Obsessing about stand-up has its advantages. Perhaps the best byproduct for a true comedy fan is that through the years, we’re privy to the comedian’s emotional and artistic journey– all played out intimately onstage. And few comics’ evolution has been as satisfying to witness as that of Paul F. Tompkins.
His 2007 album, aptly titled Impersonal is filled with absurdly hilarious ruminations. Will we ever look at Stromboli the same again– or at gag peanut brittle, for that matter? Two years later, Tompkins gifted the comedy world with Freak Wharf, which showcased his deft improv skills and, yes, more absurdity– including the now-classic seven minute analysis, “Cake Vs. Pie.” And things finally started to get personal on his first hour-long special for Comedy Central, 2010’s You Should Have Told Me. Standing on the super small, intimate stage of Atlanta’s Laughing Skull Lounge, Tompkins opens up about getting older, buying a house and the death of his mother.
Which brings us to his latest project, Laboring Under Delusions, his one-hour special premiering on Comedy Central tomorrow night at 11 pm EST and then available on DVD, uncensored and uncut on April 24. It represents the perfect balance of personal and absurd– all wrapped in what ultimately is a series of well-crafted stories. This week, I caught up with Tompkins before he returned home to Los Angeles, shortly before boarding a flight in Toronto, where he was shooting an episode of The LA Complex (premiering on The CW this Tuesday). We talked about Laboring, going to therapy and what he sees for himself in the future– including a super top secret show in development with Comedy Central! Check it out below (Or, you can watch this clip before you continue reading).
The new special is the show you did in Montreal last summer, Life’s Work, right? Why the name change?
Yea, that was kind of a warped title that unfortunately we used. I just never liked the title, Life’s Work. I thought I could think of something better, so I had time to think about it until we shot for television.
Watching Laboring Under Delusions as a young comic myself, it almost seems like a cautionary tale. But you found that all of these jobs were worth it?
I always knew that stand-up was what I wanted to do so the jobs were just a support system so I could get to where I am now. It was definitely an “eyes on the prize” type of situation. It just reminded me that my worst night doing stand-up was better than my best night doing retail.
You’re huge in stand-up. You’re huge in improv. You’re huge in sketch. Which is your favorite comedic medium? Or your best runaround answer to not offend a particular community?
(Laughs) That really is a tough call because I like doing all those things for different reasons. Stand-up I love doing because that relationship between me and the audience is like nothing else. It’s a very specific intimacy that’s really enjoyable. Improvising with other people is a lot of fun because it’s a little bit of the high-wire medium of stand-up but with a partner– with somebody else to bounce your ideas off of. And sketch is a joy because it’s like all those great things involved but it’s with structure. I just like working with other people.
Well played. I don’t think you’ve upset any community with that one.
I should hope not.
I’ve read some interviews you’ve done about therapy and how it made you take on more personal topics on stage. Do you mind me asking what made you start doing therapy?
Relationships. I was never able to really achieve a healthy, good relationship. Eventually it just got to a point where I seemed to be making a lot of the same mistakes and I wanted to figure out what I’m doing wrong. And that was really it. It was just that simple.
I really liked your episode of You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, but was surprised that relationships didn’t come up. [Pete likes to “make it weird” by talking about relationships with comedians at some point in the interview].
Yea, well Pete was too busy talking about There Will Be Blood!
My favorite part of that episode comes when you two are talking about being on the road featuring for ‘club’ comedians. And a headliner gave you some unsolicited advice about your act. You said to Pete, ‘I feel like those guys are saying, ‘What you’re doing isn’t real comedy.’ And all I’m saying is, ‘What you’re doing isn’t that funny.'”
Comedy is completely subjective. People who are giving unsolicited advice like that may not understand what that comedian is working towards. It’s like, ‘I’m not trying to do that. I’m trying to do something else.’ That was the frustration I would commonly feel as a young comic.
And you feel that you’re where you want to be now?
Well, I think it’s an ongoing process. I think right now I’m pretty happy with the stuff that I’m doing, the way I approach it. I might get into more social issues. I’m thinking less personal and more social. I’m not at that point yet. I’m not done telling stories yet. It’s just the older I get, the more I start to think about that stuff. Right now there’s a lot of stuff going on with women where there’s a lack of respect, and protection of them. It’s pretty appalling and old-fashioned and stupid, in my opinion. It’s just absurd. It’s a long time coming that men started stepping up and helped women out, not just going, ‘Well, you’re on your own. Have fun with that baby.’ You really can’t just stand by anymore while this stuff goes on.
Interesting. Could you ever see yourself going an Al Franken route and running for public office?
No. Never. I can’t even imagine. I’ve never had any desire towards that.
So you have the special airing on Comedy Central this week. What else are you excited about coming up?
I’ve been very pleasantly busy for awhile now. It’s been very enjoyable. Right now I’m developing something with Comedy Central that I can’t really talk too much about. [ed. note: This is not the scripted show Tompkins and Tom Scharpling were developing for Comedy Central. The network passed on that.] But it would be a show that I would host. We’re going to be shooting a pilot pretty soon. So hopefully that will get picked up. That would be something I would really enjoy. I would have another television gig that would keep me home for a bit that would allow me to have dinner with my wife every night.
Check out Paul F. Tompkins’s new special on Comedy Central this Saturday, April 21 at 11 pm EST. Laboring Under Delusions will be released on DVD on April 24th!