In the world of music, a behind-the-scenes look is quite common. Whether it's in the form of a studio video, social media update, or released demo, music listeners have a general idea of what a band or artist is going through in the weeks, months, and years leading up to a new album. That type of peek behind the curtain is far, far less frequent in the world of stand-up comedy--or at least it was. With my new weekly (for now) column Behind The Bits, I'm going to be speaking with some wonderful comedians to get a glimpse into their process, see where they draw their inspiration, and hopefully get a little background on great jokes they themselves have written.
I couldn't really be starting this off with much more of a bang. In 2013, when a person thinks of either stand-up comedy or the world of podcasting, few names come to mind quicker than Paul F. Tompkins. Tompkins is a man with his hands in so many projects, you'd think he has 30 hours in his day. He worked hard to reach the echelon he's in, however; with over 25 years in the industry, he's personally seen the rise and fall (and rise) of US stand-up and then some. I was lucky enough to speak with Paul in depth about various highlights of his career, and the end result was greater than I could've ever hoped. Read on for part 1 of our chat.
**Note: The interviews in this column contain references to jokes, albums, and other comedians that may only be known or recognized by those with more than a cursory knowledge of comedy. When things veer into lesser-known territory, I will try my best to link to the appropriate materials.**
Alright, letís get started. I am here with Paul F. Tompkins. Paul, how are you doing today?
Iím very well, Cody, how are you?
Iím great, canít complain! Very excited to do this. I want to jump right into things here, because thereís a ton I want to ask you. You released your most recent special, Laboring Under Delusions, last year, and I found that record doubly impressive, because it plays sort of like a detailed audio resumť; itís a themed hour of your career highlights to date. At what point did it hit you that youíve had enough misadventures to put them all in the same hour?
Oh, boy, I donít know! I think it was when I was doing the hour previous to that, and I was sort of looking ahead, and that hour, which is entitled You Should Have Told Me, was kind of thematic, or it felt kind of thematic to me, and so I was looking for more stories to tell, and by plumbing the depths of my own life, I realized that I had all these stories that happened to be focused on the same topic.
On that record, you openly describe your shortcomings as a college student, and also the personal stress you were battling amidst the format changes on your show Best Week Ever. Those two stand out to me, because theyíre in a very small handful of your bits that deal strongly with self-deprecation. Was mining that for humor difficult for you at all?
No, I feel, for me, that was the way into all of those stories, trying to figure out what my emotional reaction was to what was going on around me. [laughs] Really, all of those stories are about me being humiliated in one way or another. And I felt like anybody whoís had any kind of job can relate to that anxiety.
Yeah, because the overarching theme of it all is essentially ĎHow can I avoid being yelled at in the workforce over the course of my entire life?í and I think who hasnít thought that?
[laughs] Right, yes.
So while you have that through line taking up nearly all of the record, each of your last two CDs have opened up with a trio of what are called ĎRiff Suitesí in the track listing. Is that pre-material banter with the crowd a conscious choice to help loosen you and the audience up or is it something you donít really control anymore?
The former is exactly what it is. I heard about this comedian named Frank Skinner, heís a British comedian, and he used to do these theater shows where he would come out for a good 15-20 minutes and just kind of bullshit with the crowd, and then there would be a short intermission, and then he would come back and he was essentially warming the crowd up for himself. He was doing some off-the-cuff comedy, which people enjoy, but not burning through any of the material he was going to do later, and it not only sounded smart to me, but it also sounded like a lot of fun. And I really like to riff during my shows, and itís certainly a thing that I learned to do when I did the crowd warm-up for the tapings of Mr. Show with Bob and David a million years ago, you know, and so that really helped me develop that muscle for becoming extemporaneous and in the moment. And certainly through podcasting as well, where you have to be quick and thereís a lot of banter going on, that was another thing that I was just in the habit of doing, and so it became a really enjoyable part of the show for me.
Yeah, theyíre the perfect openings for the rest of the album, and actually, itís funny you brought it up the way you did, because Iím pretty sure [Jimmy] Pardo does that same thing for Conan, all the late-night people have that warm-up comic, so it definitely seems to help.
So you have those on your last two records, but your first CD, Impersonal, is kind of a far cry from the ones that came next, because it holds less of an emphasis on storytelling and more on shorter, isolated bits. It works just as well, that album I still love, but was there anything specific that prompted the slight change in your stand-up style?
It was a very gradual thing, it was not necessarily a specific thing. I think itís a function of becoming more comfortable on stage. You will notice beginning comics, in their first year or two of comedy, they will not really explore topics that much. They will get one laugh and they move onto the next thing, because theyíre nervous theyíre not going to get any laughs, so when they get one, theyíre not going to risk--
Itís just like at a casino. You donít want to press your luck.
