Tom Scharpling has developed one of America’s most unique comic sensibilities over the past couple decades, thanks largely to a radio show that earned him a deeply devoted following but not, for much of its run, any money. As host of The Best Show With Tom Scharpling, which began on the listener-supported New Jersey station WMFU before becoming a podcast, he oversees a three-hour weekly extravaganza featuring music, interviews, call-ins, and surreal comedy. The centerpiece of many episodes involve Jon Wurster – who plays drums in Superchunk and the Mountain Goats, among other projects – calling in and pretending to be any number of delusional oddballs, from a Springsteen biographer spinning increasingly insane Bruce lore to Marky Ramone flogging his adult fiction series, Marky Ramone’s Erotic Knights.
Listeners have come to know Scharpling’s enthusiasms, irascible opinions and sui generis sense of humor, honed from Letterman and SCTV, among other key influences. But in Scharpling’s excellent new memoir, It Never Ends, the comedian opens up like never before. In the book, Scharpling – who also hosts the podcast Double Threat With Julie Klausner and Tom Scharpling and served as a writer-producer on the USA series Monk for its entire eight-season run – spins tales both bitingly perceptive and full of heart. Some of the most moving stories comes from Scharpling’s difficult adolescence, which involved depression, bullies, sick family members, institutions and a harrowing bout of electroconvulsive therapy. In this excerpt, set mostly in the mid-Eighties, young Tom, fresh off ECT treatment, discovers the worldview-altering power of the Monkees and goes on ill-fated audition for an equally ill-fated iteration of the group.
This is the story of two hurricanes. One ran roughshod over the entirety of New Jersey while the other raged only within my head. One was created by warm water rising over the ocean and the other grew from a little well-intentioned confusion and mounds of bad judgment. Both left a trail of destruction in their wake but both also provided an opportunity to pick up the pieces and rebuild all that had been destroyed.
Let’s start with the real one. New Jersey was in fact clobbered by two hurricanes in a one-year period. It was insane, some real “God is punishing you” business. Maybe we were too flush with hubris after The Sopranos and needed to be taken down a few pegs? Hurricane Irene struck in August 2011, followed by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Sandy really did a number on the Garden State: The roller coaster on the Seaside Heights boardwalk got tipped into the Atlantic, where it lay like a pathetic spider bobbing in the grey water. More than two million households lost power. Lots of people died. And perhaps worst of all, Chris Christie became a national celebrity by flaunting his collection of dumb fleece jackets every time he held a press conference in front of a fallen tree.
But when it comes to the House of Tom, Irene did a lot more damage. Torrents of rain and winds topping out at 70 mph thumped my house for what seemed like an eternity. The worst moment of enduring a hurricane is when night rolls in and you cannot get a good look at what’s happening outside. It is like walking through a haunted house with your eyes closed; you are fully aware that scary stuff is going on around you but you pray that an out-of-work actor in a goblin mask doesn’t touch you. Massive tree branches in the distance cracked and crashed to the ground, and I hoped that the branches extending above my house would make it through the night.
The darkness eventually lifted and the rain slowly began to ease. My home had gotten through the worst hurricane ever to hit New Jersey relatively unscathed: A neighbor’s tree crushed a backyard fence but that was nothing compared to what happened to the rest of the state. But any sense of relief vanished as soon as the power sputtered out and the sump pumps that had been pushing out the endless gallons of water shut off. Water quickly flooded the basement as if someone was filling a swimming pool. In no time at all it rose more than a foot high and wouldn’t stop. I picked up a flashlight and carefully headed downstairs. As I splashed through the water all I could see was ruined possessions. The books and records on lower shelves were soaked. My office was downstairs and everything below desk-level was underwater, and I couldn’t do a thing about it.
On a side note, no matter how illogical it might seem, I always worry that I’ll get bit by a shark anytime I am in any body of water. Even as I tried to pry open the swollen closet door where passports and birth certificates were held in a safe that I would find out was NOT waterproof—thanks, unnamed safe company!—I was still slightly cautious not to step on a great white that maybe fell from one of the hurricane clouds into my basement.
