At 41, comedian Paul F. Tompkins has officially grown up. He has some of the usual signifiers, like a successful career and a stable relationship, but also something less tangible: hard-won maturity. It led him to stop performing in traditional comedy clubs, and it helped him see the silver lining in the short-lived reboot of VH1’s weekly commentary show Best Week Ever, which he hosted. The Tompkins of five or 10 years ago might have dwelled on the network disinterest that sunk the long-running show, or the hassle of moving from L.A. to New York, only to return a year later. But the older, wiser Paul F. Tompkins has moved on and is currently focusing on his fantastic new album, Freak Wharf, and his upcoming hourlong special for Comedy Central.
Although Tompkins’ stand-up has grown more personal lately, Freak Wharf sticks to the observational humor established by its 2007 predecessor, Impersonal. On it, Tompkins delves into owners of aggressive dogs, horror-movie clichés, and the hilarious phoniness of the book Go Ask Alice, whose slang for a psychiatric hospital gave the album its title. Although Tompkins tends to plan his material meticulously, Freak Wharf opens with 15 minutes of “Riff Suites.” It’s a gamble to have improvisational riffing account for a third of your album, but it’s a testament to Tompkins’ skill that it works so well. It also speaks to that newfound maturity, which allowed him to trust himself (and the audience) enough to go with it. On the day of Freak Wharf’s release, Tompkins talked to The A.V. Club about changing his approach to stand-up, Best Week Ever, and not wanting to party.
The A.V. Club: How weird was it to open the disc with 15 minutes of non-act material?
Paul F. Tompkins: I never intended to do that. It’s such a standard thing that I do now when I perform out, that I kind of warm it up for myself. I love to be in the moment. I love to do the stream-of-consciousness thing, because it’s exciting for me, and I like to think it’s exciting for the audience, too. There’s a feeling that we share, like, “Wow, this is really happening in the moment right now.” I think that’s why you go to see live performances, because you want that feeling at some point. If everything is just by rote, I think it’s kind of a drag. Then it’s like, “Well, why do we go to the effort of leaving the house? We could have just listened to this at home.”
When I listened to the recording months after it was recorded, I was really, as narcissistic as this sounds, enjoying the riffing. Because I didn’t remember saying any of that stuff; it was long enough ago, and it was off the top of my head, so I didn’t have real clear memories of everything I said onstage that night. I thought, “You know what, I feel like this has been captured kind of decently.” The thing that’s really hard to capture is that vibe, but I felt like, “I buy it here.” With enough distance and time from the night when it was actually recorded, I felt like, “This sounds okay to me.” It was all just happening in that moment, and I think it will hold up on disc, so I decided to put it on there.
AVC: When we spoke in 2007 for Impersonal, you said a lot of your newer stuff is more personal, but the material that’s on Freak Wharf isn’t vastly different from Impersonal.
PFT: Yeah, that’s exactly right, and I think the difference in Freak Wharf from Impersonal is the delivery. In that with Impersonal, the material that is on there—and this is my evolution as a stand-up, really—is that the first CD is very conceptual, and the bits are very brief. I have this one concept, I make a few jokes on it, and it’s off to the next thing. The style of delivery is very theatrical, and I feel like there is definitely a wall between me and the audience. I am presenting this stuff, and it’s not about me, it’s not about my personal feelings, and here it is.
What’s happening on Freak Wharf is that I explore the concepts longer than I did. I look at more angles of the things I am bringing up, and also the style has become more conversational, and there’s less of a wall between me and the audience. That leads me to where I am now in stand-up, where the material that’s gonna be on the one-hour special I have on Comedy Central in the spring, which is going to be completely conversational and personal, and the wall is dropped now. It’s stuff that is a lot about my personal life, and it’s not about me directly; it’s about my point of view, and the most conversational delivery I have had so far. So it’s been about me gradually opening up and being more comfortable with strangers, essentially, and being myself. When I started stand-up, the people I admired most were the people who were the most themselves onstage. It took me all this time to get to that point where I could be like the truest version of me, who I am as a person onstage, because I feel like that is the best connection with the audience. It’s just a much deeper experience when you can get to that point.
AVC: It also depends on what you consider “personal.” Freak Wharf has that whole bit about Go Ask Alice, a supposedly terrifying book a lot of people remember from childhood. That’s based on personal experience, but you’re saying the new material is more about your personal life?
PFT: Yeah, the stuff that’s coming out in the spring will be. It’s about getting older and maturing—getting my life together, becoming a grown-up, essentially, and a lot of the stuff that goes along with that, like relationships, and my mother dying a couple years ago, and all that sort of stuff. Just the things that happen to you.
