While some viewers of Vh1’s “Best Week Ever” might consider Paul F. Tompkins to be just another talking head on cable television, true fans of his work know Tompkins as an accomplished comedic actor who has also been crafting his stand up comedy over the past twenty-one years. It was during his work in the late 90s with the ground breaking sketch comedy program “Mr. Show” that Tompkins’ fan base really took shape, and where he earned most core fans of his current stand up comedy. Tompkins’ first comedy album, Impersonal, was released this past June via A Special Thing Records, and was recorded in April 2007 on Tompkins’ home turf at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles. Impersonal consists of fifteen individually mixed tracks that foster a classic “comedy album” vibe often lacking in the decadent CD/DVD comedy combos of today. While many folks spent this past July 7 either attending or watching the Live Earth benefit concerts, I was fortunate enough to get Paul to open up on the phone for a few minutes about where he spent his Fourth of July, his admiration and friendship with The Kids In The Hall, and why he chose to format his comedy album in such a classic throwback fashion.
Paul F. Tompkins: Hello?
Hey, is this Paul?
Yes it is.
Hey Paul, its Gordon from IMPOSE Magazine.
Hey Gordon, how are you doing?
I’m alright, is this good right now?
This is perfect!
Right on, just to give you a heads up, we are recording.
Okay, thank you.
So where did you spend your fourth?
I was in Charleston, South Carolina with my girlfriend; her family lives there. We went last year for the first time, for the Fourth of July, and I kind of fell in love with it. So we went back this year.
What was so special about it? What drew you back aside from visiting relatives?
She grew up on this island called Sullivan’s Island, and [she] grew up going to the beach all the time, and I love the beach so we spent a lot of time there. It was just very calm and relaxing and really great to get peace of mind, and the people are very nice. It was just really great.
As far as actual festivities, were there any particular highlights for you?
Just a lot of down time. It was us hanging out with the family and just taking everything easy. I mean, we went out to dinner a couple of times, but the only big festivity was the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Which were great, I am a huge fireworks fan. They put on a good show, the Sullivan Island fire station does.
You’ll be performing in San Francisco soon, did you read about this 17-year old female drummer for a bay area punk band that got her hand blown apart by some rouge M-80 during a Fourth of July shindig in Dolores Park?
Oh, that’s horrible. Shit.
Yeah, that’s a bummer.
Total. Thanks for bringing it up.
Well, I like to start off on a sour note.
And then the interview gets better and better.
Exactly. So are you watching Live Earth today?
Oh God no. (laughing) Look, I’m only trying to do my part to be eco-friendly, do I have to watch that awful concert too?
It is a global event, and it will unfortunately be the backdrop for this interview.
First thing I did this morning was turn on the news to see if any shit had hit the fan while I was sleeping, and instead of news, all the 24-hour news stations were covering Live Earth.
I, honest to God, did not even realize that it was today. I think I just heard about, I was sort of dimly aware of references to it, and then I just recently read that it was happening at all. I think I saw some countdown on Carson Daly. They had a little taped piece where Carson was talking to the guy who organized it, or some scientist, or something? Shows how much I was paying attention; “it was the guy who organized it, or some scientist?” They were comparing it to Live Aid and blah, blah-blah, blah blah.
I will admit to liking that Rihanna gal, with the “Umbrella” song. I don’t know if you’ve heard it recently?
I have not!
She’s singing about some umbrella, and it’s kinda catchy, plus she’s pretty hot.
Well, what is it Gordon? Is it kinda catchy or is she pretty hot?
She’s pretty damn hot, and it’s a good song; you get the best of both worlds, like Van Halen. But I wanna talk about your album. This just came out in June correct?
Yeah it did. June 12 it “dropped.”
And all this material is supposed to be your “impersonal” stand up material, the stuff you first started doing when you got really sharp at performing stand up?
Yeah I would say, when I actually started to get good, not when I thought I was good. In the mid 90s, when I moved to Los Angeles, I had been inspired by the culture and the scene out here and I just kind of upped my game. My writing just got better and I began to get, still more focused on what I was doing, to a point where today I feel like I’m much more focused and clearer about my comedy.
Just for the record, how long have you been doing stand up?
Oh yeah, it’s been 21 years. July 9th 1986, I was a month out of high school, and me and a friend of mine who was a bit older, and he’d gone to college in Arizona and he had started stand up, he came back to Philadelphia, and asked me if I wanted to get an act together, and that was it. We did a two man thing for about a year and half I think, and then we split up and I kept at it. I loved it so much.
Did you know right away that you wanted to be a comic and performer, or did you want to be a writer, and stand up is a good way for writers to get started?
Oh no, I hate writing, I never wanted to be a writer. I still hate that aspect of it, it sucks. Like I love creating my own comedy and everything but I… uggh, I hate writing. It is work. Writing with other people is a lot of fun, but just staring at a blank computer screen by yourself is a fucking drag. I always loved performing, since I was a little kid, when I saw comics on talk shows and any kind of comedy, any kind of sketch comedy or sitcom, I just loved that so much. I always wanted to be in front of the camera.
When I first listened to Impersonal all the way through, it reminded me a lot of Kids The Hall and stuff like that.
Yeah I think that stuff is very influenced by sketch. When I was a kid I loved Monty Python and SCTV and SNL to a lesser degree. I mean SNL has gone through so many changes that depending on how old I was when I was watching that show; certainly I think I sort of came of age during the Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo years. That stuff I thought was funny I may not think is as funny now. But definitely stuff like Python and SCTV. I remember being so excited when I was still in Philly, by “The Ben Stiller Show”, which seemed like the next step from SCTV; like an updating of that, and then “The Kids in The Hall” just blew me away.
So you were a fan of the Stiller show, and then eventually some years down the road you end up working with those exact people. Did that trip you out, or did you approach it with the swagger of “this is supposed to be happening.”
Yeah, kind of both. Not like a sort of entitlement, like “I deserve to be here.” This was what I was trying to make happen. This was a goal. This is the kind of world I wanted to be in and I can’t believe it’s actually happening. There are still moments where I have a sort of moment of clarity about things like that. Like Dave Foley is a friend of mine. Me and my girlfriend and he and his wife hang out and do things. Every once in awhile I remember what it was like being in Philadelphia, and doing stand up and not really knocking my head against the wall but having that impatience to be great. Like, I have it in me and how can I get it out; it’s so funny to me – how can I make people see the things that I see, and not really having the skills yet to do it the way that I want to do it. And seeing someone like “The Kids in The Hall”, and thinking, “Wow this is something that’s new, in a forum that’s very tried and old and seemingly played out, and here’s a bunch of guys that have managed to do something new with it that’s really, really funny.” I still remember that feeling of real excitement, and then knowing those guys and hanging out with those guys. It’s amazing; yeah I still get excited about it.
Going back to your writing for a moment, the way Impersonal is formatted, each track is an individual track, it’s not one straight live show. Why?
Yeah I wanted to do it that way, because it was like the comedy albums that I remember from when I was a kid. And those are albums that pre-date me. This is stuff my parents had like, Bob Newhart or Bill Cosby albums. They clearly were from “an evening” with those guys, but would kind of fade up and fade out; like little tracks, like a music album. That was kind of the way I wanted to do it. I also wanted people to (laughing) this is a little O.C.D of me but I wanted people, if they wanted to have a particular track, to not have that jarring cut-off of the applause or laughter. It fades up and fades down, so if you were going to throw that on some mix CD you’re making you don’t have that jarring applause end, which I always hated with live albums.
That’s very considerate of you.
I do what I can. That’s why I don’t have to watch “Earth Aid” or whatever the fuck it’s called?
Your album was recorded at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in LA. How many people does that place hold?
