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Outsider Insider: At the Core of the Comedy Scene, There's One Man, Playing Many Other Men. 

Thursday, Feb 5 2015
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Paul F. Tompkins doesn't consider himself to be famous. He's dapper, a little more so than the average Los Angeles gentleman, so maybe he'll get looks. But not everyone thinks he looks familiar, and he seems fine with that.

But it is true that he's sort of everywhere these days, doing standup comedy, writing, and improv as a talk-show host, a variety-show performer, a serious actor, a voice actor, and more.

He's also known for playing not-himself, as he does on Comedy Bang! Bang! the TV show, or Comedy Bang! Bang! the podcast. Tompkins fully takes on the personas of the zany characters he brings to life: caricatures of celebrities such as the Cake Boss, Werner Herzog, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. He's fantastic and funny when he pretends like this, but he's really just as compelling when he's playing the straight man to a hot dog puppet on his Fusion satirical news program, No You Shut Up!

As always, pretty much, Tompkins never misses a Sketchfest, and that's because so many Sketchfest events require his presence. He's a part of the Superego team ­­— the absurd improvisational podcast ­­— and his own Dead Authors podcast (on which he plays host H.G. Wells) is a comedy fest staple. Besides that, you can see him in Rhett Miller's variety show, Thrilling Adventure Hour, and more. He's versatile, and funny, and despite not being famous, he's somehow at the epicenter of the type of comedy that Sketchfest has come to represent: alternative, geekish, but somehow all-encompassing and inclusive. He's kind of the ultimate outsider comedy insider.

SF Weekly: You're coming to Sketchfest again. I should tell you that I interviewed you two years ago.

Paul F. Tompkins: It's nice to chat with you again.

Likewise I'm sure. So, Paul, you are a man of many projects. Would you agree with that?

I would agree with that. I do not think this is a gotcha question. I totally accept that thesis statement.

I'm going to list some of your projects. You're a host, a voice actor, a podcast frequenter, a real-life actor as opposed to voice actor, and ... did I miss anything?

No I think that just about covers everything.

...Standup comic, writer, a member of various groups and troupes. You must be very good at networking and keeping track of your time, yes?

I don't know that I'm good at either one of those things but I do do a lot of stuff. I would not say I'm good at keeping track of my time. That's something I could stand to be much better at.

As far as networking, you must have a lot of friends in the comedy biz.

Yeah I do, which is a great thing. I'm lucky to have made a lot of great friends in this business. Networking to me implies always that I'm trying to further my own career, and that's not something that I'm good at. That's why I have to do so many things.

Why do you like to like to get involved in so many subsets of comedy?

The wonderful thing about the week or so that I'll spend there [at Sketchfest], it's getting longer and longer every year, is all my favorite things to do are happening over the course of several days in one city. That's not something that ever happens at home. I get to do Superego, I get to do Dead Authors, I always do the Rhett Miller variety show, and a Rifftrax [telling jokes at the screening of a bad movie], and the only way that'll ever happen is at Sketchfest. It's just impossible for me to turn any of those down because I love doing them all. And thankfully all of those shows make it very easy for me to step in and take part. The hardest one for me is Dead Authors because I have to do research. And that's my show. The other ones are all like — when you're doing standup, you have to prepare and write a bunch of material, and you're out there all by yourself — to be able to just do Thrilling Adventure Hour or straight-up improv for Superego, it's so much less personal pressure. The teamwork aspect of it is really wonderful.

Do you consider yourself, at this point, a famous person?

Ha. You know what, no. I feel that to be famous is if you can walk down the street in any city and most people you pass will at the very least think you look familiar. I think that for a certain type of comedy fan, I am well-known. But I don't know that I'd call that fame. Whenever people accuse me of being famous — I don't wanna say "accuse me" but — whenever people accuse me of being famous, it always sounds false to me because you know, I'm flying coach and no one is looking twice at me. There's a segment of the population that knows who I am but it is by far not the majority.

Do you consider yourself successful?

