Just for Laughs 2013 | Paul F. Tompkins interview
Blame it on the bowtie, the mustache, the distingué inclusion of a middle initial (F. for Francis, natch): Paul F. Tompkins may be the dandiest comedian in the game. We tend to imagine him most at home in a low-lit study, sitting in a tufted leather chair, puffing away at a cigar and swirling a snifter of cognac. (Make that a lowlit bar, sipping fancy cocktails with Alison Brie and others. Close, but no cigar!)
At this point in his career, it's kind of lazy to dwell on his dapperness and decorum. The media always does. (Maybe it's just 'cause we're more used to cargo shorts–wearing, five-'o-clock-shadow–sporting, dick-joke–dropping stand-ups?) A more meaningful point to make is that PFT may be the most down-to-earth, unpretentious dude in the game. I spoke with him today in advance of his Just For Laughs appearances and he was disarmingly casual despite his rat-packy uniform.
How many times have you done Just For Laughs Chicago?
This is my second year. Last year, or the year before, I did a show with Demetri Martin, called Demetri Martin and Friends, at the Chicago Theatre.
And now you're part of David Cross and His Super Duper Pals, so more friends. Old friends. Deep cuts.
[Laughs] That's right. My ol' stomping grounds. [Tompkins was a writer and performer for HBO's Mr. Show with Bob and David.] I'm also doing the Combo with me and Brendon Walsh, which is curated by Team Coco. That's the first time I've said "curated," which I don't enjoy. I don't know when we started saying the word "curated," but now everyone's saying it all the time.
It conveys a sense of importance, maybe?
Yeah, it shows that you've made some phone calls!
Is it fun to run into all your comedian friends at Just For Laughs? Are you all super competitive? Arm-wrestling tournaments?
I'm not competitive, but there are definintely guys that are.
Is it like high school where you gossip about each other?
Oh, absolutely. But isn't that everything? [Laughs] But it is fun. There's always a summer camp vibe to these festivals, and what's great is you do end up getting to see people that you don't get to see a lot, who live on the other side of the country from the side you live on.
You've done TV, movies, podcasts, stand-up, American Idol recaps, etc. Is there a medium you prefer most or do you like being multidisciplinary in your comedy?
I kind of like doing everything. Stand-up's always my first love, that's what I started doing, but I've gotten into improv recently in a way that I never did before. There's a group called Superego that has a very funny podcast. It's improv that they then edit down to the best parts, so it's sketch [derived] from improv. I was a fan of the podcast, and then I met those guys and started performing with them. To be doing improv with other people in a scene in front of an audience—it's a new thing for me and it's very exciting.
Has it impacted your stand-up in any way?
Not really. I think, in a way, the stand-up prepped me for the improv, because I do a lot of riffing in my stand-up. But the thing I think that made a really big difference in the way I'm able to do [improv] is doing the audience warm-up for Mr. Show years and years ago. I had to kill time while they were changing sets and people were getting into different costumes. When I first started, I quickly went through all my material, but the same people were coming back to be in the audience, show after show. So I had to make stuff up. It was a huge turning point for me. Now when I do my own shows, I'll typically do 10–15 minutes of just extemporaneous material before getting into the prepared stuff.
Is it strange to work on jokes by yourself and then, when you're improvising, have to collaborate on the storytelling?
Yes. It's kind of like podcasts, most of which are conversational in nature. One of the things that's challenging for me is doing Comedy Bang Bang, hosted by Scott Aukerman. Scott and I have known each other for a million years, but he knows that I'm a little more prudish in my tastes than a lot of comedians are. He's very mischevious and he'll try to lead me down a path, improv-wise, that he knows I would not want to go down.
Like a path called Cock and Balls Way?
Yes, exactly. But one I can't deny. The challenge for me is always how do I side step that while still respecting the direction we're going and still staying in character? I still have to honor where he has steered the conversation. I love it. It's so much fun.
Paul F. Tompkins performs tonight with David Cross and His Super Duper Pals (7:30pm at the Chicago Theatre) and with the Combo Curated by Team Coco (10pm at Stage 773, The Cabaret).