So the other day, I stood on a soundstage and watched two grown men talk to a puppet and shove their faces into sheet cakes. The gag seemed a pretty standard sort of bit, though, for Fusion’s “No, You Shut Up,” the sketch comedy series featuring Paul F. Tompkins and a variety of celebrity guests that’s now entering its third season.
If you’re passionate about comedy, your ears pricked up just then when Tompkins’ name came up, and even if you’re just a casual entertainment fan, then it’s likely you’ve sampled some of his work, ranging from writing and performing on the classic HBO series “Mr. Show” to hosting and acting gigs to voice-over work on shows like “BoJack Horseman” to countless podcast appearances. In the alternative comedy scene, Tompkins is a bit of a god. Though what the alternative comedy scene is these days, if you ask Tompkins, isn’t so easy to define anymore.
Prior to the bit with the cake, Tompkins sat down to discuss the particular challenges that come with working with puppets, why it’s inaccurate to refer to the current comedy community as “incestuous” and how involved he got with the recently revealed Netflix sketch series reuniting “Mr. Show” stars Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (answer: a lot, but not as much as he’d have liked).
But I wanted to start off by getting a sense of… Do you even have an understanding of how many projects you’re working on at any given moment?
No, I don’t. Sometimes it’s a problem. My goal for the last couple years has been to pare things down, which I am very slowly doing. One of the great things about [“No You Shut Up”], it has allowed me to do less. Because the reason I take on so many things, it’s half there’s a lot of fun things that come my way and half of it is, “Well, who knows if I’ll ever work again?” I would hear people like Tom Hanks say that — “Every job I get, I think it’s the last job,” and I think, “Tom Hanks, you don’t think that.” And then I realize I actually do think that because I’m not Tom Hanks, and for me it feels like much more of a real proposition. You never know when people will stop asking. As much as I love live performance and as much fun as it can be to travel around, it really is nice to be able to stay at home and make a living and pay the mortgage and spend time with my wife.
Yeah, I hear good things about all that stuff.
They’re all great. I highly recommend them.
Do you know people who did stop getting the call? Or is it just an overall paranoia?
I think it’s an overall paranoia, and it’s so common to people in this weird business. Certainly the older you get the more you think, “Well, that’s clearly the less popular I’m becoming, because who likes old people? Nobody, including old people.” So that is the fear. When I think about, though, the people for whom the call stopped, it’s always easier to see somebody else’s flaws, and say, “Well, this is why people don’t want to work with you anymore, it’s because of this.” There are not a lot of people I know who stopped working because they were such terrific artists, but they just got gray hair. The thing you have to be on guard against, more than anything, is self-sabotage. You have to make sure you’re not your own worst enemy.
What, for you, is the thing that you found that makes sure people want to work with you?
You know what? I don’t know. I just approach everything by just doing the best job I can do and try to be a pleasant person. [laughs] That’s all you can do, really. But that’s when it gets into the scary thing: it is ultimately out of your control. People are going to hire you, or they’re not, and there’s only so much you can do to hedge your bets.
You hear people talk about that — it’s all based on relationships. And the thing that strikes me is the self-announcement of you working again with the “Mr. Show” writers via Twitter. I was curious, when something like that happens what’s the way it goes? Do you just get a text message, “Hey, what you doing Saturday?”
Pretty much, yeah. It was an email Bob and Dave sent out saying, “Hey, we want to get together, and look over some unproduced scripts and punch them up and maybe come up with some new stuff, because it’s going to be the 20th anniversary of ‘Mr. Show.’ So let’s get together and see what happens. Hopefully there’s a place that we can do this.” And it really is just that simple.
So how many days of work was it?
That’s a good question. Pretty much everyone had their own thing going on as well. So we all met as much as we could together. I was there for a good chunk of it. There’s a lot that I missed. There’s one week in particular that I had jobs lined up the whole week, so I missed out. And I felt like it was a really crucial week, too, where everything was assembled. So I was there for the beginning stages of putting things together, rewriting scripts and all that. [But] I do feel like I missed out on this one very important bonding week. And then it was just really getting there whenever I could. Coming there from other jobs, things like that. Because there was already all this other stuff in place.
