Paul F. Tompkins was 17 when he braved a stage for the first time to make people laugh. It was Philadelphia, July 1986. He wasn’t by himself — it was a double act with his friend — but it was still terrifying. “I remember that people laughed enough to give me the idea that we had done well,” Tompkins said. “I felt like it was the beginning of a dream coming true.”
When he recently revisited those early days, digitizing his collection of taped stand-up sets, he “would cringe,” he said. “It’s not my fault, back then, that I wasn’t as good as I am now. But it was weird that I couldn’t see it as an evolution.”
Now 53, Tompkins is a comedy veteran — even if not the blockbuster kind. An Emmy-nominated writer on the Gen-X sketch darling “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” voice actor on such animated series as “BoJack Horseman” and arguably the king of comedy podcast guests, he’s built a career out of observational bons mots and outrageous improvised characters — a mix of Mark Twain, old-timey radio entertainer and vaudeville actor for the internet age.
He hosted a live variety show, “The Paul F. Tompkins Show,” from 2002 to 2014 at the Largo, and on Sept. 20, he’ll revive the concept for his first live show since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The sold-out “Varietopia” at the Lodge Room in Highland Park will feature music, comedy and special guests, and Tompkins will perform stand-up for the first time in several years.
“I am so excited to be back on a stage again and feeling that connection,” Tompkins said. “I mean, I’m also terrified, because I haven’t been onstage in forever. I just want to do this show to do this show. Because when it is fun, it is the most fun I’ve ever had. Because it is all the things I like to do.”
It was the year of pandemic-related closures that revived his desire to put on a big show. He got burnt out before, he said, when “getting people to buy tickets felt like more work than the show did, and then the show felt like work after all that work.” He didn’t have that problem this time around — tickets for “Varietopia” sold out within 24 hours.
Tompkins also realized that in the past he’d been doing shows with ulterior motives, still holding onto part of the dream that brought him to Hollywood in 1996.
“Even though I tried to push this to the back of my mind, it was always there,” he said. “I wanted it to lead to something else. I wanted it to be like: ‘If the right person sees this, it’ll become blah, blah, blah. It’ll get talked about.’”
The always seriously dressed funnyman is often the bridesmaid in mainstream entertainment — a guest on shows from “Frasier” to “Rutherford Falls,” an unseen phone operator in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” a disembodied voice in cartoons — and never the bride. He starred in TV pilots, including “The Peter Principle” with Amy Adams in 2000, that weren’t picked up. He’s worked steadily but often invisibly or just a little underground.
“I truly think that if he had been doing comedy in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, he would have been one of the biggest people around to do it,” said longtime friend Scott Aukerman, host of the popular podcast “Comedy Bang! Bang!”
Podcasts and live improv, though, have given Tompkins his spotlight. There, his lightning quick wit, library of cultural references and phrases and seemingly endless arsenal of impressions and original characters take center stage. Whether Tompkin’s playing the philosophical eccentric Werner Herzog, a foul-mouthed Santa Claus or Bill Paxton’s character from “Titanic,” his performance id has been able to run wild on “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and other audio shows.
Describing his unique set of gifts, Tawny Newsome said: “Wild voices. Insane left turns. A white-hot wire pulled tight.” Newsome co-hosts the “Star Trek” podcast “The Pod Directive” with Tompkins and has improvised with him often. “There’s just an undercurrent of rage underneath these really sweet, delightful characters. It’s my favorite thing.”
The son of a railroad man and the fifth of six children, Tompkins moved to L.A. after eight years of stand-up in the Philly-area club circuit. Here he discovered the alt comedy scene, where the likes of Janeane Garofalo and Bob Odenkirk were doing conversational, almost avant-garde stand-up in bookstores and coffee shops.
Wild voices. Insane left turns. A white-hot wire pulled tight.
Tawny Newsome on Paul F. Tompkins, her “The Pod Directive” co-host
“I was like: ‘Oh, my God. This is what I wanted to do,’ but I didn’t know how to do it,” Tompkins said. “I still only had the club template to work with, and it was too scary for me to even conceive of just talking like I talk offstage. Seeing that was a huge creative watershed for me.”
Odenkirk and David Cross noticed Tompkins in the absurdist sketch troupe the Skates and hired him as a writer on “Mr. Show.” For fans of offbeat comedy, that feat puts Tompkins on Mt. Olympus. It ignited his career and led to headlining sets in clubs, writing on “Real Time With Bill Maher” and other shows, itinerant acting gigs and eventually hosting his own TV shows.
“Best Week Ever With Paul F. Tompkins,” a gleefully derisive recap of weekly events on VH1, lasted only a year. “No, You Shut Up!,” which had the comedian hosting a mock cable debate show with a panel of puppets, ran for three years on Fusion TV.
He’s content with the twists and turns his career has taken, choosing not to dwell on what could have been. Improv, which he started late in life and learned on the fly, has given Tompkins more creative latitude — and a more global fanbase — than he could have imagined.
“He’s working from the top of his intelligence all the time, and he’s a very, very intelligent person,” said Aukerman, who shares his infectiously sarcastic friendship with Tompkins and Lauren Lapkus on the podcast “Threedom.” “Although I’ve never seen him read a book, nor could I testify to the fact that he has ever read a book.”
Tompkins has become a mensch to younger comedians like Newsome and Lapkus, who both noted his generosity onstage and off. He’s given dozens of improvisers a platform on his live shows and his former podcast, “Spontaneanation,” always validating them with his boisterous belly laugh.
On mike, Tompkins has been candid about most aspects of his life, including depression. He survived the pandemic, he said, by changing his medication, but also by hosting a weekly “after dinner” podcast with his wife, actress Janie Haddad Tompkins. “Stay F. Homekins” is yet another example of what can be done only in this old-fashioned, newfangled medium.
The couple celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary last year. Janie related their different fields to the solo sport of tennis and the team sport of basketball.
“Paul is so multi-talented that he’s able to do basketball and tennis,” she said. “I’m really just basketball. And I’m a lot of times on the bench, so I’m hoping to get out on the court more,” she laughed.
“Honey,” Tompkins said sweetly, “you worked that metaphor for all it was worth.”
Varietopia with Paul F. Tompkins & Friends
When: Sept. 20
Where: The Lodge Room, 104 N Ave 56, Los Angeles
Tickets: $20 (sold out)