Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Paul F. Tompkins: You Should Have Told Me

Illustration for article titled Paul F. Tompkins: You Should Have Told Me

Paul F. Tompkins: You Should Have Told Me debuts tonight on Comedy Central at 11 p.m. Eastern.


Paul F. Tompkins never lacks for targets, mostly because he's brilliant at making them up. He demonstrated this in a classic bit on "migrant worker fantasy camps" on his 2007 album, Impersonal. His new Comedy Central stand-up special, You Should Have Told Me, turns to one of comedy's most wide-open punching bags: Your own younger, drunker, and generally less presentable self. The title comes from an anecdote about throwing up in a cab. Yet on the whole, the set of "Paul F. Tompkins-based humor" (recorded last summer at the Laughing Skull Lounge in Midtown Atlanta's Vortex bar) takes a subdued turn away from Impersonal and its 2009 follow-up, Freak Wharf. He sheds the impossibly smug jackass persona who recorded those two albums, leaves his amazing cartoon-gangland suits at the dry-cleaner, and works a small stage that doesn't give him much room to swagger. In a relatively mellow blue-and-grey ensemble, Tompkins opens with a bit about turning 40—"It's the first age where you kinda have to be, like, a person"—and searching for his first house.

He still spirals into grand fits of (mostly self-) caricature. Confronted with a house too expensive for him, he feigns some oozing, old-money snobbery: "$1.4 million, eh? What's wrong with it?… Well, I have been looking for some place to store my extra spats, so, uh, tell me, do you accept gold?" Even that puking-on-a-cabbie business comes with a touch of class. Marveling that the driver kept going after Tompkins' abrupt spew, Tompkins insists he wouldn't have done the same: "When you vomit on me, our business is concluded," he says with a tip of an imaginary hat.

Nope, this is not the same man who once launched into a blustery takedown of Sesame Street's Spanish lessons. What he gives up in wacky punch, he tries to replace with storytelling. In a more recent party disaster (he hasn't grown up too much, after all), he recounts getting extremely high and obsessing over the schlocky Anne Murray love ballad "You Needed Me." He wraps this one up on a masterfully creepy note: "I realized, I am getting more out of this song than an actual Anne Murray fan would get out of it…. 'You don't even get it! [Commence menacing whisper] I've been inside that song.'"

I wasn't sold on the promise of this approach until Tompkins' slowly considered monologue—deliberately not one of his wild dart-flurries—about his mother's death and funeral. At least, I never expected Tompkins to be cathartic, exactly, even though he's one of my favorite stand-ups. Tompkins sets up the horrible, semi-public ritual of mourning—"It's like you become a politician"—then takes his revenge. At the funeral, Tompkins and his comedian friends decided the worst thing to say to people who come up and say tell you they're sorry for your loss is, "Not as sorry as I am." (And yes, he does recount drunkenly pulling that one on a funeral guest.) The surrounding story about letting his mother go (and about his mother letting religion go) doesn't spare anyone or brutalize anyone. There's something amazing about the way Tompkins took on smashed souvenir pennies (on Freak Wharf), but spending 10-plus minutes on the mundane circumstances of his mom's death is clearly a greater challenge. The more human, vulnerable Tompkins doesn't quite beat the faux-arrogant one, but it'll catch up soon enough.

Stray observations:

  • "Once I get my $200, I am outta here like Steve Martin!"
  • Tompkins chose a good spot for a more personal, subtle show: The Laughing Skull is pretty small (just over 70 seats), and you walk through a bar and down a hallway past the bathrooms to get there.
  • The publicity materials for this show make it sound more drinking-centric than it really is.
  • Both Tompkins and Maria Bamford have quick little riffs about atheism now. Bamford wonders whether atheists can have evangelical-style talk shows, while Tompkins says he's "filled with the fire of nothing."
  • "Oh yes, you have found me out, good neighbor! Yes, I, too, have soiled my clothes in the course of daily life! Oh, I would wear them to disgusting rags if I could, but society demands that I run water through them every three days!"