For almost two decades, Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster have annexed a specific little patch of notional real estate in the badlands between rock music and comedy. What began as a running goof on a radio show has grown into a multimedia comedy partnership.
Scharpling and Wurster – appearing, cleverly, as “Scharpling & Wurster” – will bring their live show to the Triangle this weekend. In fact, Saturday’s show is the last performance of the current iteration of the live act, which they’ve been touring around the country for more than a year.
Newbridge on the line
For 17 years, Scharpling has hosted “The Best Show,” a weekly music/comedy hybrid that initially aired on the free-format radio station WFMU in New Jersey. The show’s blend of high-octane music, low-key comedy and strange call-in segments has earned it a rabidly loyal following.
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“The Best Show” has since migrated online and still broadcasts every Tuesday night from 9 to midnight at thebestshow.net.
Jon Wurster – currently the drummer for local heroes Superchunk and The Mountain Goats – is among the show’s regular call-in guests, although rarely as himself. Instead, Wurster has developed a roster of fictional call-in characters, many hailing from the alternate-reality New Jersey suburb of Newbridge.
Among his surreal recurring characters: Timmy Von Trimble, a 2-inch-tall genetic experiment with racist tendencies; and The Gorch, a Newbridge native who insists he’s the inspiration for The Fonz on “Happy Days.”
So, yeah, it’s like that. Scharpling and Wurster’s curveball exchanges are hard to describe, but they’re very funny. Much of the fun is in the specificity. The call-in bits often mine obscure veins of music and pop culture history, with contributions from the show’s celebrity guests, comedians and musicians.
Saturday’s show at Motorco in Durham is essentially a live distillation of the radio show’s blend of music and comedy, adapted for rock club venues, with a live band onstage.
“There will be appearances from several of the characters that have appeared on the radio show over the years,” says Wurster, speaking from his home in Chapel Hill. “But you don’t need to know the radio show at all to have a good time. The highest compliment we get on the live show is when someone will come up and they’ve never heard the radio show, they don’t know any of the bits, and they still love it.”
‘Rock, rot or rule’
Scharpling and Wurster first met in 1992 at a Superchunk show in New York. Scharpling – who has since gone on to a busy career in TV and radio – was publishing the fanzine “18 Wheeler” at the time.
“We bonded over a mutual love of Chris Elliot and his show ‘Get a Life,’” Wurster says. “It just kind of took off from there.”
In his first call-in bit to “The Best Show,” Wurster assumed the role of a clueless hipster music writer whose new book sorts every band in rock history into one of three categories. “Rock, Rot or Rule” became an instant classic and set the template for their radio routine.
“Because that was the first call we ever did, no one knew that it was a bit,” Wurster says. “People really believed that I was this guy that had written this horrendous reference book. I was a brick wall of ignorance.”
Wurster’s call-in segments quickly became a signature part of Scharpling’s WFMU show, and the cast of characters continued to grow. “The Best Show” became one of the first radio shows to get traction online via podcast, and the audience grew steadily.
Speaking from his home in New Jersey, Scharpling says fans can expect familiar elements in the live show, but he doesn’t want to give too much away.
“We like to keep it spontaneous, and there are things that we figure out as we’re rolling up to it,” he says. “People talk about music and comedy overlap, but I don’t know that anyone does a purer version of it than what we do.”
Both Wurster and Scharpling cite SCTV as a formative influence that still informs the character-driven nature of the act.
“As a kid, I was interested in two things, music and comedy, in equal measure,” Scharpling says. “It was a question of which would take over in terms of what I do. I can’t do music, so I ended up doing comedy.”
As for Wurster, he considers his comedy sideline career largely a happy accident.
“I never had comedy aspirations. I really came in the side door with this whole thing,” he says. “But I loved SCTV – it’s probably influenced me more than anything.”
Local all-stars assist
Scharpling and Wurster recently notched another comedy milestone, voicing two characters on “The Simpsons” in an episode to be aired March 13.
Naturally, music is a core part of the vibe with any Scharpling & Wurster initiative, and Saturday’s show will feature what amounts to a local all-star band: John Plymale on guitar, Robert Sledge on bass, Peter Holsapple on keyboards and Rob Ladd on drums. Longtime music director Brian Dennis will also be on hand.
Scharpling & Wurster represent a kind of sideways riff on the classic comedy duo, piloting the old music-and-comedy routine into new territories of indie rock appreciation.
“We both grew up reading Creem magazine,” Wurster says. “We joke now that it’s finally paid off. It ruined our adolescence, but now we’re able to use all this weird minutia.”
What: Scharpling & Wurster
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Motorco, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham
Info: 919-901-0875 or motorcomusic.com