Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the three most memorable episodes of their podcast.
The podcasters: Those listening to beloved independent station WFMU probably had a sense that something strange was going on in 1997 when DJ Tom Scharpling interviewed a gentleman named Ronald Thomas Clontle for his show, The Best Show On WFMU. The interview concerned an insanely convoluted book Clontle had written about music, in which he divided acts into three exceedingly fuzzy, confusing categories: those who rocked, those who ruled, and those who rotted. What listeners could not have known, however, was that they were listening to the birth of one of the all-time great comedy duos. Clontle was in fact musician and writer Jon Wurster, the drummer for Superchunk and The Mountain Goats, and the book Clontle was ostensibly promoting (Rock, Rot & Rule) existed only in Scharpling and Wurster’s fertile imaginations.
Rock, Rot & Rule was released as an album in 1999 and quickly became a cult classic, and Wurster continued to call into The Best Show as a series of deluded, narcissistic characters, some wholly fabricated (pompous barbershop singer Zachary Brimstead, Philadelphia-obsessed “Philly Boy” Roy Ziegler, 2-inch-tall racist Timmy Von Trimble), and some riffs on real-life icons like Gene Simmons and Marky Ramone. Wurster’s calls to The Best Show have been collected and archived as Best Show Gems, a podcast that recycles comic gold from years of The Best Show On WFMU broadcasts. The duo’s cult has grown through the years, and both men have thrived separately as well. Wurster continues to be a busy and in-demand drummer, while Scharpling, who for years was a writer and producer on the television show Monk, was recently named music video director of the year by Spin magazine for his innovative and clever videos for the likes of Aimee Mann, Ted Leo, and The New Pornographers
Author Steven Jennings talks about his Bruce Springsteen book (originally aired November 20, 2010)
Scharpling interviews Steven Jennings, author of a book about Bruce Springsteen’s fear of going broke and decades-long attempts to secure his financial future through part-time employment. In the call-ending twist, it turns out the “author” is an impersonator who’s much more entertaining than the real Jennings, who is revealed to be a pompous blowhard.
Jon Wurster: It’s funny how I don’t remember half the stuff, because we do so many of them. There are things in there that I have no memory of at all. It’s almost like I’m not even involved with it at this point, because it’s like, “Oh, wow, that’s funny. I don’t remember that at all.” I found myself laughing a few times, so that was nice.
Tom Scharpling: Yeah, I can’t remember the bits almost at all anymore.
JW: That’s a crazy thing where in The Mountain Goats, [bassist] Peter [Hughes] will be listening to them in the van sometimes, and I’ll just hear him start cackling. And I’ll say, “What are you listening to?” and he’ll say, “Oh, it’s that call where you guys did this,” and I will literally remember a quarter of it.
TS: When it’s “show time,” for lack of a better term, it’s like we’re all in on what has to be done to make the show come off successfully. Then the reality of it is there’s another one next week. We can’t just bask in the glory of the call. We’ll talk about it sometimes the next day, and then that’s about it. On a Wednesday we’ll say, “Oh, that one was so funny, this part cracked me up, whatever.” But then inevitably the next thing we’re talking about is what we could do next.
AVC: Improvisation and podcasting and radio all seem to be a little ephemeral compared to other media. There’s not as much of a sense of permanence.
JW: There’s no immediate feedback, either. That’s a big thing. We’ll do the calls and then we’ll maybe or maybe not talk to each other later that night and say, “Oh, that was great.” And that’s kind of the end of it. Unless someone comes up to me at a show or wherever and says, “I love that call,” I don’t really know if anyone really—
TS: You’d have to be on Twitter while it was happening to read people talking about it, and neither of us can do that because we’re doing the call at that time. We’re the only two people who can’t see what other people are thinking about it. I would say there’s one thing, though—it’s a little less impermanent. The first calls we did, if I was not rolling a cassette in the studio, they would have been gone forever. Now there’s much more preservation of the things and documentation of the things, so it’s not as ephemeral as radio used to be, where if you weren’t listening to the radio at that time, you’re out of luck. Radio is a passive medium. Where we’re at in 2013, it’s a passive medium that is not completely gone into the ozone as soon as it happened, and if you missed it, too bad. You can fit it to your life and take in stuff that we do that’s longer, and we can take our time with things. [It’s] not a negative that we sometimes take the scenic route. To do it the best, sometimes it requires us taking our time to get there, and I think radio lets you do that, whereas TV you can’t do that, and movies you can’t do that. People would walk out of a movie if it was 10 minutes of just chit-chat before anything of any importance showed up, which is what we do all the time. And then that’s some people’s favorite stuff, when they see us slowly setting up the premise.
