Photos by Neal Santos at Little Pete’s (219 S. 17th St.)
Let’s say on one side of the comedy spectrum you've got Dane Cook. He’s wearing a tight T-shirt, he's aggro, prowling the stage, yelling, "Somebody shit on the coats!" He's naming his albums Retaliation and Isolated Incident. Somewhere at the other end in a double-breasted suit is Paul F. Tompkins, originally from Mount Airy. He actually smiles during his act. He riffs on daylight saving, and all the times he's been fired. He has a whole bit on the merits of cake versus those of pie. His albums are called Impersonal and Freak Wharf, a Go Ask Alice reference. Who would have thought that the nicest, classiest man in standup would be a dude from Philadelphia?
Tompkins — who, after moving to L.A. in 1994, landed gigs on HBO's Mr. Show and VH1's Best Week Ever along with lots of other TV and movie appearances — doesn't exactly call his style a conscious effort to be classy. "I make a conscious effort to keep it clean," he says over coffee at Little Pete's. "I know when I’m working a bit out and I curse, it's a bit of a crutch." While the audience laughs at the F-word, you've bought yourself time for the next line. "But I gradually weed that out. Because I can't get out of my head that it's easy. For me they have to be laughing at my ideas."
The jovial, gap-toothed comic was in town for a sold-out performance at Plays & Players Theater. Unlike most comedy shows, unlike Tompkins' own performances just five years earlier, that evening wasn’t a scattered array of jokes but a series of thematically linked stories. It followed his career, from working retail on South Street at Hats in the Belfry and an ill-fated little video shop called Beta Only, to his curious experiences in TV and movies. (P.T. Anderson has cast him twice. In Magnolia he was a voice. In There Will Be Blood he was a blur. That's progress.) And his You Should Have Told Me, a sometimes-poignant one-hour special about his mom's struggle with cancer, aired on Comedy Central in June.
The Impersonal days of Paul
F. Tompkins, it seems, are over. He's always tweeting and popping up on
fellow comedians' podcasts, not to mention the brand-new Pod F.
Tompkast. Just up the turnpike in Jersey City, you can frequently hear
him shooting the breeze with Tom Scharpling of "The Best Show on WMFU."
The two, whose riffing on Insane Clown Posse last year launched a
thousand imitators, are currently in the early stages of developing a
sitcom for Comedy Central. And the Tompkins 300 scheme has his fans
organizing on Facebook to get him to play their hometowns. It's led to
gigs in Baton Rouge, Oklahoma City and some other unknown comedy hot
spots. It’s also what brought him back to his hometown, where he ordered
scrapple every single morning for breakfast.
City Paper: What was Philly like during the standup comedy boom of the late '80s/early '90s?
F. Tompkins: There was definitely a scene. There was a crowd of guys
that I ran with that was sort of my graduating class — we all kind of
started at the same time, and we would encourage each other. That’s
really crucial when you’re starting out. You need other people saying,
[laughs] you should be doing this. You're on the right track. Because
otherwise it would be very easy for you to stop doing it.
CP: It was rough?
Even though there wasn’t as much stage time as, say New York, there
were a lot of one-nighters where you could go and earn, you know, 25
bucks, and perform in front of really tough crowds. What you lacked in
quantity, you certainly made up for in difficulty, to make you better.
Philly was a great place to start because the crowds were tough. If they
didn't like you they would let you know. It was a good place to thicken
PFT: Yeah, heckling, and people just like talking. It's … it’s got its brutal side.
CP: I guess Philly can be brutal in all things.
CP: You started out as a comedy duo with high school pal Rick Roman.
PFT: We put an act together that was kind of sketch-oriented. We did little skits as opposed to straight/man funny guy. There was nothing really standup-y about it. We were heavily influenced by Monty Python. We had an absurdist bent.