Man, I am so bad at questions like that, I will say that it probably holds, comfortably about one hundred people, and then uncomfortably maybe a hundred and fifty to two hundred.
Thank you for that.
I’m sure I’m wrong, I’m sure I’ll get laughed at by the people who run the theatre.
Credible sources know better. Do you ever get heckled much when performing around LA? I’m sure the UCB crowds are not heckling audiences.
That would have been kind of awesome I have to say. If I had announced that I was recording my album and people heckled. That would have been incredible! It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it, hecklers never go away. The only way you increase your protection against hecklers is becoming more well known, so that the majority if not all of the people are there to see you. So the likelihood of them heckling are very slim. But now I’m at the point where I don’t get so many hecklers as I do get people that are just talking a little too loudly during the show, but as far as somebody yelling out “You suck!”–the classic “you suck” heckler–it hasn’t happened in awhile.
It doesn’t seem like you’re a road comic that’s all over America in different clubs every night. Is it safe to say you play to very specific audiences?
Yeah, that’s true.
So how do you handle hecklers when it does happen?
I’ve been heckled many times, when I was younger, when I was new to comedy I handled it by trying to shut the person down immediately and fucking go for the jugular and really make an example of them. Then as I got older I realized, well let’s explore what’s going on here and see what this person is all about? Because maybe it’s not what I think it is, or the nicer I appear the more the audience is going to be on my side. That’s the best thing you can do like, “Hey, I gave the guy a chance, I tried to be nice and he’s still an asshole.” So then when I do have to get a little less nice a little less polite everybody understands.
So you actually will take a detour instead of ignoring the heckler?
Oh, you can’t ignore it. That would be… it’s crazy. If somebody’s just talking a little loud, you can ignore that up to a point, but when it’s so distracting to you, you have to get them to shut up.
Would you say you have another album of Impersonal material before you release an album of “Personal” subject matter?
I would say the next one would be kind of a transitional album. Where I start to expand on the material a little more and it becomes less about the concepts and more about stories.
When did you become aware of A Special Thing?
I only became aware of it I think, in the last two years?
From your point of view, what is it like being an artist on a record label that is on off shoot of a message board?
It’s kind of strange, but the strength of it is that these are people that really care about comedy. So they’re not going to be able to at this point, get [the album] into every store, but it’s in Amoeba Records, and it’s online where people buy shit anyways, and it’s on iTunes. It’s still out there and I can still sell it at shows and I have the pleasure of dealing with people that I consider to be friends and colleagues who care as much as I do about the CD. It’s not just product to them. We all like the album.
It seems like a lot of the people that posts messages on that board are die hard fans of comedy and they like to talk a lot of shit. There are a lot of cyber arguments going on over comedy-related stuff.
When you see those arguments… first of all there are two things at play: the computer and email and message board posts are one of the poorest forms of communication because you can’t hear the person’s voice. It’s hard enough just with the tools at your disposal with italics and bold face and stuff; things like that. When you’re just kind of dashing something off that you think may be funny, or is sort of sarcastic or whatever, and then people write back, “Fuck You” it’s because nothing beats the human voice and seeing somebody’s face and understanding where they’re coming from. So a lot of those arguments… when I do read some of the threads, I will see arguments that start up and a lot of them are diffused with someone saying, “No, no I was kidding around!” it happens a lot, because you’re just reading these words on a screen and you just don’t know all the time what people’s intentions are. Another thing that comes into play is the anonymity of the internet. Even though these people are a defined group, and there are a number of people who are the core posters on any message board, they’re still using screen names, they’re still going by those hazy rules of the internet. No politeness was ever established for the internet; no rules of etiquette. In fact it’s the opposite; it’s that on the internet you can say whatever you want about anyone at any time. Every once and awhile you have people, I think to their credit, on these boards apologizing or saying, “I’m so sorry if you didn’t understand what I was trying to say. I was kidding around and didn’t mean for you take it so personally or hurt your feelings.” But that’s why it’s a faulty form of communication, because there are some people who love the anonymity so they can talk shit, and there are some people who are nice folks that are not understood because they don’t know how to make something underlined.