I got the portable generator working and the sump pumps turned back on. It was only then that the true havoc revealed itself: My office was destroyed. Drawers and cabinets filled with papers and notebooks were soaked to oblivion. And in an ironic twist that Alanis Morissette herself would’ve rejected for being too on the nose, a box stuffed with letters and photographs upon which I had literally written “Nice Memories” was now a pile of soaking wet garbage. To paraphrase Borat, “is not nice.”
I am torn about how upset one should be when it comes to ruined personal belongings. Part of me acknowledges that “it’s just stuff” and that there are worse things that could’ve happened! But on the other hand, this was MY fucking stuff! Is your stuff all wet? No? Then please leave me be with my waterlogged Dan Clowes books.
I spent a week of twenty-hour days throwing everything out. I’m not exaggerating the length of those workdays; I would wake up with the sun and immediately start cleaning and throwing out stuff, continuing until deep into the night. I was able to dry some things on the backyard clothesline, but most anything that was below the two-foot mark had to be junked. One of the few “good” things that came out of this cleaning marathon was an opportunity to indulge my love of throwing shit into dumpsters that I don’t have any right to use. It is my only true vice at this point in my life. Nothing gives me a bigger buzz than rolling into an office plaza, sneakily pulling up next to a dumpster, and heaving bag after bag of my own trash into it. Does this make me a bad person? Probably. Will I ever stop? NEVER. Sometimes I feel that throwing trash into dumpsters is why God put me on this earth. I love it and I am good at it; I still revel in the joy I felt the time I tossed a broken flat-screen television into a Best Buy dumpster, symbolically and literally “returning” to its maker the worthless TV that stopped working six hours after the warranty expired.
As I swept up the wet sludge in a damp corner of the basement, I noticed a stray piece of curved white plastic. Its edges were uneven, a fractured piece of something larger. Two rows of red lettering were printed on its face. I picked it up and felt the second hurricane roll in. This one was only between my ears but it unleashed a flood as strong as Hurricane Irene upon my brain. And unlike the hundreds of comic books and albums I had thrown out, there was no way to chuck this memory into a local trash bin.
The piece of plastic was an artifact preserving one of my true low points. It was a portion of a cheap plastic visor I had been handed as a consolation prize decades earlier.
The text on the visor read “I survived the NEW MONKEES audition.”
It was all too true. I auditioned for the New Monkees back in the summer of 1986. Now, I know what you’re saying. “Who or what the fuck is ‘the New Monkees’?” And to that I say how can you not remember Dino, Marty, Jared, and Larry? Have you also forgotten your mother’s first name by any chance? We all know that the New Monkees were a quartet of young men selected to pick up the mantle the original Monkees set down fifteen years earlier.
The New Monkees weren’t created to scratch any sort of artistic itch. Far from it; this was a calculated business decision aimed at cashing in on the resurgence that the original Monkees had undergone at the time. By 1986 the “Pre-Fab Four” as they were disparagingly called had mounted an improbable comeback thanks to MTV running episodes of the old show from the mid-1960s. I guess someone in a boardroom looked at a chart that had arrows trending upward and decided the world needed four new young guys to sing and jump around and be silly so he could buy a second yacht. And he wasn’t wrong; it’s important to have a backup yacht. You never know what’s gonna happen to the first one!
I’m not putting down the New Monkees for being corporate. The original Monkees were as corporate as it gets, created for the sole purpose of siphoning some of that sweet Beatles loot into the pockets of producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. And that is exactly what happened: The Monkees dutifully sang the songs and made funny faces on their TV series and within months “Last Train to Clarksville” was topping the charts.
