Paul F. Tompkins is a man of many hats, but as I meet him backstage at the Riot LA comedy festival, he happens to be wearing a dapper bowler. Tompkins is a legendary comedian who you’ll recognize from comedy classics Mr. Show With Bob And David, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and the current Netflix hit Bojack Horseman. He’s also a podcasting champ, running the successful Spontaneanation show in his spare time. He’s also the host of No, You Shut Up!, a political talk show that features talking puppets and some seriously impressive guests, and whose fourth season premiered last week on Fusion. [These reasons to watch No, You Shut Up! are from last year, but still valid.—Ed.] He graciously sat down with me to discuss politics, journalism and dismantling traditional television structures.
Paste: Before I watched No, You Shut Up! I expected it to be a typical comedy talk show, but I realized it was more about making fun of the social conventions of those types of shows. Where does that idea come from?
Paul F. Tompkins: The basic tenet of satire is you’re taking on the high and the mighty and you’re trying to stick a pin in these self-important people, the people that have the power. You come to realize that the media has so much power and it’s a big question as to how responsibly they are using that power. A constant thing for us in the modern landscape is how desperate everyone is for viral content and how they want all this digital stuff to succeed and it is a mandate for us to do well digitally and make all this digital content. It just started creeping into what we were doing to make fun of the desperation that everyone has to succeed somehow in the digital world. That became a real runner for us.
The most hubristic thing in modern media is the directive to make a viral video. It’s like your aunt saying that, you know what I mean? It’s impossible to do that. And the idea of trying to predict what’s going to be viral—“if we have these elements, that has a lot of virality to it!”—we wanted to get out ahead of the idea of how sad that is. To be like, “we’re going to make a viral video here! This is going to go so viral! We’re going to get so many hits!” That is never far from our thoughts.
Paste: Did you always want it to follow a talk show format?
PFT: It’s based on Meet the Press. It’s the Sunday morning news shows. It’s the self-importance of these shows. A thing that kills me, in the old days of Meet the Press it would be one senator and four reporters and now it’s four senators, one reporter, then the senators go away and the reporter talks with other reporters about what just happened. In terms of accountability and holding people’s feet to the fire and everything, they’ve just given up. It’s just the idea of really challenging these people who are in positions of power because you don’t want to offend them because then they won’t come onto your show and then you won’t get ratings so Meet the Press is now this thing where people go on, they say their talking points, and then they’re excused, and then the reporters talk amongst themselves like “what do you think about what they said”—“I don’t know because before they said this other thing.”
I feel like the typical Meet the Press follow-up question is “now, really?” and the senator will say “yes really” and they say “well okay, I’ve done due diligence on that point.” The idea is they’re getting them on the record and then you can decide and do the research yourself. David Gregory said that at one point: the viewers are welcome to do their own research. And it’s like, what do we have you for? The average viewer isn’t supposed to say, “I wonder if he is on the record as saying something else somewhere, I better go look it up.” We like to, on our show, just make fun of the idea of the news media itself at any turn we can and point out the absurdity especially with having literal puppets on our show. We try to make it as silly as possible.
Paste: There’s definitely a social message you want to convey—we should be more distrusting of the media and the media should be more distrusting of the people they’re promoting.
PFT: We deserve a better media. It’s this wide open world now where literally anybody can be a reporter and you can go anywhere with your camera phone and go to a press conference or find a rally and shout a question at a politician… that’s not the same as having trained reporters allowed to ask tough questions without fear of reprisal from government agencies saying “well you don’t have access to this person anymore.” That’s horrible. You’re right around the corner from an actual honest-to-God Big Brother state at that point, you know? And that’s a thing we need to be aware of and talking about all the time.
Paste: How did Fusion feel when you brought the idea to them?
PFT: I was hired after the idea was already in place. It was David Javerbaum who was a producer on The Daily Show for many years who pitched this idea to Fusion and then asked me to be the host and they were on board. The network has been great in wanting to do different things, strange things, and letting us do whatever we want. They’ve been incredibly supportive of this show and our ideas and I think they recognize that they were a new outlet in a very saturated media market and internet landscape. It’s hard to find stuff, you know what I mean? There’s so much out there, there’s so much competition, that I think they recognized early on, “well we got to entertain ideas that seem crazy and give them room to grow.” It was a huge shot in the arm for us when we went from a fifteen minute show to a half hour show, when we kept getting picked up—that kind of faith from a network is very hard to come by and it’s huge for us.
