I felt calm and collected the night I spoke with Paul F. Tompkins. A few days earlier, I’d read an interview with the former Mr. Show and Best Week Ever comic where he was calm and self-deprecating. His manager told me to call him at midnight Halifax time on a Friday night, which wasn’t great, but at least I wouldn’t be drunk. Right before I called, I made the error of checking his Twitter feed, where the extremely plugged-in Tompkins posted about a chair in his hotel room. The collision of these two worlds (Twitter-world and the real world) freaked me out and I began our conversation a gibbering mess. He was lovely throughout, a real gentleman to be sure, and talked freely about social media, Mike Holmes, diaries and getting tired of drunks.
The Coast: You know, I wasn’t nervous before I called you up, but then I just looked at your Twitter feed and you posted about how your hotel room chair was really short and you felt like Sid Dithers. Then I realized I’m actually going to be talking to this person and well…I got kind of nervous, sorry. Anyway, you love SCTV. That’s awesome.
Paul F. Tompkins: Oh man, yeah, SCTV was a thing I loved so much. I loved having responses to that post come back immediately.
The Coast: I always really enjoyed Harry, the guy with the snake on his face.
Paul F. Tompkins: Yep, he was good too.
The Coast: How’s it going in Memphis?
Paul F. Tompkins: It’s been a long day of travel. Actually, the last few weeks in general have been long—-organizing all these gigs. At one point someone sent a twitter about a poster—-they were like, Mike Holmes made this poster....
The Coast: Mike Holmes!
Paul F. Tompkin: Such a great poster. But I thought it was a poster for Memphis, and then someone was like, “No, it’s Halifax.” I didn’t know what was up or what was down. I was so confused. I am also getting married next month, so we’re planning our wedding stuff, and it’s in South Carolina, not Los Angeles, so it’s more complicated. Very confusing.
The Coast: Wow! Getting married is a giant pain in the ass. I can’t imagine doing it with your schedule.
Paul F. Tompkins: Yes. Everything has me confused.
The Coast: So Memphis is your second Facebook show, right?
Paul F. Tompkins: Yeah. I started with Toronto back in September. That was the one that started everything. Now—ticket sales have not been wowing me here in Memphis. I guess we’ll see how the show goes tomorrow night. These Facebook groups are supposed to get past all that. You find a place, find a date, most of the people will be there, etc. I have more at stake with this, I really have to examine all the angles, like what I need to learn, what I need to do differently.
The Coast: Well, it’s funny, because most people’s complaints about Facebook invitations seem to be that tons of people say they’re attending and then, you know, four people show up. It seems you’re really making people put their money where their mouth is.
Paul F. Tompkins: Bob Kerr in Toronto was great at setting that tone. He was telling people: “Look, you have to be committed to this. Don’t click on this if you just like the event, or like me, or just because you like Paul. “ He laid out every possible scenario. The key is really how people create the page, and how often they message people. I’ve asked that people who make the groups make me an admin as well, so I can message everyone in the group. I want to let them know as soon as it happens. It really comes down to the communication aspect—-that’s what keeps it exciting.
The Coast: Yeah, the guy who organized this event here, Mark Black, has been updating and cross-posting and making sure everyone knows exactly what’s going on.
Paul F. Tompkins: Well, and that’s the thing—he’s creating a group mentality. It’s the group that’s making this happen. Usually, if I go to a comedy club, maybe 12 people will know about it——it’s all based on how good the advertising for the club was, and then some people might be turned off that experience. I want to play grown-up places where the focus is the show—the focus is not being sold chicken wings, or going out and having a party.
The Coast: You’re very good with all this social media stuff. I read on your blog, though, that you had grown sick of MySpace, the same way everyone else is kind of sick of MySpace, and your rationale was that people “were too needy.” I was wondering what you meant by that. I mean, you give your fans so much access. Are you going to get sick of Twitter and Facebook as well?
Paul F. Tompkins: I think that every once in awhile on Twitter, someone wants feedback on something. I don’t want to be mean or cold or discouraging—I’m totally flattered that you want my opinion, but I got my own problems! I got my own career and I don’t have the time or brainspace to look at stuff from people I don’t really know. In LA, there’s this whole creative community where people all know each other, we all know what we’re doing. You ask for feedback and get feedback from those you trust. It’s got to be someone you know and trust before you go any further with it. On Twitter, Facebook, whatever—you’re strangers. I don’t want to just blindly give advice to someone. I don’t want that responsibility. “Should I do stand-up comedy?” I don’t know! You might be horrible, you might be great, but there’s a certain part of the creative process where you get there on your own, you get there by trial and error. You don’t get there by getting feedback from someone you don’t know. That’s just not how it works. There’s a reason you go through what you go through. It strengthens your creative muscles.
The Coast: I’m sure the name value means a lot to people. It’s pretty big currency to even receive a reply from a celebrity on Twitter. You already reply to everyone, so I bet a lot of people want to push that further so they can say, “Paul F. Tompkins told me to do this.”
