Getting impersonal with Paul F. Tompkins

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By George Chen

Paul F. Tompkins might be a familiar sight, thanks to his appearances on Best Week Ever, The Sarah Silverman Program, and the cult hit Mr. Show (he also toured with the live stage show that came to the Warfield in 2005). But you may not know that he has been performing stand-up for more than 20 years and recently released an album, Impersonal, through A Special Thing, which is only available through iTunes and online mail-order (and Amoeba Los Angeles, if you are in the neighborhood). For those who aren't familiar with his act, Tompkins is a masterful storyteller with an absurdist wit wrapped in a fairly traditional package: he doesn’t work much profanity and wears a three-piece suit. The comic spoke with me on the phone about his upcoming round of performances as part of the SF Sketchfest.

SFBG: I wanted to get some idea about what to expect for the Sketchfest. I know it’s a slightly different format than you just doing regular stand-up. Or is it? "Comedy Death Ray" is something that happens regularly in LA.

Paul F. Tompkins: "Comedy Death Ray" is a regular LA show [at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater]. It’s been going for four or five years now; it’s stand-up and sketch. As far as that goes up in San Francisco, I’m not sure if they have any sketch on tap - I don't even know what I’m going to be doing yet. I might just be doing some stand-up or I might do some kind of sketch with somebody else - I’ve done both on that show. I’ll be doing the "Match Game" live show two nights in a row before that, which is like the old Match Game game show. We did it up there last year, and it was a big hit and a lot of fun so we're doing it again this year.

SFBG: I didn't see that, and i don't even think I watched the actual show. It's sort of a memory game?

PFT: It's like fill in the blank, essentially like Mad Libs - that kind of thing where it's just one question, and the contestants have to come up with a word, and the panelists, the rest of us comics, hopefully have to match that person.

SFBG: When you do sketches, it's just a crew that you guys usually work with in LA or people you worked on Mr. Show with?

PFT: Well there's a community of people in LA that all know each other so we work together sometimes. Sometimes other people are brought in from outside of that - other actors that aren't necessarily comedians take part in theses shows. It's not like a troupe.

SFBG: You have sketches written or is it improvised?

PFT: It's written stuff. With the UCB there are a lot of improvisers that get involved in things, but for the most part the sketches are definitely written ahead of time.

SFBG: Do you do much improv or do you do mostly your own material and these sketches?

PFT: The only improv I do really is in my stand-up. I’d say it's ad libbing more than real improv. I come from a stand-up background.

SFBG: You’ve written for Mr. Show - have you done other writing for other people?

PFT: Just Mr. Show, that was my only writing gig.

SFBG: How did you get involved in doing that?

PFT: I met Jay Johnston, who was also on Mr. Show, through Adam McKay, because Adam was also a friend of mine in Philadelphia. We had started stand-up around the same time. Adam moved to Chicago and met Jay there, so when I moved to Los Angeles, Jay had just moved there as well, and Adam put us in touch with each other. We hit it off and started writing sketches together. They were seen by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross and that lead to us being hired on Mr. Show.

SFBG: I noticed that you’re on The Sarah Silverman Program also. Are you doing more acting-type gigs like that?

PFT: I do stuff like that regularly when it comes up in addition to doing stand up on TV and commentary stuff for Best Week Ever, Countdown with Keith Olbermann. I'm actually in There Will Be Blood for 10 seconds. You can't really make me out - I'm sort of out of focus when you see my face - and then when I’m actually speaking it's the back of my head. It's early on; it's when the dialog first starts happening. There’s a big close-up of Daniel Day Lewis's face, and in the background, you can see my out-of-focus face.

SFBG: Does [being in the film] have a connection with Aimee Mann, whom you’re opening for tomorrow [Jan. 10]?

PFT: Tomorrow is just a variety show. I'm not opening for Aimee. It's going to be comedy and music. She's just doing a song or two; we're both guests on the same show.

SFBG: You have done a lot of stuff with her before, haven’t you?

PFT: Yeah, we just did a tour together. She did her Christmas tour, and I did some stand-up on that and sang some songs with her.

SFBG: You've written songs?

PFT: No, no no. I can just carry a tune is all. I've done that onstage when it's come up. I don't do just music or anything like that.

SFBG: OK, well, I know that [Mann] was deeply involved in Magnolia. Is that the connection with [the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed] There Will Be Blood?

PFT: It has nothing to do with Aimee really. It has more to do with Largo, the club that we both performed at over the years. Paul Thomas Anderson would go see the comedians - well, he would go for the music. He was a bit of a snob about the stand-up. He would see the comics interact with the musicians - that's how I got to know him. I got to know him offstage before he ever saw me performing.

SFBG: How is working on the Sarah Silverman program? You have a recurring character.

PFT: It's a lot of fun. It's just a line now and again, but those guys are all really funny, and the writers and producers are really great, too.

SFBG: Who would win in a fight - the ghost stromboli or the modernized can of gag peanut brittle?

PFT: I guess the canned peanut brittle has a little more power because it has the power of movement. It does need someone to open the lid. The stromboli, although it is a ghost, is just food. So it would just be kind of sitting there. I would say probably the peanut brittle.

SFBG: Even though it was never alive...

PFT: Exactly.

Paul F. Tompkins appears Jan. 20, 8 p.m., as part of "Match Game Live" with panelists Mary Lynn Rajskub, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford, Doug Benson, Scott Aukerman, and host Jimmy Pardo. 142 Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley. (866) 468-3399.

He also performs on Jan. 21, 8 p.m., at "Comedy Death-Ray" along with Patton Oswalt, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford, Doug Benson and hosts the Fun Bunch (Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter). Cobb's Comedy Club, 915 Columbus, SF. (866) 468-3399.