Tom Scharpling Discusses His Memoir It Never Ends

Comedy Features Tom Scharpling
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Tom Scharpling Discusses His Memoir <i>It Never Ends</i>

Early in It Never Ends, Tom Scharpling calls his shot. After laying out the three act structure the memoir takes on—you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh in adulation—he writes, “My goal is that upon finishing this book you will have no choice but to rise from your seat and slow clap while looking at the cover, muttering under your breath, ‘That SOB did it. He really did it!’”

Such a declaration makes interviewing its author difficult. First, his ambitions are already out in the open, loud and proud, so where does one begin? Second, yeah, that SOB did it. He really did it!

It isn’t hard to root for Tom Scharpling, who has written for television shows like Monk and What We Do In the Shadows, directed music videos for the likes of Aimee Mann and the New Pornographers, and, in hosting The Best Show (first on New Jersey freeform radio station WFMU, then on its own), pioneered comedy podcasting. It Never Ends would have been satisfying enough had it stuck to a kind of road story format, but Scharpling took a decidedly more challenging route, plunging into his life as if anything less than a full accounting of it would be a waste of paper akin to a DJ Khaled self-help book.

It Never Ends is so much more. It contains stories that will be familiar to fans of Scharpling’s show—he tells an embarrassing story about Patti Smith early and writes of the freak car accident that nearly killed him the night of the 2016 election—but they’re handled much differently in prose than on the air, the light of the new medium revealing new facets that weren’t evident the first or second time around.

On the page, Scharpling’s stories are hilarious, heartbreaking, embarrassing, and, above all, honest—everything that makes memoirs as difficult to write as they are worth reading. It is also a book that is deeply invested in how it came to be, which is what Scharpling and I recently spoke about.

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Paste: I want to start where the book starts, which is the story where you approach Patti Smith in an elevator and ask if she’d seen Humble Pie at their peak. It was interesting to see that story written out as opposed to how you’ve approached it on The Best Show. What changed by retelling it in prose?

Tom Scharpling: I’ve talked about a lot of the things in the book on the radio in some form or another, but I didn’t want the book to feel like it was just transcriptions from The Best Show, and I didn’t want to be overly flowery in the writing, either—so I was kind of trying to strike a balance between being conversational and literary, which changed the context for the framing of that story in the book. On The Best Show it was just, here’s what happened a week ago, whatever, however that went down. But in the book it’s like, here’s where my life was at, I’m taking a couple steps back, and it’s a lot different than what it was on the radio.

Paste: Was it hard to find a way into those stories that made them new in that regard?

Scharpling: It wasn’t the hardest part of writing the book, but it was a challenge to make sure that I was exploring everything to its utmost degree and mine each thing as deeply as I could where I might not necessarily do that on the radio because I’m saying it in real time. There’s a performative aspect of being on The Best Show, and that maybe caps how deep I can go with a thing in the moment. The book is a much more measured, contemplative process where you’d get a second chance and a third chance and a fourth chance to go over the material. On the radio, five minutes before I start telling the story I could have a whole other thing happen that will cast a shadow over the story—they’re not in a vacuum, which makes it a little different. The book is a self-contained world. I’m telling it to the reader and nothing is interfering with that. That’s a big part of why I waited, why so much of the book never got talked about on the air—I felt it wouldn’t be the best part to talk about certain things.

Paste: One of my favorite aspects of the book is that your narrative voice seems almost surprised that you’ve written a book, and that the reader is in the middle of reading it. That voice is a huge part of It Never Ends’ framework—how did it come together?

Scharpling: I’ve always wanted to do a book. I’m somebody who reads all the time and just really liked going to bookstores. Bookstores and record stores are the two places I want to go if I’m feeling down or overwhelmed or lost. I can go to a bookstore or a record store and read and ground myself. They’ve always served that purpose, so I’ve just had a reverence for books going through my whole life that I was like, well, when it’s my turn to finally do one of these, if I get the chance, or when I get the chance, I want it to be everything it can possibly be. I’m not going to parse out things from my life with the anticipation of saving it for a second book. I was ready. I just approached it as if I’m never going to do it again, so it needs to be the story of my life. I felt like I needed to live up to the books that I’ve loved, which was a challenge—there are so many easier ways out, as you can see by the books that people do that are just comedy books. That has its place in the world, and I’ve loved plenty of books that are just meant to be funny, but I knew that if I was going to do a book, I couldn’t do one like that. I’d be denying a huge part of my life if I just did a book that was breezy and fun.

Paste: I had no idea, going in, whether to expect “breezy and fun” or something closer to what It Never Ends is. Do you have a sense of what readers expect out of a Tom Scharpling memoir? Are they going to be surprised?

Scharpling: I think there’s no way that somebody knows all of it. There’s just no way, and I know that for a fact. So there’s stuff here that people are going to be like, “I didn’t know that!” And it’s like, yeah, I didn’t tell anybody! You weren’t supposed to know! That’s why I’m doing this: Now it’s time for you to know. It was a strange process, I really could not have written this at any other point in my life. I just was not ready to do it at any other point.

Paste: Something I learned is just how much of a presence you were in my life as a comedy fan before I became aware of your existence. Before I started listening to The Best Show, I’d heard friends, record store clerks, and people at concerts say some variant of “Madness invented ska” without any of its Rock, Rot, or Rule context. Figuring out that the world wasn’t deluded in that kind of weirdly specific way was how I found out how close-knit your community of fans is, and also how widespread your work is. Does the appeal and influence of your comedy surprise you in any way?

Scharpling: I never got into this to do anything other than make a few friends laugh at stuff. That was really the goal, and it was never meant to be something larger than that. I wanted to work as a writer, and I wanted to put my best foot forward in terms of being funny and doing what I could in that regard. But I didn’t know where any of it was going to go. It’s just been this increase, this slow upward trajectory. There’s never been any kind of breakthrough moment. It’s like it’s just steadily seeping into people’s consciousness in the back of their heads maybe. I would take that over having a big moment and the inevitable drop off from that. I touch on this in the book, but I really am grateful that I’ve had this almost stealth career for so long that lets me get better and keep doing stuff and have people still care while I get to do new things, rather than have exploded early only to have it run out while I still have more living to do. I’m grateful that this is how it shook out.

Paste: The Best Show has changed gears a few times since I’ve started listening, which was after it moved from WFMU, and some of the funniest comedy I’ve ever heard was in that space where you were just trying stuff, like Whip Talk or Aww, Shut Up. They’re hilarious, but they don’t last forever—there’s a window, and you seem to just get how long they’re open, but that has to be the benefit of experience?

Scharpling: That’s interesting, because it plays into the writing I do for TV. When a scene is over, you just have to know when it’s over, when enough is enough. I need to be ahead of the audience, even if it’s just one tiny step ahead. I’d rather do an idea one or two times less than we could have than do it one or two times more than we should have. But whatever you want to call those things, those alternate universe type things, I’m going to do those again. I’m just technologically at a point where I can’t do them correctly—the pandemic kind of put a cramp in all that stuff because I don’t have a dedicated studio out here. I did, but I don’t now. So I’m going to try to rebuild that in one form or another and then get back to doing either that stuff, or something like it. I just need to do it correctly though. I wouldn’t want to do it and have it fall apart from a technical standpoint. Then I would just be mad because I ate it in front of everybody, due to my own shortcomings.

Paste: A lot of your material seems to depend on getting things technically correct. Is your attention to detail at all informed by your love of prog rock?

Scharpling: Ultimately it’s not like prog in that it’s hopefully never for the sake of the technical part of it. If in the service of a concept or joke a technical thing is required, we’ll try to do something that’s technically in-depth. I’ve listened to so many podcasts now and they’re so professional sounding that they sound unprofessional in their professionalism—they’re slick, but they’re missing a huge, huge portion of something. I think it’s just that they don’t feel alive. They feel like they’ve been edited and produced to create this acceptable, NPR-ish, numbed-out quality that I find so lifeless, and they do such a disservice to whatever the subject is sometimes in making the goal being professional. I feel like there’s no fun or life in so many of these things, and the subjects are diminished by that because you have a host who is so desperate to sound smart at all costs that they end up coming off sounding slightly superior to the subject. I just wish people would have more fun with their thing. I never want to be the person who does something that’s just like, man, that was so technically great! Well, was it funny? No, but it was technically great. I guess I’d rather be sloppy and funny, because the goal is not to have the tech be precise, but to have it be entertaining and funny.

Paste: You’ve hosted a call-in show for a long time, and your personality is what draws people to it and makes for compelling radio, whether it’s a call from a random person or a planned interview. How hard was it to examine that aspect of your personality in the memoir?

Scharpling: In a way, it wasn’t that hard to tap into because it’s always been there. I know that person, because he’s me. But to just take that and put it on the page would have been very boring. So yeah, it was really hard at points. I felt some real crises of confidence at certain points where I would write all day, and then at the end of the day my head would be throbbing because I was not used to writing about myself like this. There were other points where I would be like, am I taking these painful or sad things that happened in my life and just turning them into entertainment for other people? Like, what am I doing to my actual life here? That was a real fear that flared up during the process, and it made it very difficult at points because I didn’t just want to sell myself out for this book—I have to keep living. I don’t want to turn myself into a punching bag or give people fodder to throw back in my face if they don’t like that I made fun of their basketball team. Then they could just read the book and write the meanest things back to me, like I’m giving them ammunition to fire back at me when I could very well just keep it to myself. So yeah, it was a weird journey to get to the finish line on, and it feels very strange that people know these things now. I’m getting used to the fact that people are reading it now and it doesn’t belong to just me anymore. It’s just out in the world and I can’t control it.

