Tom Scharpling is beloved in the alternative comedy world for his call-in radio show The Best Show on WFMU. While The Best Show has run for more than 10 years, Scharpling has continued to diversify his résumé, including writing for the entire eight-season run of Monk, contributing articles to print and online publications, and doing a periodic podcast with Marc Maron called The Marc and Tom Show. In 2010, Scharpling began directing hilarious concept-heavy music videos for indie rock acts. These videos often feature appearances from comedians, including his Best Show partner and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. His videography includes a trailer for a fake New Pornographers biopic and Titus Andronicus doing a one-day tour of New Jersey.
Recently, Scharpling directed the video for Aimee Mann’s “Charmer,” which features Mann buying an increasingly assertive robot, played by Laura Linney, to handle her public appearances. This week brought the premiere of “Labrador,” his second collaboration with Mann. The video for “Labrador” is a shot-for-shot remake of “Voices Carry,” the breakthrough hit by ‘Til Tuesday, Mann’s group from the 1980s.
Scharpling discussed the making of these two new videos and where he hopes his directing career is headed. This Q&A is compiled from two phone interviews with Scharpling, one when he was outside a Starbucks and one when he pulled his car over to the side of the road in New Brunswick, N.J.
How did you start directing videos?
The first thing I was involved in from a production standpoint would have been a video for Ted Leo and The Pharmacists from the album Living With the Living. He had a song called “Colleen” on it. I was not comfortable enough to direct it, so I wrote and produced it, and a friend of mine named Michael Bellino directed it. I got as close to directing as you can get without directing. Directing was something that was vaguely in my ability, but it was not some pressing desire. I always entertained ideas of doing videos and would think of funny videos for songs and would tell people, “Hey, I want to do a video for you.” Sometimes I would do it very brazenly like, “I’m going to do a video for you.” Then when Ted’s next record came out, he called me on that. It was for the second song off the album, “Bottled in Cork.” I had to ask myself if I was up for doing it. I thought about it for a few days, because the last thing I want to do is ruin somebody’s song or take their budget away when someone better could have done it. I could not take it lightly at all. Ted is not just a friend, he’s one of my favorite musicians, and the song he wanted the video for was really my favorite song of his at that point.
People have interpreted that video as a comment on Green Day’s Broadway show. Is that a correct interpretation?
That’s a pretty fair interpretation. I can only speak for myself, but the Green Day Broadway show seemed kind of ridiculous, so I pitched the idea to Ted and he said, “That sounds funny.” I went and saw [American Idiot] and it was insane. It was one of the most unbelievably ridiculous things you could ever see. The show literally has the most talented people in the world working on it. They can sing and dance and act. And then there’s wire work — they’re flying 40 feet over the stage, they’re flying all over the place — but it’s the dumbest show you’ve ever seen. You’ve never seen a bigger waste of all these people’s talents. It’s for a dumb, bad concept album, and they’re trying to make it like it’s legit. You’re watching them sell this thing so hard and I felt mortified watching it. It’s this whole endeavor built around pretending they wrote this classic concept album.
What’s also funny is that 10 or 15 years ago, Green Day would have made a video like the one you guys did.
Even though it’s making fun of it … I don’t know, it’s still making fun of it. I’m not going to talk my way out of that one. I was going to try and spin it like, “Well, if you look at it from this angle,” but no, I was making fun of it. That’s kind of all there is to it.
How would you describe the videos you make?
They come from a comedy standpoint. They are very concept-driven and performance-driven. If I had to say where my strengths lay, it’s in performance and knowing when something is funny and knowing where the joke is. The other stuff, like how to compose shots, I’ve been learning.
A lot of times it seems like you’re approaching the videos more like short films.
At the risk of sounding pompous, I’d rather get to the spirit of the song than literally interpret the song. I go out into these videos and I try to do right by the song and the artist. A lot of that has to do with me listening to the songs over and over again. I did a video for The Stepkids and that one was hard because budget-wise we were a little more hamstrung than usual. I went to Philadelphia and just walked around listening to it on my iPod nonstop for four hours at a time. I came up with a video that has nothing to do with the song, but it fits the feel of the song.
Does it usually take that long for the concept to come together for you?
It takes a long time. I take it very seriously. I don’t want to slap things together that aren’t going to work. Once I direct it, it’s over for me. It goes up online, but the band has to keep going. I’m trying to help serve them. With the Titus Andronicus video, I wanted there to be a perfect representation of how they are as a live band. They didn’t have a great performance video that showcased them playing. I wanted them to have one so they can have it for wherever they go for their entire career.
How did you come up with the concept for the “Labrador” video?
The video for “Voices Carry” is such an iconic video in so many ways. It captures a specific time on MTV and a specific time when I was watching MTV. It was a video that was on constantly. It was the first time everybody met Aimee and she has done so much since then — she’s moved so far from that video being something that defines her. I think the fact that she has a safe distance from it made it something that could be touched upon and made into something we could have fun with. She’s not tied to it any more, but I was kind of hesitant to pitch it to her, because it’s a hard concept to go back and play yourself over 25 years later. My goal was not making fun of her at all; I wanted to make it clear she was in on the joke of it and in on the spirit. Pitching it to her was kind of tricky in a way, because it could be insulting. Structuring it so my intent was clear was a hard one. I’m friends with her, and even if I wasn’t friends with her, the last thing I would want to do is sell someone out for a joke that I kind of score on but they have to live with.
What’s interesting about the video is that doing a shot-for-shot remake of an artist’s previous video is such a great concept in itself, but with the video’s intro you undercut it by having Jon Hamm playing you as an idiot, and then within the video itself the boyfriend [played by Jon Wurster] is trying to make her the Aimee Mann that was in ‘Til Tuesday in the crassest way possible.
That concept was one of last things to come out of it. Initially it was just taking something and doing it shot-for-shot. That was the hook for me and the thrill for me. The idea of the boyfriend’s goal being to not make her normal, but wanting her to go back to being who she was in ‘Til Tuesday, that came relatively late in the game. The idea of wearing the tail in her hair even came from Aimee. I didn’t want to push it too far with that stuff. She already took such a huge leap doing it, I didn’t want to take that for granted.
What were the difficulties in doing the video shot-for-shot?
It ended up being a math problem. “Labrador” is shorter than “Voices Carry,” so we had to hit these marks so the dialogue would come up in the instrumental spot in “Labrador,” but the instrumental spot happens 28 seconds earlier than in “Voices Carry.” I watched “Voices Carry” for about two days straight, timing every single move out, knowing that if we do these moves in slightly less time then we will hit the part where the dialogue comes in on the instrumental break.
So you’re just shaving off seconds wherever you can.
Ted Leo wears an awesome wig in this video, and you’ve had him do some ridiculous stuff in other videos. When he gets the call from you, is he like, “What are you going to make me do this time?”
He loves it. He’s such a great performer and he’s so funny. He’s so committed, and that’s what makes it work. Nobody takes the art of songwriting or performance as serious as he does. He’s as all in as you can be, and it carries over to stuff like this. It’s always good to see the funny and playful side of him, because we know he can be so serious, which I think only makes the funny stuff stronger.
That’s kind of the same situation with Jon Hamm now. Almost everything he’s done outside of Mad Men has been kind of ridiculous comedy, but what makes those performances even funnier is that he’s so known for the Don Draper character.
When people are good, they are just good. They are versatile and they are smart to make adjustments. They can do more than just one tone. A talented person is a talented person.
Were there any smaller roles from the original video that you were excited to cast?
The band was pretty big in that regard. ‘Til Tuesday’s original drummer [Michael Hausman] is also the drummer in this video. He’s reprising his role because he’s Aimee’s manager now. We got him out of retirement and back behind the drum set.
With the video for Mann’s “Charmer,” was there a contingency plan in case Laura Linney didn’t come through?
I didn’t pitch it as Laura Linney. I could not believe we got Laura Linney. I came up with the concept and Aimee liked it. We were trying to come up with who could do it and asking people, and Aimee said, “What if we ask Laura?” It felt like we had to do that just to do it. It’s that long shot where you don’t know the answer unless you ask, but you expect a “no” because she’s Laura Linney; she’s not going to do a music video for a day and a half. But then she said yes, and she was unbelievable. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop where she would say, “Of course I can’t do that, this other thing came up,” but she was excited to do it and couldn’t have been greater. When you see somebody like that work, you realize why she’s at the level where she is at. There’s just a level of performance that’s kind of awesome in the purest sense of the word. You just watch it with awe how she supplies all the connective tissue to something as goofy as a video. But she brings this thing to life in its own way. It’s very impressive.
You did “Labrador” and “Charmer” at the same time. Did you pitch them at the same time too?
Yeah, and we shot them simultaneously. We’d shoot a scene from one and then we’d shoot a scene from the other, depending on what our locations were. It was a pretty intense schedule to try to bounce from video to video, especially since they had two different looks. It was an ambitious three days.
Is there an end plan or a goal that you feel like you’re building up to in terms of directing?
I feel like I’m reaching an end of the line with the videos. We’ve done them for two years now. Whatever the next thing is, I want to try that. I love doing them and videos are such an important part of my life — growing up watching MTV from more or less when it started. I don’t want to end up in this video ghetto. Maybe I’m a terrible director for things other than videos, but I have to find out. I think I’m building up to something. With the narrative component in my videos, it’s obvious that I want to tell stories. So next I’d like to tell stories without songs attached to them.
Has anybody approached you about doing commercials?
You’d be shocked how no one is approaching me about anything. People love these videos, but no one knocks on my door for anything. Classic Tom. Classic Tom situation. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to be out there knocking on people’s doors, but nobody is knocking on my door. I have a definite sensibility that I think people have been responding to in these videos and I’d love to apply that to other things.
I guess it’s a decision regarding whether you try to figure which doors you should be knocking on or building your own building.
I guess. I have to find an end game to this, because making the videos, while I really do love it and it’s only gotten more satisfying, I don’t know what there is beyond doing more of them. I think I’m getting comfortable doing them and I think the videos are pretty good and they’re only getting better, but I’m not going to make the perfect video. My favorite video is Monster Magnet’s “Space Lord.” It’s stoner rock guys doing a hip-hop video. That’s the kind of video I would like to make. I’d love to make a big oversize video with flash-pots and explosions, then try some narrative stuff, like a short film or something.
It’s funny you mention that Monster Magnet video, because it does have that huge budget, but it’s in service of a conceptual joke. Watching your videos, what I’m most reminded of is a type of video that doesn’t really get made anymore, like the ones Matador Records was making in the 1990s with Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube” featuring the guys from Mr. Show or some of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion stuff.
One of my best friends is Phil Morrison, who directed all those videos. So much of what I’m doing I look at as a chance to honor Phil. I’m just doing a version of what he used to do. I wouldn’t be doing these videos if it wasn’t for Phil, who I think did them better than anybody did them. Phil directed that movie Junebug. Phil is an actual artist. I don’t think I’m an artist, but I think I can do funny stuff. Being in the spirit in those videos from the ’90s is a big part of it. Those were my friends making them, and here I am, 15 years later, picking up the mantle.
They were fun videos, and I guess mine are in the same vein. That would be a compliment to me. Thank you for complimenting me.
Eric Ducker (@ericducker) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.