I was introduced to the work of Tom Scharpling when I started listening to the podcast of The Best Show on WFMU as a way to kill time at work. The show features a mix of Scharpling sounding off, and contending with an endless supply of insane callers, including Jon Wurster (of Superchunk, The Mountain Goats, and many more), who has worked with Tom to create hundreds of character based sketches, and eventually the fake town of Newbridge, New Jersey. Add the fact that the show is an invariable tastemaker (with frequent guests such a Paul F. Tompkins, Julie Klausner and other great comedians, musicians and artists), and you’ve got a unique, modern take on the classic, golden age radio show. I loved the show so much I checked out his other work, most notably the USA show Monk (which he wrote/produced), which was equal parts captivating, touching, and funny at times. Scharpling also contributed to multiple shows on Adult Swim.
Tom granted me the chance to do an interview before a Best Show one night, and was nice as could be. He’s also one of most naturally funny people I’ve ever seen, who can start joking around in the middle of the most serious of discussions, without coming off as just “doing material.” Afterward, he let me sit in the studio on air, which was like a comedy fan’s dream come to life, watching him go off on everything from bullies to Beatles Fest. This was our conversation.
Joe: What was your experience with WFMU like pre-Best Show?
Tom: I was doing a music show in the ‘90s, but started talking more, expanding out the mic breaks, and taking calls. Jon Wurster and I had the idea where he called in as a fake guest, and we had never done anything like that. That was Rock, Rot and Rule, which was the first comedy he did as a call in. That was ’97. But I was pretty much doing a straight-ahead music show, playing thirty-some records a show.
Joe: How were you involved with Late Night with Conan O’Brien?
Tom: (Late Night writer) Andy Blitz created this boy band on the show, Dudez A-Plenti, and was like “We’re bringing them back, I want you to be the craft service guy, working the bagel station,” and I was like “Ok, I’ll do that.” [Laughing] I go, they have the boy band in there, and Conan just starts doing his thing; I’ve never seen anyone think as fast as him. It was mind-boggling watching how he worked in that capacity.
Then there was a moment where the awesome wardrobe lady, who was this terrible monster who’s name I don’t even know, [Laughing] sees me and goes “Oh, you’re not that fat,” like I’m supposed to be some Walter Hudson, rolling in. And then they’re like “all right, for this next thing we’re going to need you to take your shirt off,” and I was like “No, I’m not doing it.” “Well, we need you to do it.” “Well, then you made a mistake, because no one said anything about me taking my shirt off, and I’m not taking my shirt off at all.” Absolutely not, and I did not. But that horrible woman was like [Grouchy voice] “You’re not as fat as I thought you were going to be.” It’s unbelievable that humans can say that to other people, but she had no problem.
Joe: When and where were you in a thirty-person improv group?
Tom: Eating It was the Monday night comedy show in New York on Ludlow, and everybody would be there: Marc Maron, the UCB people (before they had the theater), Demitri Martin, Eugene Mirman. John Benjamin and John Glazer did a lot of stuff there and I said “what if there was a bit where there’s an improv troop that goes to do something, but it’s a thirty person group on that horrible little stage which could barely fit anybody.” It’s like “Alright, we need a suggestion from the audience. Doctor’s office. We need a first line, last line. All right, go.” And it’s thirty people, each doing their own things to each other and it was just chaos. (Matt) Walsh (of UCB) was in it, Leo Allen was up there. A lot of people were up there. How did you know about that?
Joe: I read about it on the internet.
Tom: Oh, ok. But I went up in that, but hated being on stage so much that I just hid in the sea of thirty people.
Joe: Do you approach writing for The Best Show differently now that you’ve built up a large following, compared to when you were just starting out, and people weren’t necessarily sure about what was going on?
Tom: The difference now is that I do more writing than I did then. Early on, I was content letting the show be working on bits with Wurster, and letting the other part of the show be “whatever happens, happens.” But I got to a point where I said, “I want to make the other part of the show in the neighborhood of quality of the stuff between me and Jon.” So I made it a point to do more writing about that part of the show. I try to have twelve ideas to get to in any show. I’ll only get to six, but I try to have twelve. That way I’m covered, and I’ll have some things for next week in the bank.
Joe: When you and Jon write together, do you have a preference for more realistic characters, or more outrageous and outlandish?
