Jonah Bayer is the guitarist for the screamo act United Nations. He is also a writer, producer and podcaster with two decades of experience in the music industry. He has written for Rolling Stone, Travel + Leisure, and Stereogum and worked on podcasts for clients such as HBO Max, iHeartMedia & Sonos. He is currently an adjunct professor in the English & Communications department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as well as a graduate student in Antioch University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.
Tom Scharpling will be the first one to admit that his career is confusing. You may know him from The Best Show, a comedy and music show he has hosted for the past 18 years. Or you might recognize him as a TV writer for shows like Monk. Or it could be the music videos he’s directed for acts like Kurt Vile and Ben Gibbard. Your kids? Well, they probably recognize him as the voice of Greg Universe in the Cartoon Network animated series Steven Universe.
Scharpling’s latest endeavor is a book called It Never Ends: A Memoir With Nice Memories, which comes out today on Abrams Books and chronicles the serious mental health issues he dealt with during his life and how they influenced the person who is today. It’s also a glimpse into his own artistic process and ethos that will equally excite both fans as well as the unitinated. I caught up with Tom to learn more about what went into it and how he came out on the other side.
Jonah Bayer: I got your book, I read it very quickly in just a few days and I think it’s so amazing. I’m actually in graduate school for clinical mental health and I feel like this book is so relatable even though it’s such a unique story.
Tom Scharpling: I appreciate you saying that. I had a lot of goals going into doing the book and most of them were just I want it to be funny. No matter whatever story I’m telling, I don’t want it to turn into a sad, pity party kind of book. The goal is to try to take these things that really happened and find funny aspects of them but also not to minimize them. These things really happened to me and they have had a pretty extensive and extreme impact on my life, so I didn’t want to minimize that for the sake of “Oh, we’re trying to have fun here, don’t bring it down.” But I also didn’t want the book to shift gears so it started out funny and then it didn’t get funny again, it was just sad.
Another one of the balances was to discuss the mental health stuff and do it in a way that was how I experienced it. I just can’t speak for anybody else but I can speak for myself and I was just going to go all the way in on that, but own that it’s my version of things. This only happened to me and it couldn’t have happened to anyone else; but so many people have something that happened to them that could only happen to them. I was just trying to really focus on all the stuff that comes with that, which is shame and fear and all the feelings that come rushing in on the heels of something that makes you feel different or less than — or however you want to describe it. There’s something that’s for everybody but it’s only mine, so I’m glad that you responded to that.
Jonah: Was it difficult to find that balance as a writer? The book is so funny, but like you said, you are dealing with serious subject matter. Did you have help with that or did you just do it yourself and it just took work?
Tom: It just took work, I did the whole thing myself. I mean I had a few people reading chapters and giving feedback, but the buck stopped with me in terms of what was going in the book and how it was going in the book. It was very hard to strike that balance to be like, “I don’t feel like I’m selling myself out.” At night I would think about what I would want to write the next day — and then once in a while I would just get this wave of fear that I was taking my real life and turning it into entertainment for other people and nothing more than that. I just didn’t want that to be the case where I am now turning my pain into just something that people could laugh at. Those fears made me keep everything true and I got to the point where I didn’t feel like I was doing that to myself. But it was a definite fear.
Jonah: I was so surprised when I heard about this book because to me you’ve always seemed like such a private person. I knew you had written for Monk but had no idea how that happened, so for me as a fan who has followed your career for a long time it was so interesting peeking behind the curtain and learning about that stuff because I hadn’t heard you speak about so much of this in the past.
Tom: Well the stuff with the TV part of it, that’s its own thing. First of all, it’s boring. Ninety-eight percent of working on a television show, once you get over the initial thrill of that’s what you’re doing, it just becomes work and you’ve got to get to work. I never really liked talking about that stuff on The Best Show because it’s boring and, secondly, it’s kind of not mine to talk about. I’m being hired to work on a thing and my co-workers should not have to worry that there’s somebody in the room that’s just going to take anything that happened and blab about it on their radio show. It just wouldn’t be fair. I’m being paid to not do that is kind of what I thought. Does that make sense?
Tom: It would bum me out if something happened at work and somebody at work had a podcast and suddenly I came across them talking about it. I’d be like, “No, that’s not yours to share. We’re here to do a job, not to provide content for your podcast.” I didn’t want to do my radio show and just talk about Monk all the time on it or any other job I had because then that’s what the show’s about — and I wanted to build a different thing that had nothing to do with my day job. I wanted to build a different reality and leaning into the minutae of any of my day jobs would have kind of diminished the ability to do that.
Jonah: That makes sense. It’s interesting you use the phrase “it’s not yours to share” because that’s something I’ve come across in describing It Never Ends. I feel like with some of these big revelations you share in the book, it doesn’t feel right for me to describe them because they’re so personal.
Tom: I understand that completely. I want the book to stand as the book and I’m not trying to be cheap with things and be like, “Oh, you want to know what’s in it? Go get the book.” But it’s a nuanced story and it threads through the entire thing. Having pretty severe mental health issues that took me to some pretty extreme places, for me personally it’s hard to talk about because I never talk about it so it’s all new. It was weird enough writing [about it] and it’s been very strange with the idea that the countdown clock has begun where the things I was never ready to tell anybody are about to be public forever. There’s a lot of fear that goes along with that, too.
Jonah: One thing I found very interesting about It Never Ends is that it’s written in a way Best Show fans will be interested in, like your creative relationship with Jon Wurster. But it also seems broad enough that people who aren’t familiar with your career would be interested in your journey. Was that important to you when writing this book?
Tom: Jonah, along with the thing I just discussed about respecting the tone of the things that happened to me, that was the other constant concern. I didn’t want to make a book that was just an inside The Best Show book that only people that are listeners to the show could understand. That book I could have knocked out years ago; it would have been the easiest book in the world to write. It would have been like, “Chapter 6: Jon Wurster, Chapter 7: AP Mike, Chapter 8: Gary the Squirrel,” just write about what happens on the show and let that be that. I could have done that and it certainly would not have been as hard as this was.
I wanted [It Never Ends] to be a book that is basically the story of a kid with some problems that happened throughout his life and he’s trying to figure stuff out and get his life going. Then it’s a story of just dealing with shame and everything that comes with trying to tamp down bad events that happened, but this person happens to write for television and happens to do a radio show. There’s going to be spots where someone who doesn’t know who I am would be like, “I don’t know exactly what this is.” That’s fine, but I think anybody could read the book and go, “Maybe I’ll go back and listen to this and get better context later.” But it’s not an exclusionary thing where it’s like, “Oh, I don’t know enough about this, I can’t find a way in.”
Jonah: You may not be able to answer this question, but…
Tom: Oh, that’s a challenge.
Jonah: [Laughs.] I know, that’s always a great way to start a question.
Tom: Get ready for the answer. You do that you’ll get answers to any question. Any interview you ask them, “Eh, I don’t think you can answer this question but I’ll ask it anyway.” They’ll be like, “Oh yeah? Watch this.”
Jonah: What I wanted to say was obviously there’s this thread of you feeling like an outsider throughout the book and being drawn to this indie culture. That indie culture is so pervasive now. Do you think you would have been drawn to those same things if it happened today?
Tom: Yeah, I mean so much of the indie stuff ultimately comes down to what kind of person you are, I think. Do you side with the underdog? In your analysis of things, is bigger better always? For some people, bigger means that it’s better. We look at it now with all the Marvel movies and everything which, look, I’m a fan of. But there’s a group of people who feel that because of the level of success of those movies that proves that they’re the best. I never thought like that. I kind of went exactly the opposite direction and I kind of think that’s in me from being a kid in New Jersey where you already kind of have that built into you because you’re not in New York and you’re being told every day that New York is better than New Jersey. You’re just being told where you are on the ladder. Then my family is self-employed retail, small business people and that just creates a certain mindset to where the indie thing makes perfect sense because I saw my parents doing it. Oh, you want to put out a record? Watching my parents make nothing into something all the time kind of demystified it.
Jonah: I also did a zine in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s and it’s interesting how you can really learn a lot through those experiences that you don’t fully comprehend until much later down the road.
Tom: You either go do it or it doesn’t get done and you understand that really early. If you want it to exist, you have to make it exist. Sometimes you talk to people who come from different backgrounds and it’s the last thing they could ever do, they don’t have a frame of reference for it. I don’t think one is inherently better or worse or a sign of strength of weakness, they’re just different. For me personally, I think you want to figure something out, you go do it, you go make it happen. But there are plenty of people who are like, “I don’t know how to do that, I know how to work in a system and use someone else’s money to do it.” You work in a corporation and the way you make decisions is by committee and that’s their frame of reference for life and that’s how it makes sense to them. For me, it’s been about the individual and what they’re going to do with their time and that could not have slotted me in better to indie culture because that’s all it is. It’s people not waiting for the invitation and being like “No, I’m not going to wait to get my band signed, I’m going to put my record out and maybe somebody will sign us, but we’ll already be doing our thing.”
Jonah: At the same time, you write about how you went to community college later in life and it seems like it took you a while to figure things out. I think people will be inspired that after all you’ve accomplished, you didn’t know what you were going to do for a long time.
Tom: I still don’t know what’s going on. [Laughs.] It just comes down to I got a late start due to all the personal stuff. I lacked in a lot of things that I think I would have gotten if I had not gone through what I had gone through and I could have gotten a more confident jump on things, but I didn’t. And you turn around and now here I am, you know, 400 years old but everything is on a slight increase. My career and existence and life has basically been on this slow and steady rise for so long just inching upwards and I’ll take that over the people that ran hot when they were 27 and then had the wheels come off of it by the time they were 37 and then they’re looking back and being like, “Man, I wish I could be back to where I was at when I was 25, that was the best version of my life.” This is still the best version of my life right now, because I’m still accumulating things and I’m still going somewhere. I still have things I want to do and I get closer every day and week and year. That’s the benefit of having this odd career.
It doesn’t make sense to anybody. It’s been one of the most frustrating things for my agent trying to get me TV work where it’s just like: “He’s a TV writer.” Great, let’s read his stuff. “Wait, I’m not finished, he also does a radio show.” OK, so he’s a disc jockey? “Not really, it’s once a week.” OK, so that’s a career? “No, that show is free but it’s on a non-commercial station. It raises a ton of money for the non-commercial station but that’s where people know him from.” Oh so what does he do on the radio show? “Well, he takes calls.” Oh, so he’s a talk show host? “No, he’s also half of a comedy duo where one of the callers calls in and they do 40-minute comedy routines and he’s the straight man in that.” Wait, so he’s a performer? “Well, no he doesn’t perform in front of people, it’s all behind a thing. Did I also mention he started directing music videos now too and does that and does cartoon voices?” It’s so confusing, but now all of that scattered confusion is kind of clicking for maybe the first time.
(Photo Credit: left, Joel Fox; right, Victoria Papa)