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INTERVIEW: Paul F. Tompkins

Paul F. Tompkins
Courtesy Photo

Comedian Paul F. Tompkins may be remembered by some as the witty host of the dearly departed clip show, “Best Week Ever” but Tompkins’ true fan base know that his abilities stretch much farther than just a talking head for VH1. A successful sketch and comedic actor with notable appearances in Mr. Show, The Sarah Silverman Program and the San Diego-themed cult classic, Anchorman; it’s Tompkins’ career as a stand-up comic that has been his forte as a performer. His sardonic wit is the driving force behind his material, and has been well documented on two albums. His 2007 debut, Impersonal and his follow-up Freak Wharf, released in 2009, are prime recordings of Tompkins at his best, with Freak Wharf containing a near ten minute opener where Tompkins freely riffs and improvises with the crowd making for a truly unforgettable salvo. His first DVD, You Should Have Told Me, was recorded at The Laughing Skull Lounge in Atlanta, Georgia and was just released through comedy aficionados AST Records. Tompkins recently sat down with SanDiego.com to discuss the new season of American Idol, his monthly podcast and the new sitcom he’s creating with friend and collaborator Tom Scharpling.

Have you been enjoying the new season of American Idol?

Paul F. Tompkins: Yes, I’m writing recaps of American Idol for New York Magazine’s Vulture Section.

Do you see this season as being a defining moment in Steven Tyler’s career?

PFT: This guy has had two heydays, there was the original heyday back in the seventies with Aerosmith, then they had that weird resurgence thanks to sort of racy music videos that star his daughter and one of the asteroid movies. So then he went away again for a while and now he’s back with this thing, so I would imagine that once this season wraps he will parlay that into another album or a tour.

Do you think he’ll try to get his own TV show? Something like, “Steven Tyler Presents.”

PFT: I bet this is about all he can handle, just sitting there and critiquing people. I don’t know if he wants to have any more responsibilities than that. Although I am intrigued by the title, “Steven Tyler Presents.” I would like it if it was sort of a Night Gallery show, he’d be like a rock and roll Rod Serling.

When you first started in comedy you were part of a duo correct?

PFT: The first year and half that I did stand-up a guy named Rick Roman and I did an act together. We did sort of these absurdist sketch kind of bits.

Do you remember the first set you did as a duo?

PFT: I do not remember any details of what happened on stage; all I remember is the emotion of it. And I’m not being cagey about that, I honestly don’t remember what we did on stage that particular night, because it was my first time on a stand-up comedy stage and the rush of it was absolutely overwhelming. I had never experienced anything like it before, and I had done plays in school and a lot of things. I had done public speaking; I had been in front of audiences before but nothing like this. This was a thing that I had only ever seen done on television. So it was just mind blowing.

And after about a year you guys split up and you went solo.

PFT: Like all great comedy teams we grew to hate each other, and then we spilt up and became friends again, but I was in it to win it. I really loved doing this and he got into improv comedy and then moved to Chicago.

Do you remember your first set as a solo act?

PFT: Nope, same thing. It was just like the first time I went up with Rick only magnified by a thousand, because now I had the stage all to myself. I sort of remember doing some men and women material, something like that; it was not exactly groundbreaking stuff. It went well enough that I walked away from that set thinking, ‘Ok, I can do this. I can do this by myself.’

Do you still feel a similar adrenaline rush when you perform?

PFT: To varying degrees yeah, it depends. There’s still shows that are unlike any other shows, I always have a bit of butterflies before any performance because as long as I have been doing this and as much self-assurance as I have in my abilities, it’s only so much up to me how it goes, because the audience is still a group of people I have not encountered before and I can only influence them so much. There’s no guarantees no matter how long you’ve been doing it that it’s going to go great every single time. There’s always a bit of anticipation and nervousness. The first time I performed in Toronto, it was for a group of people that had specifically demanded to see me. I was not booking a show and then hoping that the people liked me, I was going into it knowing that these people were there to see me specifically. That was a totally different feeling that I had ever experienced before. That was just a couple of years ago in 2009. It was at this place called The Livery, which is a legendary performance space in Toronto. It’s where The Kids In The Hall started.

When did your new DVD come out?

PFT: You Should’ve Told Me just came out this past December. It was filmed in 2009 and it aired on Comedy Central last summer and then just got released right before Christmas. I would like to put out something every year ad my goal is to put out something this year as well around Thanksgiving or so. My motto is a motto that a lot of guys use, where you work on something for a year, you record it, you put it out and then it’s on to a new hour of material; to keep creating and keep the wheels turning. I don’t want to take too long; I want to always be working on the stuff.

Something I wanted to talk to you about are the riff suites you have at the beginning of Freak Wharf. How often do you open up shows like that?

PFT: That’s every show now. I had not intended to release that riffing, that was just to kind of warm up the crowd a little bit for the written prepared material. Then so much time had passed from the time it was recorded and when I listened to it, I was surprised at how well the riffing held up as comedy. I just assumed, ‘Oh, this’ll be in the moment and there’s no way it’ll be funny after this. It would definitely be a you-had-to-be-there kind of thing.’ Enough time passed where I had totally forgot everything that I said and when I heard it, it was all fresh to me and I ran it by the guys at my record label, and I said, ‘Am I nuts or is this actually good enough to put out?’ And they listened to and they agreed, and so we kind of took a chance there. The risk is that some people might see it as self-indulgent, some people may very well see it that way. But I stand by it and I feel that it’s a strength of mine rather than an indulgence. And for me there’s nothing more exciting than that. Having an audience that is so trusting that it allows me to open my mind up as far as I can and be able to go from though to thought to thought, and make it funny. It’s so funny that for some people, if I didn’t tell them that was written material they would enjoy it more. Because even when there are friends of mine in the crowd that are there to see me, and I say, ‘Okay, now it’s time to get into the written stuff,’ somebody will make some comment like, ‘Ugh, finally.’ It’s like, you’ve got to be kidding me. Is this really that torturous? I was coming up with this stuff in the moment, everybody else is enjoying it, but just because it’s something that’s not as structured as you’d like it to be it’s not worth listening to. It kind of amazes me, because to me part of live performance is we’re all in the moment. We’re all experiencing something more or less the same way at the same time. And to me, the riffing is me and the audience are all hearing this stuff for the very first time. That to me is magical that we could all have that shared experience.

Are you aware of a group on Facebook called Bring Paul F. Tompkins to San Diego?

PFT: Yes, I don’t know how much anybody else in San Diego is aware of that group.

Have ever performed in San Diego?

PFT: No I never have. Yeah if there’s enough people that actually do want to see me do stand-up comedy in San Diego then I would happily go there.

Are you working on any projects right now?

PFT: Right now I’m writing a sitcom with my friend Tom Scharpling, who is the host if “The Best Show” on WFMU and a former executive producer of MONK. We’re writing a sitcom script together for me to star in, for Comedy Central.

Can we expect to see numerous indie rock musician cameos in this sitcom?

PFT: Ha! Let’s see if we can get a pilot made first!

Anything we can plug for you?

PFT: Just the podcast, I love doing it, I can’t believe how enjoyable it is and I’m really appreciative of the people that already listen to it and I hope people spread the word and get more people to listen to it. I put a lot of work into it and to me it’s like you’re kind of getting a comedy album for free every month.

Does Paul F. Tompkins have a message for the children?

PFT: Learn to like 5 vegetables and make sure you have one of them at least once a day.

Impersonal, Freak Wharf and You Should've Told Me are currently available through Aspecialthing Records.