Paul F. Tompkins: Laboring Under Delusions debuts tonight on Comedy Central at 11 p.m. Eastern.
In recent years, Paul F. Tompkins’ career has been one of curious contrasts. Since the release of his debut album, Impersonal, the Los Angeles-based comedian has come to increasingly rely on—and utilize better than many of his peers—very-21st-century outlets like Facebook, Tumblr, and podcasts to promote, refine, and distribute his prolific output. At the same time, that output has taken on a decidedly old-school appearance. With his tweedy wardrobe and well-manicured facial hair, Tompkins has often appeared to be the product of a bygone era; by participating in the faux-radio-show shenanigans of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, reviving the Bob Newhart school of the one-sided conversation on The Pod F. Tompkast, and overseeing The Paul F. Tompkins Show, a live variety show at L.A.’s Largo At The Coronet, Tompkins updates the entertainments of several bygone eras, putting his own, hilarious, subtly absurd twist on each of them. Case in point: Google Voice Theater, a short-lived feature of that standing gig at Largo, where Tompkins fed well-known orations—be they Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech or the Mos Eisley sequence from Star Wars—through Google’s notoriously flawed speech-to-text software, then staged dramatic readings of the garbled wording.
Tompkins’ latest one-hour Comedy Central special, Laboring Under Delusions, may be his most obvious callback to a traditional form yet. Laboring Under Delusions feels less tied to the customs and constraints of standup comedy—a new art form, relatively speaking—and more informed by the age-old conventions of storytelling. (Tompkins’ said as much in his latest interview with The A.V. Club—in a headline-grabbing quote, no less.) The first thing you’ll notice about Laboring Under Delusions is how it bucks the rhythms and pacing of the typical Comedy Central special. The frantic cutting from camera angle to camera angle is still there, but that visual twitchiness is contrasted by the patience with which Tompkins works through his set. When the first, ill-timed commercial break—Laboring Under Delusions’ only true misstep, one which the DVD version of the special should smooth over—occurs, the comic is still in the middle of the hour’s first autobiographical vignette.
The second thing you’ll notice about Laboring Under Delusions is that Tompkins’ comedy loses none of its steam as he slows it down and stretches it out. If his work in the podcasting world has taught him anything, it’s how to work within long, undefined spans of time, be it the improvisational riffs that open every episode of the Tompkast (foreshadowed by the three “riff suites” that open 2009’s masterful Freak Wharf) or his episode-long character work on Comedy Bang Bang. In its abbreviated-for-Comedy-Central version, Laboring Under Delusions covers five stories from the comedian’s life, but each is packed with scenic details (from Tompkins’ description, it’s easy to picture the low-rent digs shared by VH1’s Best Week Ever and I Love The…, the setting for the hour’s final story) and characterization (the comedian’s blustery self, in addition to loutish concert goers, moronic hat-store patrons who want to try on “the king hat,” and others) that more than stand in for setup-punchline beats.
The composed, polished nature of the special lacks the scruffy charm of Tompkins’ looser material—the infectious giggle that punctuates the Tompkast and Freak Wharf is nearly absent—but fans of the comedian will be too engrossed in his yarns (or laughing too hard themselves) to notice. Thankfully, he’s not completely hemmed in by structure or editing, and the special’s fleeting moments of crowd work—when a mention of Best Week Ever prompts a smattering of applause, Tompkins replies “You should have been several million people a couple years ago”—are welcome, off-the-cuff supplements to the prepared material.
There’s a whiff of one-man show to Laboring Under Delusions, marked by its thematic through line—tracing occupations held by Tompkins, each colored by the same goal: not “getting yelled at”—to the measured theatricality of the comedian’s stage presence, freed from the onstage anchor of a mic stand. Were it not already captured for posterity, there’s the impression that Tompkins could easily mount an off-Broadway production of Laboring Under Delusions or take it on the road, as Mike Birbiglia has done with the similarly structured Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. In that regard, it’s bound to alienate some comedy nerds who prefer their standup shaggier, less outlined, and presented on a smaller scale. But showiness and grandiosity have long been signature elements of Tompkins’ comedy; Laboring Under Delusions is the next logical step for an act whose one-word Twitter biography reads “Hubris!”
Of course, that’s also this side of Tompkins that requires him to preface the climax of the special with the caveat “I’m not exaggerating in any way.” That’s a crucial distinction for a comedian who so frequently works in hyperbole; it’s even more important for a special that begins with its subject peddling headwear for a store called Hats In The Belfry and eventually finds him acting opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. This betrays yet another curious contrast in Tompkins’ career arc: While Laboring Under Delusions is the comedian’s grandest production yet, it’s also his most personal. There’s no “Cake V. Pie” here; no lenghty digressions about the first-person plural based in Dickensian archetypes, either. Just an insanely creative guy who’s great at writing and telling stories about a subject to which anyone can relate: The eternal quest to not get yelled at. It’s a bummer that Laboring Under Delusions is debuting on Comedy Central, because regular commercial breaks are not becoming to the special’s free-flowing nature. But that minor loss is also Tompkins’ gain, as the latest step in his creative revolution and most accessible work to date is debuting to millions of households. Once more, he’s working technology and contrasts to his advantage.