If you listen to comedy podcasts, you know the name Paul F. Tompkins. He created the great Pod F. Tompkast, The Dead Author’s Podcast, is part of the Thrilling Adventure Hour and Superego, and is the most prolific guest on Earwolf Network podcasts with over 100 appearances on Comedy Bang! Bang! alone. But not content to simply lord over the podcasting domain, Tompkins hosts his own web series Speakeasy with Paul F. Tompkins, hosts the television show No, You Shut Up! on Fusion Channel, and is currently reconnecting with old friends and colleagues on the Mr. Show reunion With Bob and David as well as other writing, acting and stand-up projects.
But all of that still wasn’t enough. His latest project is a new podcast on Earwolf called Spontaneanation with Paul F. Tompkins, a fully improvised show featuring an interview with a guest, long-form improv, and a live score by pianist Eban Schletter. After its first week, Spontaneanation reached number one on iTunes.
I was able to find some time in Tompkins’s busy schedule to talk with him about Spontaneanation’s origins, podcasting and why relinquishing control is great.
Paste: Congrats on Spontaneanation! I’ve listened to the first few episodes and they are so much fun.
Paul F. Tompkins: Oh thanks man, thank you! It’s been so incredible to do, and I’m really happy that people seem to be responding so positively to it.
Paste: How did it develop? Did you approach Earwolf or did they approach you?
PFT: Earwolf had approached me a long time ago, even before I had started the Pod F. Tompkast. I knew that I wanted to do a podcast, and I knew everyone there and that it was something for me to do, but I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do yet. Earwolf was starting around that time, and I had a meeting with Jeff Ulrich and Scott Aukerman and they were saying we’d really like you to do a podcast for us. But I told them, “Look I can’t do it because I don’t even know what I want to do!” It felt like pressure that I wasn’t ready and that I needed more time to think about it.
So then many years later, they approach me again! I thought it was very decent of them to come and ask again because I’d maintained a great relationship by appearing on various podcasts on their network. Matt Gourley was someone who really encouraged me, and after seeing the success of Andy Daly’s podcast, that kind of got me thinking I could do it. And much like I figured out how I wanted the Pod F. Tompkast to be, I just in time thought: What are the things I like to do, but also what are the things that are the most fun that are the easiest to accomplish in one session? Because I’m used to everything I do being very involved with a lot of pre-production and post-production and I really wanted to be able to walk in, record and it’s just done. And that’s how I arrived at what is Spontaneanation.
Paste: Yeah, I was going to ask about that, the Pod F. Tompkast is so structured and so heavily produced. How long would it take you to complete a typical episode?
PFT: Oh man, it would take days and days. It was a really long process. There was writing involved, there was editing involved, there was sound design, there was booking of guests and various people providing voices, the characters, those sketches where I was doing all of the characters. So it was a lot, it was really a lot.
Paste: One of my favorite things about Spontaneanation is that Eban Schletter is back with his piano forte. What is it like with him in the studio scoring it live?
PFT: It’s the best. It really adds so much to it, because even when you’re not consciously paying attention to what he’s doing, the feeling of it is there. With Eban, we’ve been doing that sort of thing together for years, as long as we’ve known each other. I started out doing, many years before all of this in 2002, my variety show at the old nightclub Largo. Eban was my musical guy. At the end of the show, he and I would do the Thank Yous, and he would play the piano under me and I would just riff and it’s really carried on. So that’s been a thing that I’ve always enjoyed for well over a decade now.
Paste: So this is a completely improvised podcast, and you largely do a lot of improv on podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang! and stuff like that. What do you like about doing improv compared to something like Superego where it’s pretty scripted out?
PFT: Well really I enjoy working with other people obviously, it’s great. You really have to work together because there is no editing. I like the immediacy of it, the danger of it because we’re not going to go back and fix any of it, this is it. And I like relinquishing control, you know, because that was something that was kind of bothering me. Various things I produce, having to be in charge of them and overseeing all the details. This is something where all I have to do is get the people in there and get it started, and whatever happens happens. I’m not responsible for everything, I mean I am the host so it does fall to me. If anyone has a problem with anything that ultimately comes to me, but that’s a responsibility I can deal with and I can accept. To let things happen in the moment, to let a scene go in a different direction than I had anticipated it going in, is really liberating.
And it’s exciting! It’s exciting because one of the tenets of improv, especially if you have four people there, is that you’re creating a story. A million ideas are going through your mind. With each thing that is said by either yourself or another person, you are inventing that story. And it’s a weird adventure book where you are seeing so many possibilities that are coming and discarding as things change. So you might open your mouth to say something that would take the story in one direction, and then somebody else says something first that takes it in a completely different direction, and now you are on that road, and you have to get on it quick. That’s really exciting and as I said, it’s very liberating to let go of that control.
