Talking to Paul F. Tompkins About ‘Speakeasy’, Ice-T, and ‘Mr. Show’s 20th Anniversary
2014 has been a busy year for Paul F. Tompkins so far. He’s starring in an ABC sitcom pilot opposite Molly Shannon and hosting the web chat series Speakeasy, Fusion’s political puppet show No, You Shut Up!, the podcast/live show Dead Authors, and his Largo live show Varietopia. I recently caught up with Tompkins on the set of Speakeasy to talk about the plethora of projects he has going, being hoodwinked by an Ice-T impersonator, and Mr. Show‘s upcoming 20th anniversary.
How do you go about picking guests for Speakeasy?
You know, they take care of the booking. I’ve submitted a list of people of note that I know that I think if they asked, would probably do the show. And so periodically, we’ve gotten some of those people in, which is nice because it’s people I’ve worked with over the years that I know to be interesting people. To get to talk to them in this setting is really enjoyable.
What’s your prep process for the interviews? Do you do a lot of research, or do you like to just have a conversation and see where it goes?
I like to keep it much more conversational and to be in the moment so if they say something that seems like there might be more there, I can ask them a question that’s not tied to an anecdote that they have prepared. Because we don’t have an audience, we have more freedom to explore ideas, and we don’t have to worry about “Are people not laughing?”, which is the pressure that talk shows have. “Is this entertaining?” And they’re gauging it by the people that are sitting right there in the audience. Not having to worry about that, we can get really deep into stuff if we want to.
Do you have a favorite interview you’ve done or a few you can point to?
Oh man. I gotta say, we’ve been really lucky in that the people that we’ve had on the show are really interesting, thoughtful people. One of the most recent ones that I really liked a lot was Tricia Helfer from Battlestar Galactica. Her story was really interesting. She seems to be a really grounded person. For someone who came through modeling and then became an actor, she seemed to have had a great upbringing, like great parents that kept her very realistic and smart about everything. She seems to just have a great attitude about this weird business.
That’s pretty rare for a child star.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Especially for somebody who’s been through modeling, where it’s all about the way you look. It seems like it would be very easy to sort of lose who you are, but yeah, she was great.
Tony Hale is another one. I really, really enjoyed talking with him. I’m fascinated by people who can keep who they are in the midst of this business, which is all about not only pretending to be other people, but also that perception of who you are and how successful you are and your standing in the business. You’re just constantly reminded of it all the time, so somebody who can really be at peace with themselves, it always fascinates me.
Who are some interviewers you look up to?
The old Johnny Carson Tonight Show was great in that he was so good with the guests, and it was not about him. I think he was very smart in realizing “I have plenty of screentime on this show. I do my monologue and we do sketches and stuff like that.” During the interview, he really made it about trying to bring the best thing out of the guest. I like to listen to people more than I like to talk. I really enjoy listening to what people have to say, so any interviewers — like Charlie Rose, Tom Snyder I used to love from a million years ago. I really love that show because it was kind of close to what we do here in that it came on late at night, and I remember watching that show and I would feel this very special thing of like “This is intimate. It’s on at this very late hour, and there’s probably not a lot of other people watching at this hour. Who else is awake right now?” Tom Snyder, I always really liked when I was a kid.
Earlier this year, you were prank-called by an Ice-T impersonator and then the audio was played on Ice-T’s podcast. Have you heard anything from Ice-T since he talked about it on that podcast?
No, but I really give Ice-T so much credit for being a sport and finding it all as silly as it is and pointing out the meta nature of two people doing Ice-T impressions talking to each other. When I found out it wasn’t really him, I was disappointed, but ultimately, given the nature of it, like why they were talking to me in the first place, I gotta be a good sport about it. I was ultimately really glad that that happened.
How did they reach out to you? I forget if I’ve heard the full story or not.
Through my agent. I got an email from my agent saying, “Hey, you’ve been asked to appear on Ice-T’s podcast. What day is good for you? They want to call you on the phone.” So then, we worked out a day. Their producer called me and said, “I just want to make sure you’re home. He’s gonna call you back in five minutes.” And then, five minutes later, this guy who I thought was Ice-T called…
And that was also a fake producer.
No no, it was a real producer.
Oh wait, so this was through Ice-T’s podcast?
Yes, the podcast made this happen.
Okay. I thought this was some rogue Ice-T impersonator who prank-called you and then sent his audio into the podcast.
