Among the clique of so-called “alternative” comedians—David Cross, Patton Oswalt, etc.—Paul F. Tompkins has a lower profile, but that’s changing. A recurring guest on VH1’s Best Week Ever (and an alumnus of Mr. Show), Tompkins tours continually and recently released his first stand-up CD, Impersonal. Although the disc collects some of his older material, it’s nevertheless a frequently hilarious debut by a comedian whose fame has been long simmering. Tompkins started doing stand-up in 1986 in his native Philadelphia, then moved to California in 1994, where his involvement in a sketch group called The Skates eventually led to his first big job, writing and performing on Mr. Show. (He also landed a recurring role on the Tenacious D series as the put-upon nightclub manager who reads the D’s ridiculous introductions.) This week, Tompkins appears at the Hideout for the finale of the People Under The Stares stand-up series. During a tour stop, Tompkins spoke to The A.V. Club about stand-up, Mr. Show, and the despicable people he works with.
A.V. Club: Do you have a favorite comedy album?
Paul F. Tompkins: Oh boy. I would say The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart. All those Bob Newhart records, I just listened to them recently, and I could not believe how fresh it sounded and how not dated it was. Outside of a few references to the time, it’s amazing. It’s just this guy doing these scenes, and it’s still relatable and imaginative and really, really enjoyable.
AVC: You’ve done stand-up for 20 years. Why a CD now, especially with older material?
PFT: I just don’t think I was ready to do it before. It never felt like the right time—it was a scary proposition. I think it was a lot about my confidence as a comedian and thinking I wasn’t yet ready to commit stuff to posterity. In the last few years, it’s become very prolific. I’ve figured out how I do comedy and how I focus on it. Then I started writing a lot of material, and then I realized I have a lot of stuff. I don’t do these bits anymore, but they’re still funny, so why not put them on a CD and have them there? Hopefully [I’ll] put out another one in a year or so.
AVC: Do you ever get requests for bits?
PFT: Not from yelling from the audience, but offstage requests I have gotten—and it’s usually after the fact. “I thought you were going to do this bit.”
AVC: Is that odd?
PFT: There’s something strange about comedy requests. I guess if you enjoy something, why not hear it again? But there’s something weird about it being live, when the person is there, and asking them, “Hey, do this thing like you did it, but make it seem like you’re making it up on the spot.”
AVC: You’re on a pretty massive tour, which mixes both traditional comedy clubs and other venues. What do you think of the recent trend of playing music clubs or other venues instead of comedy clubs?
PFT: I’m all for it. There are pluses and minuses. The pluses of the different venues outweigh the pluses of the comedy club. You’re guaranteed a certain amount of money [at comedy clubs], and they pay that fee no matter what, and that’s it. Otherwise, the other places I think you get a more attentive crowd because you don’t have a table of people who won free tickets, don’t know what they are seeing, will talk through and ruin the entire show. My favorites are theater shows. People are focused, they are grown-up for the most part—meaning they are adults, they didn’t come there to “party.” They came to watch a show, and they’re not drunk. I mean, I like to drink, but there’s drinking, and then there’s being drunk when you go to a show, when you can’t control yourself, and you yell shit out. When the response to comedy becomes cheering instead of laughing, that is so irritating. It’s the worst. Here’s what cheering is: “Look at me!” That’s what cheering is. Cheering is not “Hey, I agree with what you’re saying”; cheering is “I’m liking this more than anybody else!”
AVC: Your MySpace page has this non-advice advice section, where you mention that people have to love show business to do it, because it involves “an enormous amount of unpleasantness.” What unpleasant situations have you been in?