Yeah, exactly. So beginning comics tend to move on immediately. Then they get more comfortable, and they start to explore stuff some more. For me, Iíd been doing stand-up in Philadelphia for eight years before I moved to Los Angeles, and it essentially meant starting all over again with new material. So after the move, I was definitely in a place where I was doing much more conceptual stuff, and yeah, thatís just where I was creatively, doing more absurdist bits. Then that sort of evolved more into the material being focused on my perspective, which you can see on [Tompkinsí second album] Freak Wharf, and then by the time of my third hour, itís definitely really about my life and drawing from my own personal experiences.
Speaking of personal experience, one of my favorite bits of yours comes off, I believe itís the You Should Have Told Me DVD, and itís the one that chronicles the loss of your mother and her loss of faith towards the end of her life. It hits really hard because not only did you keep it very funny, but you perfectly conveyed her and the relationship that you had with her simultaneously. Did you feel like an emotional core can make humor more powerful?
Well, first of all, thank you very much for saying that, that is great to hear, because with material like that which is very personal, one certainly hopes to make that connection. What I learned from doing that hour was that it was possible to make a deep connection with the audience emotionally, but still make them laugh, and in fact, it actually enhances everything. Doing that material, people know how I feel. People know exactly what I mean, theyíve had this experience with this deep subject matter. One of the things I would always worry about is Ďokay, Iím going to talk about one of my parents dying, and I know thatís going to make some people upset whose parents arenít dead,í because you know, you get to a certain age and you start thinking about it. Your parents, unfortunately, are not getting any younger, and they do not become any less...[laughs] decrepit over time. Itís just something you think about more and more the older you get. I didnít want to bum anybody out, though, so my task was to connect with those people too, and part of that was in the way I presented that material. ĎHey, this is a sad thing, but I am dealing with it as everyone will deal with it, and itís just a part of life.í It all seemed to work out in the end. I didnít have anyone coming up to me saying ĎI wish you hadnít talked about that.í
A story like that has a pretty good chance at splitting the audience though, because people deal with loss in very, very different ways. Did you ever worry that too many people wouldnít find the humor in it, and you might lose the crowd at that point?
Um, early on, yeah, when I first started doing it, and then I realized, and this happens with all material, you just have to work on it and work on it and hone it until you feel you are communicating your idea in a way that makes sense to the audience. Youíre expressing it in the way you want and also in a way that everyone can understand...which is really the trick for all comedy, you know. It begins with a concept or an idea in your head, and you have to get it to the point where it makes sense to other people and theyíll enjoy it on the same level that you enjoy it. Early on, though, yeah, it was a fear and then after I realized that Iíd gotten it down, that it was making sense to others, I became more comfortable.
You bring up a very good point as far as keeping things universal. You have managed to keep an immense level of relatability and observation throughout all of your work. Have you ever wondered Ďoh, is this a unique enough perspective or viewpoint on this topic to justify moving forward with it?í
You know, I actually worry about the opposite. If Iím talking about my experiences working on a movie, I have to keep in mind ĎOh, is this something that people are going to find funny outside of Los Angeles?í And thatís where the emotional component comes in, is that you donít have to be in show business to understand what Iím talking about because the story is not ĎI was around this famous person,í the story is ĎI felt like I didnít belong, I felt like somebody was going to tell me to leave, I was uncomfortable, I was awkward,í and thatís something everybody but the most seasoned sociopaths can relate to.
Itís not the fact that you acted with Daniel Day-Lewis, thatís not the point of the story. Itís trying to hit on that broader theme of not feeling like you fit in somewhere.
Going off that feeling of not belonging, you also go quite in-depth about Matt Damon and the period of time in which you thought he was not from Earth. That bit is another thatís always stuck out to me because it just sounds so tailor-made to be told on a stage. Do you find yourself having moments like that often? Where something is happening, and in your head, youíre going ĎOh my god, this is material I can use?í
Oh, absolutely. I mean, that does sometimes occur, but itís kind of a drag when that does happen, because it sort of means youíre not...[laughs] living your life.
Yeah, youíre too busy thinking ĎMan, this is going to be funny one day!í
Yeah, itís better to experience whatís happening so that you can get something out of it later, try and relate people to it on stage.
So then if they don't present themselves like that, do you ever find yourself in the middle of one of the aforementioned riff suites, notice that something is hitting a little harder than all the other adlibbed material, and then try and make a point to work it into your actual act in the future?
For the answer to this question as well as much, much more from my talk with Paul, come back next Wednesday for Part 2 of our chat, which covers such topics as Matt Damon, Van Helsing and his introduction to the podcast world. Also, keep an eye out every Wednesday for new installments of Behind The Bits.