Mirth, Music and Mayhem: The Tom Scharpling Interview

Tim Slowikowski

PopMatters talks with comedian, radio host and director Tom Scharpling about his signature brew of "mirth, music and mayhem."

"Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?"

-- Elvis Costello, "Green Shirt"

In 1979, Elvis Costello was a pitch-black witted young man.

That very same year, Tom Scharpling purchased what Elvis Costello had to offer. Specifically, his third record, Armed Forces.

You could say the rest is history because it's all there in one auspicious purchase. Picture a nine-year old Scharpling taking in the at once funny, acerbic, neurotic and absurd take on the world promoted by Costello, and subsequently getting his first lesson on what it is to wholly entertain. One could say that Elvis put the fingerprints to Tom's imagination.

Tom Scharpling has been imagining ever since, and for the better part of the last 13 years has hosted The Best Show on WFMU, a weekly radio show known for its "three hours of mirth, music and mayhem." That would indeed be enough of a contribution to popular culture by itself but Scharpling has managed to carve out other roles in the entertainment industry as a writer/producer on Monk, co-host of the music-centered Low Times podcast, half of the comedy duo Scharpling & Wurster, and director of music videos for the likes of Aimee Mann and Ted Leo.

But let's go back to the formative times of Armed Forces for a second. The record is filled with allusions to people who are out to get you, be it of the female, governmental or secret police persuasion. Costello is constantly on the lookout for "investigations" that will eventually "put you on the torture table". The album cover displays a group of elephants charging full steam ahead, ready to leave you trampled underfoot. This is what Costello wanted to say about love in 1979. Not exactly the most happy-go-lucky fella.

"Happy-go-lucky" isn't the first description that comes to mind when thinking of the often sardonic Tom Scharpling. But Scharpling diverges in one important way from his bespectacled influence: he's learned that not all forces are armed and that unbridled appreciation can be just as relevant as ridicule.

So, while you may be on the lookout for him to give you the dreaded "heave-ho", interviewing Scharpling is actually akin to hanging out with the coolest older brother in the world, eager to share his opinions on music, comedy and perhaps most importantly, fantasy basketball.


How did Low Times originate?

I had done a fanzine in my late teens, early 20s called 18 Wheeler and I just loved talking and writing about music. I always wanted to do that again. I stopped doing the fanzine because I had to figure out my career. So I do not have the time to do a fanzine but now with podcasts and the accessibility and ease of that, you can get a $300 recorder and two microphones and go anywhere and you're recording something that's broadcast quality.

Like an audio fanzine.

Exactly, and I had done The Best Show at that point for a long time and enjoyed talking. And with Marc Maron doing long-form interviews, it was kind of like no one was doing music interviews the way they were doing with comedians. All those things added up and it just made sense. And then Daniel and Maggie [Serota] are friends and we had talked about doing stuff together and this was the first thing that made sense so we did this.

Is it a nice outlet outside of The Best Show?

Yeah, it is. It's a good thing because I wouldn't want The Best Show to be Low Times and I don't want Low Times to be The Best Show either. I get to do things a different way that are just as much a part of me as The Best Show. It's satisfying on that level because I'm interested in hearing what people who make music have to say and people who are in different places on the spectrum, even if they're not my favorite artists. I'd rather talk to somebody who has amazing stories who might not be somebody that I listen to rather than someone I do listen to who is kind of boring. I'd much rather learn about the life of the person who's got the story to tell.

I think that's why having Richard Marx on the live Low Times podcast worked. He might not be your favorite artist but he still has something interesting to say.

Sure, that's exactly it, I'm not gonna pretend that Richard Marx is my favorite artist, it's just not my music, and that's fine. There's something for everybody. I have the things that are for me and there's a lot of people who, he's their thing. He has had an interesting life navigating through the music business and that's what was interesting about talking to him.

Sticking with music, I'm interested to hear some of the records that were formative for you, like "turning point" records that turned you on to new sounds.

Ironically, you're saying that and there's one playing right now: Armed Forces. [Author's note: Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" is playing overhead at the Hard Rock Hotel]. I bought Armed Forces when I was nine. The first couple records I bought with my own money were Armed Forces, Labour of Lust by Nick Lowe, and I cannot remember which Beatles album I bought, but one of those.

I started reading about music at a bizarrely early age. I was so into it and the only way you could hear these things was to actually buy them because they weren't on rock radio. You'd read about albums and you'd have to lay down some money and that's the only way you were gonna get to hear it.