We went up July 11, 1986, at the Comedy Works, that was my first time on stage. That night is a total blur. I remember everything surrounding being on stage but I don't remember being on stage. That was such an intense experience. The great thing about being part of a team is that when it’s going badly you have somebody else there who's having the same experience. It's easier to kind of shrug it off like, it was them, right? By yourself, as crushing as bombing can be … when it goes well it is all yours and there is nothing like that.
Rick passed away [in 1992]. He had gone to Chicago to get into improv. … He was driving a cab and it was a bad stretch of road where a lot of accidents had happened and he ended up going off the road and drowning in the river there. After that, they fixed the thing. But nobody had died so they never did anything about it [before]. That’s how the story goes.CP: The Comedy Works was above Middle East, now Mad River, in Old City?
PFT: That was what I considered my home club — because in those days, the Comedy Factory Outlet and the Comedy Works were feuding with each other, and you were either a Works guy or an Outlet guy. And you couldn’t really work both clubs, and what was so stupid was that we all went along with that, all the comics.
CP: Who else was playing Philly clubs back then?
PFT: Probably the name that you would know would be Todd Glass, who was on Last Comic Standing. He was an established guy when I was starting, I didn't realize he had started just a couple years before me. I started when I was 17. He started when he was 15. But he always looked more adult. When you start out, you assume that the people you haven’t seen before have been around for a hundred years, you know.
Todd was a big influence on me later — not at the time. I used to love watching him, and then I realized later what was so great about him was that he was actually having fun. Whereas when you're a new comic you get a lot of unsolicited advice from older comics.
And it's all about how to do comedy and the sort of craft of it and here's what you do to make people laugh, but it’s not about creativity. And nobody ever talked about having a good time. It was just about "I killed" or talk about the money or what place has good food or whatever. But Todd was always, always, always, always in the moment, having a good time. That's the most important part. You have to have it.
CP: Your old employer Hats in the Belfry is still here. Was South Street a madhouse back then?
PFT: Weekends, yeah, it would get pretty crazy. It still had some of its punk-slash-hippie flavor back then, in the mid-'80s, but it was starting to make the change to the kind of strip mally-Gap thing. I think Tower was the first one to open there that was a chain.
That seemed kinda weird. And then gradually all that stuff started moving in and then these landmark places closed down. But I got off the street before. I worked at Tower Books right before I moved to L.A.
CP: I know a bunch of people who used to work there.
PFT: Tower had a sort of reputation for being a cool place to work, but it was just as corporate as anything else.
CP: Where did you live in Philly?
PFT: All over. My first apartment, I moved in with a girl and we lived at Fifth and Girard across from St. John Neumann. I lived in West Philly for a month, around Osage Avenue. Then I was at Second and Fitzwater for a long time. Then a place on Juniper, near Lombard street. Then I lived on top of the New Wave Café for a while.
In between a lot of those places, I went back home to Mount Airy to live with my parents. It took me a while to get my act together. I always ended up leaving places and I didn’t have another place to go. It was always like, wait, how did this happen?
CP: You never went up to New York to do standup?
PFT: I remember going up one time with friends of mine who were gonna try to get on and I was terrified just on the ride up. … I don't know if it was the New York comics who came down to Philly who really intimidated me.
I might've had the defensiveness of being from Philly, the you think you're so great kind of a thing that's just bred into us. Before I moved to Los Angeles I was, eh, I'll go there cause I have to. It's stupid. And then when I got there, this is nice. I like it.
CP: Tell me about the move to Los Angeles.
PFT: My parents had given me $1,000, that was my meal ticket, and then I had spent 100 before I got to L.A. I went through that money so fast. I crashed on somebody’s couch; somebody was kind enough to take me in and I lived in this one-room — not one-bedroom, one-room — apartment with him and his girlfriend.
I'd never been that broke and that removed from any kind of support system. I'd been so lucky and I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I was not truly out on my own when I thought I was in Philly.
CP: Couldn't just move back to Mount Airy anymore.
PFT: Exactly! I needed an exit strategy for every place.
CP: Right now, I don’t know if people consider Philadelphia a standup hotbed, but the improv scene is certainly growing.
