Theater & art

Scharpling and Wurster started with a phone call

Tom Scharpling (left) and Jon Wurster’s live show will feature a handful of characters and some Boston-based guests.
Mindy Tucker
Tom Scharpling (left) and Jon Wurster’s live show will feature a handful of characters and some Boston-based guests.

Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, who play the Sinclair Sunday night, never planned to become a prolific comedy team with a cult following. They started off just trying to make each other laugh 18 years ago, when Wurster called into Scharpling’s radio show on WMFU out of Jersey City, pretending to be a spurious rock critic named Ronald Thomas Clontle touting a new book titled “Rock, Rot & Rule.”

“We had no idea if anyone was listening,” says Wurster of the call.

Clontle slammed David Bowie and Neil Young, putting them in the “Rot” category, and inflamed listeners by wrongly crediting the English band Madness with creating ska music. Scharpling was the straight man, drawing increasingly flawed conclusions from Clontle. Almost accidentally, they created a durable format for themselves. “It started off less a kind of comedy duo and more a host of a radio show getting a weird call from a weird guy,” says Scharpling. “We came at it from trying to just take advantage of being on the radio. It started off very different from what it grew into.”

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Wurster was drumming for the melodic punk band Superchunk when he first met Scharpling, and the pair bonded over their love of music and comedy. That first call was a goof, full of the kinds of things that would come up in regular conversation between the two. But it created a dynamic that lasted for the run of Scharpling’s “The Best Show,” from 2000 to 2013, and continues now online. Amy Poehler and David Cross were early fans. Wurster gave tapes of the first call to friends in touring bands such as Sleater-Kinney.

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The characters got weirder and weirder — a former Pennsylvania hoodlum who calls himself The Gorch and claims to be the inspiration for Fonzie; an aging musician named Barry Dworkin trying to put together the ultimate band; and a 2-inch-tall man named Timmy von Trimble who was created in a lab, talks like a boy, and also happens to be incredibly racist. “It kinda comes to life and then we’re inside of it,” says Scharpling. “That’s the fun part, that something so dumb can become real. It’s like smart and stupid at the same time. It’s real and unreal at the same time. I like that that’s where we’ve ended up.”

The most consistent element is that the pair is doing things that make them laugh. “We’re definitely doing it for our own enjoyment,” says Wurster. “That’s the thing. We never really thought, we’re going to spin this into something, it’s going to get bigger, there’ll be more people listening. We just kept doing it because we love to do it. And luckily, people started to listen and it’s gotten bigger and bigger.”

Over 13 years on WFMU, Wurster gave voice to enough arrogant crackpots to fill a whole town, the fictional Newbridge, N.J. There’s a map of Newbridge in the pair’s new box set, “The Best of the Best Show,” which includes more than 20 hours of material on 16 CDs and a flash drive. They started with hundreds of hours of material to choose from, and Scharpling says he spent six weeks editing the final tracks, working around the clock, to the point where he couldn’t stand the sound of his own voice. “It’s amazing how all the hard work and the agony, all that stuff falls away and you just focus on the good parts of it,” he says. “That’s probably what you should do anyway, not to still be obsessing on how hard it was.”

The live show will feature a handful of characters, which means some costume changes for Wurster, and some Boston-based guests. “Each show is geared for the city that we’re in,” he says. “It’ll definitely be a one-of-a-kind show.”

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Scharpling says the dynamic is a bit different on a live stage. “Usually on the radio it’s just all about this silence and we’re just trusting that people are laughing,” he says. “And now it’s getting an immediate reaction from people and feeling that energy from a crowd. It’s the opposite of what it is on the radio.”

As for the future of the show, it continues in podcast form on TheBest
Show.net, and Scharpling and Wurster are considering their options, including developing a version for television. “It can kind of be whatever we want it to be,” says Scharpling. “And I want to try to take advantage of that as much as possible and see what that means.”

SCHARPLING AND WURSTER

At the Sinclair, Cambridge, Nov. 29,

8 p.m. Tickets: $25. 617-547-5200, www.sinclaircambridge.com

Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.