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Alex Robbins

The Grantland Q&A: Tom Scharpling

The radio (and now podcast) host discusses the new ‘The Best Show,’ the struggles of striking out on his own, his 16-CD boxed set of phone calls, and never quite fitting in with the comedy community.

For 13 years, Tom Scharpling presided like a semi-benevolent dictator over The Best Show on WFMU, a deceptively low-concept call-in program transmitted nearly every Tuesday night for three hours, live from a listener-supported community radio station in Jersey City. Each week, he’d open up the phone lines, throw a topic on the table, and see what happened. He was merciless about hanging up on callers who were boring or insolent or otherwise unworthy of a show with a superlative in its title,1 but those who brought something of interest to the table experienced the full and glorious range of Scharpling reactions — outbursts of exaggerated disgust, hopeless mirth, sometimes even empathy. Sometimes The Best Show was about celebrating the common man, stuck in life’s predicaments; sometimes it was about condemning people and institutions that deserved deploring; sometimes it was just Scharpling bullshitting about his weekend or King Crimson or some movie that turned out to be garbage. No matter what, it was always smart and funny and rooted in conviction. Scharpling spoke about his loathing of Micky Dolenz and the greatness of Creedence Clearwater Revival2 as if his aesthetic judgments were actually moral positions, which of course they are when it comes to both of those examples. And every week, somewhere midway through the show, Tom would take a call from a resident of Newbridge, a fictional Jersey hamlet that’s essentially The Best Show’s Lake Wobegon, if Lake Wobegon were populated exclusively by cheerful psychotics, each more blissfully untroubled by self-awareness than the last. All of these characters are played by Jon Wurster, Scharpling’s friend and longtime comedic coconspirator, whose day job is playing drums for bands like Superchunk and the Mountain Goats.

The Best Show became a cult comedy institution, the likes of Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, and Ted Leo became regulars, and Scharpling (who made his living as a writer and director and was a producer of USA’s Monk for much of the ’00s) became WFMU’s most famous volunteer DJ. But as the show became more elaborate and labor-intensive to produce — those loose, improvised-seeming phone calls are actually 90 percent scripted — doing it for free became unsustainable. “We’re not in our twenties anymore,” Scharpling says. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get paid for our talents.” In October 2013, toward the end of a fairly typical Best Show episode (“Make fun of Dave Brubeck — check”), Scharpling announced that the last Best Show on WFMU would air that December.3 The plan was to take a year off. Instead, Scharpling and Wurster spent 2014 editing a massive 16-CD boxed set4 of their greatest calls — “It’s like this nine-pound thing,” Scharpling says. “It’s like a child. That’s what children weigh” — and setting up a studio to produce a podcast version of The Best Show, which officially launched in January.

When the show began, there was no such thing as a hit comedy podcast, because there was no such thing as a podcast; Scharpling says he wanted to see how the show would fare “in the actual, whatever you wanna call it, marketplace.” They talked to a few potential partners, Scharpling says, but ultimately he decided the only way to keep the freedom he’d had at WFMU — which gave him 13 years of air time and not a single note on content — was to produce it without the help of a public-radio station or a podcast network. “I just could not trust that they’d be into what we do,” Scharpling says. “Even if they were into 80 percent of it, and started questioning 20 percent of it, it’s like, well, that 20 percent is just as important as anything else. We’ve done it enough that we shouldn’t have to audition for anybody anymore.”

Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like starting from zero. Asked how he was on a recent Tuesday night in Los Angeles, Scharpling said, “I don’t know how I am. I haven’t stopped moving for three weeks.” He and Wurster have been on tour, doing live appearances and interviews to promote the boxed set and the podcast; when they arrived at the Earwolf studios on Sunset Boulevard to record a rare no-callers edition of The Best Show, Scharpling was running on empty, having spent most of a brief break between obligations driving back to his hotel to pick up Gary the Squirrel, one of several puppets who’ve also become Best Show regulars in recent years. This also cost him and Wurster prep time; this would be, Wurster said, “the most off-the-cuff show we’ve ever done.” Armed with no script apart from a few pages of scrawled notes in a spiral-bound One Direction notebook, Wurster laid down under the table at the Earwolf studios, waiting to interrupt Scharpling at the exact right moment by pretending to be an engineer who’s been so busy rewiring something he hasn’t noticed that a show is in progress. It became a classic Scharpling & Wurster bit once the engineer began misremembering who the main character of Rocky is. “When it works,” Scharpling said, “it’s the best thing imaginable. I don’t even know what you could equate it to. Maybe that’s what heroin is like. When you’re just somewhere else. When we’re in the middle of one of those calls and we’re both laughing at it, I can’t think of anything that’s more satisfying.”

When the recording was finished, Scharpling allowed himself a moment of amazement at having pulled off a show under these conditions, if not a moment of triumph, exactly. When he was urged to sign a table in the studio already adorned with the signatures of everyone who’d recorded there — a who’s who of the comedy-podcast realm — he declined; later, I found out he’d been to the same studio the day before and declined to sign the table then as well. I’d interviewed him over lunch earlier that day, but the question of why he hadn’t signed was bothering me, so I got him on the phone on Friday to ask him a few more questions. This is how that second conversation went.

It was a privilege to watch Gary the Squirrel work. I love how you’ve just incorporated puppets into the show after doing it without them for, like, a decade.

That’s my favorite part of having this show — it can be all of these things, and it can just be them. The show is whatever we decide the show is. Like, Saturday Night Live has a structure to it, and that structure has served them incredibly well for 40 years, but now they can’t crack that open. People would not handle it. And we don’t have that. The show is a blank canvas. The whole point is to try to take as much advantage of that as I can. To use that, every part of it, and do something with every part of it, is my goal. I want to try to figure out what that next thing is gonna be, whether it’s Gary or sound collages. What’s the next crazy thing?

Or the idea of playing Bad Company over boring callers. Where did that come from?

That was a fairly recent development, in the last year and a half of the show, that became a thing that is some people’s favorite thing about the show now. Hearing that piano. And the thing is, it makes no sense. There’s no logic behind why, if somebody’s boring, or I’m determining they’re boring, or just a little rambly for the radio — there’s no logical reason to fade up the song “Bad Company” by Bad Company over them. It just doesn’t make any sense. But it’s hilarious to me. [Laughs.] I think it’s the funniest thing ever. It’s the kind of joke that I would think maybe only I would think was funny. And Jon [Wurster] would think it was funny, and maybe like eight of our friends would think it was funny. So it’s always shocking when suddenly it’s like, “Oh, no, everyone else thinks this is funny, too.” It’s crazy! This dumb, nonsensical move — how does it click with people? It’s strange. It’s really strange.

But isn’t that the whole show in microcosm? It’s you guys doing things that you assume logically only you would find amusing, and yet there’s this entire audience that feels the same way. Everyone listening feels like the target audience is you, Jon, and them.

That’s a good way of putting it. Yeah. And that’s the beauty of radio and broadcasting for me. You’re alone in a room with silence and there’s no laugh track going on — you don’t see people’s faces in the moment. Outside of looking at my computer during the show every once in a while and seeing people tweeting about what’s happening as it’s happening, it’s in a bubble. There’s no immediate validation for it, or response to things. If you think about it, Jon and I have done these bits for 15 years now in complete silence. There’s never been a laugh, outside of hearing AP Mike5 laugh to himself once in a while.

The occasional in-studio guest …

And the occasional studio guest, but other than that it’s not performed in front of an audience. So we’re trusting the silence. We’re trusting that the silence isn’t silence. That’s why, for me, it was important we didn’t just turn the show into a podcast. It’s not a podcast. It’s a radio show in the way that Netflix is a TV network. We’re doing it the same way, it’s just not on terrestrial radio. We take calls just like any other radio show does and you hear it live like any other radio show. You’re just not hearing it on your radio. That’s why it was really important to keep that live part of it, too, for that reason. All the engine is in that.

We could’ve been back the first week of January 2014. It would’ve taken us one week to come back, if we were just gonna do it as a podcast. I would’ve just hooked up a line that Jon could Skype in or call in on, and patched it into a feed, and that’s what it would be. But no — to me, the show is this live thing. That’s the exciting part of it, and that’s the part that makes these things special. Because they’re happening in the moment in front of people. These discoveries that we make — but everyone’s listening when it happens. If I bomb on a thing, that’s public record. “Yeah, that sucked. That part of the show sucked.” You can’t just delete it out. It happened. It kind of makes you want to be as good as you can, every second of the thing, because you know there’s no margin for error.

You can’t decide to burn a take and go again.

Yeah, we can’t just say, “Oh, that wasn’t so hot. Just cut that 15 minutes out of the thing.” That’s not an option. It creates a certain amount of tension, not having that safety net. I think it informs everything.

Courtesy of Jim NewberryCourtesy of Jim Newberry

And it must have something to do with what you get out of it, as well.

Yeah, it works and I like the way it works. I feel like I talk to other people who do podcasts, and the live part — they’re just terrified of that. They’re like, “How is that? I wouldn’t want to do it that way.” I don’t know how else I would want to do it. That’s the part I want to go toward, not away from. Getting out there in front of everybody, doing the show live, sink or swim, every week. That’s the exciting part. That’s the part I feel like I’ve gotten good at — just being able to navigate through something as it’s happening. I love it. I love that I can do it now, and I love that people like hearing it. It’s not like I’m taking my medicine and doing the thing that everybody loves, but it eats me up. It’s my favorite part.

You wrote on your blog last month about relaunching this show while also dealing with the loss of several people close to you, including your father, who died a few days before the first new episode was recorded. Has it gotten any easier? Is it therapeutic in any way to be back and pour yourself into this every Tuesday?

Yeah, it definitely is. Even the worst weeks where I was sitting outside the studio in my car just feeling the weight of my dad dying and all that stuff, I would kinda pull it together, get in there and do it, and then it just feels comfortable, when I’m in there doing it. Sometimes it was like, “Yeah, I don’t feel like being funny right now,” but that’s how it goes in life. You don’t always get to be in a good place. I’ve been in good places, and this is not a good stretch. But I could definitely check in from things once [the show] got rolling. Like, “All right, this is a pocket I get to stay in for a bit.” And it did keep everything at bay. Also, when things are out of control in your life, it’s like, “Well, I can control this. I have three hours here where I can control this thing and say this is how the world is. Then as soon as I get out of here [laughs] it’s back to the world that I can’t control at all. I’m back in that world.” So it helped. But time helps too.

It was important for me to own where I was coming from with stuff, and let people know that just because I came back the next week, it doesn’t mean I’m doing well. It just means I’m picking myself up once a week to do this thing. But it doesn’t mean I’m necessarily past any of this stuff. I also didn’t want there to be any sort of mixed messages. The worst thing for me would’ve been if I gave off any sort of false illusion like, “Oh, look how fast he got past this thing with his dad. I should be able to get past it when my mom dies as fast as Tom got past this” — and it’s like, no. [Laughing.] Tom’s not even remotely past it. He’s all the way at the beginning with this. Don’t feel like I’m in any way able to handle this better than anybody else could handle it. I thought about that. It’s weird to think about other people in that circumstance where I’m supposed to really be thinking about myself, and you’re, like, allowed to think about yourself during that time, but I still think that’s a bad message to give off. If I sound like “Back to business, everything’s fine” — that’s not a healthy thing for me, for where I was actually at, or for anyone to think I was there.

It was good to just own it. I think it helped me get a little perspective on things. Sometimes when you just say where things are at and you’re just honest and forthright with it, then you can move on from there. But until you do that, you’re stuck, and things are just swirling around. It helped nail some things down for me, and then I can navigate past that. But it’s been a weird year. Nothing has been normal. There has not been one normal minute this year. Even things that are good that have happened are still not things I’m used to. Like the live shows were fantastic, but that’s not my definition of normal. That’s a whole new, scary place we went to, and I just need a little bit of normalcy for a while, to just get my feet back on the ground.

I was impressed by your honesty in that post. It wasn’t “The show must go on; don’t worry” — you were admitting that this chain of events had really taken you down. I imagine that was hard to say out loud.

And I was also just saying that I might need to cut myself some slack, which is not what I’m always good at. And saying if I do it, just please realize that this is why I’m doing it. It’s just hard, and you have to face the music. You don’t get to say when it stops being hard. Sometimes you create this persona where you can handle everything, but you actually can’t handle everything. Then again, I’ve never missed a show, either. So maybe I can handle everything. Who knows?

“What one man can do, another can do.”6

That was such an awesome thing to try to take to heart, a dumb, unproven statement like that. It means literally nothing. [Laughs.] What one man can do, another can do. It’s such bad advice. But it’s such a funny thing to trumpet.

So why didn’t you sign the table at Earwolf? You had two opportunities to sign the table, and you did not sign the table.

I feel super self-conscious about stuff like that, honestly. I just feel stupid when I do stuff like that. I just can’t help it. That’s my shortcoming. There’s this table, everybody’s signed it, and to be honest, it really is just me looking at that thing and feeling like, yeah, that would make me feel self-conscious. No reason for it. Totally in my own head.

But what is the specific neurosis that kicks in when somebody says, “Hey, Tom, you should sign the table”? Is it, like, “My name does not belong there, alongside—”

No. Are you kidding? On that table? I’d proudly put my name on that table — if we’re talking about being funny, I belong on that table. But I don’t know. I end up feeling like I’m such an island with this show. That’s just how I feel. It’s such an isolated place that I’m at with it and have been with it. There’s always the element of feeling like I’m on an island with so much of this stuff. I don’t live in New York and I don’t live in Los Angeles, and the show’s not part of a podcast network or a radio network. It was this odd show, even by WFMU standards. I’ve always felt like I’m not a part of any scene, in a way. I never did UCB classes and I didn’t go to Harvard. I’ve never been part of, like, clubs or things like that, and I think, just reflexively, they make me feel like, “Yeah, that’s not your scene.” To be completely honest, that’s what it is.

But you’ve probably never gotten any resistance from that world to your presence in it, right?

Oh, it’s not an adversarial thing. That’s all on my end. It’s not on anybody else’s end. That’s my baggage, 100 percent. My baggage.

Does it feel like self-promotion in a way? Does it feel like you’re putting your headshot on the wall of a restaurant or something like that?

Look, the name of the show, I call it The Best Show, I don’t think there’s any problem [laughing] with kinda rubbing my perceived greatness in everybody’s face. I called it The Best Show when I had done three years on WFMU on a music show that nobody cared about, and I came back and I decided to call the show The Best Show. There’s no lack of that kind of confidence. It just feels like I’m on an island in a lot of ways, not being part of a community. That’s the stuff that doesn’t necessarily make sense, but those are the byproducts of coming up the way I came up. Also, y’know, I worked at a music store for way too long, and didn’t go into the [comedy] scene the way I should’ve gone into the scene. I kind of ended up in it however I ended up in it. It could not have made less sense, the way I’ve conducted my life or my professional career, but it’s where I’m at. I don’t know. I’ll take it, but I know it’s odd, and I always feel a little bit like I don’t play the things the way other people play it. And maybe I should’ve, but I don’t and that’s where I’m at.

And maybe that’s a condition that needs to remain in place for you to continue doing it the way you do it, for this show to live and persist.

Sure. I think there’s something that comes out of the whole indie/DIY background that informs so much of the stuff I do. If you want to do a fanzine, you don’t try to go staff up on somebody else’s fanzine. You start your own. If you want to put out records, you don’t go see which record labels are hiring. You start your own record label. WFMU is this radio station that stood for doing its own thing the way it wanted to, rather than trying to fit into some public-radio model and join some larger network. It’s a stand-alone entity, and that’s one of the reasons that place meant so much to me. That aesthetic is my aesthetic. Now I’m where I’m at. And it just feels like, you do things yourself. So much of the directing I do is through my production company, where we pick the stuff and see it through from beginning to end. It’s very informed by indie-rock thinking, DIY thinking. For better or for worse. There’s times when I wish I could be more of a joiner, and just do it the way other people do it, but what are you gonna do? You are how you are with some of these things.

You’re also coming from a period in indie rock when it was considered gauche to really go after something professionally, if not creatively. I feel like the millennials coming up now don’t really have that hang-up.

I think it’s not necessarily bad to not be hung up on it. You should be able to pick what’s going to best serve what you’re going to do, and if grabbing money from some corporation is gonna let you do it the way you wanna do it, and some corporation’s willing to chip in for that, then yeah. Take their money. As long as you don’t suddenly start compromising the thing you would’ve done. If you’re doing it the wrong way, then you have to figure out how to make your peace with that. But if you could do it with help and it gets you to a place where it’s still how it would be, and it makes it easier for you to be where you wanna be, then by all means do it.

Y’know, I goof on things like Kickstarter. My real opinion on things like that — and I’ve tried to clarify this plenty of times — is that it’s a case-by-case thing. Sometimes you’re trying to do a thing and you just don’t have access to that kind of money. A site like that can just be a conduit for putting people with money in touch with people who have an idea, and that’s great. I only have a problem with it when it’s, like, a band that has five people in it and they’re looking for $2,000. It’s like, “Well, maybe you should each have $400 worth of conviction in your band.” Like, at some point you have to put your money where your mouth is, somewhat! Asking for $400 worth of putting your money where your mouth is, it’s not insulting. When people are like, “I don’t have money,” it’s like, yeah, I know! Money can be hard to come by! I don’t have any right now, either! I spent a year, I turned down every job, editing this box, and doing the Adult Swim thing7 and bringing this radio show back. I made so little money in the last year so I could see this dream through. I’m putting my money where my mouth is, and I’m in my forties now. I bet on myself more than I’ve ever bet on myself, in the last year. See, now you get the good quotes. Here’s the article.

That is not lost on me. Go on.

It’s like, I’ve bet on myself more than I ever do. Halfway into my forties I’m doing this! This is when people are supposed to be slowing down and getting conservative with stuff, and I’m getting more brazen and going even further out on a limb with it, with less of a guarantee, and I didn’t even sign with networks that wanted to sign with the show because I needed the show to be what it needed to be before joining any kind of network was even a possibility to entertain. The show needed to come back the way I needed it to come back, with my voice and Jon’s voice as the only guiding voices. There was no room for anyone else to shape the next version of the show. If someone wanted this version of the show to join their network once it’s cracking, it’s like, yeah, I would talk about that. But there was no way to do it other than that. I sent all my own money into this. Everything I bought, I bought out of my own pocket. I put my neck on the line, my family and my wife’s neck on the line, so this thing could happen. It’s pretty stupid on paper, but it makes perfect sense in terms of real life and what’s in your heart. I don’t know what else I could’ve done. I turned down real jobs to work on this thing.

Out box die cut lineNumero Group

A 16-CD boxed set of phone calls.

Yeah, to edit that. I was editing for 16, 17 hours a day for at least six weeks at one point. I would do nothing but edit this thing. I felt it compromised my health a little bit. My sleep was off for months after working on that thing. You’re just not supposed to hear the sound of your own voice for 17 hours a day for six weeks straight. And then we start the show back up and then three weeks in, my dad passes away. So it’s been a weird fucking stretch, of all these things, where I have not had normalcy in a long time. And it’s all because this thing is worth doing and I believe in it. I could not bet on myself more than I just did with it, and I did that for a reason. I think this is what I’m here to do. And it’s my favorite thing to do. And I just want to be able to do it the way I want to do it. I don’t know what else I would do. Directing, writing things — as satisfying as those things are, nothing is a fraction as satisfying as doing this show.

You’ve joked on the show about this being your Rocky V moment, where you’re back at ground zero, starting from nothing again. Is there a grain of truth to that? Is there something that works for you about being an underdog?

Even more now than ever. That’s why sometimes, when we do interviews, and it’s like, “Now you’re doing this [podcast] thing. You sold out” — it’s like, you want me to show you the numbers on selling out? If this is selling out, I don’t know what to tell you. And I’m not saying this in a pathetic or a desperate way. If you start a business, you’re jumping, and you’re hoping that there’s water in the swimming pool. You’re going out and you don’t know what’s gonna happen. People are like, “Oh, it’s gonna work out.” It’s like, well, is it? I don’t know. You can’t guarantee that. It’s a nice thing to say. I sure hope it does, too. But there’s no guarantee that anything works out. This could be a huge miscalculation, or it could be the best thing that happens. I don’t know, but I have to do it.

So, basically, you had no choice is what you’re saying.

Kind of, yeah. This is what my life is supposed to be. If I’m going to live my life the way where I can say I’m living my life the way I want to, then this is what I have to do to do that. It doesn’t make it easy. You think of guys like Francis Ford Coppola — he made some of the best movies ever, but he also went bankrupt twice in his life in the course of trying to do things that he had to do. That’s what you do. He said something to the effect of, “The only point of having money is to do something with money.” That’s the only point of having money. You don’t get money to accumulate money and just hoard it away. You get it and you do something with it. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing with money and that’s what I did with my money, and that’s fine. I’m not whining about this. It’s just how I see things. It’s who I am.

That’s why Coppola and George Lucas are two different people. With Lucas, it’s like you make money to keep money, and then your money makes you more money, and then that money makes you more money. Coppola takes all his Godfather money, bets it on Apocalypse Now, hits the jackpot on that, takes that, bets it on starting his own studio, and goes belly-up. He eats it. He goes broke. Spectacularly. That’s why the next movie he makes is Tucker, about a guy who started a business and knew he was making the better product and still lost. Sometimes you do lose, even if your thing is the better product. There’s no guarantees. I look at a guy like that and it’s like, yeah, he’s talented enough that he’ll always have another shot at something — but the only way for him to do what he needed to do was to have a lot of skin in the game. Not just some skin — he had to put his neck on the chopping block. He’d eat it, then he’d bounce back, then he’d eat it again, then he’d bounce back again. He’d always figure something else out. I’m not scared with any of this stuff, it’s just I don’t have any choice with it. This is who I am.

And in terms of Coppola vs. Lucas, it’s no contest who ends up with the more interesting filmography after, like, 1975.

The guy made things, and then he decided, “You know what? I’m going all the way back to my roots. My passion is I like wine and I like food.” He’s got his restaurant and his vineyard and that’s how he makes money. It’s just like he creates one way or another. He just keeps creating. He earned a lifetime pass. That guy never needs to shoot another frame of anything to prove his worth. He made the world’s greatest sequel! But the only way he could prove himself was by betting on himself and not just signing up for the clearest path. So you’ve gotta follow that thing, I guess. I guess that’s what I’m doing.

I think it’s funny that people are looking at you like, “Oh, Tom’s got it made now. He’s got sponsors, he’s rolling in that sweet Squarespace cash,” or whoever’s money it is.
We’re at the beginning with this thing. We really are. The signs are pointing in the right direction, but we are definitely at the beginning. Some people talk about it as if it’s “The Best Show came back, happily ever after. The End.” No. We’re not at the end of the previous story. The Best Show came back; now we’re at the beginning of the next story. This is Chapter 1: “Tom Took All His Money and Bought Crazy Equipment With It.” That’s where we’re at. 

Filed Under: Radio, The Best Show, The Best Show on WFMU, Tom Sharpling, Jon Wurster, Numero Group, Monk, Grantland Q&A

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.