Comedy's last true gentleman, and perhaps the first, Paul F. Tompkins has intellectualized the subtlety of storytelling over the course of his career which spans more than three decades. He's the type of person that would delight in the opportunity to correct your use of the word "bequeath" and he'll joke that his nickname for Daniel Day-Lewis, Tompkins' There Will Be Blood co-star, is "D-Day."
If you don't recognize the ever-so-dapper star from his Paul Thomas Anderson cameo, then you might remember him as the host from VH1's recap show Best Week Ever, from his podcast Spontaneanation, as the voice of Mr. Peanutbutter from BoJack Horseman, or from his recurring appearances on Mr. Show With Bob and David, Tenacious D, or Comedy Bang! Bang!, where he often impersonated an easily confounded Andrew Lloyd Webber. The 49-year-old Philadelphia native adheres to the belief that one must adapt or die when it comes to comedy, and doesn't give much merit to the idea that audiences have become more sensitive when it comes to punchlines.
We catch up with the comedian in advance of his performances at the 2018 Detroit Improv Festival, which includes three performances at the Magic Bag. When we call, he introduces himself as Paul Tompkins and not Paul F. Tompkins. What I found is that Tompkins, middle initial or not, is as real as it gets.
Metro Times: What did we catch you in the middle of today?
Paul F. Tompkins: I'm just trying to do a million different things. It's a lot of organizational stuff with different shows coming up and different projects and once again I've overextended myself, which is what I usually do. But I like being busy and I have a hard time saying no to things. That sometimes comes back to haunt me.
MT: One thing you haven't said no to is the Detroit Improv Festival —
Tompkins: This is a tremendous segue.
MT: Do you have a preferred medium when it comes to stand-up or improv? Is one easier for you?
Tompkins: I honestly can't pick a favorite because they both have their pluses and minuses. I guess improv is a little bit easier because there's no preparation. The focus that you have to have onstage, there's a more intense focus than stand-up. With stand-up, after you get to know the material and play around with it you have a solid base which is the memorized words. You can embroider the edges and you can be in the moment in a more relaxed way.
MT: Are there characters you tend to lean on during an improv set?
Tompkins: Oh for sure there are certain character types I really like to do. I feel like I end up playing the authority figure a lot. People that call meetings. I love calling meetings in improv. Any opportunity that I get to be any kind of creature that lives where they ask people riddles is one of my favorite things to do.
MT: We spoke with a friend of the show, David Cross, recently and he said the social and political climate has forced him to adapt his comedy accordingly. Seeing that you've been a comedian for more than 30 years, how has comedy changed for you?
Tompkins: For me, my approach to comedy is pretty much the same. I think a lot of comics are choosing to be more thoughtful when using certain words or references. I know where I'm coming from and I know my heart is in the right place. It's very rare that anyone has an issue with anything I say. The target is always myself or someone in power. I try not to punch down and pick on people who are already having a hard enough time. I feel like every six months or so somebody is being quoted as saying comedy is too politically correct or they're too sensitive, which I just don't think is true. I just think things evolve, language evolves, and I think society evolves. And I don't think it's because people are too sensitive. Because every time you say that, you have to think of something like Amos 'n' Andy. Things change because we learn more, more people have a voice now, which is good. I think some people are saying, 'I don't feel like being a punch line anymore because I'm from a marginalized group.'
MT: You have been hailed as a master of Twitter. Have you had to block anyone? Have you been blocked?
Tompkins: I used to block people and then I stopped doing it. I feel like it gives people a certain satisfaction. It becomes a branding point for them. They think, 'I got a rise out of this person,' and it gives them more importance than they deserve. I went through my Twitter profile recently and I unblocked anyone I've ever blocked. I have been blocked by a couple people. The most confounding one to me is the fantasy author M.K. Jemison. Somebody had retweeted something that she wrote and I couldn't see it. And then I went to her page and found out I was blocked. And I have no idea why. We never had any direction interaction, so I don't know.
It's as mysterious as something from one of her novels.
MT: I feel like comedians are victim to being accosted in public, with strangers shouting random lines or jokes at them, sometimes just noises. What do people ask you to say or shout at you when they see you?
Tompkins: Every once in a while people will want me to say "cake boss" or something. My career is made up of so many weird, different things that I don't think I'm ever recognized for the same thing twice, which is good, but it's funny though because I'm typecast as this one thing but it's a lot of different things. It's weird when somebody recognizes me as Mr. Peanutbutter based on my voice.
MT: If this were an episode of Best Year Ever, what would you be able to say about your life in 2018?
Tompkins: I got to do a lot and travel with my podcast to Philadelphia for the first time. And to have my friends from Los Angeles meet my friends and family from Philadelphia. I got do some fun animated stuff this year. I got to guest star on one of my favorite TV shows that won't be seen until next year. Despite all the crazy fires that are happening all over the place, for me personally, it's still been pretty nice.
MT: What will never not be funny to you?
Tompkins: News bloopers. I love, love, love news bloopers. I could watch them all day. Another thing is household pets having to endure little children. Like, animals that are trying to be dignified while they put up with babies.
Paul F. Tompkins will bring his Spontaneanation podcast to the Magic Bag on Thursday, Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. and will perform with friends on Friday, Aug. 10 at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.; 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-1991; themagicbag.com; Tickets are $25. More information about the Detroit Improv Festival, including a full schedule, is available at detroitimprovfestival.org.
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