Paul F. Tompkins is rarely at a loss for words. The loquacious comic’s livelihood depends upon his ability to riff, recite, and retort–often while in character, and without the safety net of a script. Over the course of a long career in show business, however, he’s learned that truly entertaining requires more than just having something funny to say.
One thing people tend to notice about Tompkins is that he is a snazzy dresser. Whether on stage or conducting an interview for his show Speakeasy–or, one of his shows, rather–he is often wearing a crisp tailored suit. This rebuke to the famously lax dress code for comedians is actually just an outgrowth of Tompkins’s general attitude toward putting on a show. It’s a sense of professionalism that also shows in the sheer breadth of his output, which includes regular stand-up specials, guest turns on sitcoms, appearances on just about every podcast that exists (including his new one, Spontaneanation,) and the Daily-Show-with-puppets program, No You Shut Up. Beyond the natty threads or reliable prolificacy, though, Tompkins simply exudes an aura of stagecraft that lets viewers or listeners know they’re in good hands–something he’s honed through over 20 years as a jack-of-all-trades entertainer.
As Tompkins continues working on the just-announced Mr. Show reunion for Netflix and closes out his third season of No You Shut Up on Fusion, the comedian talks to Co.Create about some of the formative experiences that shaped his career and set him on a path toward showmanship.
After establishing himself as a stand-up, Tompkins moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and quickly began working with like-minded spirit Jay Johnston. The two ended up in the cast of HBO’s legendary Mr. Show with Bob and David, where they quickly had to blend into an ensemble.
“There are obviously benefits to working by yourself and there are benefits to working with other people, not the least of which is that now it’s not all on you,” Tompkins says. “So you’re giving up a little bit of autonomy but you have the excitement of building on something else that someone is saying and creating a thing together and sharing an inspiration. Bringing your true sensibility to a larger thing was very exciting to me. I enjoyed learning how to do it with Jay [Johnston], and the fact that it led to my first big job was tremendous. One of the lessons I learned on Mr. Show, though, was that I am not satisfied just by writing for other people. I like performing comedy too much to be content with writing it for someone else to say.”
An early shot at taking center stage on HBO ended up being one of the first times Tompkins innovated his approach to comedy, and set the template for a career that continues to evolve.
“I had been offered this deal to do a one-man show,” Tompkins says. “This was around the time of this huge success of Everybody Loves Raymond, which happened because Ray Romano did a stand up special that essentially served as the pilot for his sitcom. Everything was in there. It was all laid out: here’s who I am, here’s what my life is, here’s the situations I find myself in. And it worked out beautifully. So my stand-up at the time did not really lend itself to that very well. Also, if I was going to do a one-man show, I wanted to do something that wasn’t just a fake theater piece or was really just stand-up with a theme tacked onto it. I wanted to write something that was entirely original for that medium. That’s why that show is much more theatrical than just my stand-up. And I’m glad that I did it the way that I did it—even if it did not lead to a sitcom.”
Anything can go wrong in a live show, and it often does. Tompkins’s shows were greatly enriched, however, when he learned not only to expect the unexpected, but to embrace it.
“It took a long time for me to realize that if somebody yells something out at your show or they make some kind of noise, it’s not necessarily someone who is trying to disrupt everything,” Tompkins says. “If you approach it from an area of interest rather than an area of defensiveness, there might be fun stuff that can happen, that everyone will enjoy. Eventually, I started to approach everything as if this has the potential for fun rather than I am under attack. When you approach it from a friendly perspective, you are asserting your dominance because it communicates to the audience, ‘Hey, guys, this is not a problem, this is all gonna be fine. I’m genuinely curious as to what’s going on.’”
As Tompkins’s material became more personal, his specials became more theatrical, culminating in the thematically unified Laboring Under Delusions, which drew on not just everything he’d learned as a performer, but as a producer and a writer as well.
“I just really like to put on a show,” Tompkins says. “And as much as people can say I’m old fashioned because of the way I dress or the way I speak, the really old-fashioned thing about me honestly is that I am a showman and I really like to put on a show. I feel like people paid money and I want to make sure that they can’t walk away saying, ‘Well, I did not get my money’s worth.’ I wouldn’t want anyone to walk away saying, ‘That guy didn’t make an effort.’ Even though I think at times it maybe seems to be not cool to make an effort, I want people to know that I take this seriously and I really wanted to make sure, whether you were entertained or not, you cannot deny that I tried to entertain you.”
In 2013, Tompkins was brought in for No You Shut Up, his current main gig. Now in its third season, the show increasingly bears the sensibility of its star, even though it wasn’t always that way.
“It started off as essentially a one-joke idea,” Tompkins says. “As much as I loved all the people working on it, the show just felt like the same thing every time. We’d talk about something, improvise with puppets, and then it would end in everybody screaming. It was just lather, rinse, repeat. Ever since we got a new head of development at Fusion and expanded to a half hour, though, we’ve been able to really take the show to crazy places. It’s become much more. There’s a lot more of my voice in there.
“I got the directive to just make the show that you want to make. Just make a funny show, don’t worry about anything you’ve done before—do the show that you want to do. We want you to be as creative as possible. That was it. So we tentatively started it and we were waiting for somebody to tell us to stop doing what we’re doing. They never did, and it’s allowed us to take a lot of silly chances and make a show that I’m really proud of. I laugh all day while I’m working now.”