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

The Ethics of Control

In It Never Ends, Scharpling details the options available to him when he ended his show on WFMU in 2013. He notes that public radio and podcast networks were interested in the program, as well as individuals with “start-up money” who eyed “The Best Show as a guinea pig for their speculative platforms.” Ultimately, Scharpling chose to remain in control of his creation, and the DIY approach successfully guided him through the next several years of the show’s operation.

Today, he reveals that “Every one of those people who was like, ‘I work at this place now, we’ve got all these things’, they don’t work at that place anymore. That place doesn’t exist anymore. I would’ve been scrambling to get things back from that company now and probably fighting because they’re going to claim they own Gary the Squirrel or whatever as their intellectual property. That’s where I would have ended up.

“I feel when push comes to shove, the podcast networks that offered me things, most of them have changed corporate objectives, and the show probably wouldn’t be there now anyway. Or it would’ve been really ugly, fighting to do it the way I wanted to. It would’ve certainly been a lot easier to join a larger infrastructure, but I feel more than ever I made the right call with keeping it self-owned. Now that I work with Forever Dog on Double Threat, the other show I do, it’s the only podcast network that I felt simpatico with.”

When Nathan Fielder, one of the guests on “Best Show 24”, prompted Scharpling to talk about why he was doing a 24-hour version of his show, he responded with the type of calculated bluster he has perfected as the host of The Best Show. In this case, he says the special event is intended to illustrate that The Best Show is back, dismisses other podcasts as “frauds”, and characterizes himself as the Travis Bickle of podcasting. Certainly, the Bickle reference is in jest.

“I hope so,” Scharpling says, laughing as he breaks down the implications of such a comparison. “Nobody wants to be the Travis Bickle of anything… Oh, you mean the guy who shaved his head and got a gun and went out to clean up the streets from the scum? Thankfully, nobody compared me to Travis Bickle. I was doing that to myself. But if somebody was like, ‘hey, you’re kind of the Travis Bickle of podcasting’, (laughs) that would be the meanest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Like celebrity books, podcasting has been a target of Scharpling’s barbs well before the world was overrun with podcasts. During the same stretch of 2007 shows in which he was brainstorming with listeners about book ideas, Scharpling criticized no-effort podcasts. I ask about that critical perspective in the context of a former reality of broadcasting he discusses in It Never Ends, where he recalls “access to the airwaves [being] a precious commodity in the pre-podcast era”. Does he think more restrictions would lead to higher-quality content, or on the whole, is it better if anyone can host a show or podcast?

Scharpling replies, “Ultimately, everybody having access is always better. Gatekeeping sucks, and when people gate-keep to the degree that you don’t get to do the thing, it’s unfair, and that’s how we end up in places where you only get certain voices. It’s not my place or anybody’s place to say, ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ rulings on who gets to talk into a microphone.

“Back then,” he continues, “my biggest beef with any of that stuff was people who didn’t love the form…rolling in, thinking a podcast was a shortcut to a TV show. They were just looking for an escape hatch that would get them some other form of media. That lowers the form when the people who don’t love it come in and start doing it. Everybody of every stripe of human should get access to everything, and it’s just what you do with it.” 

In Scharpling’s view, podcast networks help with “curating and presenting a constant attitude, like if you want this type of show, you’re going to get this at this network. That just helps streamline people finding the things that are interesting to them. But that’s not gatekeeping because it’s not like if you don’t get signed by a network, you don’t get to do a podcast. Going back to the indie thing, if Capitol Records is not going to put your record out, it’s not like you don’t get to put a record out now; you’ve just got to put it out. Screw them. Now you get to say why they’re wrong. That’s the indie thing that has always been how I see the world.”

A Funny Business

These themes of independence, existing as the underdog, and choosing a DIY approach to life and work might seem to conflict somewhat with the position now occupied by The Best Show. The acclaimed show has made such an indelible impression in the worlds of comedy and music that Scharpling and company were able to arrange a non-stop series of luminaries to fill 24 hours of celebration. Such circumstances might imply that the show has outgrown its underdog status. The Best Show now operates from what Scharpling calls “a dream studio”, and also denotes graduation to a higher level. I ask whether a distinction might be made between being the underdog in practice and being the underdog in spirit.

Scharpling reasons, “The thing you have to realize is, I’m doing everything for the show. I work on it full time, and I’m doing all these very unglamorous parts. We have not crossed some threshold where we’ve got it made. [Creativity] is one thing; financial is another. When I started on Patreon, there were not many podcasts. Patreon would write me like, ‘Oh my God, this is so exciting; thank you for being on our platform!’ And then…I have never heard from them again because everybody showed up, and being there is not a special thing.