AVC: What are the origins of the Bruce Springsteen piece?
TS: That started with you, Jon. I remember the initial nugget started with… Were you reading a book?
JW: I don’t remember. I was about to say that I thought you started it. [Laughs.]
TS: I thought I read a lot of rock books until… I would get the silver medal maybe, or the bronze. But Jon is the gold medal winner for that. I hate Frank Zappa, but I would read five books about Frank Zappa without even blinking. I know I’ve read two already. But you’ll find these books on tour, Jon, that are not on my radar because they’re just in some weird British bookstore, like, a local pressing that somebody put out that doesn’t get exposure. So I think, between us, we’re thinking so much about those types of stories and the telling of those stories. Not only are we interested in the lives people live, I think we’re interested in people who tell people’s lives also.
Sometimes you’ll read a rock book and we’ll start talking about it, and it’ll be as much about the person who wrote the book as it is about the subject, if they’re inserting themselves in it too much, or if they’re clearly biased. There’s so many ways that that becomes fascinating.
AVC: The episode has a lot in common with Rock, Rot & Rule in that it’s about this insane writer with an utterly preposterous book. Did you think of the parallels when you were working on it?
JW: Not consciously, no. Not that I remember.
TS: Not at all for me, either.
JW: Maybe I had the idea of the version of “Racing In The Street” that just went on and on about the description of what the protagonist is talking about. And my memory, Tom, is that you pretty much wrote it. You wrote the song. That made it more singable, maybe.
TS: Yeah. I think the Darkness [On The Edge Of Town] reissue had come out, and then there was that documentary on it showing where they were rolling so much in-studio footage from a video camera. I remember sitting down at Starbucks and I wrote, like, two pages of references to car parts. [Laughs.] I remember just searching car sites and parts. I deliberately went down a rabbit hole, trying to make it completely indecipherable. I didn’t know what the things were, anymore, that I was putting down in the thing. And then I remember sending it to Jon, and, Jon was like, “Yes, this is insane. This is perfect.” Honestly, with that one, I do think we had the twist pretty early on that one.
TS: We don’t put it in these terms a lot, but the unreliable narrator is the funniest guy ever. Where you’re hearing it from his point of view and he’s telling you that it’s true, but then you start to just do the math on it and you’re like, “No, this can’t be true. Oh, you’re lying to me—it wasn’t the person you’re complaining [about]. That person might be the normal person. You’re the horrible person here.” That reveal has been so interesting to both of us. And this was a version of that. But then it somehow became where that guy wasn’t that bad in the scheme of things.
JW: Yeah, when the author actually comes on and he’s so longwinded and so boring… Then Tom asks if the other guy can come back. [Laughs.]
TS: I’ve had a few actual authors on the show—not bits or people who’ve just written stuff but actual authors—and you want to just say to them, “You’re trying to sell your book, here, right? The goal is to make it sound appealing. You presenting it in some longwinded way—it’s a turnoff. Less people will buy your book now, because of the way you sound.” It’s almost it’s like, “Even though the other guy doesn’t have a book, I kind of preferred him to the windbag with the book.”
AVC: There are so many great details to the piece, like the incredibly long-winded title of the book that’s being promoted, Darkness On The River’s Edge In The U.S.A.: From Greetings To The Promise: Bruce Springsteen: The Story Behind The Albums.
TS: Another thing I find fascinating are people who should get out of their own way. If 10 words is good, then 20 words [must be] great. That’s not how it works. Sometimes less is more. I know we always talk about how people just not getting it is always the funniest thing ever.
JW: Yeah, when a fatal flaw in someone or in someone’s project is so obvious to everybody but them.
