An Interview with Paul F. Tompkins: A Very Fancy Man

pft.jpg In 1995 a very special program debuted on HBO. It was a sketch show called Mr. Show, and it was where many people were first introduced to Paul F. Tompkins, and boy was he hilarious. Since Mr. Show, Paul F. Tompkins has had numerous stand up specials, movie and TV appearances, his own podcast, and consistently delivers loads of comedy goodness in various forms on a regular basis. His latest special "Laboring Under Delusions" aired at the end of April on Comedy Central, and is now available for purchase with a variety of extra features. And if that wasn't enough, Mr. Tompkins will be bringing his latest tour to Austin for two nights of comedy called "Crying and Driving," May 26th and 27th, as part of Austin Sketchfest organized by Coldtowne Theater. We talked to Paul about his decision to start his own podcast, improv, and where he finds those amazing suits.

I know that you have your podcast, the Pod F. Tomkast. I feel like with podcasts it’s almost like a form of storytelling that used to be popular, is sort of becoming popular again. What made you decide to want to do a podcast or get involved with it?

I was a huge fan of the medium, having guested on a number of podcasts, and being a consumer of podcasts. I listen to a lot of them, and I loved the freedom of it, and the possibilities. You can really do anything that you want.

I knew pretty early on, from when I first got into podcasts, that I wanted to do one, but I didn’t know what I would do. It’s hard to escape the model of the conversational podcast, because so many of them are that. Some of them that I enjoy are conversational, but that just felt like everybody’s doing that, what would I really have to add to that?

I really just started thinking about what are the things that I like to do? What are the comedic things that I enjoy doing? I like to do voices, and I like to do stream of consciousness and stuff, and I like sketch comedy. That just came together from there.

I know you started doing standup when you were pretty young. Did you ever actually take improv classes?

No, I’ve never taken an improv class. It’s really a matter of timing and being comfortable enough to let your mind open up and let the thoughts flow.

As far as improv goes, sketch improv, that I have never really done, and admire greatly. I’ve done a little bit with the guys who do the Superego podcast. We’ve done a couple of live shows together. That was a big eye opener for me, feeling a little bit cocky and that I would be pretty good at improving scenes and everything. That’s a whole other discipline or a whole other thing to learn that I did just OK at, but then left with a feeling of, I know I could do this better if I really study and learn how to do it.

Listening to the podcast, you seem so quick and so much of it does seem off the cuff and improvised. When you started doing standup, did you strictly do written stuff, and then became comfortable as you went?

Yeah, I had an act. There’s always opportunities, whether you like it or not, to improvise during standup. If something happens in the room or somebody drops a glass, if somebody talks too loudly or somebody has an odd laugh, it’s weird if the performer doesn’t acknowledge it. You learn very quickly, it’s just an instinctual thing.

You’ve obviously been performing for a long time, do you feel as far as crowds go in terms of cellphones and interruptions and that kind of thing, do you feel like it has gotten worse as technology has gotten more accessible?

You do see a lot more phones. The shows that I do now where people are going because they know who I am, they're going to see me specifically, there's less of that, far less of that.

But what I find the most distressing is the recording of things, there's so much more.

As comedians we work that stuff out in front of a live audience, that's how we know how it goes, what to keep and what to cut. For someone else to put a bad recording of it out there online before the bit is even ready, that's really distressing and it's also going against the idea of why we're all there.

A live performance, it's in the moment we're all there as a group, that's a very special thing and it's not going to be the same... Your camphone recording of it, even if it's in HD, is not going to be as good as either being there live or having the “official” version of it that I plan to put out later.

People do it and now I have to have the presence of mind to say before the show “Hey, please don't record this. I would rather you don't record this, let's all be here in this moment together.” That's like a thing that now I have to remember to do that, because people need to be told. After that, if they are still going to do it, that's up to them as individuals if they can sleep at night doing something like that, but I would hope that decent people would respect that. If somebody says “Hey, please don't record this.” I don't know why you wouldn't stop recording it.

I think what happens is, people are in this mode now, I understand it, because I'm old enough to remember televisions before they had remote controls, when that was a novel thing... You get so used to being able to do something that it stops entering your mind whether or not you should do it.

So it's like “Well, I don't understand why you're telling me not to do this, I'm --able-- to do it.” and I'm like “No, I understand that! I understand that you have the technology to do it. I'm saying I would rather that you did not do it. I would rather you make the choice not to do it.”

So, we share something in common.

Is that so?

I have a gap in my two front teeth also and I was wondering, I know I got teased a bunch when I was a little kid, did that happen to you too?

Oh it still happens thanks to the internet I hear all kind of stuff about it still. That was something that I have dealt with over the years when I was a kid it was terrible and anything thats different about you is made sport of and that was definitely rough but as an adult I have bit of a thicker skin now.

How much stock do you put into what you find funny versus what the audience laughs at, and is there a point when you would stop caring if an audience was laughing at something?