“The reality is,” he says straightforwardly, “The money, it was better for the show years ago than it is now because I’m not taking ads. The numbers will bear that out. The show has made less than it did five years ago. I don’t want to be one of these shows on Patreon and also have advertising, but if the thing keeps trending in the wrong direction, it will have to be that. I don’t want it to be that. I’m doing all this stuff on the show, really grinding it out, the producers and me. 

“I think in terms of the product, that can be one thing, but it’s as much of an underdog thing as it’s ever been, probably more, in a way, because I’m trying to compete with shows that have real money behind them. I’m taking the Patreon, and I’m just not keeping the money. I’m reinvesting with the hope and belief that the show will then grow to where I can start getting paid again. I’m doing all this stuff on the show, really grinding it out, the producers and me. We did not go through a doorway on this thing at all. I’m fighting to do something truly special in a very crowded marketplace.”

Scharpling’s fight to keep The Best Show in top form is absolutely clear in the show’s execution. I clarify that my question about the position of the underdog was not intended to suggest that the show’s evolution had betrayed its essence. He counters before I finish the thought. “Oh, zero offense by anything like that,” he says. “I’ve just never explained it to anybody. You’re the first person I’ve explained the reality of that aspect of the show to. 

“There’s a version of things where it’s like, yeah, when I was on WFMU, the show wasn’t making any money, by the nature of how that arrangement with the station is set up. But they provided everything for me to walk in, do a show, and utilize all their equipment. I wasn’t making money. But everything was provided. Now, I’m providing everything, and I’m trying to do it on a very high level. Going into the Forever Dog thing, all of us are working very hard to turn this into something. It was not set up for us; we’re setting it up and putting our money where our mouth is.”

“Best Show 24”, wrapped a day ago, was a fantastic visualization of how hard Scharpling and his producers work to implement the show at this level. The video component of the show offered additional evidence of their dedicated, hands-on approach. Scharpling says what most excites him is how the special episode “looked and sounded great.” He expresses his confidence in the show, saying, “I feel comfortable putting our thing head-to-head with anybody’s thing because – and I’m not trying to diminish anybody else’s accomplishments–but a lot of times when you have a comedy show, it’s a comedy show. It’s people sitting at a table, and they’re talking, and they’re being funny. Or they’re doing a script. That’s one type of show.

“But when you get into these shows associated with public radio, where you could have band performances and things, those shows are not always the most dynamic. They are there to host somebody else’s performance. It’s the difference between a conversation and an interview. Like right now, we’re having a conversation. We’re talking back and forth. You’re not just reading off a sheet of things, and this is not the sixth interview I’m doing in a day, where it’s like, you’re interchangeable, and you ask me ten questions, and I don’t ever say anything to you back-and-forth. You don’t get that a whole lot in those dynamics where the bands come in to play on those shows, where the hosts are equal to the performers in a way. They’re there to facilitate a performance.”

The relocated Best Show is unique compared to these other forms, Scharpling says, due to the kinship of the host and performers, as well as the particular balance of music and comedy. He explains, “I think we have a chance to bring personality to the performance side of things and have bands come in that I can be equivalent to in my way. There’s a chance to have the comedy side and the music side be this thing that nobody else can do both of in a show, and that’s kind of where I feel like I am heading. We also worked on the infrastructure part to have some real muscle behind that, to where we can accommodate anything.”

One early highlight of “Best Show 24” perfectly illustrated the blend of elements Scharpling aims to achieve with the show. Friend of the show Kurt Vile joined Scharpling via phone for an easygoing talk and an exclusive live performance of “Stuffed Leopard”. What might have been another comparatively lo-fi version of the song becomes something special in the show’s context. Scharpling recalls, “He performed over the phone, and it sounded amazing. It almost sounded like an old recording from eighty years ago, but it had the same beauty and power as those old recordings. It didn’t have to be in the room. His talent can transcend any technical limitation, and he proved it with that, playing over a phone, singing, and playing the harmonica.”

TV or the Radio

The comedy elements of “Best Show 24” were just as appealing as the live music. Wurster joined Scharpling several times, populating the episode with many concepts and characters that have thrived for years within the show’s boundless fictional story world. I ask Scharpling why he thinks so much of the material they created long ago, such as rogue companies like Kern Pharmaceuticals and the Shout! Network continue to flourish.   

He replies, “Because the real people always exist, that we’re making fun of. Like, awful entertainment executives have not gone away. As long as they exist, these characters can exist. We could change the form of certain things, and Matthew Tompkins [of the Shout! Network] might work some different technology into the mix. But the core theme of a dumb person running things, creating bad television, and being proud of it will endure.”

Television is another significant topic within It Never Ends. Scharpling’s parallel career in writing for television includes an impressive list of credits, notably as writer and executive producer for Monk (2002-2009), among other series. In It Never Ends, shortly after Scharpling admits that he often pressures himself to “keep…chasing some unachievable prize”, he writes about his goal to have his television show and vows in darkly comic fashion to “not rest until I see my name next to a ‘created by’ credit or the sound of dirt hits my coffin with a dull thump.'”

