Talking to Tom Scharpling, Host of The Best Show on WFMU
Tom Scharpling is a guy with a lot of irons in the fire. Not only is he the director of a recent string of popular music videos, but he’s also working on a new TV project for Comedy Central, maintaining a funny and inventive Twitter feed, writing a new album with comedy partner Jon Wurster, and, of course, hosting the weekly three-hour radio program The Best Show on WFMU. I’m exhausted just typing all that. Given his busy schedule, it was super nice of Tom Scharpling to take the time to talk to me about the plethora of projects he currently has going, how much of the banned alcoholic energy drink Four Loko he still has stashed in his garage, and why a puppet on the radio is the most ridiculous thing ever.
So, I want to start by just calling out the elephant in the room: You were left off of Splitsider’s Year in Review podcast piece, and you’re not happy with that, as I understand, right?
Sure. Yeah, I’m not happy with–Look… people put lists together. I can’t control it, and I don’t really care beyond the point that it is something fun to goof around on, but sometimes I wish I was on the list too. So, look, again, it’s a list. I can’t worry about that. Everybody always keeps me off the list because it’s technically a radio show, I guess is what people say. Do a radio show list, and what am I gonna be the only one on that? It’s like I’m stuck. I am neither fish nor fowl in the world of podcast rankings, and I guess I have to accept that.
You’ve said recently you’re going to try to stop reading what’s written about you online. Has that been difficult so far?
No, not at all. It’s been surprisingly easy, and it’s been fantastic. I just don’t go to sites that I would go to, and I stay off them, and it’s great. It’s completely doable, and I would recommend it to anybody who finds themselves getting twisted about Internet commenting. Just don’t play the game.
What kind of stuff hurts you the most? Things written about your show that don’t reflect it honestly or just being left off of lists?
Left out of the lists… you know, look, that’s fine. People have opinions. I have plenty of opinions. I can’t worry if somebody has an opinion that I’m not on a list or something. I get that. When I think about what my favorite things are, there are plenty of things that wouldn’t make my list. So, that’s fine. Sometimes people misrepresent the show or they start to write too much about personal stuff that I don’t think is anyone’s business. That’s all. That’s the stuff that I have a lower threshold for.
What was your favorite Best Show moment of 2011?
Hmm. What would be the highlight of 2011? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. What would you say? Remind me of a couple highlights. I forget these things. I’m not good at remembering what I do on the show, and I just end up thinking about the next show and the past shows get a little blurred in my head. Does that make sense?
Yeah. I liked the introduction of Vance and the devil worshipping stuff.
Oh yeah, all that stuff was a blast. Vance, to me, is hilarious because it’s a puppet on the radio. There’s kind of nothing funnier than a puppet on the radio. It’s also like I have pal who’s in the studio with me now, but it’s me.
Do you actually work the puppet or are you just doing the voice?
Oh, I totally work the puppet. I can’t just–that would be like cheating.
Okay. Just wanted to make sure.
Oh yeah, I’m working the puppet. If the puppet talks, I’m working the puppet.
Even if it’s just you in the studio?
Even if it’s just me. Especially if it’s just me.
Does that ever feel ridiculous?
Oh, it’s the most ridiculous thing ever! It’s terrifying to be alone in a room with this giant green three-eyed puppet on my hand and alternating voices badly, but trying to commit to it as much as I can. I can’t begin to tell you how ridiculous I feel doing it, but also at the same time, it’s kind of thrilling.
Do you have a suggested first episode for people who are looking to listen to the show for a first time?
I would say people should probably check out the best-of podcast more than anything instead of a full-length show because they’re all so different. I don’t even know if one encapsulates–if one is the best gateway show or not, I don’t know. Best Show Gems seems to work pretty well in terms of getting people attuned to the spirit of the show. And then, if they are interested, they can get on the full three-hour ride.
Do you ever find yourself slipping into your Best Show person when you’re off the air? Like when you’re just at the bank or something?
No. I think that is me getting it out of my system for three hours and then I manage to just go about my being a regular person for the other six days and 21 hours… I’m not like that in real life. I guess I am to a point, but it’s an exaggerated version of how I am.
Did you start playing around with that exaggerated version once you got the show or was were the seeds of that there in your personal life beforehand? Maybe when you’re joking around with your friends.
I think it’s always been a part of me, but it ended up being [that] I had a way to put a point on it because I’m doing it during a specific window. It’s definitely grown since I started the radio show and I am more attuned to it, but it’s not something that started with the radio.
Listening to the show, sometimes I wonder what keeps certain regular callers calling back in when you just make fun of them every week. Like Spike, for example. Do you encourage him to keep calling when you’re off the air?