Paste: And it sounds like you guys have so much fun doing it, just from all the laughter in the background and in the middle of the shows.
PFT: Yeah, it really is a lot of fun.
Paste: How many episodes have you recorded so far? Just hearing the plugs section when people are plugging things happening in March during an April episode… [Laughter] How many episodes are in the can?
PFT: We’re pretty far ahead, and this is another wonderful thing that is new in my life: I’ve never been ahead on anything I’ve ever done. So this is a relief to me. I think we have 11 episodes in the can, so now we have enough recorded to get us through mid-June. I have to take time out of studio because we’re doing the Bob and David stuff now, but after that I’ll be able to get back in the studio after that to start recording more.
Paste: I’m very familiar with all of the Earwolf podcasts and I listen to a lot of podcasts elsewhere like Thrilling Adventure Hour and all kinds of stuff like that. And you’ve been such a fixture in the podcast medium for years now. What was the draw for you to work and participate in podcasts and to host them?
PFT: It’s fun! That’s really the number one thing, it’s fun. I get to work with people, whether it’s hosting or guesting, I get to work with people I know and love and really have a great time playing with. And I get to meet new people that I’m not that familiar with that brings its own energy and life to it all.
Also they really reach people. The podcasting world has changed the way I book my shows. I knew that I could announce a gig on a podcast and that people would hear it. People that like what I do would hear, “Oh, he’s in my city.” And that makes it so much easier. Now I don’t have to hire a promoter, now I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and do morning radio, the audience is there already. They’re hearing me, and I can alert them in that way.
Paste: Where do you kind of see podcasting going? The medium is really gaining mainstream popularity now. How do you see podcasting growing moving forward?
PFT: I hope that more and more people will be able to make money from it. Whether it’s a donation system or a podcasting network like Earwolf or Nerdist or any of them. And I also hope that it continues to be a thing where people can do whatever they want; that the average person, whether they are getting paid for it or not, the freedom remains there and they can say whatever they want to say, make whatever show they want to make. And it remains accessible to everyone, so it’s not a net neutrality situation where laws are passed that would make it more difficult for the average person to create something and share it with the world. I hope that the laws governing the Internet will remain on the side of the people, because it’s a wonderfully democratic thing. It’s a real thing, you can put it out there, people will find it, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful situation.
Paste: Who are some people you would love to have on Spontaneanation? I don’t know what kind of upcoming guests have already appeared, but who are some of your dream guests?
PFT: Well so far we’ve had some really good people just from my own personal rolodex, but there are a lot people that I would love to have. I would love to have Stephen Colbert, I’m a huge fan of his. It would be great to have him on. Um… uh… God I always blank on questions like this! Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black.
Paste: Yeah she could do so many characters as evidenced by her show!
PFT: [Laughter] Yeah that’s the other thing, there are people that would make great interview guests that would also make great improvisers. Key and Peele, I love those guys, it would be great to have them on in any capacity. I have to make up a dream list really, so far it’s just been texting people. But as the show gains steam, I’d love to be able to attract people that I don’t know personally that would be game to come on.
Paste: Will there ever be a situation where the interview guest takes part in the improvisation? Has that happened yet or could that potentially happen?
PFT: That hasn’t happened yet. That can potentially happen. First I want to keep doing the format as it is, and then down the line start shaking things up. But that’s always something I kind of envisioned happening with the right people.
Paste: What things do you have coming up in the future? I know it’s a lot, but do you have any specific projects that you’re working on like No, You Shut Up!
PFT: No, You Shut Up!, we are getting ready to film the season finale of that and then it will air on the 30th, April 30th, and hopefully we’ll get going again for work on season four. And then I’m very happy to announce I’ll be recording my latest hour of stand-up. That will be on June 6 at the Palace Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. I’m waiting on ticket links and more information, but I hope people, if you’ll be in the LA area on June 6 that you will save the date.
Paste: Awesome congratulations on that! That’s great news.
PFT:Thank you, yeah, I’m really excited. It’s a beautiful venue, and I love that it’s downtown. I think people are really going to like it.
Paste: Well thank you for taking the time to chat with me Paul, I appreciate it. Looking forward to more contributions to the web from you, sir.
PFT: [Laughter] You will not have to wait long!
New episodes of Spontaneanation with Paul F. Tompkins appear every Monday on Earwolf. The season three finale of No, You Shut Up! airs on April 30. To find live dates for Paul F. Tompkins, visit paulftompkins.com.
Ross Bernhardt is the Managing Editor of CHARGED.fm the Magazine and probably spends far too much time listening to podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter.