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Paul F. Tompkins's comedy career has spanned nearly 30 years.
Paul F. Tompkins's comedy career has spanned nearly 30 years.
Comedy Central

How to survive in comedy for nearly 3 decades, according to Paul F. Tompkins

"There's a primal fear at work for a lot of people, seeing someone on a stage, by themselves, speaking in public."

To say Paul F. Tompkins is a busy man would be an understatement. His idiosyncratic but durable career skips merrily between standup and hosting gigs, improv and sketch comedy showcases, enough podcast appearances to fill several iPods' worth of memory, and a recurring gig voicing fan favorite Mr. Peanutbutter on the Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman.

But no matter what he's up to, he's always made time to return to standup, in a series of well-received albums and TV specials — the latest of which premieres on Comedy Central October 10 at 11 pm Eastern.

The hour-long special may be eye-opening to fans who only know Tompkins from the wacky characters he performs on podcasts and TV shows like Comedy Bang Bang. The aptly named Crying and Driving focuses entirely on personal anecdotes, ranging from his emotional breakdown outside a comedy club to learning to drive as an adult. That may not seem extraordinary — indeed, it's the basis of most standup comedy — but in the context of Tompkins's career, it's refreshing (and hilarious) to hear him talking about himself, by himself, in a way fans don't get to see very often these days.

Tompkins spoke with me about the special, BoJack Horseman, his just-renewed political comedy series No, You Shut Up!, and comedy in general: what he gets out of it, how one form differs from another, and how fear helped him learn to be comfortable onstage. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On comedy and fear: "Part of my job is to make everyone realize, 'Hey, this is gonna be fine'"

Genevieve Koski

In Crying and Driving, you open up with a joke about how you'll be performing "Paul F. Tompkins–based comedy." Your standup has gone through a few different phases over the years, so I'm curious: At this moment, what do you think "Paul F. Tompkins–based comedy" is?

Paul F. Tompkins

At the moment, it's very much about me and my life and figuring things out. The thing about personal material — when you're talking about an experience in your life, you have to make it universal.

I've really been enjoying that process and that connection with audiences, to be able to tell a story that might have nothing to do with them, but to be able to fill them in on what I was going through emotionally in the story — being embarrassed, or afraid, or whatever — and knowing that even if they haven't had the exact experience I had, they've had a similar experience that they can relate to. "Oh, there's a time in my life when I felt that way."

Genevieve Koski

This is your first standup special since 2012's Laboring Under Delusions, and it seems like you've spent a lot of the interim focusing on sketch and improv, particularly your improvised podcast Spontaneanation. How difficult is it to go back and forth between improv and standup?

Paul F. Tompkins

Improv requires a lot more focus in the moment. The whole time you're doing it, you have to be really aware of what's going on.

With standup, as you're putting the material together, you have to just kind of go up and sort of vomit it out. I have some bullet points of what I want to talk about, but it's not fully formed. So I'm starting with the beginnings of the funny idea I had, and then the idea that I will keep doing it, feeling it out, reshaping it, until it gets the point where I feel I have communicated the thing that I want to communicate to the audience, based on their response.

And that is a much more labor-intensive thing. You have to make notes. You've got to be aware of the room, of what's working, what's not working. You have to try it again. You have to add things. You have to take things out. It's a much more polished process.

Improv is more intense, in a short burst. It only lasts as long as the show lasts. You can be talking on the phone or texting or whatever up until the second it's time to go, and then you're hyper-aware, hyper-focused. Once it's done, it's done.

But with standup, first you have plan out what it is, then you have to go do it, then you have to reflect on what just happened, and then you've got to do it again. It tends to feel more like work, which is unfortunate.

The real fun is when the material is in a really good place. Before it's 100 percent where it's going to be, but where you know it well enough and you know the direction, and then you're finding yourself, and it's loose, and having the experience of discovery — that's great. The beginning of it is the pain, and not fun, because you don't know where you're going yet. And that should be a fun part of the journey as well, but a lot of times it's not, because you go up and you don't get laughs.

Genevieve Koski

That's something I'm sure you're prepared for in improv scenarios as well.

Paul F. Tompkins

Oh yeah, absolutely. It's always terrible to not get laughs. I'm able to process it much more quickly with improv. If I throw out a thing and it doesn't go anywhere, I'm able to tell myself much, much faster, "Hey, that's all part of it. It happens to everybody. There's good shows; there's bad shows, whatever."

Standup feels so much more personal, because you are by yourself. And it feels much more like a reflection, like a judgment of you and your personality if something doesn't get a laugh.

Genevieve Koski

Standup and improv aren't mutually exclusive, but they are fundamentally different forms: the collaborative versus the individual. How are they complementary?

Paul F. Tompkins

There's a lot of crossover. In standup, you have to be very aware of your surroundings as well. You're in front of a live audience, and you're out there by yourself, so you do have to make adjustments in, say, pacing, or in energy, or in focus, because sometimes there's other shit going on in the room that's beyond your control, and you have to assure the audience that everything's going to be okay.