Off the air? No… You know who I’ll tell to call back in is somebody who writes me and says, “I tried to call and it didn’t go well, so I don’t think I’m ever gonna call again.” If they e-mail me and say that, I’ll say, “No, don’t do that. You should try again, it’s fine.” Sometimes, people will write me apologizing because the call didn’t go well. It’s like, don’t apologize. It’s so hard to pull off the perfect call on the thing when I keep moving the target. You can’t hit the target if I keep moving it. But somebody who’s a recurring character or something, no, I don’t really do any maneuvering behind the scenes.
Do you have plans for the show that involve the cases of Four Loko that you horded before it was taken off the market?
You know, I guess I would want to keep using it until it’s gone, which might take five years. I’m assuming by the point, it will have chemically transformed into window washer fluid.
How much more of it do you have left?
Over two cases.
Wow. So, can you tell me about the Comedy Central pilot you made with the Gregory Brothers?
Yeah, we did a pilot. We shot it in October. My friend, Peyton Reed, directed it. I’m really proud of it. It kind of takes what the Gregory Brothers do and turns it into a narrative show. It’s not just a clip show or crazy web stuff. It’ll have stories and character stuff, in addition to those things. It’s been so much fun. They’re so talented in a very traditional way where they can sing and they can be funny and they can do all these different things. They have such a range, so it’s been really exciting working with people when you keep learning new things about them through the process. We’ll see what happens with it. Hopefully, it goes to series.
When do you find out if it’s picked up?
I guess in the next month or so. I can’t worry about these things, though. It’s out of my control. I did the best job I could on the pilot, and I’m super proud of it. If it doesn’t go forward, people who don’t make it go forward are wrong because it’s truly great. But I’m proud of what we made, whether it goes forward or not. I couldn’t be more proud.
You recently directed a string of popular music videos. Have you been inundated with requests from bands to direct their videos?
No. Wouldn’t you think I would be, right? Wouldn’t you think?
I know! I would too. There’s no inundation. No inundation has happened. We’ll see. There’s a couple things that are in the discussion stage, but nothing that’s lined up for the immediate future.
Were you expecting this enthusiastic a response to the music videos you’ve directed recently?
It’s so hard to say. Sometimes, some of them I think are a lock that people are gonna get into. Other ones, I think are a little weirder. I was really happy with the response that the Stepkids video got. That one was maybe a little odd in a way that I didn’t know if everybody was gonna be into, but I was really happy that people were into it. Kinda the same thing with the Real Estate video. It’s not funny funny in the way the New Pornographers one was funny, but people seem to be finding the humor in it. I’m really glad that people are finding it [funny]. It’s gratifying.
Are you returning to recap Celebrity Apprentice for New York magazine this year?
No, I can’t ever do that again. I think it actually compromised my health. I think I’m still paying a price for it. I was pulling an all-nighter once a week for three months. I would basically go without sleep that Sunday night and write [about] the show all through the night, then sleep like an hour and a half, then get up. I would go to sleep usually around 8 or 9 in the morning and wake up around 10:30 or 11 because I had to get my day started. I did that for three months. I can’t do that again. I had fun doing it, but I can’t do it again. It’s for young people. Recaps are for youth.
So, you’re very busy. You have your hand in a lot of different projects spanning many different mediums. If you had to cut one thing that you’re working on out, what would it be?
I have no idea. I don’t know what it would be… I think I just have to try to do as much as I can while I’m doing it and if one thing all of the sudden takes all my time – like if the Gregory Brothers show goes forward – I’ll just have to figure something out. I don’t know what that would be right now.
What are some comedies you’ve enjoyed lately?
I like Billy Eichner’s show a lot. Billy on the Street. It’s great. That’s my favorite thing on TV. He’s so good in it ’cause he’s such a compelling personality that he can get away with the things he gets away with. There’s heart behind it; it’s not just crass man on the street stuff, just him being mean or horrible. He’s so endearing but so funny. I can’t get enough of that show.
Are there plans for a new Scharpling and Wurster album?
Yes. We’re trying to work on one that will not just be the way the other ones have been, which is stuff from the radio show. We’re trying to do one that would be stuff that we record specifically for this, and that means trying to find some new concepts and ways to approach new concepts. We’re writing it now, so it’s been a lot of fun writing it, but there’s so much stuff going on with me and with Jon [Wurster]. It’s not something we get to work on as much as we would like, but we’re definitely working on it. It’s a priority to have happen, I would say, this year. It has to happen. We have good ideas for it, and it will be a lot of fun to just spread out in a way that isn’t just as immediate as things are on the radio where we’re doing it live in front of everybody in the moment. So, it would be kind of exciting to do something that was really pre-meditated and structured and produced.
Catch Tom Scharpling every week on The Best Show on WFMU, Tuesdays nights from 9pm to 12am ET. The show is archived in podcast form here, and a bite-sized best-of series, Best Show Gems, is available here.
Bradford Evans is perfectly capable of coming up with something clever to put here but doesn’t feel like it.