Tar Heel of the Week: A top drummer turns funny -- Jon Wurster, comedy writer and musician, will dominate Merge 25

Musician Jon Wurster has been a local-music fixture for over a quarter-century with bands including Superchunk. He is also an in-demand writer and voice artist for comedy shows.
Musician Jon Wurster has been a local-music fixture for over a quarter-century with bands including Superchunk. He is also an in-demand writer and voice artist for comedy shows. jleonard@newsobserver.com

From the N&O archives -- July 20, 2014

This week brings the grand finale of Merge 25, the 25-year anniversary of local label Merge Records. Many of the biggest acts from the chart-topping, Grammy-winning label’s roster will play in Carrboro Thursday through Saturday, including Neutral Milk Hotel, Superchunk and other underground stars.

Only one musician, however, will play all three nights. Jon Wurster, a veritable renaissance man of the punk-rock chitlin circuit, will be behind the drums for Superchunk, Bob Mould Band and Mountain Goats. With those and other bands, Wurster has played on stages great and small over the years - from “Late Show With David Letterman” and “Austin City Limits” down to the most humble dives around.

On top of that, he’s also a star in the world of comedy, writing for various Cartoon Network shows, co-starring in an acclaimed radio show, maintaining one of the funniest Twitter feeds in the entertainment business and even pulling the occasional acting star turn.

“If Jon was just a comedian, all the great stuff he does would make you go, ‘Wow!’” says Matthew Perpetua, an editor at the New York-based entertainment website BuzzFeed. “But he’s also one of the best drummers in indie rock. He really just lifts up every song and every band he’s in, with a good ear for fills and editing a song to make the best parts stand out. There are not a lot of drummers like that.”

Along with his steady bands, Wurster has also been hired to do a lot of peculiar one-off gigs, such as backing up Charlie Daniels playing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in a UPS commercial. Then there was the 2009 awards show at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall where Wurster played with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, backing up Katy Perry on the night she met Russell Brand (her future ex-husband).

“That show was to open with a tribute to Michael Jackson, who had just died,” Wurster says. “So we’re standing by at the ready, in the dark, and I see this figure walk by and ascend a staircase. It was Madonna, and I’m looking at her high above me, waiting for the spotlight to do this heartfelt requiem to Michael Jackson. My life is built on odd little things like that.”

Waiting for Keith

Wurster, 47,grew up in Pennsylvania and had his first musical experience playing trumpet in elementary school. After getting a drum set for his 12th birthday, he taught himself by playing along with records until joining his first band at age 14 - the unpromisingly named Hair Club For Men.

“That was something the bass player stole,” Wurster says. “I didn’t even know there was a company called that.”

All of Wurster’s other interests faded as he plunged into music full-time. Winston-Salem’s The Right Profile brought him to North Carolina in 1986, and the band signed with Arista Records a few months after he joined. But life on a major label proved frustrating. Years went by while The Right Profile tried to come up with material that would satisfy Arista, which never happened. The group broke up without releasing a record.

“When I was 14 and playing along to all those records, my goal was to ‘make it’ before I was 20,” Wurster says, “which is insane, of course. But I signed a record deal at 19, except it turned out to be a nightmare. I’m lucky I got all my record-business lumps right out of the gate. Those were my dark days.”

After The Right Profile disbanded, Wurster’s bandmate Stephen Dubner became an acclaimed author, co-writing the 2005 best-seller “Freakonomics.” Wurster played in a series of local bands until 1991, when he landed in Superchunk, flagship band of Chapel Hill’s ’90s alternative-rock generation. He’s been there ever since, adding Mountain Goats and Mould to his roster while also moonlighting in Whiskeytown, Marah and numerous other bands.

“It’s kind of worked out the way I’d always hoped,” Wurster says. “In my formative years, my ‘Big Three’ was R.E.M., the Replacements and Husker Du. I’ve gotten to play with the R.E.M. guys a few times over the years, and I’m with (Husker Du’s) Bob Mould now. Maybe I’ll get to play with Paul Westerberg, and that will cover the Replacements. As for other bucket-list stuff, Keith Richards would be great. But that will never happen.”

‘Rock, Rot & Rule’

Wurster’s comedy career began in 1999 with an album called “Rock, Rot & Rule.” Quite possibly the greatest phone prank in recorded history, “Rock, Rot & Rule” featured Wurster playing the world’s most clueless rock critic doing a radio interview and arguing with a stream of confused and increasingly enraged callers.

That set the template for “The Best Show,” which ran for 13 years on New York public radio station WFMU. Deejay Tom Scharpling hosted while Wurster called in playing a variety of disreputable characters - “Phillie Boy Roy,” “The Gorch” - much of it improvised.

It didn’t take long for Wurster to become as well-known for comedy as music. By 2011, Spin magazine was calling him and Scharpling “punk geniuses.” And when Superchunk wasn’t touring for long stretches of the early 2000s, Wurster earned a lot of his income writing comedy spots for the MTV network.

If all goes according to plan, Wurster’s comedy reputation will soon expand. “The Best Show” is on hiatus, but Wurster and Scharpling are working on relaunching it within the next year.

“Jon’s the funniest person I’ve ever met, and the idea that he’s this good a comedian and writer while also having this equally impressive career as a drummer is incomprehensible,” says Scharpling.

Tar Heel of the Week: Jonathan Patrick Wurster

Born: Oct. 31, 1966, in Sellersville, Pa.

Education: Souderton Area High School class of 1984

Career: Drummer with bands including The Right Profile/The Carneys (1986-91), Superchunk (1991-present), Whiskeytown (1998), The Mountain Goats (2007-present), Bob Mould Band (2008-present). The “Wurster” in the Scharpling & Wurster comedy team as heard on WMFU-FM’s “The Best Show” (2000-13). Contributor to Cartoon Network “Adult Swim” shows, including “Tom Goes to the Mayor,” “Squidbillies” and “Your Pretty Face is Going To Hell.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759 or @NCDavidMenconi