Yeah I do. That's a strange thing to say sometimes, I guess. What does that mean? But I think of it in terms of, I'm making a living doing what I love to do. There's a roof over my head, food on the table, and I've been doing it for a really long time. And knowing that this is my job, being an entertainer, I do feel successful. I continue to get to do a lot of great stuff that I really enjoy doing. I have the ability to say No to people, and that to me is some measure of success I guess.

What did you want to do when you started working in entertainment? What were your "entertainment goals"?

Kind of to do everything. I've only just realized recently that I had that goal. I wanted to act but I wanted to do standup, and I wanted to host things, I really wanted to have an interesting career. Because your goals change over the years. There were times when I focused more on acting, there were times where I focused more on standup, and then there were times where I was trying to do absolutely everything at the same time. But right now, I have a nice mixture of things that I am really really enjoying. And also the security to have some time to myself as well.

I just watched your show on Fusion. And you also host the interview-in-a-bar series Speakeasy. I've seen you also play wacky characters on Comedy Bang! Bang! Do you prefer to play the host, the straight man? Or do you prefer to play a wacky sidekick type?

That's really tough, I can't really choose. Being the wacky person is a lot of fun. Not only because you get to be the wacky person but because you, it's sort of a challenge to the host or the straight man. But I also like to be on the other side of it, I like being the straight man and I like the challenge of keeping a straight face. What I really like is, I love working with other people and watching other people work. And there's no better seat in the house than sitting right next to that person. And with interviewing, I really enjoy talking with people. I really enjoy finding out what their motivations are and why they make choices that they make and the questions that I get to ask people on Speakeasy are all my choice. Instead of just, "Hey, tell me this story you've told a million times, your talk-show-ready story." So that stuff can happen, but I'm less interested in that. I'm less interested in looking for parts where I can jump in with a joke. I really want it, if it's interesting for me, hopefully it's interesting for other people.

I think it comes across, for what it's worth, that you really enjoy doing it.

Thank you.

Do you like working alongside all those puppets?

Yes. I am just coming from there now, actually. And it's a weird, unexpected joy that came into my life just out of nowhere. I got a call asking, you know, someone that I'd never met that knew of me, asking me if I'd be interested in hosting this show, and I said yes. And it's now turned into my main job. We are at the beginning of our third season, approaching the halfway point. And working with the puppets and the people that animate them has been so much fun. A thing I did not know was missing from my life until I started doing it. I really admire those guys, the puppeteers are amazing, not just puppeteers but improvisers and performers, I just really like those guys a lot. I look forward to seeing them every week and they really absolutely delight me.

That's cool. I have to ask you — the picture you tweeted of Mr. Show alums sitting around the table, what's the deal with that?

Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross] asked us, the writers of Mr. Show, to get together and look through some scripts and do some rewrites of jokes in anticipation of celebrating in some way the 20th anniversary of the first season of Mr. Show. And I wanted to take a picture, and Bob said, "Why don't you tweet that out?" And for some reason I chose New Year's Eve to do it, and I cannot say if there's anything definite planned. I can say that Bob and David are working on making something happen. And hopefully we'll know soon where that event, or whatever it will be, will take place. But the goal is to make it a thing that people will be able to watch on television one way or another. So that's all I can say, because that's all I really know for now. We're meeting again very soon to do some more writing, and we'll see what happens.

Oh one last question. You do so many things. When someone who doesn't know of you asks what you do, do you say "comedian?"

I say I am an entertainer.

Is there anything else you want to tell our readers about Sketchfest?

I don't know what I would tell them because the shows typically fill up. I'm always astonished at how, no matter the size of the venue, the people are there. Normally I would tell people, "Hey this is this great thing that's in your city, you should take advantage of it," but it seems like they are doing that. So I would just say thank you very much to the people of San Francisco, because I always feel very very welcome, whether I'm doing Sketchfest or I'm doing my own gigs, I always always feel like people are so welcoming to me. So, thank you for that, and I look forward to seeing you guys again.

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Emilie Mutert

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