AVC: You mentioned in another interview that you have to “self-sooth” before gigs. What does that entail?
PFT: Oh, what does that entail? Because it never seems to work. Performing live can be a drag, the process that leads up to the actual performance. It’s all the travel, it’s working up all the details and everything, which I hate. It sucks to have to fly all over the place multiple times a year. It’s really exhausting knowing that you have to do these awful radio stations and stuff like that to get people to come out to the shows, which by the way doesn’t work.
That’s the horrible thing about comedy clubs, is that they make you do these radio shows that just don’t work. What they don’t understand or don’t seem to care about is that the comedy club thinks, “Oh great, this is free advertising for us,” and the radio station thinks “Oh great, these guys are helping us kill time,” which is the number-one thing you have to do in radio. The radio stations get what they want—you don’t necessarily get what you want. They definitely killed time, but you did not necessarily guarantee that you’re going to have people coming into your comedy club. Because if you just do the math, the morning show is on, like at the latest, ’til 9 or 10. The core audience of people that are listening to these radio shows, they’re not going to make it. [Laughs.] At 9 o’clock at night to go see a show, they’re exhausted. They’re going to be home watching TV, and I don’t blame them. I used to do this poll every once in a while, if the radio had been particularly bad that day. I would be like, “Hey, how many people came out tonight because they heard me on WPS,” or whatever. And nobody applauds ever. Never, it never happens. So it’s like all the dreadful stuff that surrounds it sometimes can get in the way of the show.
AVC: When you were taping Freak Wharf in Chicago, there was this point where a couple was talking really loudly, and you finally called them out. If you’re in that space where you’re trying to make yourself comfortable and get into a rhythm, how much does something like that throw you off?
PFT: Yeah, everything is heightened because of the recording aspect of it. I become even more aware of noise, just noise. At the Lakeshore [Theater], it’s not on the recording, but I can hear they announced me from the booth at the back of the room, and then someone left the mic on. So throughout my set, I can hear like scratching and stuff in the booth, and it’s driving me crazy. It’s one of those things where I keep waiting for somebody to realize that it’s on. I don’t want to stop in the middle of a bit and say, “Hey could you turn that mic off?” Eventually they did, but stuff like that is maddening, because the idea is preserving the actual things that are going on as closely as possible. The spontaneity of that night, you want the listener to feel like they were there, as opposed to, “Oh this is a recording, this is a stale dead thing that I am listening to.” I do have the luxury of saying, “Hey you know what, I messed that up. I’m going to stop and go back and start over.” But I don’t want to have to do that ever, so I just want to roll with whatever’s going on as best I can. But stuff like that is really distracting, especially when you’re recording. Because there are people who want to hear themselves in a recording, and they will laugh in a weird way, or they will make a certain noise or something like that so they can say “I hear myself on that thing!”
AVC: It always seems like there is one distinct laugh on every single comedy album.
PFT: Yes, absolutely!
AVC: On Impersonal, there was a woman whose laugh really stuck out. You could hear it every time.
PFT: Because you’re taking away the sense of sight. All you’re left with is sound; that’s the only way you’re taking it in. You’re going to notice stuff like that that you never would notice before. I know that person, I have performed in front of that person countless times, I have never noticed her laugh before. Never, never, and now it’s all that I can hear.
AVC: Going back to comedy clubs, how often do you perform at traditional venues like that now?
PFT: I don’t do it anymore. I made a conscious decision because, even at the best of them, it’s all that stuff you have to contend with, and I just don’t want to do it. My goal now is just to do small theaters and maybe some nightclubs. But ideally, I would like the selling of things to have stopped by the time the show starts. When it’s equivalent to a movie theater, where they make their real money off of the concessions, as opposed to the entertainment, that’s when me, as the entertainment, I don’t have such a good time. A movie’s feelings would be hurt if it knew that everyone was just there for the popcorn. It’s just a different kind of attention that is paid. And there’s just a thing about comedy clubs where it’s just like the non-spoken idea is that you’re there to party. I’m there to put on a show, and I want the audience to be there for that reason, to see a show and not to get loaded. There’s just too much of that in comedy clubs, and it’s just a drag. That’s not what I’m trying to do anymore. So I’m trying this new thing now, which worked really successfully in Toronto.
We started a Facebook group “I Want To See Paul F. Tompkins In Toronto.” It got 300 people, and so I booked a show, knowing that there’s going to be an audience in place that wants to see me specifically—they knew exactly what they’re going to see. So I booked the Rivoli Theatre, where The Kids In The Hall started, and I did one night, two shows. It was standing room only, two of the greatest audiences I’ve ever performed in front of. It was the experience I felt I had been chasing since I started stand-up.
AVC: You sent out a lot of tweets after that, where you were genuinely pleased and seemingly surprised.
PFT: It was tremendous. I had never had anything outside of L.A. where it was that good, where I felt like this audience trusts me so much: I will give them the material, I’m definitely going to give them their money’s worth, and then I’m going to give them something on top of that, which is “Here’s some stuff that’s just for you tonight. Here’s some things I’m coming up with”—I added stuff onto bits and I just riffed whole things, and it was great. Everybody was into it. It was a lot of fun. I’m trying to do that now, to repeat that experience in other cities. So far Halifax, again in Canada, Dallas, and Chicago have all hit 300 with similar groups, so I’m looking into booking venues now and doing those shows in the new year, so we’ll see how it works. The big test of it is going to be these next couple of shows to see if this is actually something that can happen regularly or not.
AVC: How did you arrive at the number 300?
PFT: That came about because I was in Atlanta, and I was getting ready to record what would become the Comedy Central special that will air in the spring. I was going to be at this little tiny theater called The Laughing Skull, which seats 74 people. The idea was that I was going to record this intimate material in an intimate space over the course of four nights, two shows a night, and I was having trouble filling the place. The shows were not sold out, and I was getting anxious, like, “Are you telling me that I’m not going to have an audience for this Comedy Central special?” [Laughs.] I did the math, and it worked out to 280 people for it to be sold out. I rounded up to 300, and I said “I need 300 people to come see me over four nights in Atlanta,” and I hash-tagged it with #tompkins300, and that’s where it began. So the in the midst of this, that’s when this guy Bob Kerr, the comic in Toronto, asked me “Why don’t you come to Toronto?” I said “Bob, you get 300 people to say they’ll come see me, and I’ll come to Toronto.” So he started this group. That was it. It’s just a good number, a little more and a little less is a great-sized crowd, and it’s an attainable number—well, depending on the city. [Laughs.] Well, at least in three more cities it is attainable.
AVC: Right after Best Week Ever re-launched, you did an interview where you talked about the work you enjoy, and you mentioned the immediacy of Best Week Ever, vs. a traditional TV show or film, where you wait and wait to work and for it to come out. Are you still thinking along those lines?
PFT: Yeah, that is still my goal, to have another [TV show], whether it’s hosting a show like that or even doing a multi-camera sitcom, something where you work all week, and then at the end of the week, you make a show. Of all the things I’ve done, that has been the funnest, most enjoyable thing to do. The camaraderie of that, the pacing of it, I love that. I love having a week to do it. If a nightly show came along, I would not say no to it, but there’s something about having the luxury of a week to create the thing that you just can’t beat. That’s what I’d like to do, to have a weekly gig on TV, to have a normal life with my fiancée, soon-to-be wife, where we get to actually see each other every day. It’s not like a thing where I leave before she wakes up, and then I’m home when she’s asleep, which, with doing single-camera shows or film, the schedules are really brutal. There’s some days you’ll be working during the day, and some days you’ll be shooting all night. There’s a lot of waiting around. I don’t think I’m built for that mode, where you’re in a heightened sense of anticipation all day because you’re waiting to work, and you never know when the work is going to happen. So it’s like a low-level adrenaline rush that, by the end of it, I’m just exhausted. I would love just a nice, steady kind of thing. With decent hours. [Laughs.]
AVC: The main option for stand-ups is traveling all the time. It seems like Doug Benson spends his entire life on an airplane.
PFT: Oh yeah, but you know what? I think there’s an aspect to that that he really loves. I’m not a single guy. I’m not living the single life, and once I had a serious relationship in my life, I did not want to travel anymore, unless it was with her. She’s come with me to a lot of gigs. She only comes to the cool places. She never comes with me to the middle of nowhere. [Laughs.] When she does, it’s great, but when she doesn’t, I can’t wait to get home. That’s another reason I wanted to whittle it down to in and out, one night, where I can go and have the fun of doing the show, but not all the tedium of waiting around in a place where I don’t know anybody, and staying at a hotel that’s closer to the airport than it is to anything that’s going on in the city. It really takes its toll. It’s very lonely.
AVC: What happened to Best Week Ever?
