The humor of Paul F. Tompkins is something of a rare treat for comedy fans. He’s developed a unique style as an eloquent, off-the-cuff orator, and his shows feel conversational and high-minded without coming off as elitist. If your typical comedian’s set is like spending an hour with Uncle Marty who works at the Fart And Dick Joke Factory, Tompkins’ material is more like an spending that time with an uncle who just returned from a year-long postdoctoral appointment at the University Of Comedy.
As he grew frustrated with the atmosphere of traditional comedy club venues (he’s been performing since 1986), Tompkins stumbled upon a novel way to book shows using Facebook groups started by fans in cities where they’d like him to play. If the group can muster up 300 followers, he’ll come and perform. If it goes well, he’ll return. Known as the Tompkins 300s, the groups allow the comedian to travel exclusively to cities with guaranteed crowds willing to purchase tickets to see him perform.
The A.V. Club spent some time with Paul F. Tompkins in advance of his show May 27 at the Gothic Theatre, discussing his evolving relationship with comedy audiences, how he feels influenced by words, and the many ways he has found to spread his humor.
The A.V. Club: Now that you’re booking shows using the Tompkins 300 groups, have you found that the expectations of the audiences have changed?
Paul F. Tompkins: Well, it’s a different audience. If anything, I think that my expectations have changed. In the old days, doing the comedy club system, you had to go to a club in a city multiple times in order to build your following there. It required a lot of return trips just to collect enough people, and the expectation of those audiences is very different. Some people are there because they know who I am, and they like my comedy, and they want to see me perform live—and then some people are there because they got free tickets, and they have an expectation of what comedy in general is, and I may or may not meet that expectation. That’s the thing that makes it difficult to do the clubs, is that, I’m at a point now where I find it less interesting to win over new people who are prejudiced against me from the get-go because it’s not the kind of comedy they might have been expecting. So now when I do these shows, it’s people who know who I am, for the most part.
AVC: You’ve described it before—establishing an element of trust between yourself and the audience, that they trust you to provide a good show.
PFT: Yeah. I mean, I’ve done it the other way for most of my career, and at a certain point I feel like I’m entitled to say, “Well maybe I’d like to go out there and have really good shows and be as creative as I can be in the moment, and not have to worry about people that don’t care.” There is a certain thing that you have to do to let people know in the first couple of minutes, really, “This is who I am, this is my type of personality, you can trust me. I am going to deliver a funny show for you.” They paper the rooms at comedy clubs. People’s primary goals are that they are going out to get drunk, not to see a show. Part of the comedy club culture is that you know there’s going to be booze there. So it becomes just another place to drink, and it’s a totally different mindset. Not everybody is there to see a show. The comedians are almost background for those people—not everybody, but for a lot of them. It’s often enough that it can poison the room for a positive experience. A lot of people, for whatever reason, there’s this reaction: When they see something that’s not funny to them, they take it really personally. There’s an anger that occurs. That’s the psychology of heckling that I’ve never understood: Why are you so angry that I’m not doing comedy the way you would like me to do it?
AVC: Do you find it liberating to be able to expect more from your audience?
PFT: Yeah, it is. It’s nice to go to these places and find that people are on board with my sensibility. When I was coming up in the clubs, a common topic of discussion was your laughs per minute. Guys would talk about how many laughs per minute they had, because you had to keep people laughing; you couldn’t afford to take any time where they weren’t laughing, for fear that they would wander away and that you would lose them. But I find that the kind of comedy that I like is not all rapid-fire joke-joke-joke-joke-joke. I really like storytelling. I really like conversational stuff. That’s the kind of stuff that I do, too, and I don’t think everything has to be rapid-fire machine-gun joking all the time.
AVC: You are usually described as cerebral, and literate, and as having a Twainian sensibility.
PFT: That’s more about the mustache, I think.
AVC: Do you feel that literature or linguistics has influenced your comedy?
PFT: Well, I’ve always loved words, ever since I was a kid. English was always my favorite class, and I loved learning new words and reading words that I didn’t know in books. I guess it’s the specificity of words that I really find fascinating. The more specific a word gets, the more it interests me. The Germans have the word schadenfreude, you know; they have a word to sum up that idea, and that’s amazing to me. So I really like knowing what words mean. I like being able to use the perfect word in the perfect situation, and the use of certain words in comedy has always entertained me. Using an unexpected word, it just enhances things for me. Turns of phrase, more than anything, I really enjoy.
AVC: It seems like you are everywhere now. You have the The Pod F. Tompkast, and the American Idol recaps for New York Magazine, and you are appearing on every podcast known to man. It seems like that allows you to move into all sorts of different formats that weren’t available to comedians 10 years ago.
PFT: Yeah, podcasting is a priceless tool for comedians working today to reach new people and to be funny in a lot of different ways. You know, I appear on a lot of podcasts, and people tease me about it, but when I do my live shows I have people come up to me afterwards and say, “I first heard you on Comedy Death Ray; I first heard you on The Best Show on WFMU; I first heard you on Never Not Funny.” You know, it has an effect. And it has been great for me, because I love going on these shows. It’s always fun and it’s easy to do. My own personal podcast—whether people are turned on to mine from hearing me on other things, or whether they find it because they are already fans of mine—that’s a way that I can point to all the ways I like to be funny: Here’s prepared material; here’s some sketch stuff that I’ve written directly for this podcast, doing these crazy voices; here’s stream-of-consciousness rambling; here’s me in conversation with a friend of mine, and all for free. The idea, for me, is to provide people with a free almost-comedy album every month.
AVC: Now that you’re seemingly finding every avenue in which you can excel, do you feel like you’ve become the comedian you want to be?
PFT: I feel like I am still becoming the comedian I want to be. I feel like it’s definitely an ongoing process and that my style has evolved over the years. I’m in a different phase of my life, age-wise, but also in what my life is like now. I just celebrated my first wedding anniversary, I’m 42 years old, so I’m entering a different phase in my life for sure, and I know that I will always do stand-up comedy. So, when I’m 60, what am I going to be talking about? I have no idea. I can’t say that I’ve definitely nailed my style. For me, the idea has always been about how I can be myself onstage as much as is humanly possible, knowing that there is a certain artifice to performance.
AVC: Do you feel that you have become comfortable just being yourself onstage?
PFT: Yeah, I do. I feel like I’m doing that more than I ever have. I am comfortable and it enables me to do better work, because the more comfortable I am in my own skin, the better I will be performing in front of a large group of people.
AVC: Do you think that comfort eliminates self-doubt?
PFT: I don’t know if [self-doubt] is ever eliminated. I think that you just learn to deal with it better. With the challenges that we all routinely face, the best thing you can hope for is that you deal with it better. You can’t prevent a doubt from popping up in your mind. What matters is what you do next. You have to really turn and face your fears and ask why it’s bugging you so much and what you can do to make yourself less afraid of it. The idea is not that I will not conquer all fear, that I will become this absolutely fearless human being, this super-person. That’s just not going to happen; it’s not realistic. What you get better at, ideally, is dealing the human emotions that everyone shares.