The Paul F. Tompkins Interview: Just Under Twenty Question

Today I talk with a comedian whose work I'm especially fond of. I was a fan of his from "Best Week Ever," but after I heard an interview with him on The Sound of Young America, I went out (I mean sat at my computer) and bought his album "Impersonal." I think it's a testament to how good it is that when bits of it come up on my Ipod, I still listen and try not to laugh (because usually I'm on the bus). He also appeared as a featured player on "Mr. Show" and currently pops up on "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. Check out his MySpace page for when he's coming to perform near you, or turn on Vh1 tonight to catch "Best Week Ever".

On "Impersonal," some of the lead-ins to your jokes get laughs before you even get to the jokes themselves (i.e. "I'll tell you this for free.") Do you work on those or do you come up with them on the fly?
Kinda half-and-half, I guess. I don't necessarily plan to say those things, but once I do, sometimes they stick. I always find getting into bits to be rather awkward. I never want to have a forced-sounding set-up, like I'm gonna tie it into "life in this modern world" or some nonsense, so I will try to say something goofy or pretend-grave to start it off.

When are you going to do another CD? How do you decide which material goes on one?
I am hoping to do another CD this year. I am compiling the material now, but I have no idea when or where I'll do it. I'd love to record it outside of Los Angeles, mix it up like that, but there are logistics to be considered. And I am not a good considerer or logistics.

As far as choosing the material, I'm going in chronological order. My first CD was my earliest good stuff (nothing made it from my days in Philadelphia) and the next would follow along that path.

In an interview with the Onion you talk about how requests for bits are weird because a person is asking you to do something they've heard before but pretend like they're making it up on the spot. Why do you think that is a part of standup comedy, the illusion that the material is 100% new and fresh and honest? I admit I feel sort of disillusioned when I see a comic friend re-doing a bit I've heard before, like I've peeked behind Oz's curtain.
Well, I think it's part of stand-up because stand-up is talking. If you're doing some sort of character, where it's so performance-centric that it's almost like seeing a play, the "lack" of spontaneity can be forgiven, I suppose. But if you're just yourself, telling jokes or stories, what else can you do? My approach is, I try to find the emotion of the bit or story, get to that feeling of the first time I experienced whatever it was that I'm talking about, so I'm in a state of feeling like I'm hearing it for the first time. Of course, I know I'm not, and I'm aware of the peaks and valleys of the thing I'm performing, but I can still enjoy relating it to a new group of people. I have to enjoy doing the bit enough that I don't mind telling it multiple times, and I think that is what may make it all right for an audience to hear that bit more than once. The moment I stop enjoying the performance of a bit, it's gone. I also keep track of what material I've done every place I go and every time I go there, and I try to repeat material as little as possible.

Do you have a standard response for hecklers (the ones that you know are really heckling you and not just a little too into it?)
No, I have no standard response. Every audience is different, and that includes hecklers. I try to stay in the moment and if someone pipes up during the show, I respond to what that particular person said specifically.

Some comedian friends and I discussed once whether being a nice person offstage (in addition to just being professional) is a boon in comedy or whether it's a career in which you can really be a total 100% dick and it doesn't matter as long as you're funny and put butts in seats--do you think it makes a difference?
It doesn't make any difference. I know just as many hilarious creeps as I do hysterical decent people. The only difference is, I don't spend time hanging out with the creeps. If you're a creep, you're not working with people day in and day out, like at an office. So you can afford to be rude or unfriendly to them because you're leaving that place, you're not going to see the people you've treated poorly at "work" the next day.

I don't know if being nice is better for comedy, but I do know it's better FOR THE WORLD.

Do you get a lot of amateur comics contacting you asking you to critique their act? What do you tell them, or anyone basically, who wants input but just stinks?
I don't get a lot of that in person, but there was a time when I'd get a lot of requests to watch videos on MySpace. I have since put a blanket advice blurb on my MySpace page. There's really not much I can say, as I think it's a personal thing. I received all kinds of unsolicited advice from guys who didn't really get what I was going for-- they were giving me advice on how to be a straight-up club comic. I wanted to do well in clubs, but not at the cost of my own individuality. In the end, you learn more from trial and error than advice. And I believe you must be self-aware. You must be honest with yourself. "Could I have done anything differently?" "Did I really EARN that response?" Get into the habit of being your own harshest critic to make sure that you can sleep soundly at night.

What are your favorite towns to perform in?