PFT: It was money. It really came down to money. Everything that happened with that show happened because of money. They made this decision to change the show up, which I think was a good decision, because if it had gone on the way it was, it probably would have been canceled altogether. So they changed it up. But between the time they made that decision and the time we were getting ready to air, the economy went so far south that they didn’t advertise. So one week was the old format of Best Week Ever, the following week was this new format with me hosting, and they never told anybody. There was a little mention of it at the end of the old episode, the old format, then all of a sudden there’s this brand new show, and of course we lost a lot of the audience for the old format that didn’t necessarily agree with making me the sole host of the show, but they didn’t do anything to attract new people. There were a couple of articles, a couple of interviews, but really, you’ve gotta run commercials, you gotta put up billboards and stuff like that. Of course, when corporations say they don’t have the money to spend on that, that means they don’t want to spend money on that. We all forget that when a TV network says, “Look, we’re broke,” it means that they’re not making as much money as they would like to be making. They’re still making millions and millions of dollars—they’re just not making billions and billions of dollars. But the business model is “Always be making money, never be spending money.”
So VH1 was taking a hit. They’re not making as much money as they normally were, so they didn’t advertise the show, so we did okay. The ratings were okay. We held on to the new show’s ratings, for the most part, but then when it came to our hiatus, they’re doing all these dating shows, all these reality shows, which are far, far cheaper than our show was, even though our show was by no means an expensive show. But I’m on a salary, and we had gone WGA for our writing staff, so we had gone union, so there’s people on the show who have a weekly salary, and compared to the reality shows, that makes us an expensive show. First they shortened our hiatus, and then they said, “You’ll definitely be back in the fall.” Then they came back a few weeks after that and said, “You’re not going to be back in the fall. You’re off ’til 2010.” Well, they’re saying that in June, and they’re saying we’re not going to be back on until January, that’s pretty much a cancellation. It’s not a cancellation of the idea of Best Week Ever, it is just a cancellation of everybody who works on Best Week Ever currently. They retain the right to bring the show back, but they’re obviously not going to keep any of us around, and nobody can afford to wait for half a year for this show to come back.
It’s kind of passive-aggressive. It’s a little disingenuous to say, “Hey, we’re going to bring Best Week Ever back, but in 2010.” It’s like, well, “Fuck you, you’re not bringing us back, clearly.” And nobody who was in charge of that decision said anything to me personally. To this day. Nobody’s said, “Hey, thanks a lot for everything that you did.” “Hey, we tried it, and it didn’t work out,” whatever. Then I heard talk that they might bring back the old format, which to me is like, it hurts my feelings, because it’s sort of like saying that never happened. “That thing that we did? That never happened. We can all agree that never happened.” If they do bring it back, I obviously will not be a part of it, but if that’s what people want… I personally am very proud of the show that we did, the one that I hosted, and I would not trade it for anything. I was really happy with that. It made me laugh every week, and I loved the people I worked with. So anybody who says they liked the show better the other way, good luck to you, is what I say.
AVC: It seems like the stakes are higher on VH1, because something like The Soup on E! has had a slow burn for a really long time, and E! never really promoted it.
PFT: Not until very recently, not until, I think, a year or two ago did you ever see a billboard for The Soup. And that’s a show that, you talk about transformation, how many hosts have they had? Of course every new person has to go through “This guy’s not as funny as the old guy was.” It’s worse than James Bond, being the next person to take over that role. But the network gave it a chance. They realized, “Hey, the show is the star, and that’s the way we do things, and each host will bring his or her personality to it, but people tune into the show because they like this thing.” I think ultimately, that was too big a shift for Best Week Ever to not support. You have to either support it, or don’t do it at all. They didn’t really support it.
AVC: Last time we spoke, you talked about having to deal with all the humiliations of the business and sketchy people, but being able to learn from it. Have you been able to see the silver lining now that you’re back in L.A.?
PFT: Yeah, I’m much better now. The older I get, the more mature I become. I’m better able to learn those lessons and get things out of any situation and see the positive things. As disappointing as it was for that show to end, and as difficult as it could be often to just get the show made every week, I learned so much from that experience. I learned so much about producing a TV show, about hosting a TV show, about writing a TV show. There was a lot that I got out of it. I forged relationships that I will have for the rest of my life. I had the adventure of moving with my fiancée to live in New York for a year and all that that entails. I don’t regret any of it, and I do feel like I got so much out of that experience. Also, the older I get, the more what’s really important comes into sharper focus. Having a relationship has done that, too, where I realize why I do what I do. Now that somebody else’s life is involved in it, the stakes become a lot higher, but I think that also leads me to make better decisions and more informed decisions.
AVC: You need to sound less well-adjusted if you’re going to be a bitter show-biz guy.
PFT: [Laughs.] Oh, there’s still time for that.