Your typical TV puppets sing, dance and offer up can’t-we-all-get-along bromides. It’s the rare puppet that gets to call a presidential candidate “Hitlery Clinton,” as the conservative squirrel Star Schlessinger did on a recent episode of No, You Shut Up!
The master of this ludicrous domain is Paul F. Tompkins, the dapper comedian who has appeared on shows like Mr. Show With Bob and David and Best Week Ever. Tompkins hosts the Fusion network show, which just kicked off its fourth season, with rapier wit and an ease one doesn’t often find when debating politics with a hot-dog puppet. We spoke with Tompkins to find out what it’s like to work with puppets, how he’d like to spend an hour with Donald Trump and who he’d like to tell to shut up.
How did No, You Shut Up! come to be?
David Javerbaum, a long-time producer on The Daily Show, approached me and said he had an idea for A Meet the Press style talk show with puppets from the Henson Company. Would I be interested? I said yes.
Why puppets as commentators?
It’s a new wrinkle in the news parody genre. The puppets can get away with saying things that even for humans acting as characters would be dicey. We have a conservative Christian squirrel who is an extreme racist and homophobe and she says things that would only be funny coming from a squirrel. It highlights the absurdity. There’s no doubt that when you’re looking at this creature that it’s supposed to be absurd. And it helps that they’re cute.
Had you worked with puppets before?
I have. I was the voice of a puppet for a series of internet ads for the Ford Focus. That was my first brush with puppeteering. Acting with them took some getting used to. You realize very quickly that there’s a lot of conversational cues from people’s eyes. You don’t get that from puppets. That was a weird thing to adjust to.
You once said that you don’t see yourself as a political comic. Do you still feel that way?
At heart, I’m not. I’ve never really talked about politics in my stand-up. By virtue of this job, I guess that’s happened to me. The TV show scratches that itch for me. To do political standup is a different kind of comedic muscle that I haven’t used before. I don’t know that I want to go down that road, but I don’t know.
Is there a social message you want to convey?
I hope people will continue to question the media. No matter which side you are on it’s not good to just listen to people tell you what you want to hear. It’s gratifying to go to a place where you know they’re going to say we’re doing the right thing and the other side is full of hypocrites and liars. But it’s still good to question your side. A big mission of the show is to point out the absurdity of media.
Is there a political guest you’d like to have on the show?
Any of the candidates running for presidency. That would be a dream. I would like to talk to someone who has contributed to the system, anyone who held office recently. I’m most fascinated by how much of yourself and your ideals you keep when you enter a life of public service. The old story is you start out idealistic and you get into politics because you have a sense of service to your country. But it’s a game. It’s a business. There is a lot of compromise. How much of that affects who you are? You’re never going to get an honest answer to that, but I would still like to ask the question.
What issues do you most hope the candidates will address in their campaigns?
From a comedic standpoint, all the bullshit, nonissues that they’re talking about are terrific. It’s all platitudes and applause lines. This country is great. This country used to be great. We’re going to make this country great again. All of that is absurd and very easily mock-able. Personally, guns and the gender gap in terms of wages are important to me. The social reforms are very important to me. It’s supposedly what this country is all about. The idea that there are people who oppose social justice and have people who rabidly support that—that’s very disturbing to me.
If you could spend an hour with Donald Trump, what would you do? With Bernie Sanders? Will Hillary Clinton?
With Bernie Sanders I would tour Vermont. I’ve only been there briefly and it seems like a beautiful state. I’d like to see more of it and he’d probably have some interesting places to show me. With Hillary, I’d like to have drinks and just talk. I think she’s really interesting and funnier than people probably think. With Trump, I’d like to play the quiet game.
You’re known for being well-dressed onstage, but on No, You Shut Up! you wear more traditional TV broadcaster attire. Why the difference?
For the show, it just makes sense that I would dress more soberly in light of the fact that my co-stars are made of felt and glass. I’m that very traditional, navy blue suit, red tie kind of dude that’s been on the air for decades. It’s very much about keeping that conservative look. The old ABC news anchor Frank Reynolds once said that he always avoided a crazy tie because if someone died that day he didn’t want to report it wearing a crazy tie. That was a comment that stuck with me: that the news is a very serious business.
What do you wear when you’re not performing?
That’s a secret. If you can find me in the wild, then you probably will not recognize me at first.
On your show, you and your pundits like to tell people when they should shut up. Who do you want to tell to shut up?
People who are saying political correctness is the biggest problem we have in this country. Those people need to shut up. The idea that when people say, “I don’t want to be called that” or “I don’t like when you say that,” it’s an infringement of someone’s rights is so selfish. If you want to keep saying what you’re saying and not consider other people’s feelings, that’s selfish. Open your mind and realize people are affected by what you say. The words you choose and the language you use matter; there’s a larger idea behind them. It’s not people being persnickety. Political correctness is not a big problem. People’s closed minds are.
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