Paul F. Tompkins: Sure. It’s not a situation where “he went through it so I gotta go through it” though. I was always the guy who learned things the hard way. I still am. So much of comedy is being thrown in the deep end. You learn because you have to learn. I can’t help you. If you’re brand new, there’s only so much advice I can give you anyway. I can’t give you a creative shortcut. Either you’re creatively aware or you want. You have to go through a gestation period, and sorry to tell you, but it never ends! If you’re honest, you’re always learning and honing your craft. There’s so many revelations to have. Oh God, I’m totally ranting now.
The Coast: That’s OK. Would you say you like all this type of media, in the end?
Paul F. Tompkins: Oh, yes. It’s a fine line sometimes. Sometimes people are just being jerks. They’re trying to be funny and it just comes off the wrong way. Sometimes I have to sit and re-read what they’ve posted a few times Sometimes I’ll ask people, “I’m not sure what you’re doing here.” There’s a certain type of person on social networking who will say something negative so they can get your attention, and then they’re friendly to you. I don’t like that. But by and large people are pretty cool. These things are mostly a force of good. You and I would not be talking right now if it wasn’t for Twitter. It’s been great for me. And back to that SCTV thing—when people all get the reference at once, that’s exciting. That makes it feel like a community.
The Coast: I want to talk about Freak Wharf, your new album, a little bit. I wanted to talk about the “Go Ask Alice” bit. It was intense for me, hearing you talk in such detail about that book, because I grew up with it too and held it in very high regard. I really thought LSD was the gateway drug to pot and if I did these things, I would die horribly. I was using this ‘60s drug lingo in the ‘80s as a 10-year-old because of Go Ask Alice. I honestly didn’t think most boys knew what that book was, and there you are referencing it in this detailed way. How were you exposed to this cautionary tale for young ladies?
Paul F. Tompkins: I dunno. I just knew about it. I grew up in a family of six kids, we lived next door to my cousins. There was a lot of talk about things like that. Growing up Catholic, too, you’re susceptible to that conservative establishment junk. Anything that tries to scare children. That was the first thing I remember having conversations about as a kid, that book. A few years ago, I saw it in an airport bookstore, and I hadn’t thought about it in years. I was like, “What is this thing?” I remembered it as this real diary, and it was terrifying, and I read it now and it made me laugh so hard. It’s so fake. It was great to revisit my childhood in such a strange way.
The Coast: You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I see a theme in a lot of your stand-up bits where you’re deconstructing characters and lifestyles that you used to revere in your youth—especially those outsider role models that a lot of people look up to in college, say—like Charles Bukowski or Tom Waits. And drinking and smoking pot—at first glance, people might think you’re a party dude, but you’re actually talking about how much you don’t like these things.
Paul F. Tompkins: Yes. It’s true. As I become an adult, I look back on the behaviour that used to seem very romantic and now seems horrible. I was the kind of guy that romanticized that type of thing. When I was younger and drinking all the time—you have to remember I started doing stand-up when I was 17—I graduated high school and immediately felt like I could hold my own with adults. But I was just hanging out with emotionally stunted people. I was fucked up. It arrested my development for awhile. I was under the mistaken impression that I was more mature than I was.
Now, I wanna be a grown-up. I don’t want to be living hand-to-mouth. I want to learn how to take care of myself. I have no interest in hanging out with drunk self-destructive monsters, especially when they get on in years. It’s like “You’ve wasted your life. You’re just a creep.” That changed my perspective on lots of things. When I was younger, the idea of leaving a party early was anathema. I thought, surely I’m missing this amazing time. But now I realize my life and what I do with it are what I make of it. I don’t want things dictated by other people. If I want to hang out with my wife and not do anything, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what makes me happy.
The Coast: That must be nice.
Paul F. Tompkins: Ha! Ouch.
The Coast: No, no, I’m serious. I wish I could pull back like that. I still have the feeling I’m missing out on things sometimes.
Paul F. Tompkins: It happens gradually. I totally understand that pressure. There are still things that sound so great to me, like oh, all these people will be there. But I actually don’t like big parties. It’s too much stimulus. I like having a good conversation with one person, as opposed to 15 five-minute conversations with many people. I like dinner parties—a small group of people I really like talking to, all talking about the same thing all at once. That’s my favorite thing in the world.
The Coast: My last question is sort of for my own perverse interest. I apologize in advance.
Paul F. Tompkins: Oh my God! Uh oh!
The Coast: It’s really not that bad. I don’t know why I used the word perverse, actually. I heard somewhere that the reason you wear suits when you perform is because you have a lot of bad tattoos. I’m really intrigued. Do you?
Paul F. Tompkins: No. No, that was a lie. I must have lied about that somewhere. I can’t believe I said that. I knew a lot of people who were doing that, though. I was a few years older than the generation where everyone has tattoos.
The Coast: (Disappointed sigh.)
Paul F. Tompkins: I’m glad you asked, though. And hey, now I can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. If I ever become Jewish.
The Coast: And it’s not too late. You could always get your fiancee’s name tattooed on your butt.
Paul F. Tompkins: Let’s see how the marriage goes first.