Today’s subject has the finesse and eloquence of someone who’s lived the past 20-something years on stage. Not easily shaken by attempts to define or contain his humor, he has a keen awareness of where his comedy comes from and what he is trying to express in his stand up. He’s unafraid to discuss his own insecurities on stage, but he couches them in real stories that feel true to life, instead of through lofty conceptual jokes. For this reason, his performance style clashes with both the hyper-avant garde experimental comedy of the current alt scene and the fast setup-punchline setup of the more traditional comedy clubs. However, the subject’s dedication to storytelling has gained him success independently of both of these scenes, though he now participates in improv and sketch comedy on a regular basis and is quick to name his favorite collaborators. I spoke with Paul F. Tompkins in anticipation of his new special, Crying and Driving, about his successes, his regrets, and how he personally views the connections between comedy and mental health.
How has your comedic style changed since you started doing standup?
When I started out, I was doing more conceptual bits that were just kind of silly. And then gradually, I expanded my premises. Everyone when you start out, for the most part, your material is very brief. You don’t trust that you can stay on stage for that long and get laughs. You don’t want to overstay your welcome. So you tend not to flesh out your premises that much. As you get more confident and more relaxed, you’re able to give a premise the treatment that it deserves and really explore your ideas. That’s what happened with me—I gradually expanded, and my comedy slowly became more about me and less about high concepts.
In your latest special, you talk about getting married, a milestone that surprised even you. Some fans of comedy believe that comedy stems from loneliness or sadness, do you find that your comedic voice has changed since you’ve gotten married?
I think that comedy, at its most basic level, is making light of unpleasant things. That’s how we deal with life. I think that the myth that comedy and depression are linked, and that any artist has to be unhappy to create, is a very dangerous myth that I think has hurt a lot of people. When Robin Williams died, I did a few interviews about that, because people were reaching out to the comedy community and asking people how they felt and their personal stories. A lot of people wanted to draw a link between comedians and depression and suicide, and I think that’s a really terrible myth. Anybody can be depressed in any walk of life. It just seems strange when comedians are depressed, because there’s a cognitive dissonance—you think if somebody’s funny, they have an ability to deal with things better than a person who’s job is not to be funny. Some people think that by virtue of making people laugh, they should be immune to depression. But anybody can get depressed. Anybody can be happy and still be funny. I think the difference is, when you become happy, perhaps your targets for humor become different things. You can be happy and have happy things in your life, but that doesn’t mean that you are immune to sadness all the time; that doesn’t mean you don’t continue to work through issues. There’s plenty to talk about. You can still have a good, healthy, emotional life, and have plenty to talk about comedically.
I think that the myth that comedy and depression are linked, and that any artist has to be unhappy to create, is a very dangerous myth that I think has hurt a lot of people.
Is your family supportive of your stand up?
My wife is my biggest fan. My family has been supportive. My parents, who have both passed away, were not very vocally supportive. They didn’t try to talk me out of doing comedy, but they weren’t encouraging in any way. That’s a bummer. It would have been nice if they had been able to support my successes, but they never expressed that to me. Any success I had in show business, any time I was hired to write for television, having a successful stand up career, they were never fully able to express any pride in that. That makes me sad sometimes. That’s something I think I will struggle to be okay with forever.
You moved to Los Angeles at a pretty young age, which I imagine was difficult especially without the support of your parents—did you find that the atmosphere of LA, where so many comics are working to “make it,” was helpful, or detrimental to your creativity?
I found it very helpful, actually. It was a place where everyone was going to do the same thing, so you had a lot of people to commiserate with. People understood what you were going through. The comedy community here in Los Angeles has always been very supportive. I fell in with the alternative crowd and what would become the UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) community in its earliest inceptions in the mid-90s. Everyone was really a fan of each other and liked working together and liked supporting each other. It might have been different for others, but I felt like the community I came up in here was really creative and very supportive.
Do you see any early influencers among your peers? Obviously, Mr. Show is a legendary show for the alt comedy scene.
Finding a scene where it was like, “Oh, this is the kind of stuff I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t in the clubs in Philadelphia.” I wasn’t able to completely see myself on stage and be funny in the way I truly wanted to be. The alt scene helped me shape a much more conversational style and gave me the confidence to be as creative as I possibly could be, and not have a voice in my head saying, “That’s going too far, people need that club rhythm in order to digest what you’re saying.” The alt scene showed me a different way of doing things.