With these impressions of television in mind, I ask Scharpling about such a goal and if he thinks the current state of television or serialized screen storytelling would be conducive to the ideas he wants to create. He acknowledges the unspoken here, saying, “You know, when I take a step back, the reality is I already have a long-running show that I created. I know. Sometimes you’re the last one to know truths about yourself that everybody else is saying, like, ‘how can you not see this?’ And sometimes you just can’t see it. I think I finally see it.”

He continues, “It feels like Moby Dick in a way, where I’m chasing a thing, and it was there the whole time. Which, again, I’ve mentioned it on the air over the years, I think Moby Dick is the funniest ever in terms of hunting for a whale, it turns out the whale was following them the whole time, and then in the final two pages, he smashes the boat (laughs) and kills everybody; that’s what the book is about: ‘of course, you idiot, you’re a human. You can’t go up against Leviathan. This is bigger than you.’ If you would just understand that this is bigger than you, you will survive. And, it turns out, in so many ways, I’ve been chasing a thing that I’ve been doing for twenty years now. I’m just looking at it from the wrong angle.”

The Best Show has operated free of the creative pressures imposed on television storytelling. Combined with the imaginations and skills of the talent involved, these conditions have resulted in a story world with rare depth and comic possibilities. Additionally, The Best Show is more like a novel than a television show insofar as the characters’ appearances are generated in part by the listener’s imagination.   

Scharpling agrees that the absence of visual information is a key to how the show functions, adding, “We have been able to paint the picture with you, not even for you, with you. Whatever voice Jon starts doing, you immediately start shaping a thing. Then all of a sudden, he goes, ‘are you saying that because I’m wearing this?’ then suddenly, you put that onto the image you’re conjuring in your mind. It’s the best part of this thing. I don’t see some of the characters the way they are drawn when we’ve had illustrations of them. It’s not how I necessarily see these characters for myself, and I’m the co-creator of these characters.” 

Whereas radio invites the listener to use their imagination, “Television is ultimately a one-way street”, he says. “They make it, you consume it. You need to sit still and hand over yourself to the experience. You’re not looking at anything else. You’re not hearing anything else. You’re not thinking about anything else. You are on the receiving end. 

“But when we do [The Best Show], it fits whatever people want it to be. You could be in bed listening to it, you could be jogging and listening to it, you could be at work listening to it, on your commute, doing dishes, anything. So, those are all factors in your relationship to the product right off the bat. The show fits your environment. Television tells you what to do. The way you consume a radio show or a podcast it’s a shared thing because it’s an element of your world now. It’s not everything the way a TV show or a movie is demanding of you.”

Another important distinction, Scharpling observes, compared with scripted television or film, is the host’s persona as an extension of his genuine self. “It is not a hundred percent who I am in real life, but it is a hundred-percent part of me”, he points out. “I’m adapting to the circumstances of hosting a show. But it’s still me doing it.” Thus, one through-line of all Scharpling’s work and discussions thereof is the creator’s voice and presence within the work. To wrap up the discussion comparing the various types of writing, I ask Scharpling if it is fair to say that writing for the screen contains less of himself or his voice compared with other creative outlets like The Best Show.

He responds, “There are so many stages on [television], and there are so many people involved in that type of work. The main difference would be that on The Best Show, I’m at the top of the pyramid. On these other things, I’m not. It’s the most collaborative medium because people have to perform the words, have their own opinions on things, and create the locations. There are so many variables that it’s just not even comparable.

“I can have an idea, at the moment, on the show, and then that’s what we’re doing. I can just say, ‘we’re not doing what we thought we were doing tonight; we’re going to do this instead.’ It’s the difference between making a turn in a car versus making a turn on an aircraft carrier” which “takes miles before the thing starts turning. In a car, you just turn the wheel, and you’ve turned. That’s the best way to describe the difference between those. In terms of voice, there’s no comparison.”

As for the future of The Best Show, expectations have been set so high by “Best Show 24” that now there exists the question of where to go from here. “I’m probably going to do the worst episode of the show we’ve ever done next week”, he predicts while laughing. “I’ll just squander all of the capital that I just gained in one episode. Everybody will just be like, ‘Myyyah, we’re out. Thanks for the 24-hour show. We’re done now.'” 

This speculative scenario is another outgrowth of Scharpling’s commitment to pursuing the unachievable. He proposes one way he could follow the success of the show’s reintroduction: “What if I threw everybody out? It’s like getting everybody to show up for a party, and then I’m like, ‘Everybody out.’ Just as they settle in for a party, I throw everybody out. That would be the ultimate version of that. I don’t need that right now. I want everybody to stay at the party.”

It Never Ends is now available in paperback from Abrams Books.