But thanks to whatever cosmic convergence was both in the air and in the era, the Monkees somehow morphed into one of the best bands of the ’60s. An unexpected weirdness crept in. They demanded to write the songs and to play the instruments. They followed up the pop perfection of “I’m a Believer” with an album called Headquarters, on which they proudly played every instrument. It didn’t matter that only two of them were actual musicians and that Micky Dolenz drummed as if he was blindfolded. That record has a DIY spirit that more than makes up for any technical shortcomings. I certainly admire people who can play their instruments, but I’d rather listen to someone whose ideas outweigh their proficiency than the other way round. Who would you rather listen to, the mile-a-minute technical snoozery of Yngwie Malmsteen or the passionate and primitive chunking of Lou Reed?
The Monkees had a national platform and they used every bit of it. It wasn’t long before Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork were slipping pot jokes onto national television, introducing some legit psychedelia into their music, and showcasing people like Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley on their show. Within a few years the whole thing came crashing down, leaving behind some of my favorite music ever. I wasn’t alone in loving their music either. The songs—and to a lesser degree the series—were fantastic enough to convince a generation of ’80s kids who loved the Thompson Twins to get obsessed with a band that hadn’t been active in almost twenty years.
My attachment to the Monkees was actually quite personal. I had just gotten out of the hospital as the show started running on MTV. At that point I was completely isolated from everyone in my life after multiple electroshock treatments. Nobody could relate to what I had been through and ultimately I didn’t want anyone to relate to it. I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to go to college and I wanted a girlfriend. At the point where everyone is working overtime to stand out from the pack, all I wanted was to anonymously blend in. I hated who I was, and the embarrassment and shame surrounding what I had gone through just kept growing. I had to swallow it because that was the only way to survive. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to know what had happened to me. This might seem strange in our present day, a time of people rightfully owning the circumstances of whatever they are dealing with in their lives, but things were very different as a teen in the 1980s. You just didn’t talk about the things that made you different.
The Monkees arrived precisely when I needed them to. The show was like an ice pack for my head: great music, funny characters, and dopey comedy with a winking sense of awareness. It provided real comfort, so I grabbed the band and show with both hands. I would watch the series on a constant loop and I started buying up every used Monkees album I could find. Mike, Micky, Peter, and Davy were my guys. My friends.
One of the first memories I can recall after my hospitalization was going to the Garden State Arts Center that summer to see the Monkees. Micky, Davy, and Peter—no Mike—were headlining a nostalgia tour alongside bands like the Grass Roots and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap. The Garden State Arts Center is one of those summertime open-air venues that has kept Mike Love swimming in sailor’s caps for the last forty years. I don’t think I had been to the venue since I was a little kid at a cheapo staging of Peter Pan. Even as a child I could tell the production was suffering from budgetary restraints. Tinker Bell was literally a badminton shuttlecock attached to a string that some PA sitting in the rafters bobbed up and down every once in a while. There is a part in Peter Pan when everyone in the audience has to clap to bring Tinker Bell back to life, so every kid in the building went bonkers, making as much noise as they could. But Tinker Bell never returned! Maybe the kid on “Tink duty” decided to take a mid-show smoke break? Whatever the cause, our clapping wasn’t enough to save the life of the magical fairy that day and we all went home with a little less of our childhood intact.
Even back then I knew this iteration of the Monkees was pretty corny. For starters there was no Mike, inarguably the coolest Monkee. The band also indulged the best fashions that 1986 had to offer, making them look like extras in a Miami Vice porn parody. Micky played a truly ridiculous set of electronic drum pads standing up, Peter’s shiny angular guitar would’ve made sense if he had been jamming with Ratt, and they all strutted around the stage wearing wireless headsets as if they were doing warm-up for Tony Robbins.
But I didn’t care. That was just window dressing, because the music was perfect and the guys that sang the songs were now singing them right in front of me. It made me feel great, the first thing in a long time that made me feel great.
My love for the band grew over the years. It was strong enough to withstand a Hall of Fame–level snub from Micky Dolenz. We’re talking about 2006 or so. I was a few seasons into writing on Monk, and since the USA Network aired the United States Open tennis tournament, the writers got free tickets. I’m not a big tennis fan but it’s legitimately fun to watch from amazing box seats while shoveling free food into your mouth. I could and would watch someone do their laundry if I had a comfortable chair and a pile of shrimp skewers but that’s beside the point.
