Paul F. Tompkins answers 54 questions.
When did you develop an interest in comedy?
I always loved watching standup on TV. I used to stay up to watch Carson. Even before I could understand what they were talking about, I loved the idea of someone telling jokes.
What were you like in school?
I was a class clown.
Is school something that you enjoyed?
No. I was never a good student. The subjects I liked were English and History. I did not excel at math or science. I didn’t have the mindset for it.
What sort of aspirations did you have as a child?
I knew that I wanted to be in show business, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I was performing in school plays and loved being in front of an audience.
Is television something that impacted you greatly growing up?
Absolutely. I watched a lot of TV and there many shows that were a big influence on me. Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and sitcoms were a big deal for me.
Were you a fan of Hanna-Barbera shows?
I was as a kid. I find that they don’t hold up too well as an adult. As a kid, I used to get excited when on Fridays before the new fall season they would show a preview of the new season of cartoons coming up.
Did you ever do any talent shows at your school?
We didn’t really have talent shows. I was always a part of the plays in high school.
Did you see many different concerts or standup shows in Philly?
No. I didn’t see live standup comedy until I started doing it. My first time in a comedy club was when I went to sign up for an open mic.
Did you do any writing, such as short stories or sketches?
A little bit. When I had to do essays in school I would inject humor into that.
When was the first time that you performed?
I was seventeen and it was July of 1986. I had been out of high school for a month. I got an act together with my friend and we performed it.
Did you graduate from high school early?
No, my birthday is in September.
What sort of routine was it that you did?
We did absurd little sketches. They were surreal rather than crazy guy straight guy type pieces.
When did you do your first solo performance?
About a year and a half later in 1987. We split up as a team and I loved it so much that I kept doing.
Did you go to college?
I went to Temple University for a semester and then dropped out because I was already doing what I wanted to do for a living.
Were you in any comedy or Improv troupes at the time?
How would you say that your material has changed with time?
The more experience that I gain the better I get at developing ideas more fully. In the early days, you’re lucky if you can get one joke out of something. Now I’m able to flesh out ideas more and find things that I wouldn’t have found years ago.
Did you encounter any interesting characters at open mics?
Yes, many interesting characters. There were people that were doing it for a long time and were never going to make it, but they couldn’t stop doing it. Then there were guys that would come on the scene for very brief periods and were crazy. They would go onstage and do stuff that made no sense. They were clearly out of their minds but you wanted to watch them because you didn’t know what was going to happen. Those guys tended to not stick around for too long.
Did you know Todd Glass in Philadelphia?
I did know Todd. He was a big influence on me and quite a hero of mine. Todd always was, and remains to be, very in the moment on stage. A lot of comics when I was starting out where doing their material by rote, but Todd was aware of the fact that it was a live performance and if someone said something or there was something wrong with the lights Todd would depart. I love when Todd would depart from his material and his material was more of a springboard to making it come alive, being in the moment, and talking about what was going on right that second.
How long was it before you moved up to middling or emceeing?
I performed for five or six years before I moved up to middle. I didn’t start headlining until I moved out to Los Angeles in ’94. My first headlining gig, I think, was in Cap City Comedy Club in Austin. And this was in 2003, when I decided that I hadn’t been on a road in a long time and that I’ve got enough material and credibility that it might be fun to go out and do that.
Was the move to LA a difficult one?
Yes and no. It was something that I felt that I had to do because I had ambitions and desires beyond what I could achieve in Philadelphia. It was a very necessary thing, but it is hard to move to a place where you don’t know anybody at all. I didn’t have a place to stay, I had two hundred dollars to my name, and no idea what I would do next. I just knew that it was the place where I could have the chance to achieve what I wanted to achieve.
Why LA and not somewhere else?
It seemed like there were more opportunities in Los Angeles and I think that that is the case. If you want to do television and film there’s so much more than New York. New York has the benefit of having more standup opportunities. There are a lot more places to do standup on any given night in New York. In Los Angeles, because of the geography, the clubs are spread out more and there aren’t as many stages.
What were the next several years like for you after the move?
It was rough for the first one or two years. The first year especially because I wasn’t really performing at all. Nobody knew me, so I didn’t have any ins at any stages and I didn’t want to, after having done it for eight years and having made a living at it, audition at the Improv or stand in lines for open mics. I gave up on standup for a while. I got into writing and sketch comedy. I moved there in ’94 and by ’96 I had my first big job, which was on Mr. Show on HBO. I’ve been a lot luckier than a lot of people because for others it takes a much longer time.
What were you doing to support yourself financially during that first dry period?
I had many jobs. I worked retail, telemarketing, and a few different day jobs before that break came.
What changes have you noticed in comedy since you’ve gotten involved?
When I started in ’86, comedy was very mainstream. It was the peak of the standup boom and there was a lot of comedy on television. I think that comedy tended to be very club bound and a lot of it was similar, which is going to happen if you expose the public to a lot of standup. You’re going to start hearing the same jokes and premises. When I moved to LA, that was the beginning of the alternative comedy movement. I saw comedy that was more like what I wanted to do. It was a lot more honest, immediate, interesting, and more challenging. I think that that has become more accepted in the last few years, but there are fewer showcases for it on television. The general public doesn’t get to see as much standup as we did, which is too bad because I think that there are more interesting people on the scene these days.
What do you think of the term alternative comedy?
I don’t mind it. Some people bristle at it. I know a lot of mainstream comics that see it as a derogatory term that means that you don’t need to have punch lines, which is not true. The term doesn’t bother me because it is a different type of standup and it helps to have a label for it so that you know what you’re going to see. I think that there are some people that don’t need that label. I think that it’s a good label for a club because some people discriminate about the type of acts that they like and that’s what keeps them from a regular comedy club.
Did you have time to perform standup while working on Mr. Show?
Yes, absolutely. There were a few great alternative stages at coffee houses and bars.
What did you do after Mr. Show?
I did a one-man show for HBO called Driven to Drink, which still airs from time to time. I did a few pieces for the Daily Show. I did a sitcom called DAG on NBC, which lasted a season. It had David Allen Grier and Delta Burke. I did standup on TV on Conan O’Brian, different acting gigs, and other stuff.
Do you still collaborate with Jay Johnston?
We haven’t worked on anything in a while. We acted in something together recently, but we haven’t written anything together in quite a while.
How did you prepare to do the commentary for Mr. Show?
There was one season I watched before we did it because I wanted it to be fresh in my mind, but I didn’t watch the last season because I wanted my reaction to be that of someone who hasn’t seen it since 1999.
What are some misconceptions about standup that you’d like to clear up?
A common thing I hear is that all standups are bitter and angry, which is not true. There are standups that are like that, but there are also people that are very positive.
What would you say are the differences between you onstage and off?
Not that much, really. My goal is to have my onstage persona to be as much as my off stage persona.
What sort of venues do you prefer to perform in?
I do like alternative spaces. Coffee house/rock club type stages. A place like Largo in Hollywood is great. It’s an intimate nightclub and the focus is on the performer. I like those places because it attracts people that are there to see that specific show. The problem that I have with comedy clubs is that even when it’s good it can be hard work. People are drunk, talking, or yelling stuff out. Comedy club audiences are often not as attentive. I still enjoy playing comedy clubs, but I feel as though it’s a different sort of attitude.
How do you feel about college shows?
I haven’t done many. The few times that I’ve done that I’ve found them to be great audiences.
Are you noticing that comedian is a career that young people aspire to have?
Not across the board. It’s one of those things that you know you want to do early on. The young comics that I see are excited about it and it’s clear that it’s something that they’ve always wanted to do.
Magazine wise, why do you think it is that comedy doesn’t get much attention?
I think it’s because comedy is such a subjective thing that it’s hard to wrap it up in a bow in that way. It’s subjective even in the comedy community with the whole alternative verses mainstream thing. Even with mainstream comics there’s things like, “This guy uses props, so he’s less of a comic than me.” It’s a very decisive world and I think that to have a magazine that would just be about standup and to have it appeal to everyone is a very tall order.
How do you deal with being recognized by fans?
It’s always flattering and it’s pretty easy to deal with. I like to shake peoples’ hands, get their names, and thank them for the compliment. It’s a very nice thing.
How did you get involved with A Special Thing?
I was aware of it from other people and then I started using it to promote shows. Later, I started paying attention and getting involved with the community that’s there. I’ve met people and talked to people. It’s been a really cool thing to be a part of.
What happened when you were in the chat room?
That was a disaster. I was online and someone suggested I go into the chat room. I had never been in any type of chat room before and I didn’t know what to expect. It was a terrifying experience. I logged on and there were all of these different conversations going on at the same time. I was trying to keep up and answer all of the questions and then eight more questions come up. It was hellish and I got out of there.
Do you plan on releasing a CD or DVD in the future?
I would like to do a CD. I did one at Largo but the sound quality was not up to snuff. I’m hoping to do that this coming year. I don’t know where I’ll do it, but it’s something I definitely want to do.
