By almost any measure, Paul F. Tompkins is a meticulous stand-up. He waited nearly 20 years to record his first album, 2007’s fantastic Impersonal. In the liner notes for his new Freak Wharf, he explains that his latest chronicles a “transitional period” in his material. “I was not only questioning with the way I did stand-up,” he writes, “I was also toying with the rules of stand-up comedy.” He further details his decision to travel occasionally beyond a bit’s punchline and follow where the subject led him. So, yes, meticulous.
It’s a surprise, then, that Freak Wharf opens with nearly 15 minutes of improvised material. During the three opening tracks—“Riff Suite No. 1,” “Riff Suite No. 2,” and “Riff Suite No. 3”—Tompkins abandons his methodical approach and jumps from topic to topic, including energy drinks, doing drugs at work, the continued existence of religion, and more. Where the rest of Freak Wharf takes a methodical, longer-range approach to bits, the first three tracks move quickly, similar to Impersonal’s tempo. It’s a testament to Tompkins’ skill as a stand-up that the gamble pays off—and that he recognized the opportunity for Freak Wharf.
The rest of the album spends more time on each of its topics (a clichéd scene in horror films, penny-smashing machines, Go Ask Alice), which more closely aligns with Tompkins’ current style. Both approaches work. Improvising or following his carefully crafted material, Tompkins is among stand-up’s elites.