What’s that indeterminate smudge on the horizon, you ask? Why, it’s another “Why So Serious?” Q&A, this time featuring our “Wittiest Renaissance Man This Side of the Mississippi” (which we just made up). Ladies and gentleman, may we present the inimitable Paul F. Tompkins.
Many of you will recognize him from VH1’s “Best Week Ever,” but comedy nerds know him as an impossibly urbane and talented stand-up, writer and actor who came up on HBO’s “Mr. Show” and has gone on to guest on various sitcoms (“Community,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “The Sarah Silverman Program,” etc.) while running his acclaimed variety stage-show at the Largo in L.A.
We chatted with the 42-year-old Philly native, who has lately been writing a fantastic recap-blog on “American Idol” for New York magazine’s Vulture site, in advance of his Friday, May 27 show at the Gothic Theatre.
You took a novel approach to your May 27 show at the Gothic, using Facebook to secure enough audience members before officially booking or announcing it. Have you done much of that in the past?
I do not mean to burst Denver’s bubble, but I’ve been doing this for a little over a year now. The first one was in Toronto and this has been the way I’ve been booking shows in general, getting the audience in place first then going and doing the show. It’s also a better way to reach people rather than the old model of booking a show, then trying to get the word out to people through morning radio — and other things people who enjoy what I do are not paying attention to. They already know who I am because they’re on Facebook and have befriended me or are fans of my page.
We’ve talked before about you working outside the traditional club circuit, which is something a lot of stand-ups have been pursuing the past decade. What are the benefits of that for you?
Having done the clubs for so many years, and especially before social networking really took off in the last handful of years, I would go do a show and part of doing the show was the preparation. Like, “Well, I have to win these people over. I have to prove to them that I’m funny.” Whereas going into an audience of people who are fans of mine, they’re already assuming I’m going to be funny. They know who I am and my sensibility. The problem with trying to win strangers over is that it’s a subjective thing. If they don’t think it’s funny there’s not much I can do about that. So why not try to find the people that do like it and entertain them?
Right, and that’s definitely part of the crossover between comedy and music in recent years, which we’ve also talked about before.
It’s pretty much the music model — you spend a lot of time as a musician, then build up a fan base, then go out and do your shows for your fans. But first you have to find these people, gather them, collect them. And once in place you got out and do this stuff. I’m at a point now where I can afford to say, “At this level I would like to go to the places where people know who I am.” And this is in the absence of a weekly television series, where I’d have that ability to reach a huge number of people on a weekly basis. When that happens, hopefully I can take more of a leap of faith.
You’re celebrating the ninth anniversary of your variety show at The Largo in L.A., which has welcomed tons of great musicians and comedians over the years (Fiona Apple, Jack Black, Aimee Mann, Ben Gibbard, Dave Foley, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Leo, Weird Al Yankovic, Ed Helms, etc.) How have you kept a variety show like that going for so long?
Well, I took a break from it. I think it was around 2006 or so, I had been doing the show for about four years and it was starting to wear me down. The responsibility of coming up with the show every month was starting to feel like a burden, and I had lost perspective on it. What I didn’t realize was that I was in charge of the show. So I took a break from it, which was really, really helpful. Then I realized, “Oh yes, this could be whatever I wanted it to be.” It was supposed to be purely for entertainment purposes, not about trying to sell something. It’s not about trying to get network executives to come see me. This is a purely artistic expression. Would I love it on TV? Yes, but first it’s gotta be a show I would want to see on TV. Once I realized that I was like, “This is what I wanted to do in the first place.”
If you had a clip show of your favorite guests who would it include?
That question causes such a blur of faces to go by — in a good way. So it’s really hard to say.
Can you pick a moment that sticks out that’s indicative of the show?
The other night I did a mashup of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and that P. Diddy song used for the “Godzilla” soundtrack, and had my first rapper on the show, this guy Open Mike Eagle. So we mashed up both songs and did an all-acoustic arrangement with a piano, 12-string guitar and acoustic bass and a couple violins, so it was exciting to do something like that. I had never RAPPED before, and he sang, but he was totally up for it. That to me is what that segment of the show is all about — the stuff I like to do with the musical guests is to get them to do something you wouldn’t expect of them. Another was singing “I Got You Babe” with Aimee Mann, but we had two dancers dressed as Darth Vader and C-3P0, and honest-to-god, it was a really lovely and tasteful dance number.
Do you have any regrets about the show over the years?
I only wish I had more time, more hours in the day to devote to mixing it up even more, because I like to do things that have almost a narrative thread that runs through the show, whether it’s overt or subtle. That to me is the real magic of a variety show: a live performance and comedy and music coming together to create moments. And what I’m always going for with it is these moments. I want to make people feel thrilled that they are seeing this right in front of them.
Visit the Gothic Theatre online for more information about Paul F. Tompkins’ Friday, May 27 concert.
John Wenzel is an executive editor of Reverb and an award-winning A&E reporter for The Denver Post. He is the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum) and maintains a Twitter feed of completely random song titles and band names.