Julie Klausner chats with Tom Scharpling, writer and host of The Best Show on WMFU.
Julie Klausner: By now, it's a comedy legend better ascribed to the Old Testament, but for those who don't know, please explain the origins of your partnership with Jon Wurster and how Rock Rot & Rule came about?
Tom Scharpling: The Old Testament? I like that. Jon and I met a long long time ago - we started talking and we hit it off immediately. We were bonding over our mutual love of Get a Life and Chris Elliott, but the big breakthrough was when we realized that we each knew about an MTV VJ named Smash, who was an older guy the network hired for a very limited window - imagine an out of work classic rock DJ with a face like a catchers mitt trying to relate to 'the kids' - and once Jon and I started talking about Smash, we knew we'd be friends.
Fast forward a few years and I am doing a music-based radio show on WFMU. I'm starting to do more talking and comedy on the air. Jon and I were talking on the phone and at the time Oprah was being sued by the beef industry for saying bad stuff about them on her show. She won the lawsuit and when she left the courtroom she said "freedom not only rules, it rocks!" Jon and I kept talking about how amazingly weird and hilarious her statement was, and then we started listing all the things that ruled and all the things that rocked. This evolved into us creating a character who wrote a book about which bands rocked and ruled, and we eventually decided to try it on my radio show. It was the first call-in Jon had ever done and it went ridiculously well for our first call.
JK: What are your thoughts on Chris Christie Post-Hurricane Sandy?
TS: I still wouldn't vote for him but he definitely stepped up and did right by the people of the state. He was everywhere and was giving out hugs like they were food. The guy must be a really good hugger, right? And I will say that the first time he said something nice about Obama, I knew that Romney wasn't going to win the election. Christie is a smart dude and knew that if he played nice with Obama it would show the country that he could work with someone across the aisle. Although what was he supposed to do, tell Obama to take a hike because New Jersey doesn't need any help?!
JK: How do you prepare for the show each week? I don't think people realize how much you have to map out the show and write the scripts for those calls with Jon.
TS: Yeah, there's a lot of writing that goes into every episode. Jon and I do a lot of writing back and forth to get the calls in shape, and that can take a few days of kicking ideas around and getting them into shape, trying to make sure there are laughs and twists and surprises in the call. We work hard to make sure we're not repeating ourselves. It's a tightrope, trying to move the narrative of a caller forward - especially a recurring character - while keeping it grounded in some fashion.
JK: What do you love most about doing The Best Show?
TS: I love that no matter how much preparation I do - outside of the Scharpling & Wurster calls, I do a lot of writing for the rest of the show - there are moments when I'm inside of it, just saying whatever thoughts pop into my head out loud into the microphone as I'm thinking them. When a theme or a subject sparks something and I start talking about it and mine it for laughs in front of all the listeners and when that new idea pops up, it is the greatest feeling ever.
JK: Who is your least favorite resident of the Hate Pit currently?
TS: Wow, that's a hard one. I think the funniest one is that I threw both Brian Wilsons in - the Beach Boys genius and the pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. I can't remember why the pitcher is in there, but I know the Beach Boy is in because he isn't releasing a concept album he once proposed called Pleasure Island, which sounded like the most awesome concept ever. I think Jeff Garlin is in because he made fun of Kanye West on the Tonight Show? He can come out and Kanye can take his place!
JK: What have you learned from directing so many awesome music videos?
TS: I have learned to make my ideas even more concise than I thought I had learned to make them as a TV writer. And I've learned that, at the risk of sounding like a blowhard, I think I can actually direct! I will never be a director who argues about lenses with the DP, but I know what's funny and I think I know how to stage it and how to get funny performances out of actors.
JK: What are you watching on TV lately?
TS: I'm watching a lot of Sons of Anarchy, which is pure torture and joy simultaneously. You know how when Breaking Bad or The Sopranos would suddenly say "only two episodes left this season" and you'd be like "What?!?! Already!?!" This show is the opposite - they have been doing these 90 minute super-sized episodes and there never seems to be any end in sight. It's a show that keeps getting more violent and "edgy" to the point where it seems like it's improvised. Except for the fact that the plot is so elaborate that it has turned into the motorcycle version of those Star Wars prequels where so much time was spent discussing trade federations and embargoes - it's a biker gang doing C-SPAN at this point. But I must love it because I keep watching!
JK: How did you happen upon Gary Tha Squirrel, and is it true that doing the voice of - and activating – that puppet on your show is the thing that brings you the most joy in life?
TS: Yeah, Gary is pretty awesome. It's as much fun as I think I could ever have. When Vance the Puppet got added to the show, he had mentioned that he had a roommate. My wife spotted a rack of puppets at a bookstore and we looked for his roommate. And there was this squirrel puppet that was SO expressive and hilarious - it looks like he's smiling all the time. I tried the puppet out and the voice just showed up and it's been the greatest since then.
JK: You're idolized by your listeners, who tend to look up to you as a father figure, or a cult leader sometimes! How is that flattering and how is it maybe not so great sometimes?
TS: It's very flattering that people have developed some level of affection or respect or whatever for me. I am truly touched by it. The only time is isn't so great is when people look to me to have answers that I just don't have - I'm still struggling to figure things out myself!
JK: Tell me about where you were at when you went to Luna Lounge in the 90s, and how you figured out what your place was in - or outside - of that community.
TS: It was a weird scene to jump into. All of these talented people swirling around this scene, and they were just RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOU. Seeing Marc Maron go up every Monday night and do stuff, whether it was hilarious or sad or angry - or some version of all three - was a great lesson in building something larger than an individual performance. He was documenting where he was at in front of an audience once a week; I'm sure that rubbed off on me to some degree with The Best Show.
Seeing some of the bits that Jon Benjamin and Jon Glaser did were like a rush of oxygen - they did whatever they wanted no matter what people thought of it. Another huge influence.
JK: Please share with us something we should know about basketball this year.
TS: I am truly surprised by how good the Knicks have been at the outset of the season. They are soooo old - dudes literally coming out of retirement to join the team! - and it might not last, but there's something heartening about watching them play team basketball and seeing them win as a team. And Carmelo Anthony is so much fun to watch when he's on - nobody can score like he can!
JK: Why is basketball "The Best Game"? You've said this on the radio a couple of times. Is it the simplicity?
TS: I think it's that unlike most other sports the players aren't wearing helmets or masks or any sort of headgear. You get to know who they are out there because you are seeing their faces in full. They become characters. And yeah, the simplicity helps a ton too; basketball is a simple game that is very complex.
JK: I think it's that unlike most other sports the players aren't wearing helmets or masks or any sort of headgear. You get to know who they are out there because you are seeing their faces in full. They become characters. And yeah, the simplicity helps a ton too; basketball is a simple game that is very complex.
TS: I ultimately figure that what I do on the radio is some version of who I actually am, but certain elements are clearly heightened or exaggerated and other elements are not represented as much. Yeah, I chose to call my dog Dogmo on the radio even though that wasn't her name - Dogmo became a nickname that might as well have been her name - because I don't want to hand everything in my life over to the radio show in bulk. I ultimately give all of myself over to the show, but I am also living in a comedic bubble when I'm doing the show. Trust me, nobody would want to hear me bare the unvarnished dark corners of my life. I'd rather varnish them and find a way to express the core of what they are in a manner that is also entertaining.
JK: You've done more and more interviews, since starting Low Times, the music podcast you do with Daniel Ralston & Maggie Serota. What do you go into an interview with, and what are your goals with it? I thought the one you did on Best Show recently with Chris Elliot & Adam Resnick was one of the best talks I've ever heard.
TS: Doing the Low Times podcast with Daniel and Maggie has been a great experience because I've had a chance to sit down and talk to people who I would never have an opportunity to talk to otherwise. Getting to talk to Dave Wyndorf from Monster Magnet - a band that I have always liked but people would assume I didn't have a lot in common with - and hear his amazing stories about playing for Norman Mailer and Woody Allen - is as great an experience as I've ever had. Everybody has at least a few great stories, and getting them to share them with the world is a pleasure.
And thank you for your nice words about the Chris Elliott/Adam Resnick show! That was another highlight of my life. Chris has been someone who I have admired for the bulk of my life and to have him hang out on the radio and answer questions about Get a Life or Letterman or Cabin Boy and to have him laugh at things I said will never not blow my mind.
JK: Do you have any messages for the ten million comedians doing podcasts?
TS: I'm coming for you. Get out now while the getting is good.
JK: Thank you Tom! I love you!
TS: You're welcome! I love you too! Wait, was this a question?
This article was originally published December 2013