Paste: On the other hand, there are going to be people who read It Never Ends and find it deeply relatable, which can be its own kind of terror and privilege.

Scharpling: Well, it definitely makes it easier knowing that we’re in a time where people have more support to tell their own story and be who they are. I think anybody’s story is going to have certain challenges that, when you hear about them, make you feel some sort of connection to them, even if their stories are completely different than yours, that there are similar aspects in terms of fear and shame that can connect us. I’m happy, too, that this is a time where people can be less afraid of just being who they are and owning it, because I definitely did not grow up in a time where that is the norm. So much of the fear that I do have, I think, was informed or reinforced by the time I grew up in where you just kind of kept things to yourself, and that’s not the world we’re living in now.

Paste: One of the issues you deal with in the book, something that’s central to it, is the issue of memory loss, particularly when it comes to your childhood, and you say at one point that the stories you have from that time in your life exist because you’ve repeated them so often as a means of memorization. Was that part of your motivation in telling them within a memoir?

Scharpling: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a really scary, awful thing to have memory problems. You have this one brain and it’s supposed to be there for you and do right by you. I think, in the scheme of things, I’m pretty happy with the brain I’ve got and the way it works, but for it to also have this huge issue has always just killed me. Sometimes I don’t even know what to do with the fact that I’ve suffered this extreme amount of memory loss. It’s just life, but it’s such a strange, disheartening experience. And to know that this is the same brain that helps me come up with funny stuff! I just don’t know what to do with it. It’s such a strange, frustrating thing, but I have to accept it and do what I can. So getting this book together was a big deal because it opened me up to really trying to dig for every piece of anything I could get. But it’s odd to feel like your brain is not what it should be. It’s the one thing that keeps you going and you can feel it starting to whine and break down, but it’s not like an appliance where I can just go and buy a new brain.

Paste: It seems like the book wouldn’t have come together at all if you weren’t able to write about that part of your life. Why was it such a make or break period for the book?

Scharpling: It just wouldn’t have been honest. I needed to say where everything started because it informs everything that happens when I’m an adult. It would have been cheating to try to pretend that those things didn’t happen, which led to some other things, which led to the current version of myself. And the reason I didn’t talk about this stuff on the radio is because I didn’t want to tell it incorrectly. I didn’t want to talk about any of the mental health issues and hospitalizations on the radio because it would have felt a little cheap—I wouldn’t have been able to tell it as deeply as I needed to. If I said it on the radio, it’s live—it happens and it goes away. If I missed a detail or got distracted by anything, it would be a disservice to the experience. I wanted to get it right.

Paste: That’s clear in the way It Never Ends is framed.

Scharpling: It has a strange framing device. In a way it’s a book about writing a book, but it’s also a book about getting strong enough to write a book. I didn’t do it as a crazy, meta experiment. The format it took was the actual journey I was on while I was doing the book. It’s not an overly clever thing. I’m telling the story while trying to get through the story. I didn’t just want it to be an exercise in cleverness.

Paste: Or sadness! It’s a very funny book, too.

Scharpling: That was the number one goal with it, to make it funny. I wanted it to stay funny, even if the subject matter wasn’t. I was trying to find parts of it where there were funny human aspects to what happened, but I didn’t want to be dismissive of them or, like I said, turn my misery into mere entertainment for people to laugh at. I didn’t want it to be a pity party, either, and I didn’t want to be like, it happens, whatever! These things hurt. They were bad. But I am comfortable trying to laugh about them, so let’s try to laugh about them and be honest about how they actually felt.

Paste: You’ve waited a long time to tell this particular story, to do something you’d never done before. Now that it’s out, what’s the next thing you’re going to try to accomplish?

Scharpling: I don’t know. I’m enjoying the process of this book finally becoming a real thing, then I have to get into it being a thing that happened already so I can move to whatever the next chapter is. The book has taken a couple years of constant, consistent effort and dedication. I wrote a pilot that I’m waiting to get feedback on. I’m working on a show. I’m trying to write a movie that, in a perfect world, I would get to direct. And I’d like to try something again with a book. I don’t know what that would be. I don’t know if I have any stories left, but I’ll figure that out. I do promise that I will not write a lazy second book. If I do a second book, it won’t be the one where I clearly cashed in all the chips on the first one and have nothing to say. I’ll figure out something just as compelling to say, or I won’t do it.

Colette Arrand is the editor of Fanfyte, the wrestling vertical of Fanbyte Media, and is the author of Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon. She can be found on Twitter @colettearrand.