Tom Scharpling (2022) | Pitch Perfect PR
Photo: Mindy Tucker

Everybody Stays at the Party Says Podcaster and Comedian Tom Scharpling

The Best Show creator Tom Scharpling talks with PopMatters about his memoir It Never Ends and how he reached the greatest phase of his radio/podcasting career.

It Never Ends
Tom Scharpling
Abrams Books
July 2022

Halfway through Tom Scharpling‘s book, It Never Ends: A Memoir With Nice Memories!, the author recounts a period of his life during which he quit his job at a sheet music store to focus on writing. His effort to become a full-time writer meant accepting any job that came to him and then writing until he was exhausted, a cycle he repeated daily.  Scharpling recalls, “I did the work until the work was done, and little did I know that when you’re a freelancer the work is NEVER done.”

Years after entering the freelancing slipstream, Scharpling has attained success across radio, television, podcasting, and other media. The ongoing highlight of his career has been his place at the helm of The Best Show, which began as a radio program on New Jersey’s WFMU and has been a beacon of comical and musical excellence for more than two decades. Noteworthy as these achievements are, one constant in Scharpling’s outlook is that the work is still never done.

The title of his book provides a theme with many variations throughout its pages. Life’s events recur, late bloomers carry on, creators who are unafraid of sullying their reputation continue to innovate, and above all, seeing one’s vision through involves considerable effort. Though the memoir is not presented as anything more than the author’s take on his personal experiences in life and entertainment, his traumas and triumphs, certain truths that emerge from his story are relatable to readers with a penchant for the type of underdog story Scharpling embodies. That It Never Ends became a bestseller is a testament to this quality and the author’s well-honed skill in joining the narrative of his life to the circumstances of his audience.

“Best Show 24”

I am speaking with Scharpling near the end of a particularly active week. While he is accustomed to balancing his weekly episode of The Best Show with work as a screenwriter and other podcast and writing endeavors, the paperback release of It Never Ends coincides (by design) with a special 24-hour episode of The Best Show. The episode begins on Tuesday evening and successfully concludes on Wednesday evening, having presented a cavalcade of entertaining guests, live musical performances, and comedy, all shot through with a celebration of The Best Show‘s fresh transfer to a new studio in Los Angeles. A day after “Best Show 24” concludes, Scharpling reflects gamely on the special episode, It Never Ends, The Best Show, and the ins and outs of writing across a variety of forms.

Having watched and listened to “Best Show 24” as it aired live, only missing a few hours to sleep, I am certain I enjoyed more rest than Scharpling did. “If you slept one minute, you slept more than I did,” he says. “I got a thirty-minute break at around three in the morning, and then at eight in the morning, I took an hour break. There was a side room where we had an air mattress. I would shut the lights off and lay in there, but it was [only for] forty minutes because I had to change and get ready for the next segment. But I was not sleeping. I was lying in a dark room and thinking about talking to Jarvis Cocker.”

Most of the guests who appeared on “Best Show 24” could be categorized as Scharpling’s contemporaries: fellow comedians, television creators, filmmakers, and musicians who run in the same circles. But others, like Pulp’s Cocker, exist at that level of achievement and influence that Scharpling reflects on from time to time in It Never Ends, a book whose title is derived from the author’s realization that he has routinely misjudged opportunities to interact with his heroes. 

One such instance, which Scharpling has also discussed during The Best Show, involves his approaching the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz to share his appreciation for the Monkees and Bob Rafelson’s 1968 film Head, which starred the band. Rafelson passed a few days before “Best Show 24”, and Dolenz has been speaking in the press about the filmmaker, including comments to Variety about Rafelson’s work with the Monkees and how filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright have told him that Head is one of their favorite films.

The Best Show listeners and those new to Scharpling’s Dolenz story as told in It Never Ends will recall that Dolenz received Scharpling’s enthusiasm for Head without a single word in response. He merely made a sound that Scharpling describes as “Myyyah”, an expression somehow funnier when appearing as text in the book than when spoken aloud. In It Never Ends, Scharpling refers to this encounter as “a Hall of Fame-level snub”.

