With his suit and tie and slicked-back forties-style do, Paul F. Tompkins comes off like the dapper chairman of the L.A. hipster-comedy rat pack, performing regularly with alt-comedy (and much more casually dressed) peers at UCB Theater and Largo. In fact, now in his forties, the former Best Week Ever host might actually be catching up with the clothes: Whereas he used to kill with jokes about gag peanut-brittle cans and cake vs. pie, he’s now delving (comedically!) into such grown-up topics as losing his mother and taking a wife. You can hear said jokes on his new Comedy Central special, You Should Have Told Me, premiering tonight at 11 p.m. We talked to Tompkins about his personal sense of style, and why it is in no way “old-timey.”
In addition to your suit and slicked hair, you often use old-timey language, whether it’s “spats” or “two bits.” When did you put this character together?
Well, I never think of it as old-timey. Just because I have a good vocabulary, I don’t think of myself as anachronistic — just because I try not to use the word “like” every other word. I love words, and I love that there’s so many words available to make a point and to create a picture. And I’ve always loved clothes. You know, back when I was a kid who wanted to be in show business, everybody on TV wore nice clothes. They were very glamorous when they would be on the Tonight Show. All the dudes wore suits and ties and that just seemed like real show business to me. When I started doing stand-up in the late eighties, that was not an uncommon thing, that people dressed for the stage. I’ve seen that change as time has gone by to where, for me, it’s something that people remark on. And that’s when I started to really embrace it in a way and get more flamboyant and foppish with the way that I dress to stay just this side of Cedric the Entertainer
Do you write differently for your TV appearances than you do for your stand-up set?
With both Best Week Ever and [my recurring guest spots on] Countdown, I’m writing to specific topics. It’s much easier than hammering out stuff from my life — that takes work to craft into material that works for the audience. Whereas [TV spots] are a homework assignment: Here’s the thing we’re going be talking about, make jokes about it. For a guy like me, it’s commentary that I would be doing anyway, sitting on the couch with my wife.
Your new special is a lot more personal than your previous ones; you have a whole section on your mother passing away. As you claw your way through your forties, will your jokes get more and more serious?
I don’t think the jokes will get serious. I think I will try to take on more and more topics like that and see how funny I can make them. The challenge for me in talking about my mother’s death was, how can I make this funny? Without being like I’m trying to shock people, or I’m trying to be as dark as I possibly can. I wanted to talk about the stuff that really happened that I know I’m not alone in having these experiences. And that connection with a group of strangers, to me, is everything.
You talk about getting drunk a lot, but somehow there’s an observance of decorum to the way you do it.
I don’t know if I would consciously say that’s what I’ve been striving for. But certainly, to discuss vomiting in a cab in as elegant a way as possible makes me laugh really hard. It could not be a more squalid story, but to talk about it as if I’m in an English gentleman’s study really makes me laugh.