PFT: I’ve seen a lot more of that online, talk of the Philly improv scene. Which is nice, because it didn’t really exist when I started. There was one improv group that I can remember, they called themselves for some reason Comedy Airlines. They would do improv in the clubs and it was the simplest kind of games the could do with drunk people. That was it. I never saw an improv show in Philly. It was not close to what is happening now — a full-time improv theater [PhIT] that’s moving to a bigger space, and who produced my show that I did on Saturday. The standup scene, there's Helium and I guess there’s open mics from what I’ve heard, scattered around.
CP: I saw you play Helium in 2007, around when Impersonal came out.
PFT: It was strange to do Helium even though everybody there was really nice, and it was a brand-new club so everything was in great condition, great sound system and great seating and everything — it was still strange to be in the city where I came from and being at this new place. Not returning to a place that I knew.
CP: No place to make your triumphant return?
PFT: Not so much a triumphant return as just the nostalgia factor. It would be nice to have headlined the club where I worked my way up — only so far. But that said, the way that I'm doing things now, I’m much happier. I think just the clubs didn’t have anything for me anymore.
CP: With the PFT 300 thing, you’re playing theaters now, and ditching the comedy clubs.
PFT: The comedy club is in the bar/restaurant business. And I’m in the comedy business. We're not on the same page, what we're doing. That's the conflict. I just want everything to be about the show. I would like to expand my audience for sure, but I think the way to do that in this day and age is through social media and podcasts, things like that. People come up to me at shows saying, I first heard you on Never Not Funny or Comedy Death Ray or something like that. That’s great.
CP: Some comedy podcasts have recently start tackling issues, like joke-stealing and expensive standup boot camps. Will the Pod F. Tompkast go that route?
PFT: No, but I won't rule it out for my career in general. Because I feel like I've had this evolution that I did not anticipate. Getting into more personal topics and talking about myself and my feelings. And where I’m at now, there’s a big leap from my first CD to [You Should Have Told Me]. I started off nothing about me at all, it's all just jokes, very high concept, and then just a couple years later I'm talking about my mother's death. That was not an intentional thing.
CP: I enjoyed the first episode.
PFT: When I read reviews of podcasts it kills me. There's something about comedy that makes people angry when they don't like it. When they don't like comedy they get mad about it, and the stuff that gets spewed on iTunes reviews is hilarious to me.
Whereas, a CD of mine, if somebody gives me a negative review it might hurt my feelings a bit. Because hey, that's my art and I'm presenting this and people are paying for it. But if it's a podcast, because it's free it doesn't bother me at all. It’s like, why did you listen to the whole thing, dummy?
CP: And the show you're doing now focuses on your career from Hats in the Belfry to Hollywood.
PFT: I was afraid of venturing into, like, Kathy Griffin territory, where I'm just gonna talk about famous people. Which is fine for Kathy, but that's not me. I didn't want to alienate anybody who was not in the same business that I was in, and it just seemed like, who cares about your showbiz stories? I realized that my way into it was my feelings about all this stuff.
CP: Most standup shows don't have themes. Have you thought about calling it a one-man show?
PFT: I think I'd have to have a hat rack on stage.
CP: Best Week Ever. You were a contributor.
PFT: An analyst, yes.
CP: And then they move you out to New York to host.
PFT: I loved it. I absolutely loved it. It's unfortunate that there was an air of stress and worry the whole time because we weren’t getting new people. … We couldn’t compete with the reality programming [VH1 was] doing at the time, and which they're still doing, which was so cheap. … It was a really base model. It’s like, here's a really prurient escape where here’s these scummy people, they're drunk and they're dumb. And they're saying dumb things and we're laughing at them and they're gonna try to have sex with each other, and you get to see it! It appealed to everybody's worst instincts. And then there's us, this really silly show, like, did you see what happened on Cake Boss?
CP: BWE was not without its social commentary.