From what that I’ve read about the project, it’s got a very high concept element over all the sketch comedy. Was that from the beginning, or was that something that kind of evolved?
What have you heard about the high concept?
The idea that Bob and Dave are playing new characters who are returning to a sketch comedy show.
Yeah, the idea here was not to just do “Mr. Show.” There’s something about that, that after so much time has passed… it’s one thing to want to see the gang again, but it’s another thing to say, “We’re going to try to recreate exactly the thing that we did two decades ago.” I think nobody wants to see that, specifically. I think what people are going to see is, in many ways, a new thing. Obviously the sensibility that Bob and David have is just their sensibility and that will certainly be on display. But it will not be “Mr. Show,” 20 years later.
Next: Tompkins explains how the writing process of “Mr. Show” worked, and what it’s like when an audience sides with the puppet over you.
With “Mr. Show,” would you write sketches together as a group or write individually and bring stuff in?
Oh, both. I think that’s true of most sketch shows. A sketch writing room is unique in that way. With a scripted show, a sitcom or something like that, everyone participates in breaking the episode and then maybe someone has to go off and write a draft of it.
But then, of course, it’s not just all ready to go. With sketch, it’s like you have multiple people working on different sketches. Then you’ll have different teams that will come up. So sometimes you’ll be working on a sketch by yourself or sometimes you’ll be working on a sketch with someone else. You’re not necessarily a writing team, but because you contributed to the formation of the sketch it becomes your assignment to write it together. With other writers’ rooms it’s mostly there’s the collaborative element, then when you’re writing by yourself it’s either you on your own — or you and your writing partner, if you’re on a team — doing a draft of the script.
There are still revisions that everyone participates in. Writing for television, writing for anything at all, is about fine tuning, fine tuning, fine tuning until the point where you have to let it go. So with “Mr. Show,” it was a good room. Most of the time we were around a table together and pitching ideas and fleshing things out. And then we’d do the read-throughs ourselves, and it was very collaborative.
It sounds like a style you enjoy.
Oh, yeah. It’s really fun to work with other people. The control you give up with just writing for yourself and by yourself, you gain so much more fun when working with other people. It helps to elevate things. When you’re really connecting and you can heighten, heighten, heighten, heighten a scene it can be very exciting. It’s really a rush.
So for “No, You Shut Up!”, how much of that style have you brought to it?
Well, this is a different animal because I’m just the host. I’m not a producer on the show. I don’t have any official capacity in that way. I’m not in the writers room more than one day a week. So those guys, Nelson Walters and Bryan Paulk and Kevin Haulihan, will work on the script all throughout the week. I meet up with them on Friday and then we talk through everything and that’s when I will pitch my suggestions or directions the bits can go in or whatever. Then we’re all working together and coming up with ideas. But they definitely do the bulk of the writing and assemble the show.
When it gets to me, we’re at the fine-tuning stage of changing things. They’ll send me the script and then over the weekend I’ll do my pass on it just to clean up the language or maybe punch up some jokes or whatever. Occasionally if there’s something that I feel like, “Hey, this needs to go in a bigger direction, we can heighten this even more,” and it requires the props department or if anyone needs a heads up about anything, try to get to that as quickly possible.
Sure. Have there been ideas that you’ve had that you’ve had to give up on?
Oh, yeah, that has happened. It’s been where it occurred to me on a Monday night and we’re shooting here Tuesday. I can’t have this guy find these four insane specific props by 10am tomorrow.
What’s the one that got away, the white whale?
Oh boy. I think I wanted for something, a cartoon bomb. Just one of those round things with the wick coming out of it. We shoot in this weird studio so far away from everything, so I think that’s too big an ask for 9am on tape day. [laughs].
That feels like it should just be in somebody’s closet somewhere.
And it may very well be. Who knows. But I file those things away for future.
I wanted to ask about going on “@midnight” with the “NYSU” cast.
