In the world of music, a behind-the-scenes look is quite common. Whether it's in the form of a studio video, social media update, or released demo, music listeners have a general idea of what a band or artist is going through in the weeks, months, and years leading up to a new album. That type of peek behind the curtain is far, far less frequent in the world of stand-up comedy--or at least it was. With my new weekly (for now) column Behind The Bits, I'm going to be speaking with some wonderful comedians to get a glimpse into their process, see where they draw their inspiration, and hopefully get a little background on great jokes they themselves have written.
What follows below is the conclusion of the wonderful talk I had with Paul F. Tompkins; it picks up directly where last week's installment left off (and if you haven't read Part 1, it can be found here). In it, we discuss Paul's relationship with the podcast. Covering his introduction to the medium, how he adds characters to his repertoire, and a surprising amount about one of his fan favorites, there's a lot to love here if you're a big podcast listener. I also manage to ask a number of questions that prompt Paul to start his answers by saying 'no,' and there's also a chance that one of us doesn't make it out of the interview alive. So read on below, if you dare.
**Note: The interviews in this column contain references to jokes, albums, and other comedians that may only be known or recognized by those with more than a cursory knowledge of comedy. When things veer into lesser-known territory, I will try my best to link to the appropriate materials.**
So then if they don't present themselves like that, do you ever find yourself in the middle of one of the aforementioned riff suites, notice that something is hitting a little harder than all the other adlibbed material, and then try and make a point to work it into your actual act in the future?
Not really, and that stuff kind of comes and goes, because itís really kind of absurdist stuff. I tend to feel Iíve gotten everything I can get out of those jokes; you know, Iím asking questions like 'if foundation is the bones and the skeleton of a house, what are the internal organs?' I donít think I can get much more from that.
So you are quite the staple in the stand-up world, but Iíd be remiss if I didnít mention your relationship with the podcast scene, which youíre almost more synonymous with now. Youíre a fan favorite on just about anything on the Earwolf network, and I love the Pod F. Tompkast, but Iím curious, how did you first get involved with that medium?
Probably the first one I did was Jimmy Pardoís? Thatís most likely. You know, thereís a great community of comedy here in Los Angeles, and a lot of people started doing podcasts, and I started guesting on them, and it honestly all happened very quickly, and I love it. I love podcasting, I really think itís a great medium, and I think itís terrific that itís still so democratic and that anyone can do it. Iím not one of those people whoíll make jokes about there being too many podcasts, I really just think itís a great thing. I have gotten a little more choosy about which ones I lend my time to, just because my time has become more finite and thereís other stuff that I want to do, and in truth, because of all that, I havenít really given enough time to my own podcast lately, so you know, Iím just defining all of this as I go, which I think a lot of people are, but I think itís a great thing.
It really is, because thereís overlap between podcasts and sketch, and thereís a lot of overlap between podcasts and stand-up, but thereís a certain magic--
**A loud crashing noise occurs on the other end of the line**
Cody, hello? Podcasts, magic?
Are you being robbed, or did you just knock over a bunch of large boxes?
[laughs] No, I moved some pens, but apparently I did it in front of an amplifier.
[laughs] Yeah, you moved a couple writing utensils, I thought your house burnt down.
No, I think Iím alright. Anyways, what were you saying?
Essentially, thereís so much overlap between all the potential ways to do comedy, but at the same time, thereís a certain magic captured only by podcasts; something you canít find anywhere else. To me, thatís the most amazing thing.
Oh, yeah, absolutely, I think if you are a comedy fan, as I am--Iím not just somebody who makes comedy, but I consume comedy--this is such a great time. Thereís so much comedy, itís so easy to get, and itís free. Itís amazing. I listen to way more podcasts in my car than music these days, and especially in Los Angeles, a place where you have to drive a lot, itís a real godsend. Itís a great thing to have, so yeah, I absolutely love it.
And just, no matter what your tastes are comedically, thereís a podcast that represents it.
You do a lot of characters on these podcasts -- almost exclusively, unless youíre on something like Who Charted? where youíll play yourself -- and these characters, they run the creative gamut from John C. Reilly all the way to Andrew Lloyd Webber; seemingly unrelated people. Is there a process that you use to decide which character youíre next going to tackle? Iíve always been curious about that.