From what I’ve gathered you can see that the people posting are devout fans and they will go to extreme lengths to prove a post with an opposing point of view wrong with various hyperlinks and .jpegs.
Do you ever check your own thread to see if there’s any chatter going…
Noooo. No, no, no. I used to do that, I think before I liked myself as much as I do now. I think I used to Google my name; search out things the people were saying about me. I told myself that it would make me feel good about myself; that I was looking for people saying nice things about me. But then I had a revelation, it’s because I want to feel worse about myself. I feel bad about myself and I’m looking for confirmation that I’m a no-talent loser. You can find it; you don’t have to look that hard. You will find people that don’t like you. So yeah, I don’t check; like not on the message board on AST, I very seldom read any thread that might contain any reference to me, because I also feel like it sort of taints the experiment. There’s a lot comics on that board now and it didn’t used to be that way, and I think in a way it sort of sucks for the people that really love posting on that board because, you don’t want to feel that I can’t give my honest opinion about this because the guy that I am talking about is on this board.
I honestly don’t want people to feel that way, and I realized the burden is on me to not read it. I was reading this thread that was about my last Comedy Central special, and people were saying nice things, and there was one comment that says, “Hey I dunno about you guys, I didn’t think it was that good.” And then I stopped reading it. I realized, “I’m not going to torture myself and I’m also not going to make people feel that they can’t criticize what I do because of course they can.”
In your opinion, is there any difference between the alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles and New York?
It’s the same, it’s very similar. I would go so far as to say that the mainstream comedy scene in New York and LA are pretty much the same; and the alternative comedy scene in New York and LA are pretty much the same. You’re talking about sensibilities that transcend zip codes. It’s a personal taste kind of thing. The shows I would watch in New York are the same kinds of shows I would work in LA.
With regards to the comedy clubs in LA; do you perform at the Improv?
I’ve done the Improv, I don’t really do it anymore. I kind of got burned by them one time, and I was put in a bad position by them and I didn’t like it. I try to avoid doing the Improv.
What about the Laugh Factory and Comedy Store?
Man, I’ve performed at both of them for benefits only. It’s a whole different vibe at those clubs and it’s not one that I’m into. Those clubs are party clubs, those are clubs where there’s a more aggressive edge to it and it is more about high energy for the performer and the audience. That’s not really my speed, that’s why I prefer Largo or the UCB. I remember when I first moved to Los Angeles I went to the Improv I think my second night here or something? It was like a bad night or something and I saw some bad comedy, and I thought, “I don’t want to start all over again here if this is what the comedy is like.” So I didn’t do stand up for a few months, that’s when I got into sketch and stuff like that.
When is Paul F. Tompkins going to have the best week ever?
(laughing) Man, I think a better question is, “When is Paul F. Tompkins NOT going to have the best week ever?” It’s a really fun show to do; I like all the people in LA and New York. Right now this is a bad time because of Paris Hilton , Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. I am so fucking sick of talking about them and to compound that, sometimes I do these interviews on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”, about the same thing. Like the sort of lighter side of thing at the end of the show, and its celebrity news because of the “Best Week Ever” connection. I feel like I know Paris Hilton and I hate her now. She’s completely a creation of gossip media and has no discernible talents, and by most accounts seems to be kind of an unpleasant person. It’s not just the media’s fault; people want to talk about her, people like talking about her. It’s everybody’s fault.
Have you ever considered putting a suggestion in the Vh1 suggestion box?
We need to make more suggestions in the Vh1 suggestion box.
And finally, does Paul F. Tompkins have a message for the children?
Oh man, oh man. My message to all the children is get good about money right now. Learn how to manage your finances, put some money away. Make sure you’re good at it.