This interview first appeared online on Gothamist.com on August, 22 2006
Comedian Paul F. Tompkins is in New York City to film his second Comedy Central half hour special. In this interview, he discusses road work, films, and anthropomorphic furniture.
Have you already decided what sort of backdrop you’re going to use for your Comedy Central Presents special?
Yes, I have, but I’d rather not say since I won’t be able to surprise people and I won’t be able to top the last one.
Were you able to keep the giant picture of you as Citizen Kane?
Yes, I was. It’s in my manager’s garage because no one had room for it. It’s gigantic.
Do they usually let people keep their background or was it just because it was a big picture of you?
I think it’s because it was a giant picture of me. They really can’t use it for anything else. Unless they finally make that movie I’ve been begging them to make.
When you did the AST Radio Podcast , you mentioned that you were very insecure and that even when doing warm up for tapings of Mr. Show you were able to justify it as, “Well, it’s not that they think I’m good, it’s that I’m the guy across the hall.”
I was very insecure. I wanted that praise very badly, but I couldn’t always take it seriously. I think that, in general, comedians are pretty insecure and that what drives us to be comedians is that we’re looking for some sort of validation. That’s a very simple and old idea, but I don’t know if anybody’s taken it to the extremes I’ve taken it to. I challenge anyone to an insecurity contest.
Would you say, then, that if a performer doesn’t appear confident onstage that that’ll affect the audience’s perception of their material?
Absolutely. You have to appear confident onstage. That’s the most important thing. If you can do that, then that’s half the battle. If you appear like you’re in control you can get away with a lot. Even if you have awesome material and you appear kind of nervous it’s too much work for the audience because they’re nervous for you. They’re not enjoying it as much as they could be because they’re waiting to see if you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, hoping you’re not going to, and that takes a lot of effort. It’s very stressful to watch somebody and hope that they don’t collapse onstage.
Have you ever seen that?
I have yet to see somebody breakdown in emotionally tears, but I’m still holding out to see it one day.
How much of a meritocracy would you say stand up comedy is?
I’d say it’s fifty-fifty. There are some people that get the recognition they deserve and there’s some people that have hoodwinked the audience with a character or gimmick and they get to the top without much to back it up. That being said, humor is so subjective that I don’t feel like it’s up to me to say, “That guy is without merit.” Being inside it I can say, “Maybe he doesn’t work as hard on the things that I work hard on,” but he’s got a whole lot of people enjoying it and there’s something to be said for that. If most of the people like it, you can’t really take it away from somebody. Just because I don’t find it funny and prefer to do things a different way doesn’t mean that the audience watching it is not entitled to enjoy it.
What are some gimmicks someone could use?
There’s all sorts of things. You could hide behind a character, be a one liner person, be very dirty, or whatever.
What sort of differences do you notice in the audiences of a comedy club compared to an alternative room?
The only difference is, really, that the alternative audience is more polite. That’s the biggest thing for me. When I go to a comedy club it’s work a lot of times because people yell things out, there’s people that are drunk and disorderly, and people that aren’t paying attention and just talking to each other. At the alternative shows, you don’t get that. If they don’t think it’s funny they don’t laugh. That’s the worst that can happen. And, to me, that’s fair. People in comedy clubs, they take it personally if they don’t enjoy your comedy even if everybody else is enjoying it. They take it in this weird way as though they have the right to tell you, “I think you stink.” If you don’t enjoy it, leave. You can do that with a movie.
It’s funny that that’s when the audiences choose to acknowledge the fact that you can actually hear them onstage. When they’re in the front row and they’re talking to each other, then it’s like you’re on television and don’t exist, but when they have a problem with you that’s when they like to acknowledge that, “Oh, yes, this a live performance where we can all see and hear each other.”
How do you feel about dinner being served during a performance?
That’s fine. I perform at a lot of places that aren’t comedy clubs, but are nightclubs that have meals. It really doesn’t bother me. I actually think there’s something very civilized about it.
Who are you bringing with you to some of your forthcoming comedy club runs?
Coming up in Philadelphia at the Helium Club, I’m going to be with an old friend of mine, Buddy Fitzpatrick, who’s an old friend of mine who is a headliner himself, but we’re good friends and he was willing to do a shorter set with me, which is awesome. I’m very grateful to him for that and am looking forward to it.
When you do clubs, do you ever stop by the open mics just to see what’s going on?
If I can. There’s a place in Minneapolis called Grumpy’s that, when I play the Acme, I do a set at. It’s on Wednesday nights and it’s always a lot of fun. It’s a bar. It’s this really weird long room. You’re at one end where the stage is and it’s almost like a train car.
Are there any experiences from doing road that were strange?
No, I’m sad to say that I haven’t had such an experience. The towns are different, but the shows are kind of the same, which sounds a little bleak. There are good shows and there are bad. That’s what you get with a comedy club. Sometimes the majority rules and it’s a great audience, and sometimes you get some bad people that won free tickets on the radio. They’re the people that always wreck it. When someone gets in for free, they don’t value what they have so they’re always going to ruin the experience for you and the rest of the audience.
Do you find it difficult to do three shows on a Saturday night?
It can be, sometimes. You can get lost in a set. Sometimes I can’t remember if I’ve done that bit already, but that’s not a problem for me because I go up with a list. I blatantly have a list. I can remember my bits, but not the order I like to have them in. It does get kind of weird because you find yourself saying, even in the middle of a bit, “I think I’ve done this one already.”
Do you find yourself doing more crowd work at comedy clubs?
Yeah, absolutely. I do it out of necessity. If someone starts talking to me I’ll start talking to them, but sometimes people have different facial expressions. They’re taking in the experience in a unique way, so I check in with them to see what they’re all about. Especially if it’s two people at a table where one person is really enjoying it and one person has their arms folded and isn’t even looking at the stage. I will go for that person every time and find out what they’re story is because I had a morbid fascination with finding out why someone is not enjoying my comedy.
How do you deal with downtime when you’re on the road?
I like to check out whatever the town has to offer. I’ve been doing clubs more lately and I’ve got a network of friends in each town that I go to. It’s like having a little family. We’ll have lunch, go to the movies, I’ll try to explore whatever interesting thing that town has. One thing I was disappointed to have missed last time I was in Austin is this bridge that houses millions and millions of bats and at sundown all the bats fly out. People get together, bring blankets, and watch this gigantic horde of bats fly out from under the bridge. I’ve seen it on television, but I wanted to see it in person.
How long were you performing stand up before you noticed some sort of difference?
It’s constantly happening. I think that it should be a process of constant evolution. I’ve been doing this for twenty years now. I remember sort of getting better when I was in Philadelphia. I was doing it there for eight years, but it wasn’t until I moved out to LA and had been living there for four years that I really felt like I was coming into my own and could acknowledge that I was good at it. I was much more confident and realized that I had learned some thing without being aware of them and put them into practice without thinking about it that much. Now I’m at a point where I realize that I’m still evolving and figuring out how to be the most me onstage possible, which is personally my goal. I want to be as much myself onstage as possible so that I can communicate to the audience the things that I find funny in the way that I find them funny. The challenge of stand up is, “How do I express this idea to the audience as closely as possible to the way that it made me laugh so that we’re having the same experience.”
Where do you usually try new material?
I do a show once a month at Largo that I open by doing some stand up and that’s new every time. I’m either going to be debuting the bit there or I’ll do the set a week or two before that and start working it out there. My ethic is to constantly be working on new material so that anytime I go up onstage I have something I’ve either never done before or done it only once before. That way, when I do the clubs, I have a faster turn over of material. That way if I do Austin in January and do it again in July I’ll have an almost completely different forty-five minute set.
What are some things that you know about stand up now that you would have liked to have known when you were starting out?
That not everything that someone says from the audience is a heckle. Sometimes that can enhance the show and you don’t need to shut people down. People speak up at shows for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re enjoying it and just want to add something because they’re into what you’re saying. It’s something to take advantage of because it’s something that can only happen in live performance. You should never lose sight of the fact that it’s a group of people all in one room. It’s something that can only happen with that group of people with that particular comedian at that moment. It’s better to capitalize on that than to see it as someone going on the attack and shutting them down.
What are some things that you’d say influenced your comedic sensibilities?
I come from a big family. There’s always a lot of energy and tumultuousness. I think that certainly formed the way I look at the world. It’s almost as though I was forced to have a sense of humor because other wise I’d be crushed emotionally. We’re a big yelling family.
You had mentioned that you were a class clown. How’d you get your laughs?
I used to imitate teachers and would always try to make people laugh during moments they shouldn’t laugh, like if a teacher’s back were turned. I always liked to get the laughs of the teachers. I liked getting the approval of adults. If I could make them laugh I felt like I was operating on a higher level than just getting the teenagers in on it, but getting grown ups in on it too. I’d approach writing assignments humorously. Sometimes it was met with approval and other times it was deemed inappropriate. For the most part, I think everyone realized that it was humor. Nothing I did could ever be interpreted as malicious as dangerous. It wasn’t like Jackass. I wasn’t about getting laughs by throwing myself down a flight of stairs. It was obvious I was kidding around.
Did you go to school with any kids that did the Jackass type stuff?
I think I encountered that more when I was college aged. There were guys who really like to roughhouse. That was never my thing. I was always too delicate for that.
In my school, there was a group of kids that decided to make their own version of Jackass, which is exactly what the news was warning everyone about.
It turns out the news was right for once.
What do you think of this Snakes on a Plane phenomena?
It was funny at first, when we first started to think about it, but the idea of the movie being dictated by fans of the trailer doesn’t seem like a good one to me. I think already the focus grouping has gotten out of hand. They too much rely on those groups. I think it’s a bad trend if they’re going to listen to people who say, “I wish Samuel L. Jackson would say this in the movie.” A trailer is one thing. If it was just a trailer that would be hilarious, but whole movie? “This should happen, and then this should happen.” Then it’s almost like a child’s drawing of something. A movie a child would make. “Then there’s a shark and a hot air balloon. And a unicorn.” It’s too much. I don’t think it’ll be such a great movie.
Might it be so bad that it’s good?
