Paul F. Tompkins recounts his funniest failures at the Parkway

Paul F. Tompkins has this lucky quality of somehow being almost intrinsically, automatically funny. Let's put it this way: he has his own monthly podcast, The Pod F. Tompkast, but he also shows up on at least one other high-profile/high-quality comedy podcast every month (The Best Show on WFMU, Doug Loves Movies, Comedy Bang Bang), tours constantly at the behest of Facebook fan groups who petition him to come to their town, has a regular engagement at the Largo nightclub in Los Angeles -- and yet somehow manages to maintain an unpredictable, frequently off-the-cuff sense of comedic inspiration without spreading himself thin. It could be his range; he's funny whether he's bantering off the top of his head, delving into oddball celebrity impressions, or telling carefully-built and prepared personal stories.

There was a dominance of the latter in his early-evening set at the Parkway, a 7 p.m. show which was added after the pre-existing 9 p.m. one sold out. Judging by the near-capacity crowd, it was a show well worth adding.

After a quick offstage introduction by Tompkins impersonating Ice-T (who digressed from his intro to shill his idea for a spectacularly ill-timed reality series where Ice-T and his wife Coco hunt for Bin Laden), the comedian rolled out a set centered primarily around the character-building humiliations involved in his rise to standup renown -- and the ones that continued after he'd made it. Some jokes could have risked coming across as a combination of familiar to the point of obvious, with a bit of "you had to be there" quirkiness for flavoring; everyone has stories about working in shitty retail jobs, even if they had dopey names ("Hats in the Belfry") or embarrassingly niche clientele ("Beta Only," a video rental store open as late as 1990). But Tompkins doesn't so much belabor the obvious as he lovingly details the obvious's clashes with logic-defying absurdity.

His unusually lively and enthusiastic self-deprecation, combined with a knack for amplifying just precisely why some things are far too stupid or embarrassing to make sense, turned what could have been run-of-the-mill struggling-artist schadenfreude stories into prime material. His story of getting caught stealing from the Tower Video that employed him in 1994 is one of those things that works all in the telling. At one point, Tompkins emphasized just how unjustifiable this act was by admitting he hadn't been doing it to "feed my babies... which only eat videotapes." It made for a great run-up to his later misadventures in his chosen field of comedy.

Near the beginning of his set, Tompkins mentioned that he always tended to harbor this irrational fear that the slightest mistake on his part would cause him to get yelled at in ways that would far exceed the actual mistake that he made. And in pointing this out, the notable thing Tompkins revealed about his ascent into the orbits of film and cable-TV semi-stardom is that it only brought new slights to be worried about committing.

It's one thing to get teased by "most famous person in the world" Tom Cruise for flubbing line readings during a script runthrough of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. It's another to humiliate yourself in the process of trying to hide a bout of weight gain by asking the VH1 wardrobe lady if there was some sort of girdle he could use, subsequently giving her the impression of being some sort of awkward transvestite. ("She's seen it all," one of Tompkins's friends tells him beforehand -- then he discovers the wardrobe person's actually 25, which means he's probably her first step towards "seeing it all".)

Tompkins also related an anecdote where he confronted his (apparent) personal acquaintance Weird Al Yankovic with an over-the-top phony harangue after Yankovic made too much noise in a room adjacent to a Best Week Ever taping. After receiving numerous bewildered yet sincere apologies from Weird Al, who Paul insisted on addressing solely as "Weird," he realized Yankovic actually hadn't met him before at all. The lesson learned: those who fear getting yelled at often do the yelling themselves.

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