No, no, no. This was a guy who they had been aware of who called in. His impression is much more accurate, and he will call up Howard Stern or people like that and fool them into thinking that he’s Ice-T. Mine’s much more a sketch impression. So, they knew about this guy, and then they heard about me because when Ice-T announced he was having a podcast, a lot of people started tweeting him saying, “You’ve gotta have this guy on.” He had no idea who I was. So, I guess somebody looked into it, so they made that happen.
Have you heard from any of the other people who you’ve done impressions of, like the Cake Boss or anybody else?
Cake Boss, I guess, has been made aware of my impression and finds it amusing and recognizes that it’s not a completely accurate impersonation of who he is in his daily life. He seems to be a good sport about it. Werner Herzog did a Reddit Ask Me Anything and somebody made him aware. You know, “Have you heard of this impression?” And he said, “I’m not aware. Is it worth my time?” A lot of people forwarded that to me, that exchange.
Do you ever get nervous doing impressions of people you don’t know? That they might take it the wrong way.
Yeah, of course. What I do with impressions, I try not to be mean-spirited. To me, it’s just about being silly. Taking this person that I can reasonably approximate their voice for the purpose of comedy and put them in a weird situation. It’s not really based on their lives that much. It’s not really about exploiting who they are and what they do. Like, it’s funny to me that Garry Marshall wants to hunt monsters. It’s just absurd. It’s got nothing to do with his actual life. The thing that bums me out about it is that there is this aspect of eventually encountering the people or people trying to make the person aware that I’m doing this impression and how they’re gonna feel about it. It’s like, ‘Awww, I don’t want all that stuff.’
I also don’t want to be judged on the accuracy of the voice, “This guy does it better!,” and all that. That’s another thing. As much as the impressions I do I think are somewhat off the beaten track, people do Ice-T on SNL and there’s another person that I’ve been made aware of who does a Werner Herzog impression. So it’s like, comedy material, once I hear that somebody has a premise similar to what I’m doing, it takes the fun out of doing it for me ’cause I know that somebody else is doing a thing along the same lines and it makes me not want to do my bit anymore. Not that I’m afraid somebody is gonna say, “You stole this!” but I just hate knowing I’m doing something that’s not as original as it could be.
I definitely want to mix in more original characters, people that I just made up. Also, that’s less limiting because the voice can be whatever I want and whatever adventures they have don’t have to have any basis in reality whatsoever.
Have you done a lot of those?
I just started to. There’s a character called J.W. Stillwater that I did on Comedy Bang! Bang! for the first time, and I’ve been doing it on stage a little bit recently. He’s a vigilante hero from Florida. He’s a fanboat mechanic by day and a vigilante by night. The costume is coveralls and he’s got a Florida state flag as a cape and a mask made out of a bandana, so it’s his adventures in this tiny, tiny place in Florida. There’s two cops, and he thinks they’re corrupt, so he’s engaging in vigilante justice.
What’s the transition been from doing sketch impressions to doing more original characters?
It’s fun because it feels the same. It’s the same in terms of writing for a character and improvising as that character. I like the possibilities of it. It could be whatever I want it to be. There’s not any kind of requirement as there is with an impression. It’s very freeing. I want to come up with more of that stuff.
Do you have plans to bring your podcast [The Pod F. Tompkast] back any time soon?
[Laughs] I do not know when, but I want to get it back this year. It’s been a crazy, busy time. I’ve been very fortunate to have been very, very busy last year and this year. I brought my variety show back to Largo, and so I have stuff written for the podcast. It’s just a matter of getting it all together and recording it, but I absolutely intend to bring it back.
Do you ever intend to do it monthly like you were doing it before?
That’s the thing. I would love to get it back up to a monthly and I would love to be able to record a bunch in advance, so that it’s not always a scramble to get it out in time, which it was before. When Eban Schletter and I first started doing the podcast, we spent all this time working on the first one and so then we got a lot of the template stuff in place in terms of the sound effects and the theme song, all that stuff. But then it was still month-to-month, to write everything, record it, edit it; it was really hard. The idea is, when there’s time, to get a bunch recorded in advance. If we can get like, even three recorded in advance, that would make it so much easier to do the rest because it wouldn’t be so much of a pressure cooker. But we’ll see.
When you bring the podcast back, will it be the same format?
