A few minutes after taking the stage Saturday night at a sold-out Motorco, Jon Wurster bailed. He told co-host Tom Scharpling that he was dissatisfied with his allotment of applause time. Wurster said he wanted to soak in applause comparable to what Bill Clinton gets in front of crowds—“or like when the tall guy from Arcade Fire gets on an airplane,” he said.
Wurster deserved it, he said, because of his local status; next month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of his move to Chapel Hill. “I’ve got a bunch of my people out there in the crowd,” he pleaded, citing, among others, his brother, his yoga teacher, his nutritionist, his nutritionist’s assistant, and his nutritionist’s assistant’s publicist. “I can’t bomb up here in front of those people.”
Scharpling explained that there was only so much time in the show, and Wurster stormed offstage.
After a few minutes of Scharpling making awkward (hilarious, actually) conversation with the crowd about Seth MacFarlane’s empire of mediocre comedy shows, a heckler interrupted. It was Philly Boy Roy.
Fans of The Best Show with Tom Scharpling (née The Best Show on WFMU) are deeply acquainted with Philly Boy Roy. He’s one of several characters Wurster voices on the radio show. The gist is that Scharpling is the host, and he fields calls from the townspeople of a fictional New Jersey town called Newbridge. Often, those citizens are characters voiced by Wurster, who’s also the drummer for Superchunk, the Mountain Goats, and Bob Mould’s band.
You didn’t actually have to know any of that to appreciate Philly Boy Roy, or any of the other characters Wurster paraded out during Saturday’s two-hour-plus variety show. Philly Boy Roy is, essentially, a caricature of a Philadelphia idiot. He heckled Scharpling for a while. Scharpling invited him up onstage. Philly Boy Roy demurred. “Will you just come up here?” Scharpling said, growing weary.
“Hit it!” Philly Boy Roy said, and the Rocky theme blasted over the speakers. Wurster, in an orange Flyers jersey and a dumb hat with ear flaps, bounded up to the stage.
Why was Roy in Durham, you might wonder? Several reasons: On behalf of Wawa (a gas-station chain in and around Philadelphia), Roy was meeting with Coach K to see about setting up a hoagie station at Duke home games. He was also hanging with John Edwards and Steve “Wojo” Wojciechowski. The night before, he’d been thrown out of the Orange County Social Club. He ended up at Shooters II. He got arrested for throwing a trash can through the window of Fishmonger’s (RIP). Roy then apologized for all the insults he had leveled at Scharpling over the years—“blob,” “the grouch from Garden State,” and “the creature from the black Fred Perry shirt.”
The house band for the evening included local indie-rock royalty: Robert Sledge (Ben Folds Five), Peter Holsapple (the dB’s), John Plymale (Pressure Boys), and Rob Ladd (whom Wurster noted played drums on Alanis Morissette's “Ironic”). Philly Boy Roy said he was at the show because he wanted to jam with Superchunk, but now he couldn’t, because the drummer had bailed.
He then hinted that he was going to join the band for an Archers of Loaf song, but instead they played James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face.” The lyrics, as you might guess, had been tweaked—"not just another skank from Apex set out to break my heart" and "Isn’t it amazing a Roy like me could feel this way?" Philly Boy Roy then returned to the crowd, where he rescinded his apology for insulting Scharpling. He disappeared.
What else? There was a Wurster-led jam session to Parliament’s “Flash Light.” Scharpling, who was supposed to be backstage relaxing with his favorite drink (Diet Orange Slice Zero), kept coming out and interrupting it. At one point, he wandered out with a copy, he said, of Prog magazine. He was reading a cover story about the best 100 prog albums.
“You’ll never guess where Marbles by Marillion came in,” Scharpling said.
“What about Drama by Yes, their punk album?” Wurster asked.
“Number 100,” Scharpling said.
There were other songs: a duet of “Under Pressure,” with Scharpling on Bowie’s lines and Wurster (by then wearing an Ugly Americans tanktop) on Mercury’s. An instrumental “Pump It Up” interlude. Later, Gary the Squirrel, a puppet with a hoarse voice, hosted a talk-show segment. He told some topical jokes (one about Oscar nominee Mark Rylance, another about the new Durham tuba museum), and, apropos of not very much, declared, “Also, don’t be cheap when tipping. Twenty percent is the baseline!” That is possibly not the funniest thing you’ve ever read in your life, but coming from a weirdly confident squirrel puppet—well, I laughed pretty hard.
Photo by Dan Schram
Gary the Squirrel brought out a few celebrity guests, including Chris Stamey (the dB’s), Laura Ballance (Superchunk, Merge), and Gene Simmons (as played by Wurster). Sample question to Stamey: “What was it like when you told the dB’s to pound sand?”
Scharpling’s final guest of the night was supposed to be Bruce Springsteen, but instead it was Barry Dworkin, a Best Show fan favorite. Dworkin and his old band, the Gas Station Dogs, are best known in Newbridge for their song “Rock and Roll Dreams’ll Come Through,” a mutant twin of Springsteen's “Born to Run.” The band joined him for it. The song leaves few working-class rock cliches untouched and contains a preposterous number of characters—"Betty’s dad, Kenny, talked to Betty’s mom, Jenny, and said what can we do/Betty’s daddy, Kenny, he called back Denny and said he and Rod are through."
Philly Boy Roy reappeared for the encore. So did everybody in Superchunk—including original drummer Chuck Garrison. “This is a big deal," Philly Boy Roy informed the crowd. "This is the first time he’s played with the band in, what, twenty-five years?"
The lights went up and they launched into—what else?—“Slack Motherfucker.” It was a rather joyous three minutes and a rare treat for the hometown crowd. Afterward, Scharpling and Philly Boy Roy embraced at the front of the stage and bowed three times. The crowd continued to roar.
The rock ’n’ roll dream had come through, after all.