That was a thing we really wanted to happen for a while. Logistically, it was very tricky to figure out how to do it. And then finally, what I really think what made it happen, Chris Hardwick asked me, “Hey would you ever want to do it?” And I’m like, “Yes, absolutely!”
“Can I bring my puppets?”
Yeah yeah yea. I had done the show before, but he asked specifically if I wanted to come on with the puppets. They figured out how to raise the podiums up so the puppeteers could come under there.
And it was great to see a live audience reacting to the characters. One of the characters, Hot Dog, on our show is this object of derision constantly. He’s this very shallow character, very vapid. And then the live audience loved him. Everything that is a joke on our show, that is supposed to indicate how stupid he is, was just getting genuine laughs from the “@midnight” studio audience. Every hashtag joke that he made. So me trying to be comedically mean to Hot Dog [laughs], people were on Hot Dog’s side. It was a weird adjustment I had to make in the moment, like, “Okay, I have to really watch how mean I can get with Hot Dog.” I realized we probably should have set up beforehand, “Hey, here are the relationships. When I’m making fun of Hot Dog, it’s a joke, don’t worry his feelings are not hurt.”
Puppets have that power. They’re way more likable than people.
Absolutely. Yes they are.
How much puppet experience did you have prior to this?
Not much. Certainly I was a child at one point. I was the voice of a puppet for a series of internet ads for the Ford Focus, and I was sent to a puppeteering bootcamp for a weekend and that turned out to not be sufficient enough time to master an ancient art form. So they had one of their puppeteers essentially lip sync to me in real time. I would be just off camera talking and this guy would just move his mouth as quickly as possible. And it became this weird symbiotic relationship that we developed, where sometimes he would start leading it and I would start following him. He would start leading with his movements or physical attitudes that he was putting on the puppet, and then I would follow along. It was this weird push-me, pull-you kinda thing.
Not being a skilled puppeteer either, I’ve never given a lot of thought to the fact that there is physicality to that performance.
Yeah, not just anybody can do it. The first ad that we did, the ads were all improvised. It was this press conference thing and I have this puppet behind the podium. And I could only go for like five minutes. To hold your arms straight up in the air for five minutes, that’s a tall-enough order, you start to feel it very quickly. But then to also be moving around and you’re improvising and everything. We would be doing these long, long takes and I was like, “I cannot do this.” And that’s when we switched it out and had the puppeteer doing the puppeteering and me just riffing.
While watching someone else do the puppeteering, did you feel less connection to the performance?
That’s a really good question. I never did, I never did. I guess something else took over. It’s a unique experience for me. It’s a singular experience in my career. I just had my eyes on the puppet and it’s almost as if I was trying to will my personality into the puppet, so that it made sense. Yeah, I don’t know, there’s nothing I could even compare it to. It was really strange.
Certainly different from just acting with puppets.
Yeah, absolutely. And that has its own aspects you have to get used to. The first season, the most challenging thing was — because it was so improv-heavy — was not being able to see people’s faces. And realizing, in that moment, how important visual cues are in improvising. You can see, in someone’s face, an indication of what is to come next. You know when to be quiet, you know when to let them talk, you know what attitude they’re about to take on. But if you’re just looking at buttons, it becomes a much more challenging thing. And then a thing I had to get used to it was having gotten used to it. Because it was weird, every once in a while I would be conscious of the fact that I had gotten used to talking to these things like they were people. The felt and the buttons took on a real life for me which I did not expect to happen.
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I imagine you also pick up on the subtleties of the puppeteers’ movements. When the puppeteers aren’t holding the puppets, do you find it odd to talk to them?
Do you mean like at lunch? [laughs] I will tell you the only thing that’s weird… there are a lot of recurring characters on the show, and so if the puppeteer is talking in his or her own voice through the puppet, then it’s like a puppet actor who’s playing a puppet that’s playing this other character [laughs]. That is the only thing that always makes me twitch a little bit.
But that just speaks to how we associate voices with faces. I remember the first time I saw what Marc Maron actually looked like, I was shocked. I don’t know why, but he did not look the same as I’d imagined.
I totally understand.
Is that something you encounter?