But yeah, Armed Forces is a huge influence on my whole life. My Aim is True has great songs but not my favorite band he played with. This Year's Model was the first perfect thing he did. I'm surprised people don't look at his run as being as impactful as Bob Dylan with that run of his in the ‘60s. It's easy for people to lose sight that he put out an album every year and he put out Armed Forces, Get Happy!! (where he drops 20 songs on everybody) and then there's the B-sides record, Taking Liberties, which is another 20 songs and then Trust and Almost Blue and he's just moving so fast at that point. Armed Forces to me is such a step forward in terms of a pop record. Learning how they were influenced by "Dancing Queen" on "Oliver's Army" makes perfect sense when you hear it because that big piano sound is "Dancing Queen", so it's an interesting thing to take pop conventions and put them on his ugly wavelength. He's mining some real ugly, dark stuff. I mean those songs are tortuous, the sentiment behind them is the world is a bad place. He's housing them in really palatable structure. "Oliver's Army", if you read the lyrics you'd be horrified but you hear it and realize this is a pop masterpiece. He will always be larger than life to me, that guy.

You mentioned Marc Maron and I wanted to ask you about The Marc & Tom Show, which I look at as the perfect union. What do you like about talking to Marc and the process for that show?

You know what's fun about that show is Marc does so much talking and hosting and I do so much talking and hosting that we come into it as equals and neither of us is the guest but neither of us is the host, so it's a 50/50 conversation.

As a listener it feels like you're eavesdropping in on a couple of guys just talking with no agenda.

Because it is that. We just recorded a few hours in Philly last month that should be one or two episodes probably, and I met him at his hotel room and within 45 seconds we were rolling. Let's just put it on tape. There's almost no reason to talk if we're not recording, so we just did that. You know, I am a big admirer of the journey that Marc has taken as someone who honestly is trying to make himself a better person and he does it in front of people in a very public way which is not an easy thing to do, to expose yourself like that. I can't - I don't do that, so I admire him for doing that. I'm glad that we get along.

One of my favorite things that I wanted to mention comes from the Marc & Tom Show when you defended Christian Bale for his rant on the set of the Terminator movie.

This is what I'll say: everybody that I've talked to who makes TV or movies is on Christian Bale's side with that. Everybody who knows what it actually takes for an actor to go do that, they are 100% on his side and 0% on the D.P.'s side. Those things are mortifying.

Right, he's staring at a tennis ball and he's gotta make believe ...

... that it's a robot, yeah. A friend of mine said that everybody else on set is wearing their own clothes. I'm glad you liked it because the easy thing to do is rip on a famous person. That guy is trying to make these things Shakespeare with his commitment to it and he's trying to make it real. I mean he makes these Batman movies and that is the dumbest thing ever. It's a guy running around in a bat costume. But he makes it so that you say, "Oh no, I see how that's real." So he's going that deep and then somebody's gonna just shatter that reality just because they can. It's unacceptable.

I'm interested to hear about your process for The Best Show. What does a week of yours look like leading up to the show?

I'm thinking about what the show is going to be all week long, every day. There's a lot of, I guess what you'd call "administrative stuff" I have to do which is taking care of business for the show and writing people who write me back and trying to get the fundraising marathon stuff squared away. All those things and trying to get people to do this or do that.

It sounds like a full-time job.

It almost is. Wurster and I will talk all the time also about what a call could be and then usually a few days before the show we'll just either IM back and forth or get on the phone and just hammer out what the call is and then he'll write final show notes and send them to me for the call. And at the same time I'm working on the non-Scharpling and Wurster parts of the show -- figuring topics out or figuring out a story I can tell.

How much do you leave to spontaneity?

A lot of it. I go in with 12 things that can be done during the show and we get to six of them because other things happen. I follow the show. The worst thing would be if I put a clamp on things and said, "No, I need to get to this, this, this and this." You want to go where I don't know where we're heading. That's the exciting part of it and that's the part that makes it different than podcasts for me is that it's also happening in front of people. There will be times I'll try to get something going and it kinda sucks. It happened already, I can't take it back. The failures are very public, but then when it goes somewhere and it manages to pay off, then it's unlike anything else.

Is your persona on The Best Show a kind of wish fulfillment? Like how Larry David says the guy on Curb is the guy he wishes he could be.

That's an amplified version of part of me, but it's really me. In real life, I'm not mean to people. I would hope that it comes across that when I'm doing these things that it's me getting a chance to be a version of something that I'm not, actually. It's definitely in me though. I'm not playing a character. There are parts of me that I'm running with. It's all in there.

You often come across as the "voice of the disaffected" in a way, when you call yourself the "Dollar Menu Dickens" or "The King of Free Entertainment". I think a lot of people can relate to that in almost any job they do, that sense of not getting what you deserve. Do you get a lot of people reaching out to you for advice because of that?

Sure, and I try to help people but I don't have the answers myself. I'm slogging my way through showbiz as much as anybody else is. I might be a couple steps ahead but I'm also ... I know people who by any yardstick people would say they've made it, and even they're fighting with it. It's a fight for everybody. Tom Cruise doesn't have to worry about money anymore, but he's now a guy who knows that he's about to be an old guy, so if you look, his next bunch of movies are all action movies, so he's jamming in all these movies while he can still do that stuff. Before people don't want to see an old guy running around. Everybody has to face reality and limitations. I'm not crying for Tom Cruise but even he has limitations, so it's all relative.

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