Oh that's [laughs] I place great stock in what the audience finds funny but the idea is I will keep offering what I think is funny and hope the audience thinks is funny and I will keep the stuff that we both agree on. You can't just be up there to just silence. I'm not just going to insist on doing that bit or telling that story over and over again because I feel like they got it wrong, you know what I mean? That’s just hurting me mostly at that point because that's uncomfortable, you know? I've been doing this a long time and I know how I'm funny but that does not mean I'm immune to certain turns of phrase not working with an audience. Sometime it’s like well, I thought that was funny but it’s not translating to a large group of people. I still think it’s funny, it still makes me laugh, but there's no point in me trotting something out… It’s different if there's a line here or there that amuses me and it pleases me to keep it in my set. That one line, that's in there for me. And occasionally I get a couple of other people that enjoy it. But the idea of the audience is the enemy or whatever cause they don’t find something funny that just doesn't make any sense.

You seem really busy. Are you someone that needs to stay busy? Is that part of your personality that you like to always be doing something, or do you just have all these opportunities to do projects and don't want to give those up?

I'm actually in the process of trying to figure out how to do less because it has been an exhausting couple of years. I've been going for all sorts of opportunities that have presented themselves and it’s all what makes up my career. My career is made up of many different things. I have standup and television stuff and there’s auditions and there's all sorts of things that make up the career of someone like me who does not have a regular steady gig.

In pursuit of that regular steady gig that's kind of what I have to do. But I'm getting more discerning as time goes on because it really does leave me exhausted by the end of the year so I am trying to take time more to myself, have more of a life, have a social life and get to enjoy the things that I like to enjoy. I love my job and I love the things that I get to do and I really do have a lot of fun, but at the end of the day there's more to life than just show business and I want to get to enjoy those things.

Obviously you have to travel and go to shows and what not. I read somewhere that you really like Austin, do you mean that in terms of the city itself or do you just have good crowds in Austin ?

Both, I really like the city a lot, I've made friends there and the audiences are really good, so it is one my favorite places to play.

Are there any things or places that you like to go when you visit?

You know it's funny, the stuff that I've done it's usually been socially at the discretion of the people that I know there. I haven't spent a lot of time on Sixth Street, so I've gone to all those out of the way places, to house parties. I think of it more in the terms of the people I know there, as opposed to the places that we would go. It's rare that I end up in the same place twice.

I know you don’t play comedy clubs anymore, is there a reason why you don't like them?

Oh yeah they are the worst. As much as there have been people who have been very nice to me, people that run comedy clubs that treat performers well, a lot of them don't. The thing about comedy clubs is they aren't really in the comedy business, they are in the restaurant business and that is what drives them. They have to make that work, as opposed to make the comedy work. That's their first priority, making sure that they are selling food and drinks and comedy is the second priority. So we are at crossed purposes. To a point where there was one comedy club that I have played a bunch of times, thought I had a good relationship with and they bounced me out of that gig, without telling me because they had somebody else that was interested in doing that date and was going to make them more money. And so they cancelled my date and had it up on their website before anybody lifted a finger to let me know that that happened. And I just found that colossally disrespectful. If they would at least had let me know, “OK, we would like to reschedule you because we have this guy coming in and he's going to sell a lot of tickets,” or whatever. But it was already up on the website. And that was the impetus for me to stop playing Comedy Clubs.

You seem like a very polite nice person to people. Do you think it's harder to get further in comedy being nice, or do you think it doesn't matter?

I don't think matters. Honestly, I don't think being mean makes it easier to do anything and yet that's where a lot of people are. I would not say most people, I think most people are decent people.

I was actually thinking about this the other day. I blogged on Tumblr about my special coming up and this guy reposted what I wrote and he added “He’s a really nice guy, I met him once in a hallway at this office building, he was really nice to me. He might have been nice because he thought I was an important person when I first came up to him,” and I just thought well, 'No! I was nice to you because you're a human being!' I feel bad, not personally like I let that guy down or something, but I see that that's the state of the world that this guy assumed that “Oh, he can't be nice to me because that's what you are supposed to do. He was probably nice to me because he thought I was someone else.” That's just a terrible commentary on the state of affairs of the world. Yeah, I don't know, I've just been thinking about that a lot. Especially in show business, because I'm guilty of this too, when you meet somebody who's famous, I find myself doing it, saying to somebody else “Ah! He was really nice!” in a suprising way. I guess it's just more glaring for some reason when somebody's in a job that's supposed to be fun where they don't seem to be having fun, that just seems really horrible.

The material that you are doing for Sketch Fest is called 'Crying and Driving' , I know I've done that before. Is that just, kind of where you got the name?

It's not necessarily those things happening at the same time, but it's another collection of stories. It kind of centers on my relationship with my wife and learning how to drive, in my 40's.

You learned to drive in your 40's?


Was it just because you were living in bigger cities, mass transit, that kind of thing?

That will all be revealed in the hour.

Are you working on anything else in TV, besides the standup special that just came out on Comedy Central, that you could talk about?

I'm developing a show right now with Comedy Central that's in the very early stages, so I can't really say too much about it. But it would be a show that I would host.

Awesome. I wanted to know. You're a very fancy man, do designers approach you to make you clothes or you just happen to find these awesome suits?

I wish that there was, but not yet. But I'm open to it, designers!

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