Paul F. Tompkins has been performing sharp, cerebral stand-up—usually while wearing a suit and a sly smirk—for nearly 20 years. A writer and oft-faux-mustachioed performer on HBO's brilliant Mr. Show, Tompkins has had a number of other TV stints, some more successful than others: He was an excellent correspondent on Real Time With Bill Maher, a performer on the ill-conceived Kelsey Grammer Presents: The Sketch Show, and a frequent guest commentator on The Daily Show. Nowadays, Tompkins is a regular pop-culture quipper on VH1's Best Week Ever, but his knotty absurdisms and silly asides are best experienced live. Recently, The A.V. Club asked Tompkins about Best Week Ever, the upcoming Tenacious D movie, and what being in Aspen is really like.
The A.V. Club: What do you think of the term "alternative comedy"?
Paul F. Tompkins: It never bothered me. I say that because it was often used as a pejorative term, like it wasn't "real" stand-up. Many club comics felt that "alternative" meant you didn't have jokes. That wasn't necessarily the case. The jokes were maybe just not as hard, were maybe more conversational. Obviously, there were plenty of terrible comics doing "alternative" comedy, but check out the clubs sometime. You will see plenty of traditional comics who are awful. But that's the way it must be—in any art form, 99 percent is bound to be shit. I actually liked the term, because to me, it identified a specific type of stand-up that I was more likely to find interesting.
AFC: What do you think of a show called "Aspen… On The Edge"?
PFT: Sounds edgy. What does it mean? I haven't heard about that show. But Aspen is known for its edginess, right? The edginess that tremendous wealth always has to it.
AVC: Can you think of a better name for it?
PFT: Aspen: I Saw A Black Guy Today.
AVC: Have you been to Aspen before?
PFT: I went in '97, '98, and '99. The best part is, you hardly have to drink at all to get hammered. The worst part is, when those bars closed, you're fucked. Good luck getting back to your hotel. Especially since you brought a coat you thought would be warm enough but absolutely is not. That scarf isn't helping much, either.
AVC: Do you prefer working on TV shows or doing stand-up?
PFT: I like working in television a lot. It's nice to have a place to go every day and a group of people to hang out with and work alongside with a common goal. But I think I'll always love stand-up more, because there's so much to discover. But you cannot beat television money with a stick. Not with a stick.
AVC: What happened on The Sketch Show? It seemed to crash and burn pretty quickly.
PFT: Boy, oh boy. Why do people insist on remembering The Sketch Show? Essentially, what happened was, the cast was given material from the original British series and then instructed to replicate the sketches note for note. The assumption was that comedy is not subjective, that if something's funny once, in one place, at one time, it will always be funny. I tend to disagree.
AVC: You've been a part of successful TV shows and unsuccessful ones. What do you think of the current state of television?
PFT: I was going to say it's pretty bad these days, but I actually think it's pretty much the same as it's always been: There are a few really great shows on, and a bunch of garbage. That's the nature of the beast. It's always going to be that way as long as the networks try to second-guess what the American public will like. I wish that they'd just put on what they think is good rather than what they think people will sit through. I bet they'd have the same success rate, but at least the shows that survived would be better.
AVC: What shows do you watch?
PFT: Let me take this opportunity to recommend HBO's The Wire. My girlfriend got me into it late last year, and it's a tremendous show. Rent it on DVD. There are two seasons out on disc now. If you're not in a significant relationship, you can knock them out in a weekend. Such a dense, entertaining, smart, well-written, and well-acted show.
AVC: Do you get recognized more from Best Week Ever or Mr. Show?
PFT: I get recognized from Mr. Show mostly in Los Angeles. Outside of L.A., it's Best Week Ever. Sometimes I get recognized from my stand-up, even. Sometimes.
AVC: How does a show like Best Week Ever work?
PFT: I am emailed a packet of topics to look over, then I go into a tiny studio where a guy asks me questions about the topics, and I start quippin' like a house afire. Then VH1 puts the show together, it airs on Friday, and I watch it, and I am outraged once again that there are other people on the show besides me.
AVC: Do you ever opt out of commenting about something on Best Week Ever, like, "I just don't have anything to say about Britney driving with her kid on her lap"? Or do you come up with something for every prompt?
PFT: Every once in a while, I just have nothing to say. But I try to make that a rare event, as the challenge I've given myself is to figure out something funny to say on a topic I either don't know anything about, or that doesn't provoke any particular reaction in me. It cracks me up when I see the show and they've used a clip of me commenting on something I was absolutely ignorant of until I saw the show.
AVC: What can you say about the upcoming Tenacious D movie?
PFT: The D movie is going to be really funny. I read the script and enjoyed it, but it wasn't until I was on the set and Liam Lynch, the director, showed me some rough footage that I could really see how funny it was going to be. I have the most lines in it I've ever had on film, and I am praying that I mostly stay in the movie. Making movies is nice, man. A movie with some money behind it? Sweet. So many snacks and stuff. Name-brand. And many different kinds of coffee.
AVC: You play an open-mic host in the movie. What's the weirdest, saddest, most awesomely bad thing you ever saw at an open mic?
PFT: I love bad comedy more than I love good comedy, so I love open mics. Or I used to. I don't go to open mics here, because you can feel that there's so much riding on people's sets. But the thing that delights me more than anything else in an open-mic performer is when the comic has one joke that requires some kind of prop. But only one. The prop is always produced very awkwardly, and it never, ever pays off. The resulting embarrassment is savory and delicious.