Talking to Paul F. Tompkins About Podcasting, Mr. Show, and How Therapy Improved His Standup
Paul F. Tompkins is a “Famous Comedian” and a staunch advocate for therapy, so there’s no need to worry about him ever becoming a Scientologist.
The dapper Philadelphia native caught his first break when he moved to L.A. in 1994 and became a writer and performer on HBO’s beloved Mr. Show With Bob and David. Since then he’s shot a series of stand-up specials for Comedy Central and HBO, appeared as a bit character in several sitcoms including Curb Your Enthusiasm, and was the erstwhile host of VH1’s killed-too-soon pop culture riff fest, Best Week Ever. [Note: “erstwhile” was thrown in as a tribute to Tompkins, who likes big words like “erstwhile.”]
Tompkins continues to be a staple of the L.A. alternative comedy circuit, but he’s tempered his touring schedule and is focused on performing his “show” exclusively in theaters.
Tompkins was in Montreal last week to perform his latest show, “Paul F. Tompkins: Life’s Work,” where he discusses his previous retail jobs at a hat shop and Betamax video store and tells the tale of eventually landing in Hollywood and working on the same set as human force of nature, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Tompkins was kind enough to sit down with me while in Monteal and talk about his career, his friends, how therapy changed his life, and his latest project with television producer and Best Show on WFMU host Tom Scharpling.
Will parts of your act here make it onto one of your future podcasts?
Actually, the act that I’m doing here will be recorded for Comedy Central as a special in the fall.
Thank you. It’s nice to have this chance to run it for a couple days in a row.
You do a lot of hilarious characters on various podcasts, including your own, and a lot of times you’re performing off the cuff. Do you have any training in improv?
No. Those characters just come from picking things up over the years. If you pay attention, stand-up can be great improv training ground. But one of the things that helped me the most was doing warm-up for the Mr. Show tapings way back when. It helped because the audience was a lot of familiar faces and there were so many shows for which I had to kill time between the stage being moved and people changing costumes. I couldn’t do all of my material that everybody knew, so I had to very quickly get good at being funny in the moment. That was a real turning point for me, cause I realized that this is something I could do. I learned how to keep my mind open and let the stream of consciousness flow.
When you’re doing these characters like Cake Boss or Andrew Lloyd Weber, is the secret to just let your mind go? It seems like it would sound forced if it was too rehearsed.
When I go in to Comedy Bang Bang, I’ll go in most of the time with some beats of where we’re going with the idea. Everything else is improvised. Nothing is scripted. A lot of times I’ll go in there with nothing and it’s just conversation with the character. Scott (Aukerman) is a great improviser so we will just go wherever. When I listen to the podcast when I’m not on it and I hear some of the crazy directions they go in, I remember knowing the show. I can tell they didn’t work things out. They are making the story happen in the moment and it goes off into a crazy place and sometimes builds into an ending that seems really scripted, but I know that it’s not. When you’re working with good people, ideally you learn from them. Being in Los Angeles, I’ve had access to some of the best improvisers around and I really study them and what they do. It really it just about listening and what you can add to it.
Who are some the best improvisers around?
Oh my God the people at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, you have the four who started it, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler. And then you have people like Andy Daly and John Ross Bowie coming up through that school and they’re just these tremendously talented people. People like Jessica Chaffin and Jaime Denbo who do the Ronna and Beverly Podcast are tremendous improvisers and they do an improvised talk show in character. I’ve been a guest on that show many times. It’s just an amazing pool of talent.
So were you always the type who’s quick on the draw?
I was a funny kid in that sort of way around the school yard. I was fairly fast. But it’s definitely something that developed with practice.
How do you decide on your characters? Why Buddy Valastro? Why Ice-T?
A good chunk of them were developed at Best Week Ever when I worked there. Sometimes with the commentary we would do on a clip from Cake Boss or whatever it was, and I would dress up as the character. And then when Scott launched the Comedy Death Ray Podcast [Editor’s note: Comedy Death Ray has been rechristened Comedy Bang Bang] and he asked me to be a guest on it, he said I could do anything I wanted. He said he could interview me as myself or I could do a character. And it never would have occurred to me if he hadn’t said that. I think it was not long after Best Week Ever folded and I thought it might be a fun thing to do. I think the first character I did on Comedy Death Ray was Ice-T, which I had done on Best Week Ever.
When I started my own podcast, I realized I definitely wanted to do characters. And I thought it would be fun to have them talking to each other. So that was the genesis of that.
So with the comedy podcast explosion, for lack of a better word, it seems like you’re a guest on every single one. What’s a typical week like for you? Are you bouncing around from podcast to podcast?
That’s a good question. [Laughs.] There have been weeks where I’ve had four in a week.
You must love doing it.
Oh, it’s so much fun and it’s so easy to do. Because it’s a more intimate medium, we can be funny and ourselves in a way that is very hard to achieve in front of a live audience. Because there is that pressure of the presentation. When it’s just us in a room together with a microphone, you kind of forget. It’s weird, you know that it’s for an audience, but you’re able to push that to the back of your mind because you know they’re not in front of you. You’re getting the purest distillation of how we’re funny together. That’s the thing that people have tried to capture is comedians being funny together. You know, “what’s it like when everyone is hanging out off stage?” Once you put a camera on it, it’s not the same. When people aren’t literally watching, that’s when you get the closest to it.
Podcasting and stuff like that has been a boon to comedy, more than anything. I was saying this to Chris Hardwick earlier today. The medium of podcasting is so suited to comedy, I think more than any other area. And as Marc Maron was saying the other day, it gives the workers the tools of production so that we can cut out so many middle men and achieve our vision instantly.
Do you follow your numbers pretty closely?
No, I don’t pay attention to that stuff all that much. It’s nice to keep track of it. I’m trying to figure out the way to make that work for me with live performance so I can say ‘well, I’ve got a lot of listeners here so I feel confident booking shows and people will show up.’
My numbers are — I just passed a little over one million downloads for the year. It’s nice. I definitely have my crowd and I would definitely like to expand that. I’m trying to figure out ways to reach more people. At the end of the day, people are going to say yes or no, but I really enjoy doing it and the response has been really positive.
Jen Kirkman, what’s your fascination with her? [Editor’s note: Kirkman appears in each episode of the Pod F. Tompkast]
Jen is an old friend of mine. We met here, in Montreal, at the Delta Bar where they used to put everybody up, in 1999. We’ve been friends ever since. Jen’s brand of comedy is very close to my heart because it’s story-oriented. It’s very conversational. That’s my favorite thing. I can appreciate the craft of joke writing, but as an audience, it leaves me a little cold. I really like people who are conversational because there’s no set rhythm to that. There’s more room for surprises. And that’s a bit of an occupational hazard I think. You get to know the formula of comedy the longer you do it. There’s less surprise to it. The audience is experiencing that, but as a guy on the other side of the curtain, I can say that’s funny without laughing. But somebody like Jen, I love what she does and I like the way she does it. I like the way she thinks about things and I just think she’s really funny.
She’s really good. She killed on Conan a couple months ago.
Yeah! She was great on Conan. I was thrilled to see that.
Going back to Comedy Bang Bang, you and Scott have incredible chemistry. From an audience perspective, it sounds like you’re having an absolute ball.
I love playing with Scott. He really makes me laugh. And I don’t think he gets enough credit for being funny on his own show.
Oh yeah. He’s hilarious.
He gets these great guests, but he’s so funny. Especially with the “Would You Rather?” game. People come up with these crazy questions and he is able to immediately answer every question with absolute authority. He’s just making that shit up. He doesn’t know what they are going to ask him. I hate to say he’s underrated cause I feel like that’s a backhanded compliment. I don’t think he gets enough credit. Scott is fucking hilarious. That show is his sensibility.
[Editor’s note: two young women stop by to say hello. Paul met them on an elevator and tweeted about the encounter.]
You really do love talking to your fans.
I do. I’m mindful of the fact that I’m very lucky that anyone pays attention to anything I say. You know what I mean. For a guy like me, I’m not a household name, I can never take my fans for granted. But I’m also fortunate because the people who come up to me are usually really nice.
Can you talk a little bit about Mr. Show? What did you take out of that experience?
I learned lessons on Mr. Show about writing and constructing comedy that I still use to this day in every facet of my creative life. There were a lot of really valuable lessons that still apply. It helped me to really look at things differently. Bob (Odenkirk) and David (Cross) were excellent teachers and generous with their knowledge and patient. The thing that they would do with their sketches, and what I like to do with mine, is to take it to a place entirely different from where it started out. But make sure the audience is still with you and is going along. It can’t just be a crazy tangent out of nowhere. To me the fun thing is the gradual turn to where we have ended in a place completely different but it’s not a whiplash kind of thing.
Best Week Ever was another job where it looked like you were really enjoying yourself. How long was it on?
It really was fun. It was on for five and a half years altogether — four and a half with the old format and then one year with me as the host. I really loved working on that show and I loved all the people. I wished it could have lasted longer…That year where I was the host, I felt like we put out — whether you cared about pop culture or not — some really funny jokes. I’m really proud of it. My mission was to elevate it past just sarcasm.
It was the thinking man’s clip show.
Yes. Thank you. Even though you didn’t have to think that hard. [Laughs.]
On a recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron, you mentioned how it took 20 years before you felt you were good at stand-up. So what changed from when you were, let’s say, 10 years in the business, when by most measures you were already considered successful?
I think that I was very fortunate early on. In Philadelphia, I was considered a better-than-average comedian. People thought I was smart and clever and all that. Coming to Los Angeles eight years later, I fell in with a very smart, hip crowd and got a lot of credit for being a “smart, cool” comedian. I did not realize I was coasting on that. And then after doing it for a while, I realized, ‘you know, I could work a lot harder than this.’
Work harder in what way?
Writing and really thinking about what I was doing. You know, “Am I doing as good of a job as I know I can?” I think a turning point for me was when I started going to therapy and I started doing a self examination that I had never done before. I thought I had a pretty good sense of myself, but then I realized I do not have a good sense of myself.
I resisted going to therapy because it was scary to me. It was like “I don’t know what I’m going to find out about myself.” [Laughs.] And then I realized it was such a huge relief. When you confront your fears head on, it always ends up better than you think it’s going to be. Always.
And that translates to a better performance onstage?
Oh yeah. I realized I’ve been working on this thing and making it everybody else’s fault that I’m not as successful as I wanted to be. I learned that first of all it’s not about somebody else’s definition of success. It’s about the work, and the work is its own reward. If other things happen because of that, that’s great. If anybody is reading this and has thought about therapy but they are intimidated by it, go do it, it’s going to be great. Just find the right therapist.
Therapy changed your approach to stand-up. Did it change your material?
Going to therapy took away the fear that I had of being able to talk about personal stuff onstage. Talking about that stuff, I did not realize that I could make it humorous. I didn’t realize how much humor there is the human condition.
So how did you and Tom Scharpling meet?
I met Tom in 2004. We met very briefly in Los Angeles. I don’t remember meeting him at the time. Then we met again, later that same year, or the following year, in New York. And then we had a one-on-one conversation. We had a great conversation and then we started emailing. And then I started listening to his show on WFMU. I loved the show, and I started calling in occasionally, and then in the way that grown-ups do, we became friends very fast.
And then the stars aligned and we were both free at the same time, and so we ended up working on this script for Comedy Central. It’s a vehicle for me to star in.
Can you reveal a little bit about it?
Yeah, it’s about an evil genius — that’s the working title — who succeeds in taking over the world, and it’s a drag because now he has to run it and it’s not fun. It’s been difficult being on opposite coasts and everything, but we finished the script and turned it in. We got notes, we addressed those notes, and we turned in a revised outline. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully we’ll get to make a pilot and then from that a series. If they don’t go for it, we’ll shop it around someplace else. Tom would be running the show. I’m really happy with it. We created a really funny world. It’s been great to collaborate with him.
When is it set? The future?
It’s not in the past, but it’s not set in any specific time. It’s a parallel universe kind of thing. It’s set whenever The West Wing is set. [Laughs.]
Phil Davidson is a writer whose work has appeared in um, well, Splitsider.