On your Comedy Central special, there was a backdrop of you as though you were Orson Wells in Citizen Kane. Is that a movie that you enjoy?
Absolutely. I love anything that has to do with hubris.
What other Orson Wells movies do you recommend that people go and see?
Touch of Evil is a great movie. I think that my favorite movie he did is one that he did not write but acted in: The Third Man.
Tell me about The Paul F. Tompkins Show.
That is a variety show that I’ve been doing at The Largo in Hollywood. It’ll be four years in March. I do some standup, we have a three-piece band, there’s a legitimate musical guest, I do a sketch with a friend of mine or a celebrity like Andy Richter, Jon Cryer, or Jennifer Coolidge, then I do a song with the musical guest, and there’s also regular characters. The warm up act is Todd Carlin, who is played by my friend Dave Gruber Allen. He was in Freaks and Geek as Mr. Rosso.
What is your opinion on the current state of television?
It’s not great right now. I think that the networks are very much in love with reality programming because it’s so cheap to produce. I think that they’re missing out on a lot of great scripted television. It’s a tough thing. A show like Arrested Development, which is very funny, critics like it, and it has a cult audience. I think that FOX gave it a chance and that they didn’t want it to get canceled, but, ultimately, people are not watching it. That’s a very frustrating thing because, at the end of the day, you have to concede that that is their business and they can’t keep things on because they know that it’s good. People do have to watch it. That’s why I think cable is so great. Most of my favorite shows are on cable. They have the freedom to do what they want to do and they’re not expecting huge audiences. A couple million people is a hit for cable.
What is your opinion on this trend of adaptations and remakes in film?
I’m against it. Oceans 11 is a good example. Take a movie that wasn’t great to begin with and make it better. There’s no point to adapt or remake something that people like already. I don’t think people like the remakes as much as the originals. It’s not worth it for the one or two that become big hits.
Do you think that your work with Best Week Ever has provided you with a greater understanding of the human psyche?
Absolutely. It has illuminated to me how crazy people go for pop culture. They just love to talk about it. When I get recognized for Best Week Ever, people are thrilled. They love to talk about individual things we’ve done. They get more excited about that than anything else, including Mr. Show.
You wore quite a variety of fake mustaches for Mr. Show. Have you ever worn any fake mustaches out and about?
It’s a tough thing with a mustache because it really makes a statement. If you’re not a cop or gay, it’s a really tough sell to walk around with a mustache. I did a show with a friend of mine. It was an old time radio show and I had a beard at the time. I shaved it down until I could have a thin man type mustache and I was extremely self-conscious everywhere I went. It’s a real head-trip.
Do you prefer to use the glue or the double-sided tape?
The double-sided tape is easier to take off, but if you’re really serious about it you need to use the glue.
How do you act when wearing the fake mustache?
With a fake one it’s difficult because it changes the way you talk because there’s the fear of it falling off, so you can’t be as relaxed as you would like. The trick is that you’ve got to own the fact that it’s fake and not really care if it falls off or not. If it falls off, you just need to pick it up and put it back on as though nothing really happened.
Tell me about Nerd Hunter 3004.
That was a Blade Runner spoof that Jon Schnepp and Eric Hoffman produced. It’s about a guy that tracks all of these nerds in the year 3004 and I played his boss at the nerd-hunting bureau.
Where can we see that?
Go to Kingrobot.com .
What projects are you involved in?
Nothing that’s concrete. Pilot season is coming up and I’m going to be out there auditioning with everybody else. I am going to be at the San Francisco Sketch Fest next month. The fourteenth I’m doing Tinkle with Todd Barry, David Cross, and Jon Benjamin, and the fifteenth I’m going to be doing The Paul F. Tompkins show at the Eureka Theater.
What projects are you contemplating?
I’d like to develop something. I’m talking to some really creative producers and writers that did Heat Vision and Jack, the famous non-airing pilot that Jack Black and Ben Stiller directed. We’re talking about writing a project together that will probably never get made but will be lots of fun to write and read.
Do you enjoy being an adult?
Yeah, it’s awesome. You get to do whatever you want.
Do you partake in any sort of shenanigans when out and about?
I’m more of a hijinks man. I prefer them to shenanigans because it’s a little looser. Shenanigans feel like a lot of work, but hijinks are more spur of the moment and require less planning.
Do you ever do any scheming?
I don’t like to scheme, but I do like to plot. Scheming involves hatching a scheme and I don’t have a maternal instinct.
Do you have a special message to leave our readers with?
Knock it off.
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