MOST OF THE STAND-UPS and performers you'll see at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival this year will be around all weekend. Paul F Tompkins, on the other hand, is dropping in for just one show—a live taping of his The Dead Authors Podcast, where Tompkins, playing the role of time-traveling writer HG Wells, interviews guest comedians who perform in character as dead authors. (John Hodgman as Ayn Rand, Kristen Schaal as Tennessee Williams... you get the idea.)
Tompkins' Bridgetown schedule is only a little unfair: The fearsomely talented stand-up and actor is an incredibly busy man. On top of his podcast work, Tompkins hosts No, You Shut Up!, a news/comedy show on the Fusion channel, where he interacts with a company of bizarre puppets, and the weekly web series Speakeasy, where he interviews an actor or comic about their careers. Add to it the monthly variety show he hosts in LA and regular acting and stand-up gigs, and it's a wonder we were able to get Tompkins on the phone at all. Bully for us, we were able to corner him for a few minutes to talk about his work and to grill him on the fact that he's never actually done a proper stand-up show in our fair city.
MERCURY: As far as I can tell, you've never been to Portland to do stand-up. Is that true?
PAUL F TOMPKINS: No, I've done stand-up there before. I'm trying to remember when that was... it's been a while... I feel like I've done it... [laughs]. You know, I could be wrong here! I thought I had.
This time around you're coming to record an edition of The Dead Authors Podcast. How did that series get started?
It was a reading series that started at the 826 chapter in San Francisco. They'd have someone portray an author, do a reading, and then do a Q&A. It was mostly for kids. I was invited to participate in it at the LA Festival of Books, along with Jen Kirkman and Eddie Pepitone. I was going to be HG Wells, Jen was going to be Sylvia Plath, and Eddie was going to be Henry Miller. But there wasn't any structure as to how it was going to go. So I said, 'How about I moderate the thing and help field the questions from the audience?' So the idea was that I'm Wells and I've brought everyone here in my time machine. It was so much fun and I instantly saw an ongoing show in my mind. So I asked if I could do this as a podcast to help spread awareness of 826. We usually do it on off-nights at the UCB Theatre in LA and all the proceeds go to 826. I really, really enjoy doing it. I love the challenge of doing all the riffing in character and also getting to work with different people from the improv and stand-up worlds.
How much research goes into these podcasts?
I do the research. It's never incumbent upon my guest to do the research. I'll know a lot about the author and they never need to know anything. That way they can answer however they want and it's not dependent on facts. It's all things that can't be proven. You don't know how that person felt about something. That way they can feel free to say whatever they want while still maintaining the actual timeline of the [author].
It's a great showcase for something you've been doing more of in your stand-up, which is doing some freeform riffing before you go into your prepared material. When did you start incorporating that into your stand-up?
I would say most comics do a little bit of that. But for shows where I was going up with no opener to a cold crowd, I realized I needed to warm them up, if only for myself. Sometimes it's tough to just jump right into the material, especially mine, which is more story-oriented. It was just a natural thing that happened, but then I really started to enjoy it and just let it happen.
Would you consider doing something like Todd Barry's Crowd Work Tour, where you do shows with nothing prepared?
Not crowd work, but I have considered doing something more spontaneous. On my podcast and as part of the variety show that I used to do at Largo, I would do a lot of riffing over music, a purely stream-of-consciousness kind of thing. I would love to do an entire set of that and completely improvise from start to finish. That to me would be a big risk to count on it being really satisfying for everybody every single time. I'm getting close to the point where I'm ready for something like that.
It's a bit of a risk, but I think you're at the point in your career where you could do a bunch of shows like that and know that people will follow you every step of the way.
I only thought of it as one-off kind of thing. I was pleasantly surprised when, for Freak Wharf, I made that available to the general public. I never expected that warm-up stuff to be part of the record, but I had enough distance from when it happened that it all seemed brand new to me. And I thought, 'This might actually be pretty funny.' I ran it past the guys at my record label and they agreed. Now, I'd love to do a whole album like that.
Has any of that pre-show riff material turned into more fleshed-out bits for your stand-up?
No. I've been asked that before but I think that one of the reasons that it works is that I do it as just one long piece. Everything leads into the next thing. Also the stuff I'm doing now is less conceptual and more personal. I don't know how I would fit that in.
What is the prognosis with your personal podcast, The Pod F Tompkast? Will that be returning soon?
It's just a matter of scheduling. The last six months have been [so] crazily busy that it had to fall by the wayside. I have every intention of bringing it back.
I'm glad you mentioned your busy schedule because... well, you are impressively busy. Do you like to stay that busy or do you feel like you have to keep so many things going to stay afloat in this business?
Kind of both. I like to keep busy. I really like to work and am fortunate that I get to do a lot of different things. I want to keep learning and trying new things and sharpening different skills. It gets hectic sometimes, for sure, and I don't get to spend as much time at home and relaxing. But there is that fear that I've got to keep going and don't want to let anything fall by the wayside. Of course, I just did this pilot for ABC [Bambi Cottages] that is just a straight-up acting job. If that gets picked up, that will impact my life greatly. I won't be able to do as many things as I have been, but the compensation will be great. And I'll be able to have a more manageable schedule.
Can you talk about the pilot at all?
Sure! It's a sitcom with Molly Shannon and me as the parents of six children and we run a rental cottage business in New Hampshire. It's set in 1976 and it was created by Brian Gallivan, who is an extremely talented improviser, writer, and performer. It's based on his life growing up the fifth of six children. I had a great time doing it. I love Molly Shannon and I love working with her. And all the kids are nice and thoughtful and talented. You usually don't get all three things working with that many child actors.
Having been involved in so many different kinds of projects, do you have a dream job that you would love to take on?
I think something like [my] variety show. I just started that back up again and have been putting clips of it online. I love doing that so much because it's comedy and music and getting to interact with actors and comics and musicians that I like. If that could be a weekly TV show, that would be a dream come true. Or something like Speakeasy. I really love doing that. If it paid me enough to live off of, I would just do that. I just really love working with other people and talking with people and playing around with them.