Paul F. Tompkins on why he’s more storyteller than comedian these days

Paul F. Tompkins on why he’s more storyteller than comedian these days

The last time comedian Paul F. Tompkins filmed an hourlong special for Comedy Central—2010’s You Should Have Told Me—he was so concerned about filling 300 seats for the recording that he took to Twitter using the hashtag #tompkins300 to solicit pledges from his followers to attend. For his new special, Laboring Under Delusions, Tompkins recorded in a 1,400-seat theater, and he didn’t need a hashtag to fill the place. Granted, he had the network’s full firepower behind him, but the difference makes for an easy visual representation of Tompkins’ rising fortunes. Delusions just looks significant, and the special is also the full realization of a drastic stylistic change. Where his 2007 debut album, Impersonal, was more rapid and conceptual, Tompkins has turned inward in the years since. The change became more apparent on his excellent 2009 album Freak Wharf, but really picked up speed on You Should Have Told Me, wherein Tompkins talked openly about the death of his mother and other personal topics. Delusions proceeds like a one-man show, with Tompkins connecting stories under the theme of jobs he’s had over the years, from working at a hat store called Hats In The Belfry to the terror he felt on the set of There Will Be Blood. A couple of weeks before Delusions aired—it debuts on Comedy Central Saturday, April 21, at 11 p.m. Eastern—Tompkins spoke at length with The A.V. Club.

The A.V. Club: Since we first spoke in 2007, your material has grown increasingly personal, and more story-oriented and less joke-joke-joke, like Impersonal. The conceit of the special, a run through the jobs you’ve had, makes it one-man-show-esque. Do you feel like this special is the apotheosis of the slow change of your material?

Paul F. Tompkins: Yeah, the last couple of hours that I’ve done, and the current one I’m working on, have been story-oriented like that, and it’s just really creatively satisfying for me to just go at a different pace and at a different length than just the traditional stand-up that I started out doing. It was kind of a turning point to letting myself be able to do that because there’s a lot of “rules” to how you’re supposed to do it, and you’ve got a lot of unsolicited advice, and then there’s a lot of people that will rail against other types of comedy that they don’t think is true stand-up comedy. Then after a while I just sort of felt like, “Well, maybe what I’m doing is not stand-up comedy anymore. It’s not really a play, but maybe it’s somewhere in between, and it’s just storytelling.” I just think of it now as storytelling.

AVC: While there are jokes, the format is a lot different. How did the idea for this special material come together?

PFT: It was after my previous hour, which was kind of, the loose theme of that was growing up and maturing and just becoming a grownup, what that was like for me. It got pretty heavy, for me personally, dealing with my mother’s death, and talking about that in a funny but honest way and really seeing how it connected with audiences and the things that people would say to me afterward. That was very cathartic to do, but I definitely wanted to go a little lighter after that. But I did like the idea of a loose theme that could tie things together. And then I started looking at my older material and things that I had done in the past and had never really done—well, maybe had done once or twice—or stories that I had done for storytelling shows and never really did in my act and realized, “Oh, well, I have a lot of stories about work here. I have a bunch of stories about show-biz jobs, and stories about non-show-biz jobs, and I think there’s a lot here that can be relatable to other people.” Then, finding the emotional thread that ran through the whole thing, which is the fear of getting in trouble and feeling like I don’t belong and that at any moment I’m going to be asked to leave—in real life—was just a common thing in my working life. 

AVC: How did you work the actual setup and structure?

PFT: It was a fairly long process. I had some of the stories I knew very well, and you know, it’s stuff from my life. These are the stories that perhaps I told offstage over the years a number of times when the subject came up. Then it was a matter of a little tailoring to find out how do these fit together—like, my experience working at the Beta-only video store, how is that similar to being on the set of There Will Be Blood? There’s definitely things where they do connect—just that feeling of, this is a new world that I’ve never been in before and I don’t know the rules, and somebody else is in charge and just feeling like, “Ah, everybody’s going to be mad at me.” They’re the exact same. [Laughs.] That feeling can come back at any moment—realizing that, wow, just because I’m getting older doesn’t mean that I’m done with these old fears.

AVC: You mention on your Tumblr that the DVD is actually twice as long as the special, so was the material all together about 90 minutes?

