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May 05, 2016

Interview: Comedian Paul F. Tompkins

The Philly-born funnyman returns with the 'Comedy Bang! Bang!' Tour

Comedy Podcasts
Paul F. Tompkins Lisa Whiteman/courtesy Paul F. Tompkins

Paul F. Tompkins plays the Keswick this Sunday with Lauren Lapkus and Scott Aukerman.

Paul F. Tompkins is one of the funniest people in the biz, but you kind of have to know where to find him. The Philly-born/L.A.-based comedian hosted, until recently, a very funny and surprisingly pointed program called “No You Shut Up” (imagine “The Daily Show” with Muppets), but if you don’t get the Fusion network, you were outta luck. He plays a deranged CEO on the real-estate reality show send-up “Bajillion Dollar Propertie$,” but you need to sign up for NBC’s streaming Seeso service for that. He provides the voice of anthropomorphic dog-person Mr. Peanutbutter on the animated cult hit comedy “Bojack Horseman”; you need Netflix for that one.

And, of course, Tompkins is always popping up in TV shows and movies and doing standup, but the most reliable place to find him is in the podcasting world — where he’s the undisputed (OK, it could be disputed, I suppose) champion of longform improv comedy. On Scott Aukerman’s long-running "Comedy Bang! Bang!" podcast, Tompkins is a popular and regular guest, known for his wildly imaginative impressions of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Werner Herzog, Garry Marshall and more. His own podcasts, "Spontaneanation" and "SuperEgo," offer new formats and collaborators — and new ways for Tompkins to show off his improv chops.

He’ll be back in his hometown, or close enough, on Sunday when he, Aukerman and fellow comedian/podcaster/actress Lauren Lapkus come to the Keswick Theatre with a live version of "Comedy Bang! Bang!"

Tompkins was on his way to record an episode of "Spontaneanation" when we spoke by phone.

Do you still feel a connection to the area?

Oh, 100 percent. It always takes me by surprise how strong it feels, if I get to walk around the city and see all these places that I used to hang out. I still have a lot of friends in the city, and my family is still in the area.

Do you say 'wooder'?

Hahaha. I have gotten myself out of the habit. I don’t have to concentrate anymore to say 'water.' But 'wooder' will still sometimes come out.

Do you know who the mayor of Philly is right now?

It’s not still Michael Nutter, right?

No, we have a new one.

I feel like I just saw the name recently, too…

It’s Jim Kenney.

There we go. So, wait, can he rap?

I thought a real precedent had been set, that from now on, Philadelphia would always have a rapping mayor.

Not that I know.

Oh, I thought a real precedent had been set, that from now on, Philadelphia would always have a rapping mayor.

So, I’m new at PhillyVoice, but from what I’ve been told, anything about the Eagles or football gets a lot of traffic on the site. Do you have any comments about football?

I wish I did. I’ve never been a football fan, and I only started following baseball this year for the first time since I was a kid. I’m not really a big sports person. But … seeing [friends] on Twitter and Instagram talking about games — people seemed to be into it so much. I got jealous. So I’ve been following the Phillies.

But yeah, football to me — it’s real tough, man. It brings back memories of Sundays when I was a kid. Just a lot of harsh sounds and yelling. And knowing that I had homework due that I wasn’t gonna do until the morning.

You’ve come at comedy from several different directions: actor, host, standup, improv. Is comedy still scary for you? Was it ever?

It always was and it still is. … For most standups, you have to be in the moment because anything can happen in the room. … Your job as the comedian is to let everyone know that everything’s gonna be OK. The most extreme example is like if someone had a heart attack — which has happened to me and other people that I know. It’s crazy. But you’re the one on stage, you have lights pointed at you, and you have a microphone, and you have to say OK, 'Well, we’re going to deal with this and everything’s going to be fine.'

And improv?

To keep a scene going and make it make sense — that is a totally different kind of thing. It’s related, but it’s not the same. So that, that was very scary for me. But I realized I enjoyed it so much. I enjoyed watching it so much.

And because of podcasting, doing characters … that was sort of dipping my toe into the waters of improv and a little soft practice that I could do before finally jumping into the deep end with trained people and just going for it. It’s still a very exciting thing for me. It’s not something that I have mastered by any means. I think I have a natural ability toward it, and I think my standup training has helped, but I am very much still learning improv. And enjoying it immensely.

I sometimes think of Scott Aukerman’s role on the 'Comedy Bang! Bang!' podcast as a comedy saboteur. He is very willing to pounce on a misspoken word or a pause —

Oh, yeah.

The thing that I love about Scott is that he is not an agent of chaos, but he is an agent of mischief.

And it’ll push things into a whole new direction, and it’s up to everybody to sort of recover or deal with it.

The thing that I love about Scott is that he is not an agent of chaos, but he is an agent of mischief. He loves to paint other people into a corner. And it’s fun, it’s really fun. You know, there are times when it’s frustrating because you might have a thing that you wanted to do but now because you did screw up a word or something, he jumps on that — but, you know, everyone is in agreement. ... It’s entirely up to the improviser, to the guest, to say, 'You know what, yes, I am going to go along with this idea, this very challenging idea that he has pushed me into, because it’ll be fun to try to get out of it. It’ll be fun to try to make sense of this.'