TS: When people are precious with ideas, then they argue them to no end.
JW: That particular call hits something where someone is so oblivious to their own fatal flaw in their thinking. The second thing that I love and that I think is maybe a hallmark of ours is the call where it’s revealed that someone famous does these insane things, like in this one where Bruce Springsteen is so scared of not having money that he applies at this Halloween costume store every year for part-time work. [Laughs.]
TS: One of my favorite jokes ever is on Saturday Night Live, when David Spade worked at the video store, and he would always brag to customers. He would be like, “Yeah, Bob Saget comes in here, rents the Faces Of Death movie, I have his credit card number—”
JW: [Laughs.] “Not gonna do anything with it…”
TS: It’s this great peek into how someone’s mind works.
AVC: It adds another layer to the episode that Bruce Springsteen is considered the quintessential working-class, workingman rocker, and in the piece, he actually really wants to do manual labor. To what extent were you riffing on Springsteen’s persona?
JW: I don’t think we ever actually discussed that, but it must have been subconsciously there, because, like you said, that is part of his whole thing. I think we just think of things like, “God, can you imagine if he was just to start mopping? After he got his million-dollar check?” [Laughs.]
TS: It’s like taking whatever defines the person, and then exaggerating that. So with Springsteen, there’s this humility, and then just taking it to this ridiculous degree. Or doing that with Kiss, making them even more weirdly animalistic and mono-dimensional, sex-crazed, money-crazed—the way Gene Simmons comes off throughout the show.
AVC: Is it difficult when you have somebody like Gene Simmons, who is already such a self-caricature?
JW: I’m trying to think of an example where maybe we went the other way.
TS: With Danzig we went the other way.
JW: Yes—Danzig has made a couple appearances over the years. I think [it was] last year’s Christmas call. The bit was—
TS: It was the Christmas party at Consolidated Cardboard, I think. And then the phone’s getting passed around the office.
JW: Yeah, Danzig calls and it’s just, “Hey, I’m having a hard time—I need to shop for my 12-year-old niece, and I don’t want to get the wrong [thing]. I want something that’s age-appropriate.” So that’s an example of where we went the opposite direction with someone like that.
AVC: How much research goes into these pieces? Your areas of knowledge overlap considerably.
JW: Yeah, those are the easier ones, where it’s like, “Oh, he and I both know that. That does not require too much research for the call.”
TS: We had a phone call about three weeks ago where we talked for probably a half-hour about Foghat album covers, where we just asked, “Wait, can you believe that they had five albums before ‘Slow Ride’ became popular? And they actually put an album out called Rock & Roll, but then the cover was a rock and a roll on it?” We’d be thinking about this stuff whether or not there’s a radio show to bring it back to. It’s just funny, period. I’d find it funny if there was no Best Show, or if we weren’t doing calls together and we were just friends. We’d be laughing about stuff the same exact way. We’re just thinking about it a lot and the stuff is always funny. It’s not like we have to inquire, “All right, let’s see what’s funny about this stuff. Let’s find something we can make funny.” The list is never-ending, and we will never get to all of the things that we have talked about off the air.
AVC: That the piece would be not just about Foghat but also about specific Foghat album covers really speaks to the specificity and obsessive nature of your comedy.
TS: What’s fascinating is that Foghat are successful. They’re a huge band. But there’s something so funny that a huge band can have these things that you just never saw before, these dumb albums that are just lost in time, and they’re kind of lunkheaded or whatever. Maybe just dated. Whatever they are. That’s funny, too. We’re not just making fun of bands for not being popular. Foghat’s a popular band, and this stuff’s just as funny. It’s funny that some of those things flew on a corporate level. An album with a rock and a roll on it went all the way from someone’s head to being in a record store.
AVC: Although, it seems like with anything involving ’70s rock ’n’ roll or movies and bad decisions, the root is cocaine. If you ask “Why did that happen?” the answer is generally, “Cocaine.”