PFT: Something like that, I think it was close to 90 minutes. That’s including an encore. I would say the set proper was probably an hour 15, something like that, and then there was a 20-minute improvised set that I did with Eban Schletter backing me on piano, which is kinda what I do on that podcast and what I do on live shows that we do together. 

AVC: That’s quite a bit of time and a lot of material to remember. The way the story is so linear, was it more challenging to do a show this way than it was to do a show in the past?

PFT: Actually, it made it way easier. I didn’t intend to make it chronological; it just made more sense to do it that way. It just seemed logical to me, and it also helped me remember everything [Laughs.], to put it in its place. There’s some collapsed time in there, and there are some things that are details that just didn’t make the final cut because it’s like, that’s an amusing detour, but it’s not helping the story, and just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it has to be included, because it’s not as important to the overall thrust of the story. But yeah, that actually freed me up in a way, because I didn’t have to worry so much about the notes after a while. It’s more about, not what comes next, as what are the fun things I want to say in this story that I don’t want to forget? And once I had all of that stuff, then I was ready to go.

AVC: The theater you recorded this special in is much larger than the last special you shot. Were you nervous at all doing it in such a big room?

PFT: No, I was looking forward to it. I really love it. I mean, the more people, the more I enjoy it. [Laughs.] There is definitely a cut-off point where too many people, it loses something. I think when you’re getting into stadiums—like I was listening to those old Steve Martin records where people are screaming and yelling, it’s so irritating. [Laughs.] But also, you’re losing a connection with the performer. I think the farther back you are in the stands, the less intimately you are enjoying. I think there really is a cut-off point where, like, this is okay, but adding more than that, it gets a little too pointless. You might as well be watching it from a TV.

AVC: You Should Have Told Me came out on DVD, but no album, and there’s no album for this one as well?

PFT: Well actually, this one I did do on an album, and I recorded that separately at the Bell House in Brooklyn, and that was actually in place before I got offered the special on Comedy Central. Rather than that just use the audio from the special, I wanted to honor my commitment to my record label, and they didn’t have to suffer and lose out because of this, so there will be a CD, but the audio will be different, and it will include a couple of different stories than just on the special.

AVC: When’s that coming out?

PFT: I think not until two months after the DVD comes out, so this summer.

AVC: Do you feel like The Pod F. Tompkast has taken the role of an album, to a certain degree?

PFT: To a certain degree. I mean, the podcast for me is a lot of fun. It’s just silliness. Ultimately it functions as a commercial for various things that I have going on. As much as I enjoy the creativity and the freedom of that medium, it really is just to help out with the other stuff where I do make money. And that is a big part of it for me as well. But I don’t get as personal. The stream-of-consciousness stuff—that’s part of why it’s free. It’s just silliness that I get to do. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to listen to it. There’s still people that think that I don’t know what I’m doing when I do that stuff. [Laughs.] Like every once in a while I’ll get a message on Twitter, like, “All of that rambling between the sketches—why don’t you just introduce them?” I’m just like, “Well, that’s on purpose.” It’s not like an accident.  [Laughs.] It’s not like I start the recording and don’t know what I’m doing. 

So that, to me, is the most freedom, and to me the most unfettered creativity that I can exhibit, which is why I don’t charge people for it, because it’s a thing that I just want to do. There’s stuff in there, there’s structured stuff, but if I’m doing a special, if I’m doing an album, I feel like so much more focused work and craft goes into that because it’s a different thing. I’m charging people for that. I’d love to get to the point where I could do a solid hour of improvising and have that be a special, have that be an album. I would love to get to that point. I think the stream-of-consciousness stuff, as much as I enjoy it, and as much positive feedback as I’ve gotten, I don’t think I’m quite there yet where I’m comfortable doing that and charging people money for that. Someday…

AVC: You don’t make money directly off the podcast, and you’ve said in the past that you don’t pay close attention to its numbers. How do you know if it’s worth the effort?

PFT: I do get a lot of feedback right away from the web, so I know people are listening to this. It gets me on these lists and everything, so it’s very flattering. So I know it’s made some impression on somebody. And I see the difference it’s made in the ticket sales. When I go to live shows and things like that, it’s completely apparent to me, “This is because I do this.” So even though I don’t track the numbers… because what am I going to do with those numbers? For the amount of feedback I’m getting, it behooves me to keep doing it, and you know what? It’s a lot of fun to do it. Like, tracking the numbers, I don’t know what I would do with that information. The best thing I can do with that information is target where I would do live shows—just say, “Okay, well look, there’s a lot of people in Richmond, Virginia, that are downloading this show, so I’m reasonably certain that if I book a show there, I can sell it out.”

AVC: You started your podcast relatively late in the podcasting era, so to speak, though a lot more have come up since you started. What made you want to do your own, and how did you settle on the format?

PFT: When I discovered the medium, I really enjoyed it, and just going on other people’s podcasts was so much fun. It was so liberating, too, that I knew eventually I was going to do my own. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. It took me a while to settle on the format. The way I arrived at the format was, knowing that there’s a bunch of conversation podcasts out there already—that seems to be the default comedy podcast, three or four people sitting around riffing—I felt like, “Well, I don’t really have a whole lot to add to that form.” So that was really the thing that opened it up for me, was saying, “Okay, well, if I’m not going to do that, what are the things I like to do?” And I just made a list of all the forms of comedy that I enjoy performing, and then tried to figure out how I could do that all on an audio show. So, you know, I love doing sketch, I love improvising, I love doing voices. I have this live show that I do that I’ve been recording for so long, but not doing anything with the recordings. And I do love conversation with other funny people, so how can I get them all in one place? I just worked out the sort of lineup, the order of things, and that was it.

AVC: Do you ever think the podcast could potentially cannibalize album or DVD sales? Not that a lot of people pay for those things these days, but has that ever crossed your mind?

PFT: A little. I mean, there’s always the concern of “Why buy the cow…,” but I feel like the stuff I’m offering is different enough, and it’s never been easier for artists to create stuff. In addition to just guesting as myself on other podcasts and being funny in that way—and I count that as free entertainment I provide—I also do my podcast. I do the Dead Authors podcast for 826 L.A., which is a totally different thing that I do from my own podcast, and I am part of the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast, which is another totally different thing I’m doing. And then I put out an album every year or so, and that’s completely different than the other three things I’m doing on a regular basis. What my approach is, I consider myself a prolific creator, and so I would like you to enjoy all of the things I do. You might enjoy only some of the things I do, but I am driven to make these things. It’s not just my job, it’s—if you want to get lofty about it—it’s my calling in life. I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing with the talent I possess. 

So look, I’m going to make this stuff anyway. I’m going to be silly, and I’m going to try to make people laugh anyway, and I get so much enjoyment from doing these sorts of things that it’s my pleasure to put them out there. There’s always going to be an audience for the stuff I’m charging money for, but also, I don’t make all of my money from that stuff. I make my money from a lot of different sources, so I’m not depending on any one thing to really pull through. It’s not like I can’t do those podcasts because people will stop buying the albums. If people stop buying the album, I’m in trouble, and it’s not because of the podcast, you know what I mean? I have a whole other problem on my hands. Because, I don’t think that, in the end, enough people are going to say, “Well, I can just download the podcast for free. Why should I pay for this CD?” I like to think there are enough decent people in the world that will continue to respect artists enough to support them, and who like the idea of paying money for professional entertainment, as opposed to just sampling the free stuff, or just torrenting something somebody else paid for.

AVC: You must get a lot of invitations for podcasts now, just because you are so ubiquitous on them, especially the ones recorded in L.A. How do you decide which to do and which to skip? Is that even an issue?

PFT: Yeah, it’s not as much an issue as you might think. It does come up, and there are a few things I have turned down just because either I did not have the time, or it was not my style. I sort of err on the side of people who are professionals doing podcasts. Do you know what I mean? I sort of err on that side. As much as it would be nice to help somebody out who is just doing a podcast in their living room, with just, like, cheap equipment, that’s kind of not what I’m all about. To me, it’s a matter of “How serious are you about doing this?” If you’re really serious about it, you’ll have good equipment, you’ll pay for a professional-sounding thing, and that’s kind of how I judge it. But most of it is, honestly, people I know and that I already heard of their podcast. It’s very rare that I’ll just do a complete stranger’s show. 

AVC: Do you think it’s possible to reach comedy-podcast overload?

PFT: That’s a topic a lot of people are talking about, but I mean, have we reached television-show overload? [Laughs.] The thing is, what I would say is, you’re more likely to be more aware of a million different television shows than you are of podcasts. Like, there might be a million podcasts out there, but I’m not aware all of them exist. You seek out what you want to listen to, and you’re able to dispose of it very quickly if you’re not liking it. You just shut it off and listen to something else. So, to me, until it becomes a totally monetized thing, which I hope doesn’t happen—I hope we never get to a point where you can only do a podcast if you are going to make money for someone. As long as that’s not the case, the only danger I see is bandwidth issues. The place that hosts my podcast, if they say, “Well, we gotta charge you more because so many people are podcasting now that we gotta charge more money to store this stuff.” That’s the only thing I’m worried about.

AVC: Yeah, I actually just wrote an article talking about profitability and podcasts, and how traffic and revenue shouldn’t be the primary metrics for measuring success.

PFT: Yeah, and that’s not what it’s supposed to be for. I mean, when podcasts first started a couple years ago [Laughs.] the idea was, “This is it.” This is a thing you could do for yourself, and you could potentially reach people. You could reach people on the other side of the world, potentially. The idea was not like, “No, no, that’s the goal. You’re supposed to, and if you don’t, you’re a failure.” The idea behind it is really wonderful: that it’s a form of self-expression that is open for anybody to do, and they can do whatever they want with it. Some of them have been very successful, and that’s great. There’s varying degrees of success, but when I see that people make a lot of jokes on Twitter about that, like, “Oh, great, somebody else with a podcast,” like, well are you going to listen to it? I mean, so what? What do you care if somebody else is doing a podcast? [Laughs.]

AVC: Yeah, it’s something we’ve talked about on the site. A frequent criticism comes up about how there are too many, or it’s all the same people, at least with the L.A.-based comedy podcasts. 

PFT: Hold on a second, here’s what I love: There’s simultaneously too many podcasts, but also the same people are appearing on all the podcasts. [Laughs.] So are we in danger of podcast overload, or are you in danger of listening to the same podcast over and over again? I mean if there’s so many goddamn podcasts, why don’t you stop listening to the same ones over and over again and pick out some new ones?

AVC: To shift gears a bit, the last time we spoke was in 2010, and “the Tompkins 300” had changed the way you were touring. But then Facebook changed its settings and more or less wrecked that, correct?

PFT: Yes, yes.

AVC: So how have you adjusted your approach?

PFT: Well, actually, I feel like that method served its purpose, because I was able to say right away, “Okay, here’s a bunch of cities who have expressed interest in seeing me,” then booking the shows, [and keeping track of] the cities where it really paid off. So I can return to those cities knowing I have a following there, and that the shows are going to sell out. It worked out really well. Hopefully, now with the podcast, that will replace that way of doing things, so I can look at those numbers and say, “Okay, in addition to the dozens of cities I can actually return to with confidence, there’s also these places I haven’t been that have enjoyed the podcast, so it’s a safe bet that I can book a show there and do well.” So that’s my next thing I’m looking at. I was going to do it in May, but some work stuff got in the way, so I had to push back indefinitely, but I was going to hit a lot of the cities—all the most successful cities I’d hit on the Tompkins 300 tour, which was about a dozen cities. Then I was looking to add maybe some more that I’d looked to from the podcast that I would sell out there.

AVC: The material you’re planning to tour on now, how does it compare to the stuff you’ve been doing? When you release something, does it feel to a certain degree like old news, because you’ve already moved on to the next thing?

PFT: Oh absolutely. Yeah, I feel like that’s what it’s building toward, is you get this material to a place where you really like it, and then you release it, and then that’s done. You have the record of that material out there. I mean, the fact of the matter is, you could tweak stuff and tinker with it forever. After I did You Should Have Told Me, there was a long lag time from the time it was recorded to when that was released, after I did the 300 tour, so that material was all ready to go. But then there was stuff I kept adding onto it, and there was stuff I was still tinkering with. And then, by the time it came out, it was like, “Oh, I kind of wish I was recording it now,” because I’ve added all this other stuff that I really like now, and I’ve taken out some other things I didn’t miss, and all that. That’s just the nature of this particular art form, is that you could just keep going forever and ever. But if you want to move on and you want to create new stuff, you just have to let it go at some point.