This week, Scharpling has been “so deep in show prep” that he has not had time to read the Variety article. When I bring up how ahead of his time he was in professing his love of Rafelson’s film to Dolenz, Scharpling offers an alternative perspective: “Yeah, or maybe I was late to the party, and that’s why he was just like, ‘Myyyah.’ I met him twice after that, and he was very nice. Look, I’m not going to deny the funny story in the book, but I’m cool with Micky Dolenz. But yeah, he did still go ‘Myyyah.'”

One of the most interesting aspects of a long-running program like The Best Show is that listeners can recall or consult the show’s online archive to trace the presence of certain elements of popular culture across the decades. The Dolenz anecdote is a minor example, but even in that story, one could see evidence of It Never Ends‘ attention to themes of repetition and reoccurrence and how The Best Show both influences and reflects the cultural conversation. A strength of Scharpling’s, both as a comedian and as the voice of The Best Show, is the way he seeds his show with concepts and content that become increasingly relevant, even if it takes years for listeners to get on his wavelength.

Indeed, this is how Scharpling describes the early years of The Best Show and his comedy partnership with musician/fellow The Best Show writer and performer Jon Wurster, who calls into the show in the guises of several characters who have sustained decades of comic development. Scharpling’s collaboration with Wurster began in the late ’90s with “Rock, Rot & Rule”, a brilliantly conceived and executed routine involving Wurster’s Ronald Thomas Clontle, a clueless but confident musical argument-settler.

Scharpling writes in It Never Ends about the initial stages of the show, which combined such scripted routines with Scharpling’s extemporaneous commentary, phone calls from listeners, and music: “I do have a good idea what it’s like to make something that you know is awesome only to find that your audience doesn’t agree. That is what the first two years of The Best Show on WFMU felt like. Jon Wurster and I were producing fully realized long-form comedy routines every single week and I was filling in the non-Scharpling & Wurster parts of the show with content that I was proud of. The silence was deafening, but sometime in 2002 it all clicked. We waited and they caught up.”

Two decades later, the contents of “Best Show 24” and Scharpling’s command prove that a sizable audience has caught up, remaining loyal to the show through infrastructural and geographical changes. These include the move away from WFMU at the end of 2013 and into several years of independent/DIY arrangements in New Jersey and then Los Angeles. This culminated in the present setup, which Scharpling characterizes as having “a dream studio at [his] disposal”, complete with video capabilities and performance space, among other upgrades. As a listener, there is a tendency to break the show down into these different versions or iterations of the program, but Scharpling says he sees the entire run as an ongoing show.

“Honestly, if I’m there, that’s where the show is. It’s me and Wurster and producers and things like that. There are different things over the years where circumstances change – where we’re doing it or how we’re doing it – but it’s still ultimately, I know what I’m doing with it, and if I’m doing a show, that’s The Best Show, and I just see it as one long version of the show.”

“What One Man Can Do, Another Can Do”

It Never Ends has been brewing for a long time, as well. Scharpling’s quest to write a book was a recurring topic on The Best Show for many years. In a memorable run of episodes from 15 years ago, he plotted to write a book and asked his audience what kind of book it should be. During a November 2007 show, he ridicules the sales figures for 2007’s The Gawker Guide to Conquering All Media (242 copies) and conceives a plan to “knock out” a “quickie book” in “four days”. Prompted by producer/call-screener Mike Lisk, he speculates about a book titled On the Air with Tom Scharpling that consists entirely of transcribed shows.

He riffs on writing a book from the perspective of his dog and then says the next book would be a “tell-all” that would “blow the lid off of everything” and “spill all the beans…the fights…the anger, the sickness.” Though the “tell-all”, as once pitched jokingly, is more sensational than It Never Ends turned out to be, there are significant threads of struggle and survival in this memoir, including candid discussions of a struggle with mental illness that had no outward place in Scharpling’s public profile before the book’s publication.

After pointing out how these jokes about writing came up during that show period, I ask Scharpling if there was, beneath the comedy, a serious intention to write a book. He says, “I always knew the book would be some version of what it became. The arc of it was me saying, ‘I’m going to write a book, and here’s how it’s going to go. It’s going to make you laugh, then cry, and then laugh again, but you’ll be rooting for me when you laugh again.’ I said that a long time ago. I knew that was its structure because ultimately, the stuff I went through, I wanted to tell it in book form because I could tell it properly that way.