There's a primal fear at work for a lot of people, seeing someone on a stage, by themselves, speaking in public. I didn't realize this for a long time. Hearing other people talk about it, that they get scared for the person on the stage — ever since I heard that, it made me much more relaxed on stage. It made me realize part of my job is to make everyone realize, "Hey, this is gonna be fine. We're gonna have a good time. I'm gonna be up here, doing my thing, and no matter what happens, we're all having fun."

Genevieve Koski

That helps me to hear you say that, because I'm one of those people who's anxious for the person onstage. Especially with improv, where I'm like, "Oh god, don't mess it up!"

Paul F. Tompkins

I think we all are to a certain extent — except for hecklers. Hecklers are not worried about the person. Hecklers are the people who think they should be onstage. But for the most part, I think decent people want it to go well for this person that's putting themselves out there.

On his varied career: "You could always have a show where someone has a heart attack in the audience. Which has happened to me."

Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane are married on BoJack Horseman.

Netflix

Tompkins voices Mr. Peanutbutter (the dog) on Netflix's eccentric cartoon BoJack Horseman.

Genevieve Koski

Now that we've been talking about comedy for a while, I'll ask you: Do you enjoy talking about comedy? Do you think there's value in these kinds of discussions about the mechanics and philosophy of comedy?

Paul F. Tompkins

Oh, 100 percent. I love talking about comedy. I love talking with other comedians about it, I love talking about the science of it, the chemistry of it, when it works, when it doesn't. Those moments when you go out with the best of intentions and it doesn't work, and all the weird things that can happen. When you think you had a bad show, and other people thought it was great. When you think, "I've performed this material better than I ever have in my life," and the response was mediocre. The idea that it's a thing where the variables are never conquerable.

No matter how successful you become, no matter how self-assured you become, you can always have a bad show. You could always have a weird show. You could always have a show where someone has a heart attack in the audience. Which has happened to me.

Genevieve Koski

Wait, really?

Paul F. Tompkins

Yeah, that happened in London. I had to stop the show, and they took the guy out in an ambulance. He seemed to be okay. I actually never found out if the guy recovered. I think he did. He was speaking on the way out.

He just sort of fell over in the middle of my show. So I had to wait, and they said, "Do you want to continue with the show?" And I said, "Are there still people here?" And they said, "Yeah, there's a bunch of people that are still waiting to come back into the showroom." And then the whole crowd was still there. Everybody came back in and picked back up, and it was great. It was a crazy experience.

Genevieve Koski

Did you notice that the energy had changed when they came back in?

Paul F. Tompkins

When they came back in, everyone seemed so relieved. I think if the gentleman had died, I would not have continued the show. [Laughs]

I think everyone was relieved that the guy seemed okay. Also, we all just had a traumatic experience together. That was no less weird for them than it was for me. To be in a room when someone falls over and has an episode like that, it's scary, and you're worried, and there's anxiety — I think we all were relieved and had a great time after that.

Genevieve Koski

You've also been doing a lot more voice work in recent years, on shows like Bob's Burgers and BoJack Horseman. Is that something you specifically wanted to do more of in your career?

Paul F. Tompkins

That was just a thing that happened. I got asked to do a few things over the years, and then that led to being a regular on BoJack. I had never been a regular on an animated show before. Of all the things that I do, it's certainly the easiest, because you really have to just go into the booth and record it a few different ways. It's very simple. You're out in an hour. And it's a lot of fun.

I want to do more of that. But I'm not exactly in demand in that world. It's a very tough world to crack. There's a number of superstars in that world who get the lion's share of the work. And then there's a few other people who are picking up that slack, and then every once in a while, something like [BoJack] happens. I think only on a brand-new show would the voice acting be doled out to people who are not working 100 percent as voice actors.

Genevieve Koski

But with BoJack and a handful of other shows, the voice casting lately seems to draw more and more from comedy circles.

Paul F. Tompkins

There's a lot of shows like Adventure Time or Regular Show that will bring in comedy people for a few episodes, and then they move on to somebody else. I did a bunch of Regular Shows, and they brought in Andy Daly for a bunch of Regular Shows.

They like to call in people from that world, but no one gets a job out of it. They have their cast already. There's a lot of them that listen to podcasts, and they're comedy fans, so they're like, "Oh, it'd be fun to have him come in for a couple." But when they're making these shows, no one ever goes, "Oh hey, want to be a regular on this show?"

Genevieve Koski

So BoJack is exceptional in that way.

Paul F. Tompkins

It really is. They cast people who are primarily screen actors in one way or another. I don't know how I ended up on that show, but I'm really glad I did. I'm the least well-known of all the people on the show.

On podcasting: "That really opened a door for me that I never knew was there"

Genevieve Koski

The comedy podcast boom of the last few years has been huge for you. Can you recall when you first became aware of the medium?

Paul F. Tompkins

I think the first thing I was aware of was a thing my record label [ASpecialThing Records] was doing back when they were still just a message board, called AST Radio. Matt Belknap was interviewing comedians. In my memory, that's the first thing that I recall, being backstage at the UCB Theatre, and Matt having a microphone and this weird little recorder.