AVC: Speaking of letting it go, in 2007, you talked about learning from show business’ soul-crushing moments. You said you wished you could learn more from them every time, but even that was getting easier to deal with. We touched on that again in 2010, after Best Week Ever was canceled. To a certain degree, you had that again recently, with a series you and Tom Scharpling pitched to Comedy Central. Did you actually shoot the pilot for that?

PFT: No, no, they passed on it.

AVC: Was that another moment of drawing on those old experiences?

PFT: Oh absolutely. I mean, Best Week Ever, that whole experience from start to finish was unlike anything I had ever been through before, and took me a long time to process, and I’m probably still processing it, and I’m really grateful to have had that experience. It was extremely useful in going forward. Then, the scripted pilot was a whole different experience that I had never had before, and, you know, lots of peaks and valleys. It’s a very scary thing to enter into a new world like that. When it got passed on, it was disappointing, but it had been such a long, drawn-out process that there was also a sense of relief as well, like, “At least I got an answer, one way or another.” [Laughs.] It was like, “I can finally stop living with this over my head, like ‘Is this going to happen or not?’ Now I know it’s not going to happen. So then that’s okay. Now I guess I’ll go from that, move onto something else.” I’m developing something with Comedy Central now that I can’t say too much about—very early stages, that would be a thing I would be hosting. So, I’m creating that now, and believe me, I’m definitely drawing on these experiences that I’ve had in learning from mistakes, but also learning from just shit I did not know. [Laughs.] And now I know.

AVC: Like what?

PFT: It’s just preparation. It’s just things to watch out for. It’s stuff you should have figured out before a certain point. There’s so many meetings and things you have to go through, there’s so many phone calls, and it’s like, “Be ready for this, be ready for that.” And really, honestly, a big thing right now is scheduling. As boring as that sounds, it’s like, I have stopped going out on auditions and stopped really getting into other projects right now, because I really want to focus on this. I don’t want to have my time divided by anything else. That’s why I pushed the tour back, because I had a real opportunity here that I wanted to take seriously and give my full attention, so if it doesn’t go, I can say, “Well. I absolutely gave it my best shot, and I did everything I can do, and it’s totally out of my hands at that point.” The worst thing to do is to walk away from the experience thinking, “Oh, what if I had done this, or what if I had done that?” Or even worse, “I should have this or that.” It’s very easy to beat yourself up about, for me anyway, dumb stuff like that. [Laughs.] So, you know, I wanna either get a show out that’ll be my home for a while and give me a creative outlet that I can share with a large audience, or I want to walk away from it saying, “I gave my best shot, and now I’ll do something else.”

AVC: You work or have worked so often with friends. Did Comedy Central passing on that show make you reconsider doing that in the future? 

PFT: No, not at all. It’s great to work with friends. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but everybody goes into it knowing that. Like, “We might be really good friends, but we might be terrible collaborators.” Or, “We might be great collaborators, and so what?” [Laughs.] It is scary, but I think also, the older you get, the more those risks are reduced because it’s not so much about “This project could potentially destroy our friendship!” It’s like, “This project can lead to hurt feelings, or we could be dissatisfied, or we could find out that we’re just not meant to do stuff together.” There’s a million different possibilities, but none of them have to be quite as dramatic as they would be when you’re a kid.

AVC: So is TV still the goal for you?

PFT: Yeah, I love TV, and [Laughs.] honestly, I love being at home. You know, I’m married now, and I like the idea of… TV jobs that I’ve had in the past, one of the side effects that is so wonderful is that it gives you a sense of normalcy because you’re going to the same place every day, and you sleep in your own bed at night. It’s great because it’s the best of all possible worlds, because I’m doing the thing I wanted to do since I was a little kid: to be creative, to be funny, but I can still say, “Oh, I have a job.” It’s not hard to explain to people. [Laughs.] It doesn’t take more than two steps to let people know what I do for a living. So that to me is very appealing, especially the older I get. The travel really takes its toll. When I was single, it was a different thing, but I love my wife, and I like being home with her.

AVC: Yeah, I have a friend who’s been in a band for a long time, and he said he never got homesick until he got married.

PFT: It’s crazy how different it is. It’s immediate. It’s really immediate.