical “place” where the players and their interactions and communications follow certain rules that drive somewhat predictable outcomes that simultaneously leave room for spontaneous outbursts that are original within those rules. The successful creative universe is rich, dense, and inhabitable. Scharpling’s show, all ten years of unquantifiable nuance, conversation, character, and comedy, is the rare creative universe whose bounds are out of sight, suggesting a real universe in that the edges are obscured and anything seems possible. I could say the word “yogurt” and suspect without knowing for sure that the topic has been covered somewhere in The Best Show universe.
Enter baseball. There’s not a direct connection between The Best Show and the best game (Scharpling is, in fact, a major basketball fan and an experienced basketball writer). But baseball is a creative universe just like The Best Show. I’ve called it “the baseball multiverse” in the past as a way of trying to put to a term the multi-faceted face of baseball and the variety of ways that we consume, absorb, digest, and exude baseball by watching games, reading blogs, writing articles, playing ourselves, etc. Whatever the entry point or exit point, baseball contains the characters and the rules, the backstory and the breaking news, the boundaries and ultimately the limitlessness of a creative universe. The basic rules of the game and the playing surface establish the baseline of experience, but the human possibilities are endless, and those of us who engage with the game understand the possibilities without knowing the limits.
And therein lies the draw. As soon as one understands the limitations of a system, of a creative universe, the desire to engage that universe diminishes. One quick example would be that of the team eliminated from playoff contention. When the season is set and the results mathematically determined, you may as well move on to football season.2 Hence the joy and wonder of Spring Training and the first game of the season, as those are the times when the uncertainty–the sheer possibility–is heightened, when a Dbacks fan or a Pirates fan can dream about contention.
On the micro scale, each baseball game is a universe, too, just like an individual episode of The Best Show. Each new game adds to and draws from the collective mythology of baseball, and presents the opportunity to witness something entirely novel and entirely knowable. A baseball game is both self-contained and all-containing. As Patrick put it in his recent essay, Why I Write (About Baseball): “The game is something that connects all of us, forms a framework by which we can develop other ideas about the world as a whole.”
This sucker is the alpha and the omega.
As I’ve mentioned, I recently returned to Houston, Texas, and rededicated myself to the Houston Astros and my Astros blog, Foamer Night. Through the pretty deliberate means of starting an entire blog on the topic, I am throwing myself into the Astros universe in much the same way I threw myself into The Best Show universe by listening to back episodes of the show, researching Tom and his friends, reading his Tweets and those of his guests and friends, watching for his credits as a writer on Monk, and generally surrounding myself with the mythology of the show. And there I find the same satisfactions as I watch the young Astros day after day. The excellence of Wandy Rodriguez when he’s clicking is the ultimate Houstonian’s inside joke; the exuberant cut of rookie third baseman Jimmy Paredes’ jib brings a smile as though it was the familiar voice of a comedian with no new album to pitch; a slider low in the zone rather than one hanging like a pair of undies on the line marks incremental improvement for a young pitcher to the attentive fan. These are the planetary bodies and celestial citizens that occupy the creative universe of the Houston Astros.
The seeds of this idea were sewn long before Eric’s last post, though I think it goes without saying that I am thrilled to learn that Scharpling will participate in The Classical alongside Eric, Bethlehem Shoals, and many other friends of Pitchers & Poets.