PFT: Well, there’s almost constant rejection, especially with stand-up. You put yourself out there with your thoughts and your ideas, and you think they’re funny, and you hope other people think they’re funny too. The only way you’re going to find out is when you do it and what the reaction is going to be. That’s how you know whether or not it’s worth continuing to say. So if you’re not prepared for that, if you’re not willing to go along with that, it’s going to be a rough road. But beyond stand-up, in terms of auditioning for acting roles, you don’t get most of the roles you audition for—you get a precious few. It’s going into a place, having prepared, and in some cases you really want the job, and you go in there, [and they say] “Thank you.” That’s when you realize you did not get that job. It’s being one of many people that are going in and out of a room being told “thank you very much” and not getting the job. The people you have to associate with in show business are disgusting. They’re horrible, monstrous people, because we are getting into this business because we’re fucked up. We’re lacking something. We’re trying to make something happen emotionally. Some people are able to satisfy their needs emotionally and then do it because they love it, because it turns out it’s still fun. I found out what I needed emotionally. For some people it’s never enough, and they’ll look for whatever it is to make them feel like they’re not a monster. If that means making you feel like an asshole, so be it. They’re drunks, they’re drug addicts, they’re narcissists, they are backstabbers. It’s a terrible group of people. If that’s who you want to hang around with, if you’re willing to hang around with those people to make your dreams come true, than, yes, show business is for you. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have to bottom out like an alcoholic before you find peace with that world?
PFT: I don’t know if you have to, but that is going to happen. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you remember the instant your soul was crushed?
PFT: There are so many soul-crushing incidents. There are a number of them that I’ve learned from every time—the problem is, I wish I could learn more every time. The situations have been getting easier to deal with, and I realize I haven’t been looking at it from that angle: “This is why this happened,” “This has nothing to do with me,” or “Here’s what I can do about this.” So you have to focus on what you can get out of every situation. Although, it would be nice if I just learned a little bit more each time. There’s not one thing that’s like, “Oh, I’ve got it all figured out.” That’s another thing about this business: In every facet of it, there are no rules. As much you have people tell you, “This is how it works,” they don’t fucking know. That’s maybe something that worked for them or how they think it should work, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to you. All bets are off. It’s like Deadwood; it’s just lawless.
AVC: Do you find it surprising that people still care about Mr. Show nearly a decade after it went off the air?
PFT: No, it’s not surprising. At the time I certainly didn’t know what would happen in the future. It was a very heady time, and very invigorating emotionally and intellectually. It was all I could do to deal with what was happening at that moment. But I am so gratified that it still holds up, and having looked at it—I think the last time was when we did the commentaries for the DVDs—and saying “Well, that really was pretty good. It holds up pretty nicely.” There’s a lot of funny stuff in there, and I love that it’s found a new life in DVD and that there are people that are being turned onto it still for the first time.
AVC: Mr. Show is a good example of a critically acclaimed show that never found mainstream popularity. What do you think distinguishes critical acclaim versus popularity?
PFT: Well, I think the reason it didn’t catch on was that it was on HBO, which at the time, not everybody had HBO. There are still people today that don’t have cable, which seems crazy, but today many more people have cable and premium cable than did back then. You also have to consider that the target audience was people who were too broke to have HBO. They maybe had basic cable, but they didn’t necessarily have the premium channels. But also it depends on how well it’s publicized, how well it’s promoted, if people are aware of its existence. It has found a larger audience on DVD, so there are people out there who like it—they just weren’t able to get to it at the time. Now it’s much more accessible. The thing with sketch in general, that makes a good sketch show, that ensures the success of a sketch show, is a singularity of vision. That’s what’s going to make something good. I think that if you just kind of try to throw together a sketch show, but you don’t have any real vision for what you want to do with the sketch, I don’t think your chances are very good. You know, “Let’s just have a sketch show!” You have to do something different with it; you have to reinvent that form every so often. Even Mr. Show borrowed a little bit from Monty Python and built on that. But since Kids In The Hall and Mr. Show, I don’t think there’s been a huge, big change in sketch since then, where it’s been like “Wow, this is an improvement to the form.”
AVC: A lot of your colleagues have gotten involved in punching up scripts. Have you done that?
PFT: Ahhh… no, I hate writing. [Laughs.] I like writing for me. But I did a punch-up session on Talladega Nights, because [director] Adam McKay is a friend of mine. So it’s me and like 16 other people, and we’re sitting around a room. They had a great script, but it was just for jokes, you know, “Let’s think of some jokes.” That was an enjoyable day, but it’s not something that I want to do a lot, because you feel the pressure of, “Wow, I’m being paid to be here, I gotta come up with some shit.” That kind of pressure is not good for me, creatively. It tends to turn the creative tap off because I just feel anxious. Overall, I just love performing so much that when I write, I want to write for me. I kind of learned that on Mr. Show, that even in an environment where you can write whatever you want—which is what that environment was—I realized, “Man, I still want to be the guy out in front.”