TS: I don’t know if that’s cocaine. I think it’s older guys who don’t know what they’re doing. This stuff started making a lot of money all of a sudden, and they didn’t know any better. On the whole, young people were not the safe-keepers of the business, and I think it was unchecked. Coke made a huge impact on decision-making later, but I think some of that late-’60s/early-’70s stuff just comes out of cluelessness, because all the money started pouring in, and people just said, “We don’t know. I’m 50—I don’t know why this thing is popular. We should get more of it, though.” And that’s how you end up with some of the amazingly stupid things that happened around that period. And, yes, with Jon, the Neil Bogart stuff—he would be one of the young executives, like a guy like that. They weren’t all young like that, though.
AVC: He was a hip executive as well.
TS: Yeah. It was a thing that there would be a hip executive. Because most of these guys were just working at the company, and maybe they weren’t necessarily rock fans, but they were fans of Columbia Records or CBS turning a profit.
AVC: Jon, when you read something like Peter Criss’ memoir, which you live-tweeted, are you reading it to get something you can use on the show, or are you just reading it for pleasure?
JW: I would have bought that the day it came out regardless.
TS: You actually had it a week early.
JW: I did, and when I was tweeting this stuff, I didn’t realize that it hadn’t come out yet. Someone gave me a copy of it, and I didn’t know that it hadn’t come out yet. [Laughs.] But I don’t think I was consciously thinking, “Wow, we gotta do this,” but it certainly presented itself as it went along. I think Tom had the idea of a guy who’d written a book of stuff that is so outrageous that by the end it’s clear that a lot of it is made up.
TS: I remember being on the phone and we were just talking about the book, and saying, “What if there were huge movie rights offered, and he has to sign a thing saying he was completely responsible for all the content of the thing?” On the phone, we’ll just do playacting of that moment where we’re saying, “What would happen if there were things that happened to not be true in the book? Who’s responsible for that?” [Laughs.] Because the book is so over-the-top… When Jon was reading it and putting these tweets up about the content, it was never-ending. One of the ones you put up would have been the gold in any other book.
JW: In anyone else’s book, right. [Laughs.]
TS: Suddenly there was like a dozen of them, and I talked to you and you were like, “I’m taking my time, reading this book so slowly because it’s going to end at a point and there’s no more of it.” It felt like he needed a splash on every page. Like he was cleaning out the vaults of every petty thing—
JW: Burning every bridge.
AVC: There’s a lot in there that’s literally unbelievable, like when he’s working at a deli as a teenager and women come in and have sex with the butchers in exchange for cuts of meat.
TS: It’s not even the juicy part of the book yet—where he wasn’t sure if he killed a guy. [Laughs.] And his band got kidnapped twice.
JW: Twice! Ah ha! [Laughs.]
AVC: By a wealthy, eccentric benefactor who was definitely a criminal and probably a murderer.
TS: Yep. This is before KISS even entered the picture. [Laughs.] That would be the part of a book, usually, where you’re saying, “All right, when’s he going to see the ad so that he can get rolling with this stuff, because this is all just marking time, waiting to get to the good stuff.” This would have been someone else’s good stuff if they didn’t join KISS. This would have been enough! They would have written a memoir on the time they were kidnapped twice.
JW: And that would be the best part of it.
TS: Yeah. Of the whole book.
The 2008 Mayubinatorial Debate (originally aired August 19, 2008)
In perhaps their most ambitious collaboration to date, Scharpling moderates a freewheeling, nearly two-hour-long mayoral debate between the many kooky characters running for mayor of Newbridge, including Zachary Brimstead, Marky Ramone, and eventual winner Philly Boy Roy Zigler.
JW: It was 2008, and I was living up in Brooklyn by this point. So I feel like we worked on that in person a few times. Does that sound right?
TS: That was one that we worked on. We worked many different ways on that one. We wrote stretches alone; we wrote stretches together; we were running it on the phone together.
JW: That’s probably the one we put the most work into over an extended period of time, definitely.
TS: Because it was the closest thing to an entire show being one bit. Which is insane, when you think of two people trying to sustain a premise with no break at all, no anything other than just nonstop comedy.
JW: Is it like an hour and 40 minutes or something?
TS: It was two hours, yeah.
JW: Wow. I’m trying to think of what went on the night we did it.
TS: We came up with the idea of, “Let’s do something that has legs that we can just dole out over months.” And the election seemed to make sense for that. We thought, “Let’s have this election, have people join the race, have people drop out of the race. It was a great way to rehash everybody.
JW: Yeah, and I feel like calls leading up to it would reference it also. Where a caller would call in and Roy threw his hat in eventually, like during a call, and I think Timmy [Von Trimble] and all the other guys did, too. There was quite a setup to it.
TS: This is something that isn’t a reference for Jon, I know, but in terms of comic books, I read comic books. I’m not a hardcore comic-book reader, but I go in stints with it. And there’s always those big events that happen in comic books, and that might have been the influence from my end of things. Because there will be these things where it’ll be like every comic book overlapping. You know, like “The Dark Blah Blah Blah,” and all of a sudden every issue of every comic book in Marvel is fighting the same thing. So we thought we could do something that had a larger point of reference than we’ve ever done before. That might be interesting, because we’ve never done anything that expansive.
AVC: Was the idea always to build Newbridge into this rich, vibrant world à la Melonville in SCTV or Springfield in The Simpsons?
JW: I don’t think we ever really discussed it in great detail. It really evolved organically; it just kind of snowballed.
TS: It was never a conscious thing. The show was three hours long, and if I’m taking regular calls, it’s also two realities going on at the same time. I can’t be one person for one minute, and then another person on the calls. So it gave a home to all of the stuff we were working on. I was working on the show Monk at that point. I didn’t want to talk about that on the air because it’s boring. And it’s also a non-commercial space and you’re not supposed to be talking about your job anyway. So it just seemed like, if we do all of this then it gives the show a center. It almost seemed like it was a whole other world.
AVC: It was a way to draw a line between your real life and the life you have on the show.
TS: The worst thing that happens to me is what happened early in the show when occasionally, Jon would be on the line and then we would take a call or something, or as soon as a call was over I would take a phone call from a listener, and they’d just go [in a dumb voice], “That’s fake. That’s not real.”
AVC: They’re trying to break the illusion you’re creating.
TS: I think in a weird way it took that off the table. It was never a conscious attempt to build a whole world, like, “Let’s do our version of Melonville or our version of Springfield.” We ended up with our version of those things, but we never were like, “Oh, they do this on The Simpsons, so we should do our version.” We’ve never done that. We’ve had so many ideas, honestly, we will never get to all the ideas we’ve had for stuff. Honestly, I feel like our heads live in that world, and you just see the things that make sense to happen. We’ve never used outside stuff as a reference point. Ever.
AVC: Jon, in your calls you’re constantly referencing other characters in the Newbridge universe.
JW: Those just pop up. When we’re writing a bit, there will be something like, “Oh, this person has this characteristic in this bit, and we have another character that could play into that also. So it’s always fun to connect things. And Tom, what was the one recently where, I wasn’t even thinking about it when I said it, but—
TS: It was where Gar McDaniel, who’s the guy from the band Flesh, the drummer, he could have turned out to be Sheila Larson’s father. He was bragging about hooking up with someone named Sharon Larson back then. And—
JW: Someone contacted Tom and said, “Oh my God, does that mean that…?”
TS: So great. Then I called Jon and was like, “Man, you really slipped that in there, I didn’t even pick up on that until after.” And you were like, “I didn’t slip that in there.”
JW: I didn’t realize it when I said it.
TS: But it kind of tracks. That might be where it goes. I think with the characters, we try to make sure that every call can stand on its own and be a premise by itself. Once in a while there will be a call that is just so reliant on other characters and stuff, it might be a little hard for someone who’d never heard a call to get it. But we really do try to use those things as a complement to a call that can hopefully stand on its own. There’s something for the people who listen obsessively to every single episode and track that stuff religiously, and then really just have the Newbridge world in their head, and then there’s stuff that if you’re not one of those people, it’s like, “Oh, that’s a call about a guy who did a thing.” And those things seem like funny references that maybe you don’t necessarily get.
JW: You don’t need to know the whole world to get it.
AVC: You have a very obsessive fan base that’s going to know this world almost as well you do, if not better.
JW: It’s fun to slip things in. And they are kind of like little—presents is the wrong word, but they’re little things that—
AVC: Easter eggs?
JW: Yeah, that the longtime listener will get and appreciate, but the bits are hopefully solid enough that they can stand on their own and someone who just happens to be listening won’t be confused. Their enjoyment doesn’t hinge on knowing the whole backstory.
AVC: That episode must have been pretty exhausting to tape. Can you talk about the actual process of recording it?
JW: It was live!
TS: Jon was sitting across from me in the studio, just doing all of the stuff, right? I’m blanking. You were in town?
JW: Yeah! I was in town. I came to the studio and the script—
TS: You were in the room. It’s like a script for a movie.
JW: Yeah, it was really long, and I guess we just laid it out. We didn’t rehearse much. I doubt we rehearsed at all, really.
TS: We’ll talk about the stuff and talk about the stuff, and I think once we have it in our heads, Jon goes off and puts together the notes, which can be short—if it’s a Philly Boy Roy thing, sometimes it’s just a page of, “This happens, make sure you don’t say this because this’ll give away the premise.” We can play loose with somebody like that. But other ones, and this is probably the best example of it, Jon wrote a script. It’s all there on the page, and we were performing a script on the radio.
JW: Yeah, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for stuff to really—not to go wrong, or to get sidetracked—but we wanted it to really just play like a real debate. And I never listened to it until today. And I wasn’t aware of how many sound effects there were in there that we were doing! [Laughs.]
TS: That was a weird thing, that’s not something we do a whole lot either.
JW: The crowd noise. I’m not sure that was being heard by us as it was happening, was it?
TS: I could hear it. Not to sound corny or whatever, but we felt like, “Let’s just do one where we pull out all the stops on it.” It’s kind of like all of a sudden a band putting a triple album out or something. Let’s just go for it. That was huge, the scope of that one was insane, and the fact that Jon is doing 10 characters like that. I think that one is especially a showcase for just Jon being great. In terms of his versatility to this stuff, and we’re also proud of the range of the world we built. At that point, we had done this thing for eight years, and it’s a lot of material, and we kind of put a point on it. Does that make sense?
AVC: It has that magnum-opus kind of feel about it, where you can say, “This is what we did. This is an illustration of what we excelled at and were capable of.”
JW: I think that one also led us almost to a reset for what would come after it. My memory is that when we did a call after that, it was a fresh start. It was almost like the next era started where Roy is Mayor. Also, I feel like I might have gone on tour for a solid three months after that. I think that might have been something where maybe we thought it was the last thing I was going to do for a while.
TS: Let’s get one in the chest that is a huge statement. That was a goal.
JW: Yeah, I remember the show was happening the night Obama was elected, and I remember sitting behind a restaurant in Atlanta that night and making my acceptance speech as Roy, because you announced that Roy had won.
TS: Yeah. The funny thing about the show being on Tuesdays is, I’m on the air for every election. I was on the air for when the election wasn’t finished in 2000. [Laughs.] And then I remember after, in 2004, going from the show to an Air America John Kerry celebration party. As depressing as anything. I remember sitting in a room watching Rachel Maddow and Lizz Winstead, I think, were on the air at that point, watching Ohio county returns coming in and realizing this was going to flame out. Seeing them do that in person, it was like, you know when you see those TV things of the losing ballroom? I was in one of those once. And not even with the candidates in it, but people who had worked for four years to try to unseat this guy. And then being on the losing end of it. I have been on every one of those election nights, and Jon—we fit our goofy election thing around these biggest elections ever. Obama getting elected, and so Roy got elected also. It’s funny to hear you say that this was a debt clearing, because it was. I guess people who’ve built up worlds have to do that once in a while. You have to hit reset.
AVC: Jon, when you play these different characters, is it a physical thing? When you’re Marky Ramone is your body language different than when you’re Philly Boy Roy?
JW: Probably. The hardest one to do is Zachary Brimstead. That’s a hard voice to maintain for a while. And as I listened to it, I could hear it slipping away. [Laughs.]
TS: We’ve done a couple recorded bits for WFMU fundraising CDs. I remember doing the Zachary Brimstead thing with you off the air, and it was just watching you have to go so low. [Laughs.] You pull that out, everyone’s just like, “Oh my.” It really took such a toll on you.