I might tweak the format slightly. There was a running sketch, the story of that was completed, so I want to introduce some new ideas and some new characters. Jen Kirkman, who was a regular part of my podcast; she has her own podcast now. I don’t know if I want to replace a conversation segment, probably not. I think I’ll just — and out of respect — leave that aspect out of it. What I really want to do is make sure that it’s all in-studio because it’s easier to control everything. Rather than grabbing audio from various disparate sources, to have it all controlled like we do everything in here and it’s ready to go.
I wanted to ask about the ABC pilot you’re in. Have you finished shooting it?
Yeah, we just wrapped on Thursday. It does not have a name yet. As of now, it’s called The Untitled Brian Gallivan Project. That was a script that I read, auditioned for, and got the part. It’s based on Brian Gallivan, the creator’s actual life. He came from a family of six kids, and he grew up with the family running these vacation rental cottages in New Hampshire. I play essentially his dad. It’s set in 1976. Molly Shannon is my wife, and we have six kids and these great kid actors who are all very talented and very adorable. Everybody got along, which is I think a miracle when you have six child actors in the same place. It was really a lot of fun. I haven’t done any acting like that in a while. It was nice to do the comedy and to do some real emotional acting, as well. Molly’s terrific. It was a dream to work with her. I’ve always loved her, and I’ve never got the chance to work with her before. It was terrific. I laughed a lot. Finger’s crossed we get picked up.
Was this your first time doing a family sitcom?
No, I did a pilot a while ago that didn’t get picked up. I think that was my first time playing a dad, just one kid. It was very manageable. We did do a scene that involved a child’s birthday party, and there were some absolutely monstrous child actors on set. There was this little girl who was just profoundly rude and unpleasant. [Laughs] I hope she’s been drummed out of the business. I hope that she realized she couldn’t fuckin’ cut it, man. I hope that she went back to wherever she’s from. I hope she went back to the Oakwoods, packed all her stuff up.
[Laughs] Hope she’s a teen in Nebraska working retail.
Exactly. She’s at Hot Dog on a Stick.
So, Mr. Show‘s 20th anniversary is coming up next year.
That’s so crazy to me. It’s so crazy. I moved here 20 years ago. I moved here this month in 1994 and saw some of the early live shows that Bob and David were doing before it became Mr. Show. I had known of Bob from The Ben Stiller Show and doing standup on The A-List on Comedy Central, one of their standup shows from a million years ago. I loved these live shows; they were amazing. That first season of Mr. Show, I got to act in for two seconds as a cop. I was just so blown away by that series and realized, “Wow, these guys are the next iteration of sketch.” Every handful of years, somebody does something different with the form. And before that, it had been, I think, Kids in the Hall, which I remember watching when I was doing standup in Philly and just being so amazed by those guys. When [Mr. Show] got to do that second season, and I got hired as one of the writers, it was the most amazing first job you could ask for. Lessons that I learned working on that show, I still use today in my own writing. That was a profound experience for me.
What lessons would you say you learned?
Bob and David were really amazing teachers. The writers would write a sketch, you submit your first draft, and then you get notes on it and everything made sense. The things that I learned from them were how to keep advancing the story, you can heighten things, you can make things crazy, they can go off in different directions, you don’t have to end in the same place you started, just to really embrace the possibilities. Not that you keep topping yourself, but you just want to keep taking it to different places, keep it interesting and keep it fun. Those guys were really patient, and they were really terrific teachers.
Do you have a favorite Mr. Show sketch that never made it on the air, whether it be from yourself or from a different writer?
Yeah, there was a sketch, “Party Car.” It kind of makes sense that it didn’t make it in because it kind of didn’t fit. “Party Car” was a running sketch that was based on when we were kids in the ’80s, there were these I don’t know if you’d call them anthology shows; they were these shows that were excuses to get a bunch of guest stars on a show. Like, The Love Boat or Fantasy Island. There was one called Supertrain, which was a famous failure. It was supposed to be like The Love Boat except on a train, so that there’d be different celebrities on the train every week. “Party Car,” the idea was that it was one of these TV shows. It was supposed to be a linking thing. I remember it in a bunch of scripts but always got taken out. I think it was in half a dozen scripts and got cut for time or just because “We can’t get from this to that” because all the sketches had to link together.
So, “Party Car” was a car that was filled with balloons, and Nipsey Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and a baby were in the car. The whole scene was Nipsey Russell saying — like, it would come out of some other sketch and now we’re in the Party Car — and Nipsey Russell is saying, “With Minsky and his men behind bars, The Party Car can set a course for the stars.” Then, Zsa Zsa Gabor says, “Hollywood stars, darling.” And that was the whole thing. And that was almost in six episodes. But every time, it was like, “We gotta cut ‘Party Car.'”