Pretty much everywhere I've been, honestly. Austin, Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York, Seattle... and it's always nice to go home to Philadelphia. About the only place I had a top-to-bottom miserable time was Houston, TX. Just a five-day drag. After each show-- where people just talked and walked back and forth from the smoking- and non-smoking sections-- someone would come up to me and say, apologetically, "Please don't judge Houston by these people." After the last show I said to the person, "I don't think I can judge Houston by YOU."

What sorts of day jobs did you used to work when you supplemented your comedy career?

I always had retail jobs. I was never a waiting tables type of guy.Maybe because retail was more sedentary; you're just sitting behind a counter. Although if you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean. The worst job I ever had-- and my one departure from retail-- was telemarketing. When I first moved to Los Angeles I worked at a place that did movie surveys over the phone. It was awful. And I think the company was actually hired by the movie studios as a crude form of advertising. The surveys were merely a stalking horse-- the real goal was to say the names of the movies over and over and over again to get them in people's heads.

At Best Week Ever, do you pitch the bits that you do or is it more concepted as a group? I'm thinking (fondly) of your handy guide on the "What to Expect When You're Expecting" guide for the parakeet that belongs to a pregnant man.
The writers come up with the bits and we the panelists are given a very generous amount of leeway to interpret. That pregnant man bit, for example, was performed pretty much word for word as written, but I might tweak a phrase here or there just a little to make it fit in my mouth. Those guys have been nice to throw me those sketches. I appreciate the trust.

What have been some of your favorite TV/film gigs?

One of my all-time favorite things that I've ever done was "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist". Back in 1998? 99? Just me and Jonathan Katz in a recording studio. We just did bits for about an hour and they used my stuff in two episodes. It was just so much fun. I was flattered to be asked to do a "Dr. Katz Live" last year that was included on the box set of the series. I am still scared to watch it because I am afraid I will be crummy as a live-action performer with Jon.

When and where do you do your writing?
I am sort of writing all the time, I guess. Not that I write 24 hours a day-- I mean that when something strikes me I'll write it down. I have never been the type of comic who can sit down for a set amount of time and just WRITE. I just try to recognize inspiration as inspiration and remind msyelf that I may be angry at myself if I don't write it down NOW and later it's GONE.

What's the difference between the writing you do for your standup and the writing you'd do for yourself or others on TV?

I'm not quite sure what you mean. But I will say that obviously writing for standup is more conversational. And I don't write for anyone else these days.

I was looking through some photos of you from earlier in your career and you look svelter than on your days on, say, "DAG." What's your secret?
I decided in my late thirties to give diet and exercise a whack. It turns out they really are effective. People have asked me if losing weight was somehow a career move; the answer is no. I just got tired of being fucking fat.

Where do you purchase the clothes you perform in?
That would be telling.

One more sartorial question--what/where are your rings from?
One of them is a claddagh ring I've had since I was 19 years old. It was a gift from a girlfriend. We are still friends today! The other ring I had made for myself. The story behind this is a long one, but I took a tin ring from a Pennsylvania Turnpike gift shop and asked a jeweler if it could be made into a "real" ring. The guy peeled the sticker off the tin ring, mounted on a heavy silver base, and put a shield of glass or hard plastic over the sticker, which is a picture of the liberty bell. I don't wear that one much these days because it doesn't fit anymore. Since my weight loss/selling out.

What's the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
My girlfriend and I did a dumb picture with Mac photo booth where I pretended to creep behind her in a Dracula-like fashion as she pretended to be oblivious to my presence. It turned out so much more ridiculous than we could ever have imagined. We both laughed from the gut.

This isn't really a question but I felt compelled to paste this comment from the Onion interview with you and ask you to comment: "Cool interview, though I always hope people will ask him about the weird short film he starred in as a kid. They show it on Philly PBS from time to time, a bunch of slightly hippieish kids getting together and DIYing their own store or something."

You were right, that was not really a question.

My fiance has a gap between his teeth and objects when I try to see what can fit between them, like, say, a dime. I think he's being unreasonable. As a third party with similar dental lineage, am I in the wrong or is he?
You're entirely in the wrong. That's his MOUTH. How did he end up your fiance? He must have low self-esteem in addition to one shred of dignity.

How does it feel to be the 211th person interviewed for
Since you asked, it's a little insulting. I looked around on your site and could not find a list of interviews. I'd LOVE to know who was so fascinating that I'm number TWO HUNDRED AND ELEVEN. Hey, I'll give you the first hundred. But I'm not even in the low 120s? Come on. I'm Paul F. Tompkins.

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