If you want to make it as a comedian it’s important to diversify. You have to be comfortable with stand-up, sketch and improv. You have to handle performing live and recording shows and podcasts. You have to be active on every kind of social media. You have to act and write and maybe even sing a little bit. You have to do at least a little bit of everything, and few comedians today do as much of everything as Paul F. Tompkins.
He’s a TV host, an indefatigable podcaster, an insightful and generous interviewer, and one of the core writers and performers from the legendary Mr. Show and its upcoming reunion. This weekend, though, he returns to his stand-up roots with Crying and Driving, a new hour-long special airing on Comedy Central at 11 PM ET/PT. It’s his first stand-up special in three years, and even though Paste has already interviewed him like twice in the last year, we weren’t going to let the opportunity to talk to him again pass us by. We chatted briefly earlier today as Tompkins was being driven to another appointment, touching base on not just the new special but on his many other projects and the larger comedy climate. Somehow though we forgot to ask him about Kevn Kinney and Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’, and now we’re really bummed about that.
Paste: You’re a busy guy. Stand-up, podcasts, voice-acting, No You Shut Up... what do you like doing the most when it comes to comedy?
Paul F. Tompkins: Oh, man, if I knew that I’d probably just do that one thing. It’s really tough because I really enjoy all different disciplines and all different styles of comedy. The thing about stand-up is the challenge of being there by myself and coming up with that material and communicating my ideas to an audience. Working with other people in improv is great and so much fun. The TV stuff is my primary job and getting to put together a TV show, having been a fan of television all my life, is an incredible thing.
Paste: Do you wish there were still game shows you could be a guest on? Because you’d be perfect for that.
PFT: For a long time we did a live version of Match Game, the old ‘70s game show at the UCB with Jimmy Pardo hosting. I was one of the regular panelists on that show. We recently did a couple reunions of that and that is a ball. Those days of those ‘70s game shows were really amazing. I think people were just getting drunk. I think they’d shoot a season’s worth in two afternoons. That kind of thing seemed very cool and glamorous to me as a kid. I would love to do something like that.
Paste: Some comedians have complained about the new comedy ecosystem the internet’s created, where you basically have to do all this stuff all the time to keep your name in the spotlight. But it seems like that’s right up your alley, then.
PFT: Yeah, I don’t know what’s to complain about, because I feel like you have more outlets. It’s easier to reach people now than it used to be, and it’s fun. It’s fun to do podcasts. I’d rather do podcasts than have to wake up at the crack of dawn to have to do a radio show in hopes that the people who are driving on their way to work or making breakfast to their kids are going to pay attention.
As a medium podcasting is really terrific and has been nothing but a boon to comedians.
Paste: So your new special is tomorrow night. It’s been three years since your last one. Do you think you’re still growing and changing as a stand-up, or do comedians eventually reach a plateau, their final form, and that’s who they are
PFT: Hopefully I’m still evolving. That to me is more interesting than if I just figured out a formula and just did that formula. That works for some people and some people enjoy that, and it probably, honestly, it probably helps them more because it’s a definable brand that people can latch onto, and I don’t think that I’ve ever really had that. But I am a restless in that way, and so my style has changed a lot over the years. But that’s a thing I like about it, and I hope it continues to change. I don’t know what’ s going to be next for me. Right now I’m telling personal stories from my own life and trying to relate those to an audience in an emotional way, find the commonality of feelings that we all have. And then I don’t know. I don’t know what’s down the road, where I’ll go next.
Paste: At the start of the special you talk about how different life is today than it was for the “Greatest Generation” decades ago. What do you think your grandparents would think about the job you have today?
PFT: They wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of it. My own parents, who were Depression babies, they were from that generation, they were never vocally supportive. They never told me I couldn’t do it or shouldn’t do it, but they never got on board with it, either. I never heard them say “we’re so proud of you, you’ve made this career for yourself.” I don’t think they really believed that I was actually making a living doing it.
Paste: What did your dad do for a living?
PFT: My dad worked on the railroad, all the livelong day. He inspected the airbrakes on the train.
Paste: That’s definitely a good old-fashioned mid-century job for a man to have.
Paste: I notice in the special you’re wearing a pin on your lapel. There’s never a clear close-up of it, though. What’s that pin about?
PFT: That was a last minute decision. That was a pin I had on the jacket I wore to the special, not the one I was going to wear in the special. I was going to have a pocket square and then I couldn’t get it to fold just the way I wanted it to. I had that pin and just stuck it on there. It’s the logo for a variety show that I was doing at Largo for a while called Varietopia. It was music and sketch and stand-up. At the last minute I put that on, thinking as a little joke to myself that it’s the only time my variety show would appear on television.
Paste: Talking about sketch comedy, the Mr. Show reunion With Bob and David is coming out next month. How did it feel to get back together with that group?
PFT: It was really strange and fun. It was nice to see everybody again, and now that we’re all older and more mature and there’s no anxiety anymore like there was in the old days, it was really fun.
Paste: Were you worried that the magic would be gone?
PFT: Yeah, I think we all were. In the earliest meetings, when we were all getting together, there was that trepidation, I think probably everyone felt it, but then as soon as we started reading through the sketches, because it started with Bob and David having some unproduced stuff that they wanted to begin with before writing new material, and we just had such a great time. That [trepidation] went away immediately.
Paste: You’re so busy doing comedy. Do you ever get out to watch others perform?
PFT: No, I don’t get to see shows myself a lot. It’s a tricky thing because on the one hand I really used to enjoy going out and seeing shows a lot, on the other now I’m married and I have a life with my wife and it’s nice to just be home. And I am doing a lot of stuff, so on my nights off I’m way less inclined to go out now and see shows if I’m not doing a show.
Paste: How do you find out about younger comedians right now?
PFT: Podcasting, really. I consume a lot of podcast. LA’s a big driving town, so you spend a lot of time in your car all day long. When I’m in the car or when I’m doing chores around the house, like folding laundry, I’ll listen to podcasts. I’ve discovered a lot of new talent that way.
Paste: What are some of your favorite podcasts right now?
PFT: I absolutely love Lauren Lapkus. I think she’s amazing. Her and the rest of Wild Horses, the group that she’s in, Mary Holland, Stephanie Allyne, and Erin Whitehead are really so funny. I like Beth Stelling is one of my favorite comics—I think she’s hilarious.
Paste: We actually just had an interview with Beth go up like an hour ago.
PFT: Oh, terrific. I just think she’s hilarious. Her last, what did I see her on? That SXSW special that was on Showtime. She was just hilarious. I really, really enjoyed her set. And her special’s going to air after mine on Saturday.
Paste: My wife wanted to know—where do you get your suits? And is that a tailor I can talk to or is it like a private source?
PFT: I wish I were making enough money that I had a personal tailor who was making all of my clothing, but that is sadly not the case. I find stuff all over the place. I just look for things online. The thing about buying clothes is that if you start buying a lot you end up getting a million catalogues in the mail. I’ll flip through every one. Usually I can find a thing in each catalogue that’s unique and I’ll get that. I would say the search function on Amazon is very helpful if you’re looking for interesting stuff.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.