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‘It Never Ends’ offers laughs, unexpected impact

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A lot of the best comedy comes from darkness. For many of our funniest, the shadows are where they find the biggest laughs. As it turns out, one can mine a lot of jokes from battling with one’s demons.

Comedy connoisseurs are certainly aware of Tom Scharpling. He’s likely best known as the creator of the beloved long-running radio show-turned-podcast “The Best Show,” where he and his partner Jon Wurster have spent some two decades crafting a bizarre and absurdist call-in program that is probably one of your favorite comedian’s favorite things.

And now, he’s written a memoir.

“It Never Ends: A Memoir with Nice Memories!” (Abrams Press, $27) gives readers a window into who Scharpling really is. It’s an exploration of a troubled past rendered with self-deprecating frankness, walking us along the path that brought him to his current place. There’s an earnestness to it all, despite the constant self-awareness – an unwavering honesty, even in the face of clear misgivings about sharing these stories in their entirety.

Oh, and it is also wildly funny. At the drop of a hat, Scharpling can pivot from a heartfelt expression of vulnerability to a weird and hilarious aside. It’s a book that keeps the reader constantly off-balance, much like Scharpling’s comedy; ordinarily, that isn’t an ideal way to construct a book, particularly a memoir, but here, it’s the perfect choice.

One could argue that “It Never Ends” is framed by Scharpling’s revelation about his lifelong struggle with mental illness. That story – from his youthful issues with depression to his treatment via electroshock therapy to his ongoing battles against the darkness throughout his adulthood – is one that he confesses up front to never having really shared before. There’s a nakedness to it, a leap-before-looking energy wherein it seems that he almost can’t believe he’s telling us all of this even as he’s telling us all of this.

However, while there is a confessional vibe to this – and it serves as a through-thread for the entire book – it cannot be stressed enough that while Scharpling talks about his fight with depression, there is nothing depressing about “It Never Ends.”

We learn about how he got his start as a creative, writing for punk zines and covering the NBA for various outlets. And of course, we’re given insight into the evolution of “The Best Show,” from the origins of his relationship with partner-in-crime (and noted rock drummer) Wurster to the struggles that came with putting so much work into something for which he wasn’t being paid – the show was on a community radio station for years – to the show’s move into the podcasting realm (though one could argue that Scharpling was basically podcasting before that was even a thing).

There are delightful digressions throughout, where Scharpling veers off from the core story of his life to delve into details that could have been throwaways, but instead serve as wonderfully weird vignettes that illustrate perfectly just what kind of guy he is.

There’s the part where he talks about auditioning to be part of the ill-fated MTV program “The New Monkees” – you kids probably won’t remember that one, but those of us of a certain age absolutely do. He talks about his stretch as a writer on the TV show “Monk” – a personal favorite, by the way – and shares his regrets that he can’t talk trash about it because apparently the show’s star Tony Shaloub is a genuinely delightful person. Branded slot machines, Billy Joel disdain, claiming Bugs Bunny for both Jews and Italians … like I said, wonderfully weird.

Probably my favorite of all of these is the one where he talks about the period where he was obsessed with coin-pusher machines – you know the ones, where a moving platform contains coins and other prizes and you drop quarters in to try and cause stuff to drop. If you’ve ever been on a boardwalk or at a ticket-based arcade, you’ve seen them. The richness of his descriptions – of his own behaviors, of the machines and the other people who share his fascination – paints a bizarre and entertaining picture.

“It Never Ends” is the story of an outsider who found his way in – kind of. Someone like Tom Scharpling, with that sort of unique and unapologetic sensibility, was never going to be fully embraced in a mainstream way. And that’s OK – he certainly doesn’t seem to mind. Because while he has had a fair amount of what we traditionally think of as success, it has almost always been on his own terms.

“It Never Ends” does eventually end, but it’s the kind of book where you almost wish it didn’t.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 July 2021 07:47

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