On this particular evening there was a pre-match reception as part of the opening festivities. Sometimes you watch tennis on television and celebrities like Martha Stewart or Alec Baldwin are peppered throughout the stands, but the star power on this night was running at a lower wattage. The biggest names in attendance were Tim Blake Nelson from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, lovable New York Knicks benchwarmer Herb Williams, and OH MY GOD THAT’S MICKY DOLENZ STANDING IN FRONT OF ONE OF THE SNACK STATIONS.
Micky was rocking his then-standard Panama hat and sunglasses combo and was firmly planted next to a table covered in cubed cheese and crackers. The guy from the band that helped heal my tired electrocuted brain was standing right in front of me! I walked over to say hi. I wasn’t going to bug him or outstay my welcome, just a quick hello and thank-you.
I spoke to Micky. “Hi, I just wanted to say that your music has been so important to me and that Head is maybe my favorite movie ever.”
I wasn’t lying about Head. After their television show ended, the Monkees made a film called Head. Co-written by Jack Nicholson and directed by Bob Rafelson just before he made Five Easy Pieces and King of Marvin Gardens, the movie is a giant middle finger to the plight of being in a prefabricated band. It is one of the darkest and most beautiful movies ever, featuring perhaps the best original soundtrack in rock movie history. Head is a straight-up masterpiece and you should see it immediately.
One thing that I couldn’t see immediately was Micky’s eyes. They were obscured behind his sunglasses. I couldn’t get a read on the guy but it didn’t matter, because our conversation was destined to land on the short side of things. And when I say “short,” I mean he didn’t say a single word to me. What he did was kind of make a sound at me.
The syllable dropped out of his mouth as if he was attempting a Nyquil-fueled version of his famous James Cagney impression from the show. I wasn’t sure what he meant: “Yeah”? “Nah”? It didn’t matter much because he turned his head away, more interested in the stacks of cubed cheese than another annoying fan. I slowly found my way back to the stadium box and jammed spanakopita triangles into my mouth all night, wondering why the guy who sang “Pleasant Valley Sunday” hated me so much.
There’s a positive end to this story. I have since met Micky Dolenz a couple of times, once backstage at a Monkees show and once on the set of Difficult People. The creator of the show, Julie Klausner—a great friend and another Monkees obsessive—wrote an entire episode around Dolenz, so I got an opportunity to reintroduce myself twice. He is a legitimately nice guy. He used actual words and didn’t lob a single grunt my way either time. Micky, you helped me when I needed it, so you’ve got a lifetime pass with me.
I have been the type of person who goes all in on whatever excites me. If I fall in love with a band or filmmaker or author, I have to know everything about them. Outtakes, obscurities, rarities—I want it all! As I look back, I realize that my love of the Monkees apparently ran so deep that I needed to see if I could actually become a member of the New Monkees. The ultimate collectible is to look in the mirror and realize that you are literally the thing you love. I’m not entirely sure how I heard about the auditions. I have since pieced together that MTV was running announcements on a loop, so I must’ve seen the commercial and said, “A chance to be a member of the New Monkees? Sign me up!” This is one of the only stretches in my life where I can honestly say my psychiatrist should’ve given me more electroshock therapy because my brain has retained too many elements of this story.
Now I have never been known for my love of performing in front of others. If there is one common thread running through my creative journeys, it is that NOBODY WATCHES ME DO THEM. I write in solitude. I host The Best Show alone in a studio. Even when I direct, I am not the focal point. So when I ask myself, “What the fuck was I thinking auditioning for a television rock band?” I truly do not have an answer. I had literally zero stage experience. I was at best a passable bedroom bass guitar player. And while I can hold my own when it comes to singing, I had never actually sung in front of anyone. My personal style was a disaster: My hair was a mop of unkempt curls with a short wavy drape hanging down the back of my neck, like Tom Hanks when he played the alcoholic uncle on Family Ties who drank vanilla extract to get loaded.
