Paul F. Tompkins—“the famous comedian”, as his website will tell you—has gained renown for all sorts of comedy-related activities. A hero to comedy geeks everywhere, the distinguished Mr. Tompkins has also had small roles in The Informant! and Magnolia, among other flicks, and was a featured player and writer on the legendary sketch series Mr. Show. But it’s as a standup comic that he really shines.
Tompkins’s unique talents (his riffing is in a league of its own) are highlighted on numerous podcasts throughout the vast Interweb. The do-it-yourself medium is possibly reaching its saturation point with the dizzying number of shows available, but a reliable way of whittling down the choices is to search for any episode on which Tompkins guests. You won’t go wrong. The man is the consummate comic: he not only says funny things, he says things funny.
It’s just too bad podcasts don’t pay. If they did, “I’d be a billionaire,” Tompkins says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.
He’s even started a monthly podcast of his own, the Pod F. Tompkast. Tompkins junkies can’t get a weekly fix, but that’s because he cares too much.
“I put mine out monthly because there’s a lot of production that’s involved,” the Philadelphia native says. “The kind of default podcast model is three guys sitting around talking. And as delightful as that is, it’s very easy to do. Most of these podcasts like that don’t even have any editing to speak of. It’s sort of like they press Record and then they press Stop and that’s it.”
A large chunk of each Tompkast consists of the host talking gently off-the-cuff while a new-agey piano tinkles in the background. He not only greatly amuses the listener, he greatly amuses himself. Of course, everyone on the Net is a critic. Some of those new to the Tompkins oeuvre find his self-induced giggles annoying, but he has an explanation.
“I’m sure it sounds wildly self-indulgent and narcissistic,” he says, “but the fact of the matter is I do think I’m a funny person. And the way comedy starts with comedians is first it makes the comedian laugh internally and then the comedian shares it with an audience. That’s how comedy works. And the reason I laugh at myself is that I did not know I was going to say that stuff. It’s entirely stream-of-consciousness, so I am hearing it at the same moment the audience is hearing it. The thing that would make me chuckle inside is now making me chuckle outside because I’m saying it out loud. I realize this sounds very defensive, but it is something that people do take me to task for. But I’m sorry, I can’t help it.”
It’s not his Tompkast, though, that he’ll be doing when he visits Vancouver this weekend; it’s his standup, which is part of the “Tompkins 300” series. If anyone anywhere starts a Facebook page saying they want Paul F. Tompkins to appear in their town, provided they’re able to get 300 people onboard, he’ll hop a plane and do a show there.
Sounds simple. It’s actually a bit more complicated. Unlike the comedy-club model, in which a venue brings in acts, puts them up, provides a crowd, does publicity, and hands them cheques, this model is more labour-intensive. But the pros outweigh the cons, Tompkins says.
“It’s more work on the logistical end, but it’s a lot less work on the performance end. And it’s so much more enjoyable,” he says. “The shows have been my favourite shows that I’ve ever done. Having the crowd all there for the same purpose and not having to deal with selling food and stuff like that has just been tremendous.”
There are no bachelorette parties wanting to get drunk and see anonymous comedy. No wait staff coming around taking orders. And it’s him alone on-stage, sans opener. He says he always aims for a one-hour show but frequently goes long. The man likes to talk.
Known for his elevated, Damon Runyon–esque language and sartorial elegance, the 42-year-old Tompkins cuts a distinct figure in the alternative-comedy scene, populated as it is by dressed-down slackers referring to their notes. But it all fits, especially for a guy with a middle initial.
“I’ve used the middle initial since before I got into show business,” he says. “I always wore a suit and tie on-stage, and the manner in which I speak has always been amusing to me.”
He recently transformed his act, moving from topics such as cake versus pie, jazz, and the Irish potato famine to more personal subject matter.
“I like people and I like conversation,” he says. “So when there’s a comedian that does that sort of material, I find that way more interesting than just jokes. Jokes ultimately leave me cold because they are constructs. It’s about precision and it’s about craftsmanship as opposed to emotion, and I’m just much more interested in people that are about the emotion.”
Don’t get him wrong, though. You won’t shed a tear. Except maybe in laughter.
Paul F. Tompkins performs at the Rio Theatre on Saturday (November 13).