Paste: Because Fusion is more alternative and independent, they’re probably more embracing than a bigger network might be. Moreso than any other big comedian right now, you’re all about being independent and alternative while at the same time you appeal to the mainstream. Do you prefer one over the other?
PFT: I grew up in an age of classic showbiz models that are being changed right now. I have a deep affection for that and I think that’s where my skill set was formed. However I am a modern person and I embrace new technology and new platforms. I think it’s good. I remember when Twitter first started there were people that I knew, established comedians, who were like “I don’t have time for that.” That’s not what it’s about—you shouldn’t shy away from these things, like “I don’t want to give material away for free.” They couldn’t see the practical applications of it and how it could help what you were doing. I love new technology; I love the different things that come along. I’ve always enjoyed seeing what stays and what doesn’t stay.
I remember when Meerkat came out and that was the new thing and instantly Periscope knocked it away. That stuff is always fascinating to me. I never dismiss anything out of hand because you never know where it could lead, what applications it could have. Certainly, Twitter is still an amazing example of a thing that seemed like just a dumb, cute thing at first and then has had wide-ranging applications. With each new technology, there’s attention paid to “what’s going to be this platform’s impact on the world, in terms of how we do things, how we get news out there, how we relate to each other?” You just gotta be aware of that stuff.
Paste: It’s great that you embrace different platforms. The show feels like so much a product of digital sketches, Twitter, and that comedic sensibility. In trying to reach more people, is there a way you see the show evolving in the future?
PFT: One of the things we’re doing is we’ve added another human being to our show, a young comedian named Rhea Butcher, a terrifically talented person who’s going to be our first field correspondent. We’re trying to do more digital stuff, just fun things we can do in the office when we’re not on set to maximize all the stuff we have at our disposal. It’s a fun office to work in and we’re all right in the same place so the idea is hey, let’s write a thing we can throw together and put out there and always be making something, and also take advantage of the topicality aspect of the show to say hey, we just learned about this thing—let’s turn the idea around as quickly as we possibly can and get it out there so we can compete with other shows that have the virtue of a much bigger staff and many more resources than we have. We’re like this little tiny thing, a little engine, and hopefully we can. We’re doing what we can. It’s a fun challenge—it would be great if it gets less challenging but for now we’re absolutely embracing it.
Paste: Are there any big political guests you’d like to have on the show?
PFT: We would love to. Our big goal for this season, because we’re doing a lot of shows this year, we want to get as many honest to God people from the political world as we can. We’ve made some inroads in getting more people related to the news world. [Journalist] Jane Huber is going to be on our season premiere. We have Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of Egypt, on our live show [at Riot L.A.] and our studio show as well. We’re definitely hoping to get more and more people like that, and more elected officials. What we really want to do, we want to get people to be able to say the thing that they want to say, we want to give them free rein to say that and we will take care of the satire. Nobody has to be funny, we’ll take care of the funny part. We’ll break down what they say in a funny way kind of the way Colbert did on his show—he would have the real people on and he would be confrontational in a funny way and that’s all we’re looking to do. You still get to say your thing, but we’re also going to have a satirical take on it.
Paste: That’s such a new attitude—politicians like Obama going on comedy shows is so shocking. This is the first time in history politicians have been allowed to do that kind of thing.
PFT: I think the political landscape has changed so much that they can’t dismiss us out of hand like they used to. That used to be so rare—that you’d see a sitting president on a late night talk show—and now it’s much more commonplace. You cannot dismiss the people that this platform reaches; you don’t want to just say “I’m too good for that” or “I’m above that” because that sends a message to people. It sends a message both ways. If you appear on the show, it sends a message on some level: “he wants to talk to me, here at home, a person who watches this TV show.” And that counts for a lot, it really goes a long way.
Paste: Have you tried to reach out to Obama?
PFT: [Laughs] I would imagine somebody has. You know what? I hope somebody has. I hope there’s not a self-loathing attitude on the part of our booking department that says “oh, he’d never want to come on the show.” So I hope that they have made the effort to get turned down by the White House.
Paste: Is there anything you want people to know about the show?
PFT: I know that a show like this sounds strange and it sounds like it’s not for everybody. The presence of puppets certainly makes that a big ask for some people. But I would say, check it out. If you’re skeptical about it, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised. If you’re a fan of political satire, I think you will enjoy the show.
Olga Lexell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Daily Dot, Splitsider and Reductress. You can find her jokes on Twitter.