PFT: There was always a push to have more clips from our shows, from VH1 shows, and I said, OK, but I always want to make a comment about here's what you're watching. What does it say about you? What does it say about society? Here’s a funny joke that has a little bit of weight to it.
CP: Which made your show antithetical to VH1.
PFT: Right. You shouldn't be watching this, America! This cheapens us as a society!
CP: When did you feel like you'd kinda made it?
PFT: It was when I got hired to do Mr. Show. That was in '96. And I had just been fired from Tower Video in West Hollywood for theft. That was a really low ebb, when I got fired for stealing videos and then I think it was like a month later I got a job on Mr. Show. There was definitely a feeling of redeeming myself.
Over the years I've done a decent job of not taking it for granted. I'm more grateful than I ever have been. I think it’s also that I shed a lot of fear. It's better to run toward the things that you're afraid of.
CP: Which you’re doing more and more in your act …
PFT: Louis CK — who is one of the funniest guys ever, and in the last couple years completely found his voice — is a really exploratory comic, loves to get into his own darker nature and the darker nature of humanity. And he curses, you know, and he talks about some crass things that I could never bring myself to talk about, but I would never [say], oh, he shouldn't talk that way. There needs to be guys who talk that way, there needs to be a guy like Louis doing what he’s doing.
It's so far afield from what I do and yet I feel like there is a relationship in terms of exploring emotions and exploring your own psyche. I'm just a lot gentler than he is about it. I think I still have enough fear in me that I shy away from the really dark stuff about what makes me tick or what makes people tick in general.
CP: Does some of that come from Catholic school?
PFT: Oh yeah, I'm still coming out of that. The biggest thing for me is recognizing: Wait a minute! This is that stuff talking. I'm not beholden to that any more. I can think my own thoughts.
CP: You really came to Little Pete's earlier this morning for scrapple?
PFT: I love it. Every time I come to Philly I go to a place like this, and I always have scrapple. My wife hates it — but she's from the South! She eats disgusting things. Like boiled peanuts. Horrible.
CP: I'll defend scrapple.
PFT: Thank you.
CP: Of course, I won't be able to name the component parts.
PFT: Let's not take the mystery out of it. Right?
CP: So much in show biz is about getting greenlit, right?
PFT: The technology exists today to do your own thing. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a great example. They made their own TV show and then they went to networks and said, look, here's a TV show. It's all ready to go. You don’t have to imagine it. This is what it would be like. … More and more, networks are expecting that. They wanna see a little five-minute trailer or a 15-minute presentation of the thing. Because it’s possible to do that, it’s like we expect you to do it. As lazy as that seems sometimes — really? You’re not gonna? What do you do exactly then? — It forces you to work harder. It’s not a bad model.
CP: Would you do a sitcom if one came up?
PFT: Absolutely. I love to work. There's a period that you go through as an artist where you worry a lot about what other people think. Now I just worry about what I think. Could I play this guy for five years? If the answer is yes, I will audition for that show. …
For me the choice really is more about quality of life than are people gonna think I’m not cool anymore? I would like to have a nice life with my wife that enables us to not have to worry about eating every month and maybe we can buy a house and maybe we can have a vacation every year.
I will not just blindly say yes to everything. Because I have the luxury of not having kids. If you have kids, all bets are off and you do what you have to do. I have friends who have families, and they are like cool actors who have a lot of street cred, and they’ve done crappy sitcoms that they probably wouldn't have done before. But they don't think twice about it because they have children. And that’s kind of what being a parent is all about. I totally admire that.
CP: Tell me about the project with Tom Scharpling.
PFT: I hope that's gonna go, because that would be the best of all possible worlds. It might not, and until it does, I’m going to audition for other stuff.
CP: It's a sitcom you’re developing for Comedy Central?
PFT: We're writing the script right now. As of this interview we are waiting for the deal to close. It should be either today or tomorrow. And then we can officially start working on it. … Then we can say, this is our job right now, writing this script. This is a special opportunity that we’re both free at the same time.