Who wrote that?
I think that was a David Cross. I could see clear as day him doing the little Nipsey Russell poem. The funny thing is that we talked about it so much, It’s so cemented in my brain, I can see it like we shot it. In my mind, I see the set. I see this fake half a car and those people sitting in it. It’s like, that never happened.
That set was never even built.
No! Not at all! We did not contact Nipsey Russell. So yeah, “Party Car.” “Party Car” lives on in my heart.
Do you have any other favorites that got scrapped?
Not that I’m thinking of right now. I’m sure there were, but as you say, it was 20 years ago. [Laughs]
I hear everybody’s supposed to go on a Mr. Show 20th anniversary tour next year?
Not everybody. [Laughs] It was so funny, it was like, “Yeah, we’re all gonna go out, we’re gonna do a tour!” And it turns out, it’s Bob and David and I think Brian [Posehn], and I think that’s it.
That was the mini-tour last year.
They’re just gonna do the same thing. [Laughs] So yeah, whatever they did last time that many of us were not a part of, they’re gonna do again this time. But yeah, I would love to get on stage with all those guys again. We all got together to record an audiobook version of their unproduced scripts book, which was a lot of fun to do. It was great to see everybody again and to be performing again. We laughed a lot. But yeah, it would be fun. Maybe in LA, I don’t know. But it would be fun to get on stage with those guys.
It’s a hard group to get back together.
It is. It really is. But for the most part, everybody’s still in LA except for David, but he’s here a lot. So, we’ll see.
Were you involved at all in those unproduced scripts when they were being written?
No, I remember the Hooray for America! script. We did a reading of that, and that was as much as I was involved. Those guys wrote it, and I remember really loving that script at the time. I don’t know, it’s weird to go back to that. I feel like the show has aged very well, and people tell me that it’s still getting new fans because of video. It’s tough because comedy does not often age well. There’s that worry, “Is this stuff just gonna feel like a time capsule of the late ’90s?” I don’t think the show does. There was something about that script, though, that felt different to me. Maybe it’s just a byproduct of realizing how long ago it was and like, “Oh man, I remember being so excited by this script.” But it’s also, I think, because comedy’s so cyclical. There’s been other stuff that has happened since then. There’s been other comedies. There have been different things that make this seem almost quaint.
Things since then that have tackled the same territory.
Yeah, and then pushed it further. At the time, there was nothing like this. The script blew me away.
You mentioned realizing Bob and David were the next iteration of sketch. At what point, did you realize that? Was it when you were watching their live shows prior to Mr. Show?
Yeah, when I was watching those live shows, I was really blown away by them. It definitely was the template for what Mr. Show would become. It was just undeniably hilarious and smart and interesting. It was everything you would want it to be.
What was the comedy scene in LA like when you moved her in ’94?
It was great. I got here at the same time as a lot of other people that would end up forming this community; for lack of a better term, the alternative scene. I came from standup and because of that, I started getting into sketch and writing sketches with Jay Johnston. It was very vibrant, it was very exciting, it was very inspiring. It was so many talented people that were all converging on this one spot and doing new material every week. Like, there was this place called The Diamond Club where we all used to do sketch shows. Nobody ever did the same thing twice. We were constantly doing new stuff, and it was great.
Where were you before LA? Were you coming straight from Philadelphia?
Philadelphia, yeah. I did standup in Philly for eight years before I moved to LA. [I] struggled for a couple years, didn’t know a lot of people here, got day jobs to pay the rent and then fell in with this group of people. It was amazing. It was such an exciting time. I kind of cant believe it. I mean, it’s the kind of thing that I would wish for anyone starting out, that you would find a group like that where you can support each other and inspire each other and collaborate with each other. It was just amazing.
Who would you say is the next iteration of sketch now, or people who have come along in the last few years?
Certainly, Key and Peele. I love what they’re doing. It’s really funny, but it looks beautiful. Peter Atencio, the director, is amazing. I love what the new guys on SNL are doing with the digital stuff. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett. That stuff’s really silly and absurd and really well-performed. They’re really good actors. I’m really enjoying that stuff. I wasn’t that familiar with them before, and seeing their shorts, I’m really liking them.
Photo credit: Lisa Whiteman