JW: I think there were a couple of times during the Mayubinatorial one where I feel like I did the wrong voice for a second. When I was supposed to do someone, I did somebody else by mistake.
AVC: Jon, which of these characters is the most fun for you to perform?
JW: [Philly Boy] Roy is the one that I’m nearest to. That’s the one that comes easiest. It’s the easiest voice to find, and it’s the easiest vibe to summon, too. He’s my favorite to do. When I can do it, I like Zachary Brimstead a lot. I have no memory of Bishop Fontana being that terrible an accent. When I first heard it, I thought I must have been doing an Indian guy. And then I realized that it was Bishop Fontana.
TS: To say one thing about the physicality, the times Jon has been in the studio, it’s fun because I feel like 98 percent of the calls we have done we have not been in the same room together. But when he’s in the room, he’ll really sell the bits. There was one that John Hodgman brought up the other day, where I think it was one of the first times he was on the air. You were in the studio, also; you were pretending to be a guy fixing a board.
And it was one of the weirder shows ever, because I had set up this interview. I get these press emails asking me, “Hey, will you interview this guy?” You know, just press flak stuff. One of them said, “Will you interview Sanjaya from American Idol, because he’s trying to plug the concert he’s doing?” So it’s like, “Yeah, he can plug it. I’m not going to have him on and make fun of him. It’ll be a funny interview, but we’re not going to sell him out and make him a punchline.” But Jon was there playing the guy fixing the board, and you started talking on mic as a repairman! You were on your knees, like, hammering stuff on the floor. Just making sure that it sounded right. Over the radio it sounded great. And then I remember doing the show, and then you getting up and, like, talking to Sanjaya all of a sudden. [Laughs.]
JW: I watched that season [of American Idol], so I kind of knew about him. I was able to bring up things.
TS: Yeah, but you all of a sudden get excited. You’re a handyman in there, and then have a chance to talk to this guy you love. That, to me, was fun to see. We did Julie Klausner’s show, How Was Your Week, live in October, and we didn’t rehearse, really. We wrote it, but we didn’t do the dress rehearsal or anything. And we just slid right into it. We have the physical dynamic between us down. It’s like the verbal thing adapted to a fully physical thing pretty easily.
AVC: You’ve been doing it for 13 years, so I would imagine the chemistry that you have is pretty intense.
TS: Sure, but we don’t do it in front of people, ever. And suddenly we’re doing it in a packed room. I was very happy with how comfortable it felt, because it’s like everything we’ve built just carried it over to doing it physically.
Power Pop Pop-Pop (originally aired May 22, 2007)
Scharpling interviews a man about the vicious tyrant who rules the seemingly sunny world of power pop with an iron fist.
JW: That’s the one that people will come up to me and say it’s their favorite. Just pretty random. I remember liking it when we did it. I listened to it today, I think, for the first time. I never actually listened to it. And it is really funny. I’m trying to think of what the inspiration was. Was there something involving that Velvet Rope site, Tom?
JW: There was like a power-pop contingent on that back in, when was that? Was that like in ’07, or something?
TS: It had to have been around then. But at that point we would have been on board for a few years. There was this message board called Velvet Rope, which I think might be gone or is a shadow of itself. It was one of those sites where industry insiders or people planning to be industry insiders would go and just blast things, or tell their stories and weigh in on things that were happening in the music industry. But then when you hung out on the site long enough, you could actually figure out who some of these people were. And they were always just on the fringes of things. There was never anybody super-powerful on there. Guys who worked for CBS Records back in the ’80s or whatever. They always seemed like low-to-mid-level label people and people who were in semi-successful bands. But in that community, they would argue about music all the time. There was a guy on there who was almost like a real-life Ronald Thomas Clontle guy, but with power pop. He would just talk about perfect songs. He had power pop in his name, or Quest for Pop—I can’t remember what his name was.
JW: [Laughs.] Oh, that’s right! It was Quest 4 Better Pop. That was his handle.
