The Great Bits: Paul F. Tompkins’s “Peanut Brittle”

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Killing time before the show with my feature act, eating Subway in some comedy condo somewhere, we’d play each other the bits that impressed us the most. I always played “Peanut Brittle.”

It comes from Paul F. Tompkins’s 2007 album Impersonal. I imagine he called it that because the tracks are observations and not the biographical stories you find elsewhere in his work. To me, though, every thought a comedian has is personal. In one bit, Paul sees The Apple Dumpling Gang on TV late at night and imagines a drunk divorced dad forcing his kids to watch it. Most people see a family movie on at midnight and produce no interesting thoughts whatsoever. It just floats through their mental drain pipe with the rest of the day’s sensory input. In Tompkins’s mind, however, it stuck, and the result was a scenario only he could conceive. Who cares if it’s not an anecdote from his life? It’s as unique to Paul as his fingerprint. So is “Peanut Brittle.” Listen to it before you read another word.

The writing in “Peanut Brittle” is as surprising as the subject matter. Comics often affect a conversational tone to disguise that they are making a well-practiced speech to hundreds of people, sometimes for the third time that night. Paul, however, doesn’t care at all if he sounds natural. “Oh, my heart is beating like a jackrabbit!” he says at one point, like no one you have ever met. Describing the “venomous cobras” that pop out of the prank brittle can, he exclaims, “One of them tried to hook my eyeball with a fang as he gained his freedom!” Like the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, HBO’s Deadwood, or an Aaron Sorkin script, Paul talks in a baroque, stylized manner. This frees him up to employ every verbal weapon available for maximum laughs, with no obligation to sound like he’s “just talking.” Yet he never forgets that comedy requires brevity. Talk show bookers tell you to get your first laugh by the forty-second mark. Paul gets his in six. The only way to get it faster is to fall into a pie.

Paul gets six laughs in his first minute. When people compare current comics to the legends of the 1970s, I wish they appreciated the quantum leap they have made in laugh density. There are bits where George Carlin doesn’t get six laughs in ten minutes. It’s not just impressive – for Paul, it’s necessary. Most people don’t give a shit that the canned peanut brittle gag is weird because there is no actual canned peanut brittle. Paul gives many shits about this. The only way to get people to pay attention to such a premise is to hit them in the gut so many times they think, “Who cares if it’s trivial? If it delivers laughs like this, I want more.”

In that very same first minute, Paul establishes a rhetorical tactic that he maintains through the entire piece. Every single sentence in “Peanut Brittle” is ironic. Most standup bits have at least one setup line where the comic tells you their sincere point of view. “Twitter is a scam,” they will say, or “I hate that I like Imagine Dragons,” then, sure that we are all aboard their comedy boat, they row us out to Laughter Lake. At no point does Paul do this. The words of “Peanut Brittle” as written are those of someone completely taken in by the prank. It’s only his tone that shows he thinks it’s the dumbest thing ever. Paul begins, “I was in a novelty store the other day… because I am a fan of hilarity,” His facetious inflections signal to the audience: In this bit I will be saying the opposite of what I believe. Paul uses every way he can to tell them what he means except actually saying it. He sarcastically yells “What a great prank!” He notes that they changed the packaging font to be more modern, ironically bellowing “because THAT was the problem!” All the while his sentences are, on the surface, positive. The whole performance is a comedian’s voice at war with his own words.

An almost six-minute piece written entirely ironically would not be remarkable in poetry or an essay collection. For standup, this is a towering achievement. Most comedy bits have nothing unifying the words at all except that fifty drunks laughed at them between pretzel bites. It’s just a collection of the shit that stuck when the comic threw it at the wall. Standup routines are put together through hundreds of moments where the people in the seats either laugh or they don’t. The comedian chops away what doesn’t work and serves it to the next crowd. A bit must please a live audience every night. A unifying conceit of any kind is a luxury a comic can’t often afford. A bar band is never like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if every song was in the same key?” They just don’t want to get bottles thrown at them. The genius of “Peanut Brittle” is that Paul gets as many laughs as it is humanly possible to get in the time he’s got, and never once breaks the ironic structure he sets up in the first sentence.

Once the crowd is on board, Paul jams the premise in hard. In sixteen separate beats, in sixteen different ways, he pounds in the idea that there is no canned peanut brittle anywhere in the world. He does this, of course, by ironically proclaiming how common it is. “You can get it ANYWHERE” he raves, meaning you can get it nowhere at all. The audience, now fully aware of the game, loves it more every time he does it. By the end, he only has to mention that this is “a snack we’ve established is very common,” and they howl. The bit culminates with Paul addressing the audience as if they just pulled the prank on Paul himself, an oblivious sucker. He embodies every emotion of the victim, from trust to horror to shame. He pours his heart into it. When, at the very end, out of breath, he steps out of character for the tiniest moment and says, “I really acted it up!” the crowd agrees and gives him a well-deserved applause break.

He should be proud. Paul got a hundred people to see the world his way for just an instant, giving them five minutes and thirty-eight seconds of joy. He has achieved the foundational goal of standup comedy. Growing up, a comedian perceives absurdities in life that their peers don’t. It’s the part that can’t be taught, and it’s what separates them from other people. They notice things like the canned peanut brittle gag having no basis in reality. Things like this don’t just stand out to a comedian. They frustrate them. The absurdity is maddening. Pointing it out to others is futile. Their friends think they are weird and pull away. They feel alone.

Comedy is the solution to this alienation. If you can word it just right, people will not only see the absurdity you can’t ignore, they will laugh. Suddenly your oddness doesn’t repel people, it makes them happy. The way you were made now has value to your fellow humans. This acceptance is a profound relief. It drives people to this insane career instead of using the same skill set to become ad men or trial lawyers. Even so, getting others to understand your unorthodox thoughts is hard. Paul must use everything he’s ever learned about writing and all the acting passion he can summon. His efforts pay off. When he’s done, the audience has connected with him on a deep level. They see the prank the way only Paul ever did before. There’s nothing more “personal” than that.

John Roy is a comedian who has appeared on Conan, The Tonight Show and @midnight. His new album Everything’s Burning is available now on A Special Thing Records. He is on Twitter at @johnroycomic.

The Great Bits: Paul F. Tompkins’s “Peanut Brittle”