“I never thought that I would tell the stories of hospitalization and the ECT [electroconvulsive therapy] and all that stuff on the air. It never felt right to tell that on the radio. There was no version of, ‘tonight I’ll just do a serious episode, and I’ll talk about that stuff, and I’ll tell it the way I want.’ Even if I had three hours of real estate to do it, I wasn’t going to do it. It was hard to share that stuff, but having to share it for the first time as a performance was too much. It needed to be something I could truly control every word of and every theme.”

Scharpling, like fellow comedian Stewart Lee, has memorably poked fun at celebrity books. The first chapter of It Never Ends draws from that well, informing the reader about books such as Rob Gronkowski’s It’s Good to Be Gronk (2015), Gene Simmons (many books), and DJ Khaled‘s The Keys: A Memoir (2016). While those might seem like some of the more outlandish examples of books written by celebrities, there are many more conventional books, memoirs or otherwise, that fail to rise above the impression of vanity projects, products that exist primarily because of the persona attached to them rather than the substance within. It Never Ends‘ voice is unmistakably that of its author, synthesizing the events of his life and his divergent dispositions as they have existed within the popular cultural landscape.

Scharpling says that achieving this perspective was “…this crazy balancing act: It’s gotta be funny, it can’t be funny to where it’s just light and frivolous, but real themes have to be in it, and these things that happened to me have to be in it, but I don’t want it to be a book that’s just sad. I wanted it to be in my voice, but I also wanted it to feel like it’s truly written and not just transcribed. I had to strike that balancing act. I’m proud of myself that I pulled it off.”

By Whose Authority?

It Never Ends is not a self-help manual or a psychology book, two categories Scharpling playfully sends up in his opening chapter. Yet the book’s official website includes a synopsis that characterizes the work as about “rising above whatever circumstance you find yourself in and getting the most out of your life”, suggesting that the author’s experiences provide some motivation or model for survival. The passages chronicling Scharpling’s mental health issues and institutionalization are incisively and authentically rendered, perhaps especially for readers who have lived through similar trials. Scharpling, however, insists he did not have any goal to advise others.  

“It was never meant to be anything other than, ‘I can tell you my story, and I can tell you how I see the world after going through what I went through, and I can tell you how I stayed on my feet through things.’ But I can’t speak for anybody else. My worst nightmare would be thinking that I was in a position to tell other people how to get through things. I can only speak for what I have gone through and how I got through the other side.

“So many people are ready to slide into teacher mode. That’s a defective worldview, like, ‘I barely need to know what I’m talking about, but I certainly like being an authority on things.’ I want to be the opposite of that. I’d rather say I know less about a thing that I know more about than to say I know more about a thing that I know less about. There are so many people ready to tell other people how to live their lives, and that’s part of the reason why the world is a hellhole right now. And that’s the last place that I want to be operating from.”

As Scharpling continues to talk about this type of faux-authority personality, a familiar quality emerges; a darkly comic exasperation that is often his mode on The Best Show. “Holy moly, to be known as somebody who doesn’t know what they’re talking about but has no problem lecturing you about it? That’s like a nightmare. I don’t know what I would do [laughs] if I found out that’s how people thought I was. Please don’t say that’s how people think I am. Please, I’m begging you.”

The person who most comes to mind when I think about the worldview he describes is Ronald Thomas Clontle, Scharpling & Wurster’s original comic creation from a quarter century ago. Clontle’s definitive division of all popular music into three categories, based on the flimsiest of research and rationalization, perfectly satirizes the unwarranted know-it-all type. “It is why we do that,” Scharpling agrees. “For Jon and I, we’re both fascinated by that type of thinking because it’s your worst nightmare. That is one of the reasons, if not the sole reason, we are so fascinated by blowhards and know-it-alls and frauds. It’s such a fascinating place to be.”

I bring up one element of The Best Show and Scharpling & Wurster’s output that I have previously written about (“Three Little Words and the Critical Argument of The Best Show on WFMU“, Angles, 2015), which is how the characters wield and weaponize authority. Even the regular references to anti-authoritarian punk and hardcore music, often deployed in bizarre and out-of-place contexts, underscore the way The Best Show sides with the little guy. 

“That’s interesting,” Scharpling says. “It is a constant aspect because coming up in the indie world. Indie, by its nature, is a reaction to something. It’s saying, like, ‘these big places aren’t doing this thing, so I guess we have to do it’, and, ‘the big places aren’t letting me in the door. They’re gatekeeping. So I guess I have to start my own thing.'”