Tom Scharpling & ‘Hollywood Handbook’ Made Anti-Comedy for the Ages

Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.

The elaborate mythology of The Best Show has been lovingly established through the years to the point where Tom Scharpling’s revered comic institution is less a podcast than a sprawling fictional comic universe. The more you listen to The Best Show, the more you get out of it, and Scharpling brought some of that genius for conceptual comedy and affinity for world-building with him during his regular visits to Hollywood Handbook.

Hollywood Handbook is among the most conceptual of Earwolf podcasts. But just as you don’t have to be a Best Show die-hard to find Scharpling’s conversation with Jon Wurster’s endless array of wacky characters funny but it invariably helps if you are, you don’t need to listen to all three of Scharpling’s appearances on the podcast to be able to appreciate the glorious conclusion to the trilogy, “The Grease Knows Eggs Show.” But it sure helps to be familiar with the mythology and sensibility of both Scharpling and Hollywood Handbook.

Scharpling’s first two appearances on Hollywood Handbook built on his persona as an exhausted, world-weary radio professional just trying to keep his head above water in a podcasting world where the shiny new kids get all the attention and love. To that end, Hollywood Handbook hosts Hayes and Sean attempt to re-fashion Scharpling into something sexy and sellable to the kids today, possibly by pairing him with Jim Florentine for a morning zoo-style show to be called Eggs Florentine (after Scharpling first changes his name to “Eggs” of course) to the palpable aggravation and annoyance of Scharpling (few people do aggravation and annoyance as sublimely as Scharpling).

The Hollywood Handbook phonies vexed and perplexed Scharpling on his first visit, but he came back for more all the same and returned for a third heaping helping of abuse and mistreatment in an episode that beautifully pays off everything that came before.

The episode takes the form of a pilot episode for a morning zoo style team-up for Tom “Eggs” Scharpling and Engineer Cody, who for the purposes of the podcast at least is alternately known as “Grease Nose”, with Sean and Hayes swooping in at regular intervals to offer feedback and suggestions that invariably make something already dodgy increasingly ridiculous.

“Yes, And” is the great, succinct dictate of improvisation, but podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang and this episode of Hollywood Handbook are even more committed to the notion of “No, but.” So Sean and Hayes are perpetually throwing unnecessary roadblocks in Scharpling’s direction, making an already difficult situation utterly impossible.

The genius of the “The Grease Knows Eggs Show” episode lies in the way already wickedly warped comic conceits get twisted into increasingly bizarre shapes. After the hosts become obsessed with the notion of drawing on the popularity of Crank Yankers cut-up Jim Florentine, for example, it’s decided that Scharpling’s nickname should become “Eggs” for the exquisitely tortured wordplay of a morning radio zoo-type show called “Eggs Florentine.” This is a ridiculous enough conceit on its own, but it becomes even more hilarious when Scharpling’s nickname remains Eggs even after Florentine stops being a part of a project it’s pretty evident he was never actually involved with.

Though the tragic absence of Jim Florentine renders Eggs Florentine a woefully inaccurate name, Hollywood Handbook somehow finds a way to make the faux-show-name an even more punishing, painfully convoluted bit of wordplay when it’s changed to “The Grease Knows Eggs Show” in muddled tribute to both Engineer Cody’s penchant for rubbing scratch-off lottery tickets with his greasy nose and the half-forgotten yet iconic Nike ad campaign Bo Knows.

What separates a merely funny podcast from a podcast so hilarious it deserves to be singled out for posterity is often an incongruous, wildly inappropriate injection of darkness.

Jesse Thorn, also riffing brilliantly and irreverently on his podcast persona, brings that wonderful element of bleak, despairing inappropriateness in his role as both as guest on “The Grease Knows Eggs Show” and, as the head of powerhouse podcast network Maximum Fun, also a potential distributor for Grease Knows Eggs.

Apropos of nothing, Thorn volunteers that he is going through a difficult time personally, fighting with his wife and reeling from an accident involving loved ones, and is really looking for the morning zoo-style comedy of “The Grease Knows Eggs Show” to alleviate his despair. This adds a wonderfully inappropriate note of personal anguish to the show’s gloriously stilted anti-comedy.

In the decade and a half plus since he’s been on the air, Scharpling has made a real point of not swearing on air, and getting irritated with guests who do, so for fans of The Best Show there’s something borderline transgressive about hearing one of the most profanity-averse figures in podcasting swear repeatedly in frustration as a show that flies dramatically off the rails within seconds of starting just gets more tortured with each passing moment.

In anti-comedy, bad timing is often the best kind of timing. On “The Grease Knows Eggs Show”, the normally impeccable timing of consummate radio professionals Thorn and Sharpling is hopelessly, intentionally off. The more listeners know about everyone involved the funnier the podcast becomes. Thorn’s straight-faced, repeated endorsements of the music of Flo Rida and David Guetta is a lot funnier if you’re familiar with Thorn’s background as a musical snob with a particular interest in hip hop.

Scharpling alternates between wonderfully strained faux-enthusiasm, as he tries to get this train wreck of a show to keep moving despite constant interruptions, each of which make the show worse, and palpable, understandable frustration. In a remarkable feat of alchemy, “The Grease Knows Eggs Show” makes the worst possible radio pilot into one of the funniest podcasts of this or any other year.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Previous entries in Pod-Canon:

-How Andy Daly’s L. Ron Hubbard Raised the Ridiculousness of Scientology to Hilarious New Heights

-When The Flop House Delightfully Deconstructed the Most Nightmarish Children’s Movie Ever

-The Best Show Hit New Heights of Insane Hilarity with “The Newbridge Mayubinatorial Debate”

-What Made Todd Hanson’s Episode of WTF One of the Most Powerful Podcast Episodes Ever

-The Enduring Power of Harris Wittels’ Final You Made It Weird Appearance

-When James Adomian and Amy Poehler Introduced Nightmare Shock Jock Tom Leykis to Comedy Bang Bang

-When Paul F. Tompkins Powerfully Opened Up on The Mental Illness Happy Hour

-Jake Fogelnest, Kim Fowley, and the Weird, Dark Underbelly of Rock ‘n’ Roll

-Pauly Shore’s Dark, Sad Visit to Hollywood Handbook

-Remembering Andy Daly’s Wolfman Hot Dog and His Hilariously Tragic Solo Showcase

-“Farts and Procreation” and the Transcendent Power of Silliness

Tom Scharpling & ‘Hollywood Handbook’ Made Anti-Comedy […]