No, I think it’ll be so bad that it’s bad. You can’t try to make one of those so bad it’s good movie. I think a lot of people will be disappointed in it. I was kind of excited to see it, but a long time ago and now I don’t think I’m going to go. Unless I’m dragged to go by a group of people that already bought tickets. I don’t want to pay for it.
Is this going to mean more movies where the premise and the title are the same thing?
Yeah. I’d like to see where half of the premise is stated in the title so that there’s still a surprise at the end. Like if the name of this movie were Snakes on a Form of Transportation. Something is on This Plane That Shouldn’t Be. Something Dangerous Will Happen on This Plane.
Are you a fan of movies so bad that they’re good?
It depends. I used to be much more, but I think those movies have stopped being so bad that they’re good and have started being so bad that they’re bad. It’s a very special and rare thing and I don’t think it happens that much anymore. A recent exception is a movie called The Room , which was made by this guy Tommy Wiseau who wrote, directed, and stars in it. It’s a movie that’s bad from the very first frame. They do midnight screenings of it in Los Angeles, sort of Rocky Horror style with people yelling things at the screen. I don’t care for that. I saw it on DVD with a group of friends and we didn’t know what to expect and it’s an insanely awful movie. It’s so bad it’s worth watching.
Did you see Cars?
Did you have any interest?
I didn’t. I’ve enjoyed Pixar’s movies, but there was something about the cars being anthropomorphic that I didn’t like. All of their other movies have been things that sort of looked human or were a live being anthropomorphized, like toys, fish, or monsters. The idea of a world populated solely by cars didn’t make sense to me or seem enjoyable.
That’s what intrigued me so much about it.
Did you enjoy it?
No, because, “This is a movie about cars,” was as far as they went with it.
I would have loved it if it was a movie all about bureaus, anthropomorphic furniture. The drawers could open and close like their mouths and the knobs could be their eyes. I’d have liked to have seen that. An end table and armoire talking to each other.
One thing in the car movie is that there’s no people, but they make a reference to Hendrix. So that means there was a car Jimi Hendrix, which means there was once a car Hitler.
It almost gets into a Planet of the Apes type of thing. Is the world of cars our Earth in the future and our dependence on fossil fuels somehow made it so that we were no longer necessary and the cars took over. So there was a Jimi Hendrix, but that was back in the day when humans roamed the Earth.
The other night, NBC, Fox, and ABC all had talent completion shows on at the same time. What do you think of that?
I think it’s fine. It’s like a quaint old-fashioned idea. I don’t watch them, but I absolutely feel they have a right to exist.
What’s your opinion on Last Comic Standing?
It’s fine. I’m in favor of Last Comic Standing because I’m in favor of comics that have been helped by it, like Todd Glass . It really raised his profile and helped him get more money and bigger audiences on the road.
Some people say that Last Comic Standing isn’t good because it gives an unfair representation of what stand up’s like.
You could just as easily say that any time they see a comedian on Conan or Letterman that that’s their only experience with stand up. It’s a case-by-case basis. One comedian or a show about a group of comedians can never be representative of stand up and I think that people would be foolish to take it that way. I give people more credit than that. I doubt that people look at it as, “Well, that’s what stand up comedy’s like.” At this point, everyone has seen stand up comedy at one point or another, so I don’t think it ruins anything. Also, when I watch the show that to me is stand up comedy. I know a lot of those people and that’s what they’re like. Anybody that complains about it being manipulative or saying that that’s not what comics are really like is lying.
Does it seem like another comedy boom is building?
I don’t think it’s a full-fledged boom. It’s a little more popular than it used to be, but, overall, I don’t think it’s ever going to be how it was in the late 80′s where it was all over TV and there were clubs everywhere. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. We’ve been through it already. The Internet has changed things. Something like Youtube makes an enormous difference. People can see comedy that way and there’s not as much of a demand to see stand up on television or to have a million different clubs. The way the comedy scene is now is that most places have their one big comedy club, maybe a smaller independent sort of room, and you have colleges. There’s things like The Comedians of Comedy tour, who go to rock clubs, and David Cross does that too, but that’s the exception to the rule and don’t happen as often as the way it’s set up now, which is a one horse town kind of thing.
Is screenwriting something that you’re interested in?
Eventually, I’ll get around to that, but I hate writing by myself. It’s terribly frustrating and there’s nothing worse to me than sitting at the computer and looking at a blank screen. I can’t stand it. But I’m sure it’s something I’ll eventually do.
What do you like to do after a performance?
I love to go to a bar with a group of people and have a couple of drinks. That’s my favorite thing. Just to unwind and blow off steam. You get all amped up when you perform and there’s a lot of adrenalin. It’s very hard for me to just go home after a show. I feel bad for my girlfriend because she’s got to be around it. She’s got to be with me when I’m coming off of that show thing where I’m partly in my stage persona. It’s me, but amped up and irritating.
Paul’s Comedy Central Presents will be taped on August 31st along with Maria Bamford. To get free tickets, click here . Paul will also be performing at the UCB Theater on August 28th , and at Here’s the Thing on the 27th at 8 PM at Rififi. Visit Paul F. Tompkins online at Paulftompkins.com .