Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
If podcasting were acting, Paul F. Tompkins would be a Philip Seymour Hoffman-like master whose every performance is award-worthy, or at least worthy of awards consideration (they both even appeared in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson!). Tompkins is one of the uncontested masters of the medium, a beloved fixture of podcasting who hosts the essential (and oddly informative) The Dead Authors Podcast and the less informative but equally entertaining Pod F. Tompkast, is part of Superego collective and appears on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast in a variety of guises, only slightly less often than Scott Aukerman himself.
As a podcast obsessive, I consequently have spent a lot of time with Tompkins and his various alter-egos (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ice-T, Cake Boss, Alan Thicke, and many more) and because podcasting is such an intimate medium, I felt like I had a good sense of who he was as a person and not just as a performer. It felt like Tompkins was one of those magical, blessed creatures who had it all figured out. Tompkins oozed confidence and delight in his own gifts during his regular appearances on other people’s podcasts and cut a debonair, charming, likable, worldly, and impish figure on his own podcast.
Of course nobody really has it all figured out. The world is not a math problem that can be solved but an endlessly complicated and befuddling place where the people professing to have all the answers are often the most lost and confused. So it was oddly comforting to listen to Tompkins’ appearance on Paul Gilmartin’s The Mental Illness Happy Hour (the podcast for folks who wish WTF was rawer, more personal, and more intense) and realize that Tompkins wrestled with the same intense doubt and confusion that the rest of us do.
And though it’s tempting to imagine that Tompkins’ innate charm is a byproduct of him being the previously unknown love child of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, Tompkins actually grew up the child of a depressed, unfulfilled mother who loved to laugh, albeit not at her son’s comedy, and a father so distant that Tompkins compares him to a friend of a friend for whom conversation comes awkwardly, if it comes at all.
This dearth of parental affection and validation not surprisingly led Tompkins to look for the approval his parents apathetically refused to give him in the world of show business. If his mother would not laugh at him, then he could find some manner of sad solace in entertaining melancholy drunks.
But that wasn’t the only place where Tompkins looked for love and affection where none was to be found. As he relates to Gilmartin, he was hopelessly in love with a professional and personal colleague who did not, and could not love him back, and the intense pain of wanting more than anything in the world what he could not have played havoc with his emotional and professional life. He was a man in pain, and it seeped into his comedy in nasty and destructive ways, turning him into a comedian whose snarky, celeb-bashing early standup Tompkins now views with regret and no small measure of embarrassment.
For a show that delves headfirst into the messiest, most painful aspects of existence, The Mental Illness Happy Hour has explored the painful realm of unrequited love with surprising infrequency, especially considering how relatable the subject is. In that respect, Tompkins’ appearance on The Mental Illness Happy Hour epitomizes the show’s ability to be simultaneously specific and universal. The path that led Tompkins to become the comedian and performer he is today is Tompkins’ and Tompkins’ alone, but his struggles with self-loathing, romantic rejection, parental apathy and professional disappointment are something just about everyone should be able to relate to, whether they consistently knock ‘em dead at Largo or not.
Tompkins’ appearance on The Mental Illness Happy Hour substantially changed how I perceived someone I only thought I knew from his comedy. It’s rare and exceedingly welcome when a single episode of a podcast can have that kind of effect. Tompkins has done literally hundreds of podcasts, but his soul-baring and ruthlessly honest appearance here can legitimately be said to be unique.
I don’t want to suggest that the delightful persona Tompkins has developed in his standup and his podcasting is at all inauthentic or insincere. Tompkins is very much the sharply dressed raconteur delighting audiences and himself with his remarkable talent. But that’s not the totality of Tompkins, any more than the self-loathing of his younger self reflected who he was as a person. In that respect, his appearance on The Mental Illness Happy Hour doesn’t contradict his persona as an artist and a comedian so much as it deepens and expands it, allowing the world to see the deep pain underneath the brash self-assurance.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Previous entries in Pod-Canon: