Comedians face a bit of a dilemma when recording an album. They can do all their best new material and risk repeating themselves night after night. Or they can record old material and risk sounding irrelevant or, worse, disinterested. So an album of older material called Impersonal wouldn’t inspire high hopes for a great comedy experience.
But the album in question recorded live at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, is by Paul F. Tompkins, the current king of the smart-asses. Tompkins’ delivery is part carnival barker, part Steve Martin in his vain-comic mode. His persona is a buttoned-down hipster shaded with H.L. Mencken’s political wit.
As Tompkins states in the liner notes, his comedy has become more personal lately, and this album is a collection of mostly conceptual material. But none of it sounds cold or outdated.
For some comedians, sarcasm replaces having to write actual material. Find something dumb, apply a healthy dose of attitude, and, voila, instant comedy. That doesn’t apply to Tompkins.
Despite his smart-ass status, Tompkins is as imaginative as any comedian working today. His sarcasm is often shrewdly self-mocking, and besides, a nice drizzling of snark makes it easier for the Best Week Ever crowd to swallow Tompkins’ more subtle ideas.
Take, for example, the album’s opening bit. Tompkins tells a story about making fun of a Goth girl running (which obviously breaks some sort of unspoken Goth rule), but it’s essentially a story about how Tompkins is an asshole for doing it. But damned if it isn’t funny from both angles — whether you see it as a riff about the Goth girl or a riff about himself or both.
On “Stromboli,” Tompkins plugs a wonderfully batty idea into a standard joke cadence — “What is worse than haunted food? You think you’re having a nice turkey club. Oh, great! Screaming undead soul inside me — and uses it as the capper for a ghost story about a phantom stromboli.
Tompkins’ brand of sarcasm doesn’t keep the audience at a distance; it’s an accent color in his palette and actually makes his comedy more inclusive. That’s an impressive feat.