And, ultimately, that’s one of the things that I enjoy so much about the show, that I love about Scott, is that he’s just trying to have fun. And he’s just trying to make it fun. He’s not trying to screw people. He’s not trying to make it so that none of it makes sense. It’s a weird sign of respect, almost. He’s like, 'I know that you’ll make this funny. If I seize on this strange little detail in your story, that you weren’t even thinking that much about, and make it the focus right now, I trust that you will make something good and we will get there together and have a good time.' 

One thing I especially enjoy about the Aukerman/Tompkins chemistry is that he pulls your comedy into areas it might not always go, maybe something a little more lowbrow.

Scott will say the smartest thing and he’ll say the dumbest thing. To him, whatever happens next, he’s fine with. Either we just laugh at it or we stop and get into how stupid the thing is and that leads somewhere else. It’s win-win.

Tell me something about Lauren Lapkus that nobody knows.

That nobody knows? Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know Lauren personally that well. I think we’ve only ever hung out offstage, like, the tiniest handful of times, running into each other at a party and having brief conversations. So she’s still a mystery to me. I really adore her and I love, love, love playing with her. She’s very mischievous, too. And she is so smart. She surprises me all the time.

That’s a big thing — when you do comedy for a long time, the thing that you’re drawn to, is, I think, it’s one of two things: It’s either you love [the] craft and you love the mechanics and you love a well-written joke and that’s the kind of thing you’re drawn to, an airtight, perfect structure. But for me, it’s surprise — if somebody can really catch me off guard.

Something I’ve noticed, listening to your appearances on podcasts and from watching 'Key and Peele,' is that comedy can slide very comfortably into sci-fi. On CBB, you might start out doing a heightened version of 'Cake Boss' or Garry Marshall — and somehow you end up talking about other dimensions and cryogenics and such. Why do you think that is?

It’s the craziest place you can go. It’s the ultimate heightening if you get into science fiction, religion, whatever.

It’s the craziest place you can go. It’s the ultimate heightening if you get into science fiction, religion, whatever. You’re getting into either technology beyond our understanding or some sort of supernatural stuff beyond our understanding. …

I also think it’s that science fiction is ridiculous, and the only way science fiction works is if you say, 'I choose to go along with this and say that it’s not ridiculous.' That’s how science fiction works. People who don’t like science fiction mostly don’t like it because they think it’s dumb. They think, 'No, it’s just impossible.' Some people are very literal. There are people who have a hard time with fiction in general. Like, they don’t like to read a novel because it’s made up. … If you go along with a premise, you’re gonna have fun. If you poke holes in the premise, the fun is over.

So it’s not that you’re a sci-fi geek, it's just that that’s where comedy goes sometimes.

Yeah, it’s just where it goes sometimes. I mean, I do like a lot of sci-fi. I wouldn’t say it’s my preferred genre, but I certainly — I was a big 'Twilight Zone' fan. I loved that when I was a kid, still have a deep affection for it. You know, the 'Star Trek' universe, I have an abiding affection for from my youth. I really enjoy the morality tale kind of stuff. When sci-fi is at its best, it’s supposed to be showing us something about ourselves. Of course, there’s just flat-out entertaining stuff, it’s not about a message, but I like when it’s a bit of a thinker and you can take away something from it that’s a little deeper than just an entertaining story. But yeah, I think it’s because it’s silly. It’s a great place to go because it’s silly.

You’re involved with several very funny, very different projects — 'Bajillion Dollar Propertie$' (on Seeso), 'No You Shut Up' (on the Fusion network) and 'Bojack Horseman' (on Netflix) — all shows that you have to do a little bit of work to find. Is that frustrating sometimes?

Sometimes, but I have to accept that it’s just the nature of things now. There are so many platforms. There’s so much content out there. You kind of have to trust a network that’s a new venture to say, 'Look, we know that there’s a lot of competition out there, that there are so many ways that people can watch stuff. So we’re gonna let you do what you’re gonna do. We believe in you, and we’re going to give you more of a chance than a network is going to give you.' …

Obviously, people who are creative, if they want to make a living in television, in show business, the idea is, 'OK, get on an established thing that everyone has in their house already.' So if you get on a network, that’s great, because more people can potentially see it. There’s a little bit more money because the entity has been around a long time. It’s kind of the best-case scenario. The one trade-off can often be creativity. The more money that is at stake, the more people meddle, the more cooks are in the kitchen. The less money, the more you’re kind of allowed to do what you want to do. 

Hey, is 'Bojack Horseman' sci-fi?

It’s definitely akin to sci-fi, because it’s presenting this world and it’s saying, 'This is just how this world is.' I think the difference is if it were sci-fi, it would be about 'there are anthropomorphic animals and human beings side by side.' It would be about that relationship. But it’s not. It never is, and I love that they never explore it, that they make sort of oblique references to it, but they never explain it. I feel like that whole episode about the chickens — there are eating chickens and chickens that are, you know, humanized, humanoid that walk around and they never explain why. That, to me, is hilarious.

Comedy Bang! Bang! Live

With Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins and Lauren Lapkus
Sunday, May 8, 8 p.m.
Keswick Theatre
291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside