<p>What happens when two hit comedians get to chin-wagging? Hilarity.</p>
One is a writer/performer on Chelsea Lately; the other has worked alongside Daniel Day-Lewis and is undoubtedly the best-dressed person in comedy. What they have in common is that they are a couple of the funniest people in the entertainment industry today, so you can imagine our excitement when comedian Jen Kirkman agreed to interview her dear friend, comedian Paul F. Tompkins, for this Playboy series, “Laugh Tracks.”
The two of them got together in Los Angeles for a few hours over some drinks along with a recorder. How could this not be a total win?
Jen Kirkman: You do comedy that I think is pretty personal. Does that ever backfire on you in the sense that people react incorrectly by saying, “Awww” instead of laughing or trying to console you after?
Paul F. Tompkins: What’s interesting to me is that I spend so much time thinking about it in terms of translation to the audience. I want them to laugh. I want them to understand what I’m saying. I’m setting it up—here’s my experience, I’ll walk you through the emotions while the story is happening. If you relate, great, otherwise, it’s just supposed to be a funny story.
I forget sometimes afterwards that my act might touch somebody on a personal level. It has led to some really great conversations and the thing that is really wonderful is when people say, “That meant a lot to me. I had that same experience.” When I was doing material about my mother dying, I had some of the most amazing conversations with people. It touches me to this day. As corny as it sounds, this really is a wonderful thing that we get to do. You forget sometimes that you can relate to people on a deep level even though it’s jokes.
There are certain lines that I won’t cross and certain things that are too private. I might make jokes in conversations with friends about personal stuff, but some of it is not for public consumption. At least now it’s not.
Kirkman: Sometimes people say to me, “It’s brave of you to reveal so much onstage.” But I know that I’m not brave. I’m only revealing a little bit. I wouldn’t ever really tell people about the time my heart was really broken.
Tompkins: I also won’t tell you about the time when I broke somebody’s heart.
Kirkman: I never think what I’m saying is brave. I want to remind people that this is still a craft and not a share.
Tompkins: Yeah. You want to hear, yeah, but I’m funny, right? I’m not a hero. I’ve never talked about anything that prompted anyone to say I was brave.
Kirkman: I thought people might say something like that to you in regards to how vulnerable you were on your special, Driven to Drink.
Tompkins: Well, Driven to Drink—what’s funny about that is it’s me—I was doing that at a time when I drank a lot, but I’m not acknowledging that maybe that’s not a good thing. Because what I’m putting forth in that whole special is I can handle it. When I look back on it, I don’t think I could handle it that well.
Kirkman: Right. You weren’t slurring, but how was the rest of your life?
Tompkins: Exactly. I was definitely very unhappy in my life. I think because my stories are most of the time about embarrassment and feeling dumb that it’s more of a relief for people—they think, “Oh, okay, I feel that way too.” I don’t think I’m very brave. I think I’m brave in terms of trying things and exploring. I never want to plumb the depths of the darkness of my soul.
Kirkman: I remember being very nervous when the Internet started. I actually feared that people would only watch comedians on YouTube and that seeing live performance would end.
Tompkins: I had similar fears. But it’s funny how you underestimate the power of the live experience—there’s nothing else like it. And more and more, my ups and downs with television and stuff like that—I treasure live performance and working with other people. Doing stuff in front of an audience is like—it’s kind of amazing. I’m reminded again and again what an amazing, special thing it is. I can’t deny the unique bond that occurs when the performer and the audience are all together.
Kirkman: Are you glad, and if so why, that you did not have the Internet when you were starting out? What foolish thing would you have done?
Tompkins: I can’t even imagine what that would have been like.
Kirkman: Just imagine you drunk one night and miserable…
Tompkins: I remember when I started out on Twitter. There was definitely a period of adjustment for me with social media that I feel I’ve finally come out on the better side of where people say mean shit, I have feelings but I ignore it and move on. Every once in a while—if I engage someone, I try to do it in as funny a way as possible. And not just be angry about it. But on the off chance that this person is trying to be funny—then I’m going to tease you but I’m not trying to start a flame war. I’m not trying to get all my followers to give you a hard time.
Kirkman: A lot of comedians just starting now have access to established comedians online and will often ask advice. Did you ever do that? It was scarier when we started out because we would have had to ask in person.
Tompkins: I never did. I never asked for advice because I was so convinced I was on the right track. I didn’t think I’m a better comedian—I felt like that’s not the type of comedian I want to be, so their advice was worthless.
Kirkman: What about people you looked up to?
Tompkins: No. Anyone I looked up to I would have been terrified to ask. I would be too busy trying not to embarrass myself and failing. Every single time. Any time I’ve ever admired anyone, I’ve always blown it in front of them or said a dumb thing—without fail. Now I just really keep my mouth shut, I keep it positive and brief and that’s it.
Kirkman: Do you answer advice online?
Tompkins: Very rarely. I don’t really give advice anymore to people that I don’t know. I don’t think you can give advice to people you don’t know. The only general advice I can give to people about stand-up is to have fun. Don’t forget that it’s supposed to be fun.
