Tom Scharpling has been a legend in comedy circles for almost two decades now, largely thanks to his radio show and podcast, The Best Show. The premise is that a variety of weirdos dial into the program—most, but not all, of the oddball Rocky fans and snobby rock critics are played by comedian/drummer/also-legend Jon Wurster—only to run smack into the stone wall of a character that is nearly as strange as they are: radio host Tom Scharpling. On-air for three hours a week, Scharpling acts as an avatar of amused crankiness, constantly holding court and getting worked up about practically any perceived idiocy that crosses his path. But if the first step to being inducted into the Best Show cult is learning that Wurster’s frequent caller Philly Boy Roy is a put-on, then the second is realizing that the deadpan, endlessly confident, and sometimes withering man behind the mic each week is just as much an invention.
Some of that illusion finds itself stripped away in It Never Ends: A Memoir With Nice Memories!, Scharpling’s new memoir. That includes the invention of the surname “Scharpling” (a portmanteau, apparently, of personal heroes Al Sharpton and Garry Shandling), as well as the expected discussions about the origins and making of The Best Show, the genesis of the Scharpling & Wurster comedy team, and whether Scharpling really does hate the music of Tom Waits and Billy Joel. (Yes and yes.) Scharpling is a natural storyteller, with an eye for absurd minutiae, and he brings those talents to bear in the written word just as easily as he does on the radio.
Comedy isn’t the only aim of It Never Ends. Scharpling also attempts to give an accounting of his early past, as much for his own benefit as the reader’s. Sincere revelations about the host and writer’s lifelong struggles with depression, suicidal impulses, and the harsh psychiatric treatments he endured in his teenage years all appear—information he’s rarely, if ever, shared. Scharpling’s nervousness in opening up about these experiences is both palpable and endearing, as he writes honestly about many of the hardest chapters of his life with bracing clarity. If there’s a downside to this rigorous self-examination, it’s that Scharpling’s understandable discomfort with the subject matter—and the sense that he’s trying to work out, on the page, all that has happened to him during his darkest days—also impose a degree of distance on his naturally wry voice. The wit never recedes fully, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that those chapters are for their author first, and the person holding the book second.
The paradox, then, is that it sometimes feels like the reader learns more about Tom Scharpling from a chapter in which he recounts his obsession with a Wizard Of Oz arcade machine on the Jersey Shore than from meditations on his mental health. Not because Scharpling’s writing on the heavier stuff isn’t compelling, but because the way he embraces the goofy workings of the coin-pusher game provides such a clear window into the parts of his mind that bring him joy. The Best Show has always been a program predicated on dumb, delightful play, and it’s in the embrace of that spirit—and the showing, not telling—that Scharpling’s memoir really shines.
It Never Ends is at its most engaging as a tour through Scharpling’s pleasantly irascible worldview, infused as it is with a heady mixture of facetious self-aggrandizement and pleasantly honest self-deprecation. Those looking for bridge-burning stories about Scharpling’s entertainment career—including his service as a longtime writer for Monk and a voice actor on Steven Universe—might walk away disappointed. (Tony Shalhoub and Rebecca Sugar are both, apparently, extremely nice.) Those looking to understand Tom Scharpling will gain some insight, but may have to get in line behind the man himself for any kind of fuller comprehension. But those looking to immerse themselves in the Scharpling voice, one of the most distinctive in the last 20 years of comedy, now have a perfect vehicle for it. All that and you get some top-notch stories about the New Monkees, the Sex And The City slot machine, and the basketball acumen of Papa Roach. It’s a pretty good deal.
Author photo: Joel Fox