Critical Questions: Tom Scharpling
The Dollar Menu Dickens.
Tom Scharpling has taken a somewhat unconventional route to his current status as heavyweight champ of the pop culture underground. Not fitting into any of the more conventional and traditionally more visible roles of actor, comedian, or musician, Scharpling has instead amassed a notable following as host of the radio call-in program The Best Show on WFMU. Billed as "three hours of mirth, music, and mayhem," the Best Show, which airs on the Jersey City-based freeform station WFMU is an eccentric cavalcade of talking squirrels, antisocial prog-obsessed puppets, weirdo callers from around the country, and meticulously crafted invectives aimed at everyone from Kevin Smith to Garrison Keillor. But The Best Show is perhaps best known for Scharpling and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster's long-form phone-based sketches. Having introduced listeners to such unforgettable characters as obese barbershop singer Zachary Brimstead, two-inch-tall white supremacist Timmy Von Trimble, and the one and only Philly Boy Roy Ziegler, the calls are unlike anything in comedy and can veer wildly from seeimngly mundane yet remarkably scrupulous conversations about the finer points of power pop to surreal plunges down the rabbit hole of suburban New Jersey.
The "Dollar Menu Dickens" and former Monk scribe, Scharpling, who earlier in life was a zine writer and record label owner, has been staking a claim in various outlets other than radio. He's garnered considerable acclaim for a series of wonderfully creative videos for the likes of Ted Leo, The New Pornographers, Aimee Mann, and the Stepkids that have the same sort of "must-see" originality Spike Jonze brought to the form in the nineties. And as one of Twitter's more fearsome tacticians, Scharpling has mixed it up with the likes of Chuck Woolery and Gary Shandling. And, oh yeah, the guy knows his hoops, too.
I was lucky enough to chat with Tom about his unique road to his current success, the tenuous intersection of comedy and music, ‘zines, Weird Al, and what his dream video collaboration would be. You can check out The Best Show on WFMU on Tuesday nights from nine to midnight on 91.1 FM or online at wfmu.org. And you can follow Tom on Twitter: @scharpling.
CM: You originally started out on WFMU doing a music show and you had a record label as well. What was the evolution from being more music oriented to the "three hours of mirth, music, and mayhem" that is now the Best Show? How did the comedy element come into play? Was it a slow buildup or a full-on reboot?
TS: I started doing a music show on WFMU in the mid-nineties, but slowly me staying on mic longer and taking calls here and there creeped into the mix. In 1997 Jon Wurster and I did our first radio bits, the first of which was "Rock Rot and Rule," and it went really well, so I wanted to do more of that type of stuff in my life, whether or not it was on the radio. I wanted to be making comedy — I had spent so much of my life paying homage to the twin gods of music and comedy. I was equally obsessed by both things — the fanzine I started was called 18 Wheeler, and it combined those two forms together (or at least I hope it did; nobody could ever touch what Gerard Cosloy had created with Conflict -- a fanzine that was legendary for turning people onto great music and for being hilarious).
I was desperate to do more to support the music that I loved, so I started 18 Wheeler Records as a way to get stuff out by James McNew's solo project Dump. We ended up putting out about a dozen records, but at some point I realized that unless I wanted to get a job in the music biz proper, the label was going to run out of gas. But I knew I wasn't cut out for that. So around 1998 I quit the radio show because I had to focus on getting a Real Job, which I hoped would be in comedy but was at that point was me writing for basketball magazines, which was great, but if I wasn't going to be a sportswriter for a living, that line of employment also had an expiration date stamped on it.
I honestly thought I would never go back to WFMU; I had done my show and that was that and I didn't have any interest in doing another music show. At that point in my life I was going to the UCB Theater all the time watching Assscat every Sunday. It was the greatest: Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser; people like Horatio Sanz, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Brian Stack, Jon Glaser, Brian McCann, Adam McKay, and Kevin Dorff going up every single Sunday and creating the funniest thing I had ever seen. It was then that I decided that if I was to do another show on WFMU, I would want it to be a version of the calls that Jon Wurster and I had done. I asked Jon if he was into it and he was. So I proposed a show to WFMU that would be me doing bits with Jon and taking calls and they went for it. The thing that a lot of people miss out on is that when it was called The Best Show On WFMU, that was a putdown. It was a show that nobody cared about. I was such a footnote up at WFMU that I was making fun of my stature there with that title. And I'm not saying I do the best show on the station now anyway; I'm up there but it's up to everybody to have their own definition of the best show.
A friend once described your calls with Jon Wurster by saying "You don't have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of music to get it, but it doesn't hurt." To what degree do you expect your audience to understand the myriad references you and Jon are making and to what degree do you want the humor to transcend all of that?
Jon and I figure these things work on different levels. Some of the jokes are geared towards the super music fan who will laugh at a reference to Pick Withers, but I think that if listeners don't know the references, they laugh at the ridiculousness of naming someone that obscure.
We try to make the calls track for people who know the show inside and out and for people who might be new to the program. We can't tailor it to either faction, but I would hope both can get some enjoyment out of every call.
All of the characters on the Best Show possess a formidable knowledge about whatever subject is being discussed, be it Vance the Puppet's obsession with prog rock or Marky Ramone's passion for Harlequin Romance. How much research do you and Jon put into developing these characters or are they largely just byproducts of your own mutual interests?
I think we reference things that we know or knew about at different periods of our life. I used to love prog when I was fourteen but got out of it pretty quickly. Jon and I will also read books about musicians whose music we don't like at all. Once in awhile one of us will complete the knowledge about a subject for the other; Jon will ask me for the names of Philly athletes when Philly Boy Roy calls.
Music and comedy seemed to have formed a partnership like never before these days. It what way do you think music and humor work best together? For example, are you a fan of "funny bands"? Your Zappas, your Weens, your Bonzo Dog Bands?
I am a fan of bands and artists that have a wit about them. I've never been a Ween fan or a Zappa fan. I like what I know of Bonzo Dog Band but I never went far enough into them to get totally on board. I saw Weird Al do a show earlier this year and it was absolutely amazing. The guy's show is so satisfying for people of literally every age; there were little kids singing along with girls in their twenties and dudes in their fifties. I was truly moved by the power of linking a great song with a funny concept that night, but outside of Al I don't think I like bands that are funny. I do like musicians that make funny music, like Tenacious D. That counts, right?
You've been making music videos for a couple of years now. I'd argue that they're as enjoyably original as those made by Spike Jonze in the '90s. When you come up with an idea for a video is it generated purely by the nature of the song? Or do you also have the artist or band's general aesthetic in mind?
You're sweet to say that. When I'm coming up with the idea for a video I work really hard to make sure that the concept suits both the band and the song. The last thing I would want would be to do a video that only I would gain anything from but the band would be stuck living down for the rest of their existence. I do take the aesthetic into account when I come up with the concept; I didn't want to do a funny Titus Andronicus video because they're a young band all about rocking, so I wanted to have a video that showed them rocking. My part of it was hitching them to a concept like touring New Jersey in one day.
You seem to have primarily worked with artists that you clearly like and that are often associated with the Best Show (Ted Leo, Aimee Mann, etc.). Are you getting any requests to work with people you're not necessarily a fan of? Do you think you could make a video for a band or artist you might not like on a musical level?
I would do a video for someone who I didn't know. I've gotten requests along those lines. I didn't know anybody in Real Estate or Wild Flag or the Stepkids. But I loved their music. It might be hard to work on a video for an artist I didn't like. I guess I'm lucky at this point to have only worked on videos for good songs.
Lastly, if you could choose any song from rock music history to make a video for, what would it be and what would be the concept?
I would do a video for "Not That Funny" by Fleetwood Mac. I'd have the band doing sets at the Comedy Store circa 1979. There would be cameos by a young Letterman and a young Gallagher and Pauly Shore as a child and the video would end with Garry Shandling getting hit by Jay Leno's car on the Sunset Strip.
|Aimee Mann - Labrador|
|The Stepkids - Legend In My Own Mind|