And then I started finding more and more of them online, and Jimmy [Pardo] started doing his podcast, Never Not Funny, and it became a thing that I started to really enjoy and listen to a lot.

When things started to change for me was when Scott Aukerman started the Comedy Bang Bang podcast, then called Comedy Death Ray. He mentioned I could do a character if I wanted to, and at that time I was doing characters on Best Week Ever, the TV show, and I thought, "Oh, maybe I can do a character, because I've done a bunch of voices on the show," and that was it. That really opened a door for me that I never knew was there.

I started doing more and more characters, and that really got me into not just podcasting but also into improv. It was playing a character, keeping a storyline straight, and interacting with someone with no script, which was the basis of my improv education.

Genevieve Koski

It was just announced that your Fusion current-events show, No You Shut Up, was renewed for a fourth season. It's ostensibly this current-events-based approach like The Daily Show, but with this very silly, absurd approach — and puppets — that I associate more with your comedy than with the current strain of political humor. Is there a part of you that wants to be more political or socially engaged in your comedy?

Paul F. Tompkins

I really like the political stuff, and it's fun to do. We do a good amount of political stuff and satire stuff on the show, and since we don't have an audience, we have to fill more time than your typical half-hour political comedy show. Live audience laughter and applause really gives you a nice break from having to fill up 22 minutes, so unfortunately, every minute we're on screen, we have to be making sound, because there's no one else there to give a breather. That is why there's a lot of absurd stuff, and why it goes off in those strange places.

Genevieve Koski

Was just like, "We don't want to deal with having to do this in front of the audience because of the puppets?"

Paul F. Tompkins

I was a budget thing. I would love to do it in front of an audience. And maybe someday we'll get to do that. The puppeteers on the show are all excellent improvisers in addition to being excellent puppeteers, and they're really funny people.

They come from live performance. Not only are they studying improv, but they do live shows with the puppets, a show called Puppet Up, which is a show that the Henson Company has been doing live around the country and the world for years. So these people are also creatures of the live stage. I would be absolutely thrilled to do this in front of an audience.

Genevieve Koski

You seem to have a very well-rounded comedy career, split evenly between improv, acting and hosting, and standup. Is that a conscious designation you make when deciding what projects you're going to do?

Paul F. Tompkins

I'm definitely aware of the varied things I've gotten to do over the course of a few decades, and I'm very conscious of how lucky I am that I've gotten to do so many different things. It's conscious in that I seek out new experiences, but it's not conscious in that I had a design where I said, "I want to do everything." It was more that when things came my way, I would run toward them.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine years ago, who's a musician, and I was worrying about doing some kind of project, and he said, "Sometimes, the thing that you're afraid of is the thing you have to run toward." That really resonated with me.

When something new was coming along, I would always have to think to myself, "Is my instinct not do to this because I don't think it would be a good idea, or because I'm afraid to try it?" And nine times out of 10, it would be a fear thing that I would then overcome. Or try to overcome.

Genevieve Koski

One of the markers of success in the industry is when you're able to start saying no to projects that don't really interest you, or don't fit what you see for yourself and your career. Are you able to say no to things now?

Paul F. Tompkins

I said yes to everything for a really long time, because I felt like I had time to do that, so I should do it. After a while, I just got burnt out, and I realized my energy is finite. Some people have limitless, boundless energy, and they can do a million different projects at the same time, and as much as I want to do a lot of things all the time, I had to eventually realize I can't. I have to make some things my main focus.

I whittled the number down to a few, to keep saying, "These are the things that I want to do the most." I really had to make a conscious decision that I'm going to make hard choices, and sometimes I'm going to have say no to things I really want to do, just in the interest of my own physical and mental well-being.

Genevieve Koski

You're approaching three decades working in comedy. At what point did you realize, "This is my career now; this is my livelihood"?

Paul F. Tompkins

That's tough to answer, because when you start out — and I think this is the same of any comedian — that's always the goal, and there's no fallback plan. You just feel like you're biding time until all your paychecks are coming from your art.

I had a little taste of that in the early days of my career. I had been doing it less than 10 years, and I started at a time in the late '80s when there was a big comedy boom happening. So there was a ton of work, and eventually, I was able to pay my meager rent at the time with standup. And then the bottom dropped out, all these clubs closed, and I had to go back to a day job. That was a really tough thing.

After I moved out to Los Angeles, about a couple years after that, I got my first break writing for Mr. Show. And that was after I had been here for two years. I felt like, after that, "Okay, I've gotten a foot in the door to where I feel like I can sustain this and keep this going, and I don't have to go back to a day job."

Genevieve Koski

And you've felt that way since then?

Paul F. Tompkins

[Laughs] Yes, I have — luckily — not had a moment where I thought, "Ooh, I might have to go back behind the counter." I've been fortunate, and I've worked very hard to ensure I can still make a living doing this.

Paul F. Tompkins: Crying and Driving debuts October 10 on Comedy Central at 11 pm Eastern.

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