I did a show in Charleston, South Carolina, and I got there so early that I beat the person who opened the door to the theater. I got there and I was the first in line for my show [laughs], so then some audience members show up and they got in line behind me. And it was this couple, and I thought, “This is uncomfortable.” They were here to see this show. I’m the only thing that’s on tonight, but I didn’t think they knew who I was.
So we’re chatting, and I say “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m Paul.” And the young lady says “Oh, wait, are you Paul Tompkins?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she said, [laughs] “Oh my God I only heard your voice on podcasts and I never knew what you look like.” [laughs] And then the husband said, “I knew what you look like but I have night blindness, so I didn’t know it was you.” [laughs] So, yeah, it’s a thing that happens.
Finally, Tompkins explains why the current ecosystem of comedy isn’t as incestuous as some people say.
Now that Fusion puts “NYSU” online more, is there any pressure or inclination to, well, “We could have a really solid half-hour episode, maybe we should really go for this quick five minute viral bit?”
Well, everyone always wants you to have some sort of viral thing. The hilarity to me is determining what is your most viral video. Setting out to do that is such hubris; to say that this is the one that’s gong to be passed around and shared. People are either going to like that or they’re not. Certainly, on the Fusion website, in addition to full episodes the show is cut up into clips and maybe someone will share them? [laughs] Maybe they will get passed around. It’s still a wish and a hope. You just can’t predict that. As much as a show like “The Tonight Show” has dialed into that, they have come up with a formula that seems to be working for them.
We’re a different animal. We’re a different show entirely. It’s not as simple as getting the most famous people in the world to submit to having things thrown in their face. Which I get why people want to see that, I totally get that [laughs]. We don’t exactly have that same rolodex. We make due with what we have.
I’ve been getting updates on who you have upcoming, and they’re not too shabby.
We get good guests. Absolutely. I think we’ve had only the one Oscar winner so far.
[Note: That’d be Nat Faxon, during Season 2.]
Only the one?
And it was a writing Oscar. Do people even count that?
I think there’s a little asterisk on the actual statue.
[laughs] Absolutely, yeah. It’s slightly smaller.
Just by an inch.
In terms of getting that talent, what do you do? In terms of making the calls? Making the texts?
We have a booker who has pre-existing relationships with talented people. And I have people that I know that I reach out to if need be. One way or another we’ve managed to get a really nice roster of guest stars on this show that’ve all been super game for everything. And I take them at their word when they say they’ve had a good time on the show. Certainly we don’t want to go through our address books and start at “A” again. Hopefully we can get new people on the show as well.
Well that speaks to the ecology or ecosystem of comedy that exists now. I mean, I was driving down here and just coincidentally happened to listen to an episode of “How Did This Get Made?” featuring you.
There just seems like this mass of production — podcasts and sketches and series — that are bringing people together. From your perspective, is this something that’s brand new or just a couple years old at this stage?
It’s not new, all I think that’s changed is that it’s just being recorded more than it used to be. Especially in New York and LA, where you have places like the UCB that do more than just stand up shows, you have a real community. People are doing each other’s shows all the time. And podcasts are just a natural extension of that. You have a thing and you think, “Who can I count on to be good, who would be fun to play with for whatever this is?” People I think sometimes call it incestuous but what are they supposed to do? These are people you know, you know what I mean?
Calling it incestuous implies that it’s family, that it’s something you’re born with, as opposed to friendships that you build.
I think it also implies that it’s closed to other people, which is not the case. There are a lot of people in the scene, and of course you’re going to call people you know before total strangers. I can say, as anyone who has produced a thing, you’re always wanting to get new people, you’re always wanting to bring in a fresh element for yourself in addition to the people that you already know and love and can count on. You always want to be expanding the world. No one is looking to close it off. Just sometimes, you can’t always get new people.
How key has podcasting been to building that?
I don’t know. I feel like that might be a question for someone who is a bit newer on the scene than I. For me, I get to do things with are people that I’ve known for years and years and years. So the big difference with podcasting, for me, is now we’re in a studio in front of microphones. I would bet, for people that are starting out now, it’s a way to probably get into the community, get further into the community. If someone sees you live on the stage or they hear you on something they might say, “Oh, you were great on this thing. I want you to come do my live show here,” or “I saw you at this live show please come guest on my podcast.” Probably for people that are just coming along now, it’s probably very helpful.
I’m wondering if the fact that there are a variety of different kinds of comedy being produced, I mean, there was other stuff happening before the ’80s, but stand up comedy was the dominant form of comedic expression.
How much more diversity do you think there is now?
In terms of style, it’s much more diverse now. The diversity of style that is available to people is huge right now. And it’s way more than it ever was. In the ’80s most of the stand up was your basic dude in front of a brick wall. Did you ever notice this? And there were people doing more interesting things, but you had to go seek that out, you had to go find it. And it was not as easy to find.
Now I think that, as the term “alternative” has stopped meaning a different type of comedy, it really means a different type of venue more than anything. It just means not a comedy club. The people that are performing in alternative venues are people that perform in comedy clubs and people that only perform in alternative venues. With podcasting and the amount of stuff on TV with web series, with all that. If you have a certain kind of comedy you enjoy you can find tons of it and you never have to watch comedy that you don’t like. If you find stuff that’s too abrasive, too cerebral whatever, you can avoid that stuff. You never have to worry about it ruining your day.
I love this concept of the Internet as an alternative comedy venue.
It is really, though. It’s a warehouse. You can go and find what you need.
How does curation work then? In a warehouse it can be hard to find something.
In a sloppy warehouse.
[laughs] They could do a better job, Ikea, of letting you know where stuff is. Curation. Of course there’s algorithms that help things out: “You might also like” that pops up at the end of everything. I think that most of the tools are there to help you along. Everything has some sort of suggestive tool.
I’ve used it. A group of people that I’m now a part of, I initially found on a message board about something else. There was this podcasting thread, and it asked what are you listening to? Someone said this podcast “Superego” is really funny. It’s sketch and it’s improvised, but they edit it down. And it sounded really intriguing to me. So I went and found it and listened to it and I loved it. And I emailed those guys, because there was an email for the podcast, and said, “Hey, I really enjoyed this podcast.” I was not expecting anything other than letting them know I enjoyed it. And they wrote back to me saying, “Oh, we’re big fans of yours. We’d love for you to record sometime.” And now those people are my friends. And we work together all the time. That’s a thing that’s directly impacted not just my career but my life. And that all happened because I found them on a message board.
I guess that begs the question, how many podcasts are you actively engaged in at this point?
[laughs] Right now my podcast prime is “Spontaneanation.” I also have my Dead Authors Podcast, which is winding to a close. The last episode will be in September and then we’ll do specials every once in a while. Then “The Thrilling Adventure Hour.” Those are the regular ones. Then I’m a frequent guest on “Comedy Bang Bang,” but that’s just a guest.
How do you know when it’s time to say goodbye to a project? Aside from someone like Fusion saying we don’t need another season.
When you feel you’ve done all you can do with it. When it stops being a fun challenge, and it’s just a challenge. The idea with comedy is that there are a lot of fun challenges inherent in it. And the joy is figuring things out. The joy is how do we surprise people? The joy is how do I surprise myself? How do we do something different than we’ve done before? When that becomes increasingly difficult and it doesn’t feel like a fun challenge anymore, it just feels like work, that’s when I think it’s time to stop.
So it’s an organic feeling.
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t think, especially when you’re able to make your own stuff, it should ever be dictated by what other people think. Especially now that people have the ability to make their own things in a way that they never have before. I mean, the outlets that people have now and the technology, it’s a tremendous time to be a creator of things. I think it’s up to the artists, up to the creator, if it’s just a self-created thing, to say, “I don’t feel like doing this anymore.” Even if no one is listening, no one is watching, if it’s your thing and you want to do it, you should do it. [“No, You Shut Up”], that is not up to me, but I hope this will not stop. If it does, there is nothing I can do about it but make peace and find another job.
“No, You Shut Up” airs Thursdays at 10pm on Fusion.
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