He's referred to himself as the "The Chump Steamroller" and "The Dollar-Menu Dickens," but to the rest of the world, Tom Scharpling is a television writer and video director, and also the funniest comedian you've never heard of.
Though his unknown status can be frustrating, Scharpling wears it like a badge of honor. After all, it's a tag that he's had to live with even after 13 years of hosting The Best Show on WFMU, the most popular call-in show on WFMU, the greatest freeform radio station on the East Coast.
Those uninitiated can still join the cool kids' club—although Scharpling gave up his radio show back near the end of 2013, he's brought The Best Show back on his own website exactly like it was on WFMU. (He still doesn't curse on the show.)
I've been a fan of The Best Show since 2004, after hearing an episode where Scharpling's writing partner, Jon Wurster, called in pretending to be infamous basketball spectator John Green, the man who threw a cup of Diet Coke at Ron Artest and ignited the Pacers-Pistons brawl. Speaking as Green, Wurster told Scharpling that everything was going great for him career-wise in the wake of the fight after his story was published in Time magazine. Dubbing himself "The Robin Hood of the Hardwood," he announced on The Best Show that he was launching a charity called "John's Kidz," which would send needy children to a camp where they learn how to throw cups.
The whole exchange practically had me in tears. I soon found myself going through the dozens of other episodes, posted on WFMU's vast archive. Scharpling and Wurster, who had started doing their fake calls on the radio back when Bill Clinton was president, had a podcast years before iTunes provided support for the medium.
At this year's SF Sketchfest, Scharpling and Wurster get their own well-deserved tribute at the Marines Memorial Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 25. Besides being an all-star event featuring the comedy duo in conversation with comic actor Jon Daly, along with live performances by the Mountain Goats' John Darnelle and Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü and Sugar, it was a perfect excuse for me, a real FOT (Friend of Tom), to speak to the man himself. (Full disclosure: after scheduling this interview, I was asked to play drums at the event. No compensation is involved, unless you count the tomatoes inevitably thrown my way.)
So here it is, one FOT's interview with Chump Steamroller himself. (Not included is the fun 20-minute chat we had about Sammy Hagar and his autobiography Red.)
I've called in to The Best Show a few times, and I remember the first time I called, I was instantly "GOMPed." [GOMP stands for "Get Off My Phone," which is what Scharpling used to say before hanging up on a caller.] You had just opened a new topic and when you asked me if I had anything for it, I didn't, so before I could say anything else it was *click*.
Yeah, and you didn't have something because you had called in about something earlier. It's like "the Game" -- you can't navigate through that thing!
Exactly, you can't prepare for what's going to happen. You can even hear the nervousness in some of your callers, especially in the new show. There's been times when you can hear them quivering on the phone, or they'll be talking and they'll lose their train of thought and start apologizing: "Oh God, I'm sorry, I don't know where I was going with this!"
[Laughs] Look, if somebody just says to me, "Hey, I'm nervous," I generally will just say, "Then let's just talk." I appreciate somebody being nervous in a situation. But if somebody comes on and tries to tell me how it is, then I'm like, "Now you're playing my rules."
And the callers are there to help, to be the show for everyone else. The show, in a strange way, is not about me talking to you as a caller. It's about people hearing me talk to callers. Does that make sense?
Yeah, and that's why I really love the fact that you continued that part in the new show.
It was very important to me. If we weren't going to do that, we could've had the show back in April or May. I could've just gone to Guitar Center and the Apple store, and come home two hours later with everything we needed to do the show, if it was just going to be a podcast. That would've taken no time at all, but that's one of my favorite parts of it. The calling and the live part of it is exciting, and that's what scares so many people. I talk to other people who work in broadcasting and they're like, "Oh my God, I don't know what I would do if it was just me and phone calls. I would be terrified." Those are my favorite parts, because it's alive then, and you just want to see where it goes. Between that and the stuff Jon [Wurster] and I do, that's why I do the show. Coming back, there was no way that wouldn't be the show.
The phone calls also have to be there because, at this point, I'm good at it. Like I said, other people run from it and I run toward it. But that said, it was also hard from a technical standpoint; it took a lot more time to get this thing going. We had to build a phone system and set it up so we could have a live-streaming show on the web every week. Those things took a ton of time, comparatively.
Did you have to build a new phone system to replicate what you had on WFMU?
Pretty much. Everything I had at WFMU I have a version of now, in way or another, except for the fact that we're not broadcast over terrestrial radio. And to me, in 2015, I'm okay with that.
Do you miss the ability to trick callers? Your first fake call with Wurster, "Rock, Rot & Rule," was really funny because so many people didn't realize it was a joke—and they would call in, angry about why someone would be making such statements about their favorite bands.
When we started with that, that wasn't a part of what "Rock, Rot & Rule" was going to be. We didn't think that we'd do this thing, and wind the audience up, and everybody will get all twisted when this guy's saying he's an expert really more than he is. That is a testament to Jon being as great as he is, as he was able to play that role in that moment to turn the call into that. Because that's what we were getting back—we were getting people calling in, asking "What is this?" So Jon rolled with it and found this whole other level there that became very exciting.
So that was 1997. We did one more call after that, and I took a break from WFMU because I had to get serious about my career and focus on my writing; radio at that point was not a viable thing. I wasn't interested in being a part of the radio industry, and the show was more music-based than not at that point. Between that and my wife getting sick, it was like, "Alright, we're off for a few years." Then we decided to do The Best Show again, and Jon and I agreed that we would do those kind of calls every week.
But with the prank part of it, I wouldn't say we became disillusioned with it, but it was not appealing as much to wind people up as it was to build actual comedy that we are the architects of and that we perform. We can build a world between the two of us, and people calling in can only ruin it after a while because they can call in and say, "This is fake. This is a bit. This isn't real." And that's what happened for a lot of calls when we came back to doing The Best Show. During calls with some people's favorite characters, like Zachary Brimstead, the barbershop quartet guy, or "the Gorch," people would call up and be like, "This is fake." Of course it's fake! It's the dumbest thing anybody has ever heard! [Laughs]
You know what it comes down to? Pranking people is not any goal of mine or of Jon's. There are more satisfying goals, like building this whole thing we've built (the fictional world of Newbridge, N.J.), than trying to find a way every week to tease or trick the audience. That runs out very quickly. If that was what we were going for, the show would not have gone on for 13 years.
What are the inspirations for your on-air personality? I've read in other interviews that it was a sports talk show host.
It comes from a love of radio and broadcasting. There's all kinds of stripes. I listened to [conservative radio host] Bob Grant, I listened to sports radio, I listened to a lot of Howard Stern, and I also just loved comedy albums. So it just ended up being a mix of all of those things that helped shape the version of myself on the radio. It's still me —it's not like I'm pretending to be something I'm not—but if you're going to broadcast, you're going to have to be a little more direct and performative.
Have you ever seen a taping of Saturday Night Live or any kind of scripted show? It's not particularly satisfying to be there. There's times when the sketches are being done and they're beneath you, because you're in the bleachers and all the stages are below you. Sometimes you can't see what's going on and you have to watch on the TV monitors; other times, you're just seeing things at strange angles, because it's not for you—it's for the people at home.
And that's what I was saying about people calling—they're not the show, necessarily. When we're on the phone together, the show is what we're saying to each other and not the quality of the phone call alone. Like Saturday Night Live, we have to play to the people at home, and that's what informs how I act when talking to callers, if that makes any sense.
Yeah, it's like you're "turning on" as a performer to meet the needs of your audience. But then, unlike actors on a show, you often break out of that character and become very empathetic with your callers. It's an amazing switch, because you can actually hear when you're expressing your true feelings.
I would say that that's why the show means anything to anybody for this long. The show has gotten more human as time went on. People have a connection to it. They know who's doing the show and what we're about. People feel bonded to it. And I don't ever want to be afraid of being myself as much as possible on the show.
I know with something I was not necessarily looking forward to talking about on the show this past week—my father dying*—and I still ended up talking about it for an hour? That was how I'm supposed to do it. If that had happened, if my father had died and I just did a show where I was like, "That's the kind of stuff you don't bring to the show. That's not what the show is..." There's no reason for me to do that show. The show has to be me, and I have to be the show. If I'm not in a good mood, rather than swallow that, I'll work that into the show. Or if something terrible happens, like a hurricane coming through New Jersey, then I'm taking calls on-air on a cell phone that I'm plugging into the board with a 1/4-inch jack. That's real, and that has to be a part of what we're doing.
The show lets me feel how I actually feel about things, and it's turned into this chronicle of one-third of my life. I'm totally happy and proud that this thing has become what it is. In addition to all the comedy we do and all the goofing around, it also has the opportunity to be something real.
*Scharpling's father died suddenly early in January. Early the following week, Scharpling also lost his grandmother.