From performing all over the country and the world, are there any other stand up communities you’ve participated in that you really enjoy?
LA is my favorite, although there are great scenes all over the place. I still think LA is still my favorite, and it’s still got an amazingly creative and ever-expanding group of people. We did those new “With Bob and David” shows for Netflix, and I, like I did in the old days, warmed up the crowd for the live tapings. It was great to look out into the crowd and see people I am close with now who I didn’t know a couple of decades ago, and see the continuum of a comedic sensibility. It was really wonderful and really touched my heart. And it really made me hopeful for the future, that there’s always going to be new people, new artists, who are very creative and uncompromising. That said, beyond LA, I think my favorite scene is probably Vancouver. Vancouver and British Columbia have such an amazing group of people. Canada in general—Vancouver, Toronto. For the relatively small population of comedy that country has, their comedy scene is pretty incredible.
You’re known for your podcasting and you’re also active on Twitter. Is there any specific way that you see the internet affecting your comedy?
The most immediate and profound effect is that podcasting got me into improv. Doing characters on Comedy Bang! Bang! led me to doing my own podcast, which led me to riff more with other people, and eventually get to the point where I’ve developed an improv podcast of my own, which is a really wonderful thing to be discovering after having done stand up for a few decades. To now be learning a new trade and a new skill has really been wonderful.
I remember in 2011, you gained some notoriety by booking cities in which fans had organized at least 300 people to pledge to see your live show. With an even larger following now, do you find it harder to engage directly with your fan base?
Social media is a big part of how I stay connected, but podcasting really is such a great, direct way to reach people. If I’m doing a gig and announce it on my podcast, it’s almost a guarantee that people are going to show up if they’re fans of what I do. It goes out to the world. It’s been wonderful. I did a few shows in London a couple of years ago and every show was sold out. And even though it wasn’t all of my fans, it was amazing to meet people afterwards who were fans of mine and were very excited that I was coming so far, to where they lived. It’s really a neat thing—I’ve gotten to meet people in different parts of the world who are fans of ours through podcasting and the internet. It’s wonderful.
You’ve performed in more theatrical one-man shows and in your own stand up comedy specials. Is there a big content divide between one-man shows and stand up for you?
Well, the only true one-man show I’ve ever done actually had another person in it. I definitely wanted to write it like it was a little play. But since then, I’ve been more dedicated to storytelling than to comedic bits. My stand up is also like a one-man show, but it’s really kind of a collection of conversational stories that I think I could very easily call a one-man show, and perform in a theatre. But my only real experience in a theatrical one-man show environment is just that one mini-play, which was markedly different in that I was thinking of it in terms of a one-act play instead of an evening of storytelling.
I think therapy is a thing that everybody can benefit from—you don’t have to have deep emotional instability in order to get something out of it.
Can you talk about the balance, if there is one, between serious storytelling and comedic commentary in your stand up?
I think it’s less of a balance and more of taking a serious subject matter and making it funny. Talking about my mother’s death or talking about something emotional—that is the setup. Then, I can be funny about how I deal with that setup. I try not to stay on the serious part of it for too long, I just want that to be the topic that I could then make fun of. I never want to go too long speaking earnestly, because that’s not why people are there, and that’s not really why I’m there, either. No matter what I’m talking about, I want it to be amusing to the audience.
You grapple with a lot of difficult issues in your stand up, how has comedy affected your mental health?
Comedy is fun, and there’s a lot of times when I’ll be having a bad day and after doing a podcast, or doing stand up or something, I begin to feel better. But really, what’s helped my mental health is therapy. I mean, go to a professional for that. People are fond of saying that “such and such” is “my therapy,” and that’s great if it works for you, but I don’t think you really understand what therapy is and why people need it. And if you don’t need it, then great, good for you. I think therapy is a thing that everybody can benefit from—you don’t have to have deep emotional instability in order to get something out of it. It’s just there to help you with your interpersonal relationships. Meanwhile, if you are thinking, “I don’t need any assistance with my interpersonal relationships,” you’re the kind of person who thinks that everyone else is crazy and you’re not. So I think that therapy is a great thing, people shouldn’t be ashamed of talking about it. For a lot of people, it’s still a thing you are raised to believe you should be ashamed of, and it shouldn’t be. It’s just going to the doctor. You should not be ashamed to go to the doctor, ever.