No, itís always kind of come about by accident sort of. You know, a lot of the characters I do on my podcast or on Comedy Bang! Bang! came about from voices that I started doing on Best Week Ever, when I was working on that. Sometimes we would write for that show, and instead of just making a joke about a topic, we would act it out, and I would become those people, so thatís where I first did Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ice-T and Cake Boss. John C. Reilly, I think that came about from me and my friends quoting lines from Boogie Nights, because I love that movie and I love John in that movie. We all realized Ďoh, this is a voice I can doí and once I started doing the voices on Comedy Bang! Bang!, I started thinking ĎI wonder what other voices Iíve done in the past that Iíve just never used for anything,í and then I started some of the other ones.
Thatís such an unexpected yet obvious explanation. Youíre just hanging out with your friends, quoting Boogie Nights, and someone says Ďhey, you do a really good John C. Reillyí so you just run with it.
Yeah, pretty much.
Not only do you improvise basically everything when you take the guise of these characters, Iím assuming, but you also have to know kind of just a general knowledge of their career to date to be able to really play them.
Well, yes and no. What I try to do is start from a place of reality, but then take it to a strange place, like taking Garry Marshall and making him not just the creator of Happy Days, but also someone whose life goal is to hunt the Loch Ness Monster, but thatís also to keep it from being mean. To me, doing those characters is not about ridiculing the person in real life--
Or attacking their real work.
Yeah, itís more Ďwhatís a ridiculous thing this person would never do?í You know? And that, to me, is the fun. You try avoid just rambling off career highlights and quoting lines from their movies; it goes beyond wondering what this person is doing in real life. The goal is Ďwhat is a weird thing that I can make a facet of their personality that is also not just an insulting, mean thing?í
Thatís a very good point, because when youíre playing somebody like Werner Herzog, at some point the joke will come up that he does not understand conventional humor; super, super dark things are what he finds hilarious. Do you ever start to feel like youíre walking that boundary, that maybe youíre getting a little too mean?
No, I donít think thatís a very good example, because Werner Herzog is somebody with a really great sense of humor. Heís very funny in a very dark way. Thereís a book that he wrote that is his journal of working on the film Fitzcarraldo. That particular movie had a really miserable shoot, and theyíre all out in the Amazon jungle, and the crew is doing this really crazy thing that the crazy character in the film is also doing, which is dragging a riverboat over a mountain. And so, in order to tell the story of this insane person who does this insane, they themselves actually have to do the insane thing, you know? And so his journal about that movie, which is called Triumph of the....ohh, itíll come to me, but itís all about these miserable experiences that heís having and itís hilarious. He knows what heís doing. Thereís a very funny comedic actor named Chris Tallman. Heís terrific. He worked on the movie Rescue Dawn, which was directed by Werner, and he played the DJ, and he told a very funny story on the Sklar Brothers podcast. When the cast was first getting all together, Werner Herzog was introducing everyone, and saying what role they played in the film, and he gets to Chris, and he says [Turns on his Herzog accent] ďThis is Chris, he will be playing the DJ. He will either be our salvation or our doom,Ē and then moves on to introduce the next person. Nobody else got as poetic of descriptors or as singled out, and it was such a burden to put on him, but itís so obviously funny! He has a real sense of humor about his bleak outlook on life, and so the impression that I do of him is very true in the way that he talks with people.
Iím apparently going to have to check out that book then.
Oh, you must. Itís such a hilarious book. And I have the title now. Itís Conquests of the Useless, and itís all about the making of the film Fitzcarraldo.
So letís say that Chris comes to you with this great Werner story, or youíre watching Cake Boss and something spectacular happened on that particular episode. Do those little moments factor in when it comes to picking and choosing which character will appear on which podcast episode? Let me phrase that better, do you just do whichever character you have the most material for at the time?
