Comedian Paul F. Tompkins does TV, podcasts and everything else he can find time for
Tompkins has his own TV show and podcast, performs live shows, appears as a guest on numerous other podcasts and writes and performs on several other TV shows.
Comedian Paul F. Tompkins has appeared on basically every comedy podcast you may have heard of, and a lot that you haven't. We tried fooling him, giving him a list of podcasts and getting him to name the fake one, but he caught it right away — "Dan's Den." Still, Tompkins sees that as a challenge to make more podcasts.
"I hope this inspires someone to create 'Dan's Den,'" Tompkins tells the Frame.
He says he's lost count of how many podcasts he's been on, but it's at least in the hundreds by now.
"Somebody was tracking them for a while," Tompkins says. "I don't know what happened to that person. Maybe they went mad!"
Podcasts have offered Tompkins an alternative to never-ending morning radio appearances.
If it weren't for podcasts, he says he "would probably be still traveling around, doing morning radio to promote my appearances, and really cursing the fact that I have to get up before the sun comes up in order to try to trick people into taking a chance on seeing me live, as opposed to being able to just do it myself and find my audience that way."
Podcasting has become its own medium, Tompkins says, offering another platform for comedians beyond avenues such as live shows and film.
"It's not really radio, and it's not really stage," Tompkins says. Podcasting offers the fun of play without having the live audience pressuring you:
"There's no expectation. The idea of live performance is, especially if you're doing improvising, if you're doing stand-up, the audience is there waiting every second to laugh. The pressure is on, they're there. You can't go too long without a laugh. So there's this sort of high wire feeling to it.
"Whereas podcasting, if you're improvising on a podcast, you are working directly with the other person. There's not the pressure of the people in the dark watching you. You know that an audience is going to hear this, but you can open up your mind in a way that maybe you can't when you're in front of an audience."
While recording a podcast lacks the feel of the live audience, Tompkins says that after doing it long enough, you develop an internal gauge where you know what's good and what isn't:
"You've built enough experience that you can say, I know when I'm working at the top of my game. Really, in anything, you could always be doing better. The nature of people that do the kind of thing that I do is ... you could even get a standing ovation and you could still [think], That one bit didn't go exactly the way that I wanted it to go. I didn't say it exactly the right way."
With Bob and David
Tompkins always has new projects ready to go, but one is actually a return engagement. He's doing Netflix's "With Bob and David," which is reuniting the team behind the classic cult sketch comedy series "Mr. Show" — Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. They're much bigger stars than they were when the original launched in 1995, which Tompkins says has made for a strange experience.
"To be doing kind of the same thing with the same people after a 16-year break is, it's weird," Tompkins says. "There's many moments of clarity, where I will find myself just falling into the way that it was, and then realizing this is not then, this is now."
He's also doing his own TV show on the Fusion cable channel, "No, You Shut Up," and a new podcast, Spontaneanation, along with live shows. Still, the third season of Tompkins' show just wrapped and his podcast has a few episodes banked, so he has a bit more breathing room than normal.
"I have a tendency to not say no to things," Tompkins says. "Things are fun to do. And, I guess it's a mark of adulthood to realize, You, hey dude, you have a finite amount of energy and time on this earth, so maybe just because there's a blank space on your calendar, don't just fill it because it's open. Allow yourself time to say, Oh, I might want to just like hang out and watch a movie that day. Or I might want to spend some time with my wife, perhaps. But I decided that this year was going to be a year of hard choices, which is saying no to things that I could do and really want to do, but probably shouldn't do."
Tompkins says that, for the past few years, he kept saying yes to everything and would end each year worn down and swearing not to do it again — before doing the exact same thing again. This led to a day where he forgot his wife's birthday and fell asleep at a stop sign while driving his car.
No, You Shut Up!
Tompkins does love his other projects. He describes "No, You Shut Up" as "Meet The Press" with puppets:
"So I'm the host, and then a number of our panelists are not real; they are creations of felt and buttons, and they have very strong opinions and viewpoints on things," Tompkins says. "We did two seasons of 15-minute episodes, and then we expanded to half-hour episodes in this third season, and that really allowed us to open the show up and make it a really crazy, surreal-- like, it's gone beyond just the sort of one-joke idea of, What if puppets were panelists on a news show? — and it's gone into really weird places. We've gotten great guests, and it's been really a joy to work on. I'm really proud of it and I laugh all day long when we shoot that show."
The puppets bear the seal of the highest level in puppetry — the Jim Henson Company. Tompkins says the puppets on his show look like cousins of the Muppets:
"It is a very strange thing, and the way it's configured, I can't see the puppeteers — they are below the desk — and they have monitors so they can make sure that they are making, quote-unquote, 'eye contact' with me. And that was the biggest challenge for me early on, because there's a huge improv element to our show — we riff a lot with each other."
Tompkins says it took a while, but eventually it dawned on him that the problem was that he was missing the visual cues that are such a huge part of improv.
"To see someone's face, even to see their physicality — they might start to move in a certain way, and you realize, Oh, time for me to shut up, this person has something to say, they're going to take this in a different direction. But when you are looking at a thing, and it just has these black dolls' eyes, it's unnerving, and you don't know what's going to happen — not in a good way. But then after a while, what became more unnerving is when I got used to it, when these things began to become real to me."
That cast of characters includes a variety of forest creatures gone political, including a Christian conservative squirrel.
Tompkins says he doesn't think the show's characters are that far off from real Fox News anchors.
"They would cloak their language a little more, they wouldn't be as direct as Star the Squirrel is, but absolutely. And that character voiced by Colleen Smith, who is a tremendous performer, is one of my favorite characters on the show, because she is like Facebook comments come to life. There is someone that you know in your Facebook feed who says exactly these things."
The show draws inspiration from all sorts of places — including MTV's "Ridiculousness," which inspired their parody "Wait, What?!"
"They watch YouTube clips of people hurting themselves [on 'Ridiculousness'], and then they don't really make jokes about it, they just sort of comment and sort of sum up exactly what we just watched. And so our writers were obsessed with this show, and we decided, that episode, for our show, was a big turning point, because that's when we really started to go off in a very strange direction, and realize, well, not everything has to be about the news."
Tompkins' new podcast was birthed when the Earwolf podcasting network, on which he's a frequent guest (including flagship show "Comedy Bang Bang"), approached him about doing a new show. He'd done a show before called the Pod F. Tompkast that was highly produced, but Tompkins says it was unsustainable to make that show while trying to have a career outside of it.
"So when these guys approached me, I thought, OK, what would be the opposite of that show? — something that I could just show up and do, and when I'm done, the show is done. And I realized, Oh, OK, I like to do improv, and I like to chat with people, and there's got to be a way that I can do all those things without any preparation at all, beyond just booking the guests. And this is what I came up with."
The show is based around a freeform interview, where Tompkins tries to ask questions to get details that he and a group of improvisers use to inspire a scene.
"It's been so enjoyable to do, and it's also an exercise for me in letting go and not having to micromanage everything," Tompkins says. "The show — week in, week out — it is what it is. It is ephemeral, it is in the moment, it is exactly what it is supposed to be."
The scenes are also accompanied by Eban Schletter, who improvises live music on piano. Tompkins says he's been working with Schletter for almost 20 years. The musician also works with Tompkins on live shows, including creating a new arrangement of Adele's "Skyfall" for one show.
Tompkins says that, after all the media he's done, he thinks there's probably enough info about him online that you could do a pretty good job impersonating him just by studying how much of his life has been documented:
"If you wanted to actually live my life and fool my wife, you might be able to do it from my podcast appearances."
More episodes of "No, You Shut Up" are currently airing on Fusion, and this fall he'll be back on Netflix in "With Bob and David" and on the animated show, "BoJack Horseman" — where he voices the talking dog, Mr. Peanutbutter.