TS: Yeah. Quest, number four, Better Pop. And he would just give these heavy rulings on things, where he would declare, “Yeah, this guy doesn’t have any songs.” And you’d be like, “Yeah he does!” But in his definition there were, like, 100 perfect songs ever, and they all seemed to be power-pop-related. I think we were just so fascinated. Because there also is this power-pop contingent.
JW: That’s right. I think around this time there was a power-pop festival in Chapel Hill. And they would get these bands from all over, like somehow they were getting all these bands. And it was a weeklong festival. I remember seeing the lineup and having no idea who any of the bands were. And they had names like the names we made up, like The Yes But No, The Maybe. And I think I was talking to someone who was kind of in that scene, and it just became apparent that there was a hierarchy and a real rigid sort of definition of what is power pop and what isn’t. That played into the bit. I don’t remember who had the idea of, “What if there was a guy who was like the Godfather of it, who held the reins?”
TS: I don’t remember who said, “power pop pop-pop” on the phone call, but I can remember us laughing at it. Because there will be these moments where we’re talking about calls, and we will start laughing, and then say, “That’s maybe the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” That’s the highest praise, in a way. Where it’s like, “Can you believe we might have thought of the dumbest idea yet on this phone call? We just created something so stupid.” [Laughs.] There’s a new level of stupid out there now that we just gave birth to. I remember dying with that one. Because the power pop thing, any of those factions that get—there’s that stuff where people argue. They like prog rock: “Well, no, Pink Floyd’s not prog rock.” They’ll yell at people for putting them in that category. Or heavy metal. Everybody has those things, and power-pop has one of the strongest ones. It’s shocking. You’d think something so seemingly fun and—
JW: And you say on that call. You say to my character, “I don’t believe this! This is this kind of music that’s about having fun and falling in love, and there’s this weird sort of rigidness to the definition of what it is, and nobody can stray from it or they’re going to be punished by this man.” [Laughs.]
TS: I know people who are super into the ’60s, and then they get stuff that they should like. I’d say, “Hey, you need to check out the New Pornographers. These guys write songs as good as anything from the ’60s.” And it’s like, [dismissively] “Nope. Don’t want it. Not going to fly for me.” What? On a craftsmanship level, these songs are as good as anything from the ’60s [that] you love, and they’re built the same way! But it’s like, “Nope. Doesn’t have all the trappings. Don’t want it.” Neither of us has ever been into anything to a fault like that. You know what I mean? I was more a college-radio kid growing up, and you leaned more toward hardcore.
We just liked what was good. You liked the best hardcore, and you liked the best of everything. But there are those people, “I like this, and I’m going to go deeper into this.” Which means you’re going to start running out of the good stuff at a point. They’d rather have bad power pop than good other stuff.
JW: And I think we agreed before the call that we were going to disassociate the artists that we really liked who make great power pop, like Tommy Keene, Velvet Crush, Matthew Sweet. We were going to make sure that we didn't include them in this scene. And one of the greatest things that ever happened was, I feel like it was a year later or so, I saw Tommy Keene. And he goes, “I love that power pop pop-pop call.” [Laughs.] So that was great.
AVC: It seems like part of the joke is that here is something ephemeral and transparently silly, but which people take enormously seriously. That existed before the Internet, but it has dramatically increased that tendency.
TS: I wonder about that sometimes. Growing up reading Creem Magazine, people have the lines drawn so hard back then. You’d read the letters section of Creem Magazine, and it would be some guy who likes Led Zeppelin would write in making homophobic jokes about Clash fans. I’ll never forget, “The reason why the drummer in The Clash’s name is Topper is because you see the ‘topper’ of his head when he’s blowing another guy.” It seems so much more contentious back then.
I think the Internet, in a weird way, has made it so you can have your scene, and you don’t have to leave your scene anymore. But it felt so much more violent back then. People hated. When you see these tours now where they’ll package people from a certain decade, those were the people fighting each other back then! Why are they on the same team? I end up feeling those things are wired into me a little bit still, where it’s like, “You can’t like the Go-Go’s and Howard Jones! Go-Go’s fans are supposed to hate Howard Jones! They don’t like the Human League!” I think the Internet has made it so you can find your world, and you never have to step outside of it. You are safe from anything else. But when there weren’t those, almost everybody was sharing the same turf. And they were mad at each other.