Where was my brain on this one? Did I think that when I stepped into that audition I would suddenly wow the producers with a brassy version of “Papa Don’t Preach” while laying down a bit of soft shoe? Did I think I would suddenly transform into the second coming of Sammy Davis Jr.? I had no idea what I was thinking. I really wish I did.
I picked up my very heavy bass guitar and boarded a train into NYC. An hour later, I dragged myself in the August heat to SIR Studios in Midtown Manhattan. The audition line snaked around the block with thousands of young dreamers hoping that they just might be anointed the next Peter Tork. I headed to the back of the queue and waited. And waited. The line was endless.
When I realized I had to include this story in the book, I sat down at my Dell and typed “New Monkees” into Bing. There is a dearth of footage (shocker!), but the two clips I did find chilled me to the bone. As I watched video documenting the long line of hopefuls, I prayed that I had not been filmed that day. Please please please don’t let there be a stray shot of me anywhere on this, I begged. Thankfully I was nowhere to be seen (NOBODY GO AND LOOK!), but what I did witness was pretty horrifying on its own. Hundreds of maniacs gleefully making spectacles of themselves in the hope that the producers would mistake “self-humiliation” for “talent.” These buffoons would stick their tongues out and make “funny” faces whenever the lens swung in their direction. Some people lifted up their shirts, others danced and jumped around and sang—anything to break away from the pack. One guy jammed a whole banana into his mouth, not realizing that the Monkees had nothing to do with actual monkeys.
After a few hours I was finally guided to a table in a large rehearsal room. Someone sat across from me and asked me a few questions. I might’ve taken my very heavy bass out of its case and played something. Probably “Day Tripper.” I’m honestly not sure what I did or didn’t do, but the “audition” was over within literally a minute—almost as long as it would take Micky Dolenz to ice me out many years later. The person behind the table thanked me for coming in, handed me a white plastic visor, and promptly bounced me back onto the streets of Manhattan. I never considered asking when I might hear from them because even in the moment I knew it was not meant to be.
The YouTube clips of the New Monkees auditions are kinda nauseating. The smugness of the producers is palpable; yes, I know a lot of it is clearly staged for the camera but there is no way to mask the true contempt the interviewers held for this sea of delusional suckers. Looking back I can say with confidence that I am glad I did not live up to their idea of what constituted “New Monkee material.” I would’ve been doing something very very wrong if I had been able to make those Hawaiian shirt–wearing jerkoffs happy. And who would want to impress these guys? THEY CREATED THE FUCKING NEW MONKEES. And unlike the original Monkees, the New Monkees sucked shit. The show was awful and the music was terrible and the whole endeavor was over within a year.
I have no idea what I was trying to accomplish by showing up at those auditions. It’s bizarre and disheartening but if I tap the brakes on the self-abuse train for a second I see a confused young guy who is trying. He’s making mistakes, but he is working very hard to not be the kid in the hospital anymore. He is just trying to clean up after the hurricane.
It was hard to watch my friends pass me by as their lives and careers blossomed while I was still stalled on the runway. But I’ll take it! I realize that I am a late bloomer career-wise. Things didn’t start breaking my way until I was well into adulthood, and in so many aspects it still feels like I’m just getting started. I am steadily and thankfully moving upward while some of my peers who were killing it back in their twenties are now out of the race. All things considered I’m exactly where I should be.
I’m not a New Monkee. I’m not a “new” anything. I’m Good Old(er) Tom Scharpling and it’s fine. That said, I will be conducting Tom Scharpling auditions to become the New(er) Tom Scharpling. Just show up at SIR Studios in Midtown Manhattan—the only requirement is that you must be able to nervously sweat while playing “Day Tripper” on an extremely heavy bass guitar.
Since I didn’t become a New Monkee, that meant I had to figure out what my future would look like. It was time to enter the world of higher education, so I put away my bass guitar and took out a pencil and began the fantastic adventure that is community college.
From It Never Ends: A Memoir with Nice Memories!, by Tom Scharpling © Abrams Press, 2021