No, honestly, it all comes down to who did I do last, actuallly. Especially Bang! Bang!, since Iím such a frequent guest on there, it gets hard to keep the rotation fresh. And actually, Scott recorded a bunch of episodes in advance because he was working on the TV show at the same time, and so he would take a day out of the week where he would record two or three episodes, and then do that for three or four weeks in a row, so Iíd sometimes end up being on two weeks in a row, which is very unusual. So it had gotten to the point where I had done all of my characters on previous episodes that had all dropped in the space of a couple months, and so I was stuck thinking of one I could do, and thatís actually what led to me doing Richard Harrow, the character from Boardwalk Empire, the guy who has half a face. You know, heís got that spooky mask on half of his face. That was a voice I knew I could do, and so I thought Ďwell, this could be fun to do,í and as luck would have it, my friend Matt Gourley of the Superego podcast had a Richard Harrow mask, because he had gone as him for Halloween a couple years ago, so I figured Ďoh, this is great, Iím gonna do it.í The first time I did it on stage was actually for one of the Superego live shows, and it was really fun to do, so I thought Iíd do it for Comedy Bang! Bang!, and come up for a funny way to explain why Richard Harrow would be there, and then that was really it. Time crunches like that open a door and they force to think Ďokay, whatís new that I can do that nobody else has done? What can I stake a claim on?í
And you brought up Superego, which is a fantastic podcast in its own right -- check it out everybody, if you can -- but you do stuff like that, and you also work with the Thrilling Adventure Hour which are quite different beasts from things like the Pod F. Tompkast and Bang! Bang!. Do you have to prepare yourself differently when youíre doing something like Beyond Belief [A Thrilling Adventure Hour segment in which Tompkins and actress Paget Brewster play socialites who can see ghosts]? Whatís the process like for that?
Theyíre all really the same. Whatís great about those things respectively is Thrilling Adventure is written out. Youíre literally just reading the script, and the scripts are great. I do get to make character choices, and the guys who write it, Ben Acker & Ben Blacker, are very collaborative, and they like to let the cast come up with different things, so I wonít really improvise much. I wonít really even change words, unless I think Iíve found a word thatís easier for me to say or ĎI think this word should come at the end of this sentence for that joke to hit better,í but even that is very rare. For Superego, itís all improvised, so thereís nothing to prepare for. I just show up, try and live in the moment, and follow along with what those guys are doing, because theyíre seriously skilled improvisers, and they make me better.
Were you involved much in the War of Two Worlds project, when those two podcasts collaborated?
Yeah, I guested on a number of those episodes. That was a lot of fun. Having people from these two drastically different families all together in the same room was an absolute blast.
One more question, and not to completely define your career by podcasting, but youíve done a few appearances on Doug Loves Movies where youíll be yourself but youíll also do a character at the same time. How do you deal with the challenge of essentially having to do twice as much work?
Itís really exciting, and I really like doing it, because it requires I stay on my toes, and I like the challenge of making sure that I am really representing everyone Iím playing equally so that it sounds just like any other episode of Dougís show, you know? The hardest part for me honestly, is when -- because sometimes Iíll do three characters, and sometimes Iíll do myself and two characters -- and so the hardest part for me is remembering to be myself more, and interject more as Paul, because itís so much fun to be those characters. What I really want to do, and not like Iím going to fool anybody, but Iíd love to make people forget as much as they possibly can--
That itís you playing all these parts.
That itís me, yes.
I feel like youíd have a much better chance at succeeding at that when they do their in-studio episodes.
Yeah, I agree.
But then thereíd be no audience, so whatís the point?
[laughs] Also, yes.
Maybe my best half-second idea. Why did I even say that?
No, I get what youíre saying, that would be a thousand times easier, but itís just too much fun doing it as a stunt in front of the live audience.
Well, Paul, I have to say, I think our time has just about run out, but I canít thank you enough for taking some time out of your schedule to talk to me. Youíve been amazing to talk with, so I guess Iíll just ask lastly, is there anything else you would like to plug?
Yes, I would love to bring up my web talk show Speakeasy. Itís a talk show, itís me and one guest, we get some great, interesting people, and we have an in-depth chat over drinks, and I really love doing it, and Iíd love even more people to be aware of it. Have a good one, Cody. Tell your friends theyíre being a bunch of absolute punks. Was that right?
I'd like to thank Paul once again for being an absolute delight to sit down with, and thus concludes the first full interview for Behind the Bits. As always, drop a comment or PM if you have a recommendation for a comic you'd like to see on a future Behind the Bits, and make sure to stop by the AP.net homepage every Wednesday for new installments. We've hit the ground running, friends. Many cool talks lie in store.