Ted Leo & The Pharmacists play at The Social, October 13.
We talk to comedy writer and video director Tom Scharpling
From Sum 41’s “Fat Lip” to Pill’s “Trap Goin’ Ham”, great music videos are bursts of sound and vision that leave an indelible impression. Director’s Cut is a Pitchfork News feature in which we chat with music video directors about their creations. The men and women behind the camera are often overlooked in today’s YouTube era, but this feature aims to highlight their hard work while showcasing the best videos currently linking around the internet. A little behind-the-scenes dirt couldn’t hurt, too.
Tom Scharpling is half of the comedy duo Sharpling and Wurster with Superchunk/Mountain Goats drummer Jon Wurster. He hosts the cult favorite “The Best Show” on WFMU in New Jersey. He was a writer and a co-executive producer on the TV show “Monk”. And now, thanks to his work on Ted Leo and the Pharmacists‘ “Bottled in Cork” clip, he’s also a music video director. Scharpling’s ridiculous video finds Ted Leo attempting to sell out with a Broadway musical that uncannily recalls Green Day’s American Idiot. Comedy-world buds like Paul F. Tompkins, John Hodgman, and Julie Klausner appear, as does a particularly manic Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles.
We talked with Scharpling about the Green Day musical, the Bon Jovi musical that should exist, Stickles’ acting, and how to not make an OK Go video. Our interview is below.
Tom Scharpling: Five years at this point. He played on my wife’s radio show a couple of years before that, but I was listening at home; I wasn’t there to see it. But Ted’s a great friend.
Pitchfork: And you worked with him on his video for “Colleen”.
TS: Yeah. I wanted to start doing stuff, and I was not ready to direct. My friend Michael Bellino directed that, but I came up with the concept and cast it and did the locations and all that stuff.
Pitchfork: In preparation for this one, did you guys go see the Green Day musical, American Idiot?
TS: I saw it by myself. I paid $125 for a Saturday matinee. You know, it’s hard for me to stick it to the musical. I will say, the performers in the musical are some of the most super-talented people I’ve ever seen. They’re dancing like crazy; they’re singing; they’re on wires 30 feet above the stage, doing aerial ballet. It’s the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen! But the whole time I was like, “Why is all of this awesome effort and talent being used for Green Day?” It had barely any connection to Green Day. This might sound harsh: it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but it was one of the more pointless things I’ve seen. I just didn’t know why it existed.
The funny thing is just the collision of genres, taking one medium and trying to ram it into another medium, whether it fits or not. “Well, everybody loves this album, so of course it needs to be a musical!”
It’s $125 to get into the punk musical, first of all. I will admit that for some reason I bought like a seventh-row seat. That’s on me. I could’ve probably gotten in for $75. But still, it’s on Broadway, and it’s punk, and you get handed a thing in crazy punk lettering– as if you’re getting handed fliers at a rock show– saying, “No photos! No video! No cell phones!” It’s like, “Hey, this is all edgy! This whole thing’s punk and outrageous! This is not Les Mis across the street, guys! But seriously, don’t film it with your cell phone. It’s our intellectual property.” It’s a funny experience. We had the idea for the video, and then I went and saw it, and it was like, “OK, we have to do this.”
Pitchfork: So you had the idea first?
TS: Yeah, we talked it over at dinner. Ted and I and our wives were talking, and I think I might’ve said, “What if somebody tried to adapt The Brutalist Bricks to the Broadway stage, just like the Green Day thing or the Bob Dylan thing or the Billy Joel thing?” Green Day is certainly not the first of these, but their thing is, I think, the most extreme.
Pitchfork: This being your first time directing a video, how difficult was it to set up? It’s pretty elaborate for a low-budget indie rock video.
TS: I maybe should’ve picked an easier concept, just to make it easier on me. But we had two great producers, Rob Hatch-Miller and Puloma Basu, who took care of all that stuff. We squeezed as much as we could from every dollar, which made it so much easier. It’s like, “OK, now we can just be funny,” rather than worrying that it’s going to look like garbage. I was able to focus on performances and making sure that the joke came through. But I’ve worked on other videos, and my day job is writing for television. So I’ve been on enough sets, and I know how things work. It was just my turn to be on the chair for this one.
Pitchfork: How difficult was it for everybody to master all the choreography?
TS: The whole point of it was that it’s not an OK Go video. I had a few concerns with this thing. Number one was that the video would work, that it not be a disaster that wasted everyone’s time. Number two was that the band not have this albatross around its neck. Billy Squier had that video “Rock Me Tonite” where he’s dancing around in a leotard, and all his fans jumped off because they didn’t want their rock guy looking like that.
[“Bottled in Cork” is] my favorite song on the album, and I think it’s one of the best songs Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have done. I just wanted to get it as much exposure as possible, but the last thing I wanted was to compromise this song, where the band is stuck with this thing that they can’t shake and everybody’s forgotten about the song in the process. That would’ve been the worst-case scenario.
So the dancing is part of the performance of the thing. They never get any better, really. That’s kind of the joke; they’re never good. I give them a ton of credit because all four of those guys jumped in head-first. It’s hard when you’re standing there in workout clothes and somebody’s telling you to act like a complete imbecile. They gave a good amount of trust to the concept.
Pitchfork: They all make great faces.
TS: Oh, yeah! They’re all so funny in different ways. Chris [Wilson] could be a character actor. He’s got that look. People would want him to look like that in their movie– the cool dude with the tattoos and the long hair and the big beard.
Pitchfork: Patrick Stickles from Titus Andronicus is in the video, and his face gets really red in the scene where he’s crying.
TS: Oh my god, he was killing me! I was conducting the crowd at that point: “All right, everybody, now you’re happy! Now something sad just happened onstage!” We had two cameras covering everybody. And he started looking like he was watching somebody get murdered in front of him! He was, like, truly sad! I was like, “In the fifth row, make sure you get him! He’s killing this!”
Pitchfork: Who was the funniest person on the set?
TS: Julie Klausner was doing all the dance rehearsal stuff. She grew up as a Broadway-loving kid and still loves it, so she was putting them through the paces. That was the first stuff we shot. “Wash your hair, wash your hair!” She was doing all those moves– not like jazz fingers, which everyone has seen a hundred times before. And then when Paul F. Tompkins got into it, he’s like the funniest guy on the planet. His stuff was just the greatest. I wish we could have a three-hour version of the video. There’s hours of funny stuff that didn’t even come close to making the cut. When he said, “Take a whispering class!” that was him improvising, and that was so funny. And John Hodgman was awesome. It was such a lucky convergence that everybody was available for the two-day window. It just all worked out.
Pitchfork: In the run-up to the video, Ted posted this really long thing on his website where he teased about a change in careers. Did you have anything to do with that?
TS: Not really. That was more on his end of things.
Pitchfork: We knew it was probably a joke, but it was just so sincere and kind of moving.
TS: Oh! None of that is false! It’s not like he made up some drama. He told his story with it, and then at the very end, it got a little exaggerated and silly. But that’s the final 5% of it. The other 95% of it is really how it is. I hope everybody doesn’t think all of it is fake. And it is hard for people in the music business. I took it as Ted finding a way to have a little bit of fun at his own expense, ultimately, with him talking about these serious things very openly.
Pitchfork: My editor had to tell me that the Bon Jovi musical he mentioned wasn’t real.
TS: There’s not one yet. But you gotta figure, 2010, there’ll be Livin’ on a Prayer. It’ll be Tommy and Gina– him getting fired from his job on the docks, and her working in the diner all day. Am I writing it now? Maybe I should pitch this. Why am I telling it to Pitchfork? I’m in New Jersey! I can drive this right over!
Pitchfork: Was it kind of a coup to have the video on Funny or Die? I think that’s the first time they’ve had a video for a song that actually existed.
TS: Yeah! I know Adam McKay, who is one of the guys behind Funny or Die. I sent him the video, and I said, “I know you guys don’t do music videos, but we’re trying to figure out where we can premiere this thing.” We wanted to see if there was a way to get it in front of people who didn’t know who Ted was, get some new eyes in the mix. And considering that the video’s funny, it almost played as a funny five-minute video that happens to be a music video. It worked out great that they were receptive to it.
One thing I want to say: My friend Phil Morrison directed a lot of my favorite videos back in the mid- to late-90s– all the Yo La Tengo videos that were funny, a Juliana Hatfield video. He was such an influence with me, and I wanted to do a video the way Phil used to do videos. I did that for Phil.
Posted by Tom Breihan on September 1, 2010 at 8 a.m.