Tom: I think we’re able to find the balance between the two. There’s a way to have unrealistic characters be strangely grounded, and realistic characters be kind of out of this world, if that makes sense. It allows us to do both, which is the fun part. Even the craziest characters should have some sort of grounding, to I don’t want to say relate-ability, but something like “Ok, there’s a universality there about the condition that they’re talking about,” to where you’re like “Ok, even if this character is a fish that’s talking, it’s a fish who is dealing with very human problems and emotions like jealousy.” We try to find the humanity in the character. I think it makes it funnier that way, because if people are just doing jokes, then there’s just so many jokes you want to hear. But if you’re doing a character, you want some layers. I think it’s fun to give a crazy character very common, universal emotions.
Joe: What made you decide to completely refrain from talking about your personal and professional life on the air, compared to someone like Andy Breckman (Creater of Monk, co-host of Seven Second Delay on WFMU), who constantly talks about it?
Tom: I think working on a TV show is interesting to a point, but beyond that it’s boring. Also, it’s my day job. I don’t want to talk about my day job on the radio; I want to get away from it. There’s something nice about not living in that thing all the time, so that’s another component of it that’s important to me, is to just have this be its own thing, and not just an extension of the nightmare that is show business.
Joe: And you’ve said before that it’s important for people doing creative things, be it writing or anything else, to have something that’s completely their own.
Tom: Absolutely. I can’t stress that enough in a lot of ways, because it is such a frustrating line of work, and it can be so frustrating that you need something where you don’t feel like only twenty percent of you got into it ultimately, by the time it went through this whole process. Like you’re trying to get your jokes into a TV series, and having to be happy with two, meanwhile you wrote thirty. You’re not digging ditches, but any job is frustrating. Any job in entertainment can be pretty frustrating when they’re not going well. It just feels like [Panicky voice] “My head doesn’t work. Why don’t people want my head? Or what’s in my head? They don’t want me!”
Careers evolve and change, and I don’t want everyone to be like “Hey, whatever happened with that thing?” because it’s kind of none of your business. I barely know what’s going on with most of these things, and then you get the peanut gallery weighing in on it. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s exciting for people who aren’t living in it day in and day out, but it’s so frustrating sometimes that it’s the last thing you want to think about. Just like how nobody else wants to go home and talk about their job at night, you know?
Joe: Sure. Where did the “Friends of Tom” come from, particularly the membership cards?
Tom: It was a tribute to old-timey, show-biz. Howdy Doody and stuff like that having clubs and membership cards. There’s something funny about a really small fan club, telling everyone “write in for this thing,” and not having that many people writing in. But it’s also how things are going, the fact that everything is so niche-y now. Everybody finds the thing that speaks to them, you do the thing that speaks to you, and if not everyone’s on board that’s the trade off for having something that’s exactly for you. There’s never going to be another M.A.S.H., but I’m sure there were a lot of people who did not love M.A.S.H. but just kind of liked it, and everyone else was watching so they watched it too. Now those people can find their own thing that speaks exactly to them. Whether you want a show about motorcycle gangs, or people hoarding animals, there’s a show for everybody.
Joe: What made you decide to start putting together such large premiums for the annual fundraising marathon?
Tom: Probably this compulsion to make everything bigger, and always try to top myself, which is not always the greatest default setting [Grinning]. But you know what, it’s very exciting to care about stuff. It’s also fun to make things that make people say “Oh, that’s so much better than I thought it would be,” or that it was bigger than they thought it would be. You want these things to be events, special, and it’s exciting when things are more than what you thought they were going to be. It’s magic, dare I say. [Laughing] I’ll say magic. Why am I running from the word? But that’s the goal, to do something special.
Joe: Are there any future plans for (your comedy label) Stereolaffs?
Tom: Yeah, we’re doing a new album this year, there will be a new shirt, and we’re going to try to have a few new products out that will be fun. We’re trying to do something that’s not just radio show material just put on a CD, we’re trying to do something that stands alone that was not on the radio, trying to take advantage of the possibilities behind that.
Joe: In the same “canon?”
Tom: You know, I guess it would be similar enough, but we’re going to try to play around with it, you know, see what kind of exciting possibilities are out there.
The Best Show on WFMU can be heard live on Tuesday nights from 9-12 PM EST, on 91.1 WFMU in the New York City metro area, or on www.WFMU.org where it can be live streamed, in addition to hosting a podcast and extensive archive of old shows.