Tom Scharpling has made righteous complaining a big part of his podcasting and professional persona. He’s elevated griping to an art form. Despite his status as a comedy legend, O.G. of the podcasting world and successful television writer and music video director, Scharpling clearly never stopped being a put-upon guy from New Jersey angrily shaking a fist at the Chris Hardwicks of the world who rocket to fortune and fame while he grinds it out, one episode at a time.
It’s a shtick, on some level, but for all of Scharpling’s accomplishments (which include doing a voice recently on The Simpsons alongside comedy partner Jon Wurster) Scharpling remains a relatable everyman, a quintessential underdog despite his many fans, famous and otherwise. When Scharpling complains on The Best Show, it’s because a lot of people and things piss him off, but also because he’s so goddamned good at complaining. Complaining is seldom viewed in a positive light in our world, but when Scharpling complains, it’s a goddamned symphony of exquisite irritation.
So while the episode of The Best Show I’m writing about contains an interview with Scharpling’s old boss at Monk, Andy Breckman, about the game Breckman is getting funded via Kickstarter and another segment resurrecting beloved, prog-rock loving fixture Vance The Puppet as well as Gary The Squirrel (another puppet), the core of the episode is a wonderful experiment called “Tom can’t complain.”
The idea is for listeners to call up The Best Show and do their damnedest to get Scharpling to complain about something, knowing that every time he loses his cool and violates his vow not to complain he must donate ten dollars to an animal charity. So the wonderfully cantankerous Tom is replaced momentarily by a doppelgänger who looks and sounds the same (albeit with a more lilting, sonorous, and pleasant tone of voice) but obligated by the rules of this weird game to find the positive in everything, even things Tom has long been on record as hating.
The more you listen to The Best Show, the more you’ll get out of “Tom can’t complain”, since it doubles as a museum/encyclopedia of stuff he’s groused about on the podcast, and that his listeners are liable to find equally annoying. The more you know about what angries up Tom’s blood, the more hilarious it becomes to see one big, fat lazy target for his wrath slowly and deliberately floated in front of him that he can’t attack even as every fiber of his being is telling him to go on the offensive.
The callers are a big part of what makes “Tom can’t complain” work. They don’t just lovingly reference the epic laundry list of longstanding grudges Scharpling has diligently nursed in his years as a broadcaster, they build on it as well. It’s funny enough for a caller to cavalierly insist that he knows Scharpling from Kevin Smith’s Batman podcast (in a not at all surprising development, Scharpling’s that one guy in comedy who’s not a fan of Smith); for them to go on to insist that Scharpling is the resident Spiderman expert of the View Askewniverse elevates the bit from funny to hilarious.
“Tom can’t complain” develops an almost musical rhythm and sense of elevation as it goes along. It’s glorious hearing Tom struggling to be civil, polite, and upbeat while discussing longstanding gripes like The Grateful Dead, nefarious Beach Boys villain Mike Love and Frasier/Kelsey Grammer. The tension between what Tom clearly wants to say and what he’s forced to say because of the segment’s premise never stops being funny. It’s the comedy equivalent of a bunch of people poking an increasingly apoplectic bear with a sharp stick, confident in the knowledge that he’s behind bars in a cage and cannot reach out and attack them.
At a certain point in the night, the callers went from being strangers lovingly resurrecting things Tom has complained extensively about in the past, to oddball figures from the Tom Scharpling/Chris Gethard universe whose very existence is an ongoing source of annoyance to the host. These curious figures include Vacation Jason, a Chris Gethard Show fixture whose weird shtick involves embracing vacationing as a lifestyle, and puppet Wally Wackiman, who has annoyed Tom greatly throughout the years.
Yes, there’s a strange aspect of masochism to the whole stunt that adds greatly to the comedy, like when a particularly wounding caller asks if anyone has ever told Tom that he looks like a cross between Mark Ruffalo (which is flattering, on account of Ruffalo being a handsome actor) and Bruce Vilanch (which is insulting, on account of Vilanch being so ugly that even Ted Cruz is all, “Hey, at least I don’t look like that guy”).
But if there’s an unmistakable element of sadism and masochism to Tom’s fans pushing all of Tom’s buttons, underneath the sadism and tightly controlled, and then not-controlled aggravation lie knowledge and appreciation. Because if the people calling didn’t listen religiously to The Best Show and know exactly what cheeses its host, then they wouldn’t be so gloriously specific and pointed in their taunting.
At first, the pleasure comes from Tom restraining himself from angrily spouting the opinions his fans know and, if they don’t share, at least respect. After a certain point, however, Scharpling seems to give into his anger and starts violating the terms of the segment fairly regularly, and always in entertaining ways.
In its own casual way, “Tom can’t complain” is a testament to the depth and richness of The Best Show, not just in terms of the Newbridge universe Scharpling has created with Wurster (who does not appear in the episode – while his calls are usually the best part of every episode, this one works swimmingly without him) but also in terms of the relationship Tom has with his audience and with a pop-culture universe that captivates and enrages at the same time.
With “Tom can’t complain”, Tom’s listeners and callers hilariously antagonize him from a place of love, not unlike a podcast roast with callers as the roasters, and Tom as the simultaneously honored and insulted target for their gently, affectionately malevolent humor.