I remember the first time I did comedy. I remember how it felt to be onstage for the first time. I can feel that today. I couldn’t tell you what it was like to be onstage, I couldn’t tell you what the material was or remember everything leading up to it and everything afterwards. I remember the intense, crazy jitters beforehand that I still have to this day where it’s like, “I just want it to start already.” I just want to be doing it and I’ll deal with that okay. And afterwards just the flood of relief but also—it was exciting and it was really fun. It was really fun.
Kirkman: I hate the clichés that comedy is like doing heroin for the first time. It’s like a chase. That experience of the first time was its own unique thing and I didn’t know who I was yet. I’m not trying to chase that, and in fact the highs are getting better.
Tompkins: I enjoy it so much more the more relaxed I get as a human being—the more I come into my own as a person—and I hope someday it will happen all the way. The more I feel comfortable onstage, the more in the moment I’m able to be. If I want to talk to the crowd I can and allow for interaction.
Kirkman: Do you want to keep doing this forever, like Joan Rivers or Don Rickles?
Tompkins: I honestly can’t imagine ever stopping. I would like my audience to grow old with me and I would like young people too.
Kirkman: Two years ago you and I were in Montreal together and a father and son came up to us. They were fans of your podcast, The Pod F. Tompkast. It meant the world to me that a teenager liked us. Why is that so meaningful?
Tompkins: I’ll tell you from my perspective because I was a 14-year-old who loved comedy. I was so into it and it meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to me. It’s a full circle of being flattered, but it’s a huge empathy or empathic experience. It’s like I know how you feel. This is amazing. I love that you love comedy. I know how you feel about it and it makes me feel the same way about it all over again. It always takes me back to me at that age devouring anytime there was a stand-up on television. It didn’t matter who it was. I was fascinated by it. I couldn’t believe that it existed. And sketch comedy and everything, everything. It takes me right back there.
Kirkman: Are you comfortable if in fact you are shaping any teenagers?
Tompkins: I was talking about this to someone the other day. Entertainment now is geared towards young people, which there is nothing wrong with that, but they’re under the impression—and I think they have made it this way—that young people only want to see other young people.
When I was a kid all I craved was being around adults. I wanted to feel more grown up. I wanted to feel more sophisticated. I wanted to feel like I got stuff that my peer group didn’t get. But that said, I guess there’s a strong urge to fit in that people have. I think that every kid can relate to wanting to be a grown-up and being fascinated by the way grown-ups did things. I used to watch Match Game. I thought that show was the most sophisticated thing.
Kirkman: Me too!
Tompkins: I didn’t know that they were all drunk.
Kirkman: I feel like the way they were drunk back then is different than the way a comic onstage seems drunk. It had a charming “one too many for the road” vibe.
Tompkins: It was a grown-up party. My parents did not have a lot of parties, but when they had a party, which was my favorite fucking thing in the world, I was allowed to walk around for a little bit just looking at everybody having a good time, loudly talking, and everybody’s drinking. Somebody is playing a piano. You know what I mean? And then being at the top of the steps just listening to the party. That was sublime to me. That was heaven. I loved it. I thought…someday. And now when I have a party like that at my house, my wife and I have people over…like a dinner party.
Kirkman: It’s my favorite thing in the world.
Tompkins: It’s the best. But it’s so different than a lot of the parties you get invited to in stand-up, which is, “Hey, we’re inviting everybody.”
Kirkman: I’m too old to see a red plastic cup at a party at this point. Speaking of drinking, you no longer take alcohol onstage with you.
Tompkins: That was a real turning point for me. Having that drink to carry up onstage from my earliest days in stand-up was very much a crutch. I felt like I needed to have that there. It was a security blanket. I think I felt like it was communicating something to the audience. I wanted it to come off as, “I’m just like you. Please like me. Please accept me. Look. I’m drinking a beer. We’re all doing the same thing, right?” I think in my mind it created some bridge to the audience that I was some regular guy. I think because I knew I talked in this fanciful way and I think I was very self-conscious. I needed to have some sort of anchor there. This is a thing that humanizes me to the crowd but also makes me feel comfortable.
Kirkman: It must be nice to be comfortable now and say, “I don’t need to be humanized.” I don’t think you’re too fanciful. Because why? You speak in complete sentences?
Tompkins: A big turning point for me was—I was doing this gig in Houston and it was just terrible. It was right after Katrina and it was a bad time of year. It was gloomy there and it was not a great club and it was not a fun gig. I remember having the notion, “I’ll wear a suit because I always wear a suit onstage, but I won’t wear a tie.” I felt self-conscious about it. I felt like that was too dressed up. Somebody in the crowd made some comment about how I was dressed and from that moment on I was like, “Fuck it. I’m going all the way and I’m going to embrace the stuff that I like. I’m going to embrace who I am. And I’m going to make that a strength rather than what I perceived as a weakness.”
Kirkman: It’s like a politician thinking he has to dumb it down when he campaigns in a Members Only jacket, but he has no problem at the Vanity Fair party putting on a tux. It’s condescending.
Tompkins: That’s such a great analogy. That’s exactly what I was doing. I was so self-conscious about it. I felt so overdressed for this particular venue. This place was a fucking dump. I am too dressed up for this place, but this gig is when I realized, I’ll be too dressed up for every show I do from now on. That’s what I want to do. I’m not going to mention my outfit. It’s not going to be like, “I know what you’re thinking…”
Kirkman: Are you working on a new hour right now?
Tompkins: The hour I’m working on right now I feel is ready to be recorded and I’m working on how I want to record it.
Kirkman: Does this have a theme or is it all over the place? I didn’t mean it to sound that way. I didn’t mean to say, “Is it just some shit that I threw together?”
Tompkins: Wow. You’re really holding my feet to the fire on this. It really is just some shit that I threw together. [laughs] No, I would say the loose theme is the relationship that I have with my wife.
Kirkman: That brings it back to how much of your personal life you reveal. Some people don’t want to be mentioned. Obviously you don’t have that relationship with your wife. What do you navigate that she might not even ask you to but you bring upon yourself?
Tompkins: If we have some exchange in our lives, I can tell immediately if this would be a funny thing to bring onstage, or—well, if it’s not something I would do onstage, I guess it doesn’t occur to me.
Kirkman: I heard Seinfeld on Howard Stern say that every moment he’s thinking if it can be a bit and that comics never turn it off. Do you like to be spoken for that way?
Tompkins: That’s a huge thing. Anyone who is trying to define what is comedy or if they’re saying, “This is how all comedians think and behave…” I think when people do that, there is inherently a judgment on other comedians. They’re saying, “real” comedians do this. “Real” comedians think this way. The way I relate to it is, certainly I’ve had experiences in life where afterwards I thought about doing it onstage. I would hope that Jerry is talking about repetitive circumstances, because he does observational humor. I would hope it’s not the first time he is changing his baby’s diaper that he is thinking, [robot voice] “Aspects of diaper changing. Codify. File.”
Kirkman: I take great offense when people talk about why comedians do comedy. For me, it’s all about what you said about being at the top of the stairs listening to the adults. I think it’s about what you saw on TV and what went on in your house. I think it’s the more innocent experiences that shape us. It’s not about, “I want Mommy’s love.” The career I chose is different than my pathology and that’s more about picking what I enjoy doing. We don’t fill any void by being onstage.
Tompkins: Everybody’s fucked up. I can’t lie and say that I didn’t start being a funny kid because there was a lack of attention or feeling of love.
Kirkman: But you could have become the needy accountant.
Tompkins: To me it’s more about—not “Why did you start doing comedy?” but “Why do you keep doing comedy?” The label people want to put on you is that you’re still a fucked-up person. You still need attention. Everybody wants to be loved. Everybody feels that to varying degrees at different hours of the day. There are some times when I feel perfectly at peace with the world. I realize I have a wonderful life and am surrounded by fantastic people. It’s amazing. It’s a miracle that such a thing is possible for human beings to experience. There are other times that I feel like—I never got famous. [laughs] I’ll do interviews where people ask, “So, a lot of your friends are a lot more well known than you. Does that ever make you feel bitter?”
Kirkman: That was my next question.
Tompkins: [Laughs] Thank you for waiting so long. Yeah. I think about that stuff sometimes. It’s not like I don’t want to be famous, but it’s because I think about what it would afford me in terms of money, freedom and security. It’s some feeling of, okay, I don’t have to worry about every single fucking job. There’s a system in place whereby I will be okay for a while. Whatever happens, my wife and I will live comfortably. We won’t be in some huge, deep debt. But that’s just being a person. You can translate it to any career and substitute fame for promotion.
Kirkman: People don’t realize that fame isn’t a goal.
Tompkins: Our loved ones, our friends and family who are not in this ridiculous life don’t understand that there’s a place you can live and have a great existence and be happy and enjoy your life and get to take vacations. They assume your goal is global domination and if you’re not there, you must be a failure and you must feel like a failure, and that in turn makes you feel like a failure. [laughs]
Kirkman: So when you get to global domination level, do you go private jet or tour bus?
Tompkins: Tour bus.
Kirkman: How much company do you keep with other comedians? What values do you look for in a friend nowadays?
Tompkins: My friendships—the people that are in my life on a regular basis, that I see outside of shows—very few of them are comedians. When I go do a show, there are certain comedians that I only see in those instances and I enjoy their company, but a fair amount of people I find tiresome.
People are people—and certain types of people I enjoy less than others.
Kirkman: So, you’re throwing a dinner party for 10 people. Who do you…
Tompkins: My Lord Jesus Christ.
Kirkman: No. Don’t jump ahead. Also, you don’t have to invite the Lord Jesus Christ. You can just have him in your heart.
Tompkins: You’ve shamed me as a Christian.
Follow them: @JenKirkman, @PFTompkins