Tom Scharpling on Doing the Work

by Adam Reger

This interview appeared some time ago, but I’ve been thinking about one of its main points over the last few weeks, and thought I’d share. The AV Club interviewed Tom Scharpling, host of the Best Show on WFMU. The whole thing is great and worth your time—even, I’d say, if you don’t know who Scharpling is.

But Tom was asked about the recurrent Best Show theme of “doing it”; i.e., putting in the work, paying dues, etc. To which he replied:

“You get so many people who talk about what they are going to do. I think they get the same kind of emotional, almost chemical, satisfaction out of when they say, ‘I’m gonna write this thing, and it’s gonna be like this, and this is gonna happen, then that’s gonna happen.’ They talk you through it, and they’re getting the same satisfaction from your reaction as if they actually did the thing. And that drives me up the wall. Then they never do it, because they’ve satisfied themselves by talking about doing it. I’ve known a bunch of people like that in life who start a thing, and they’ll talk all day long about the thing they’re gonna do, and how great it’s gonna be. But they’re not doing the thing.”

So good. So well put. Recently I’ve been reading books on investing in the stock market, and a similar point has come up: that investing ruins many investors because they don’t have the constitution for making an investment and sitting on it for years and years; once they’ve gone through the hunt of identifying a promising stock, putting in the research, and making the purchase, the entire chemical thrill of investing is over. When the stock’s price begins to slip, there’s no more satisfaction to be had in staying the course. So they sell, because selling gives them a portion of their money back, and they can go on to hunt down the next stock, and generate the next chemical thrill.

That connection’s a bit far afield, but I know what Tom is saying directly. I do this myself, launching new writing projects, thinking about how good they’re going to be, how well received they’ll be once they’re published, etc. Then I never go back to them.

More to the point, I’ve experienced this lately when working on something with another person. Too often, those talk sessions where you imagine the various jokes you can do, where you look down the road at subsequent ideas or projects you might explore together, prove totally sufficient for the other person’s creative desires.

Case in point: about a month ago, out of nowhere, an old friend called me to see if I’d be interested in reviving an old joke from high school, involving two wrestling characters that we performed in a video project for our German class. There is a comedy festival with a program especially centered on wrestling, and he thought we could do something with the two characters. I was all for it, and as we talked the thing became more and more awesome: internet videos where we dressed like we were in the ’80s WWF, like it was 1995, backdating the feud between the two wrestlers over decades; recurring jokes involving the heel (i.e., the bad guy), played by me, snuck illegal objects into the ring, or doused the other wrestler with sewage, medical waste, etc.

We didn’t talk logistics, but reasoned that we had about six weeks to get ready for the performance, so we’d just e-mail back and forth and figure out the shape of the thing that way. It all seemed unreal, but I was excited about the prospect of this weird challenge of performing—including doing a little wrestling, in fact—before what would likely be a decent crowd. As we hung up, I was certain that this performance was going to happen.

Since then, of course, I’ve heard nothing. The only e-mail that’s been exchanged between us was one I sent, listing a bunch of ideas for the character, recurring jokes, a back story, etc.

I doubt my friend reads this, and anyway, taking it out on him isn’t the point. He’s a busy guy, with a wife and kid. Rather, this is all by way of explaining what a chord Scharpling’s words struck with me. It’s been a gradual realization over the last few years that having talent, and even getting your work done, sometimes isn’t enough. The most valuable people to work with are those who get stuff done, who can keep themselves and others on task; people for whom it’s more important to finish the project than to talk about it. If you’re working alone, then you’ve got to be that person. I haven’t absolutely attained that level yet, but as I have more experiences where stuff falls through, and people disappear on me, it’s risen higher on my list of goals to work toward.