comics talk to comics

Ben Schwartz Talks to Paul F. Tompkins About Comedy Bang! Bang! and an Idea for a Hamilton Podcast

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Getty

One of the most exciting parts of today’s comedy boom is seeing comedians of different generations become friends and collaborators. And there is no better place to see that than Comedy Bang! Bang!, the popular podcast hosted by Scott Aukerman, which often features a very established comedian interacting with more of an up-and-comer. Two of the comedians most associated with the show are Paul F. Tompkins and Ben Schwartz. So, with the fourth season of Tompkins’s political-puppet comedy show No, You Shut Up! premiering on Fusion tonight, Vulture had Schwartz interview his comedy buddy. They talk about Comedy Bang! Bang!, improve, and a brilliant idea for a Hamilton cover album of sorts.

Paul, I went online and put your name into a series of search engines —
A series of search engines?

Well, I used all of the old search engines. I went to, like, and MetaCrawler, so I could really dig out the dirt on you.
What did your search yield?

I found an amazing clip of you singing Bowie, which made me really excited. There’s a gentleman dressed as a clown who sang backup. But I noticed this: In all three videos that I watched, you had a bunch of likes, and then one person every time presses dislike. It made me laugh so hard. My question to you, Paul, is, do you know who that man or woman is?
No, I don’t. I forget to look at that stuff because the YouTube community is a little scary.

If you upload a video, sometimes it will give you notifications that someone has commented or something, so I got this notification and the big question was, did I really think that I was funny and did I not realize that I was just riding on the coattails of Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross]?

Now, I hate to be an idiot, but I have almost the same exact question to start this whole thing off, so if you don’t mind fielding it, that would be amazing.
I thought I was funny, but I never thought about it in those terms, and I have to say, the guy makes a good point.

That’s what I have right here, underlined a bunch of times. “The guy makes a good point. Remember to ask.”
So I am pleased to announce my retirement from show business.

This is the forum to do it. When you were saying that YouTube thing, I remembered the first time I really felt anti-Semitism was when I started putting clips on YouTube. That was a big thing I had to get over, understanding that there are human beings out there and that’s going to be a part of it. Once you put your thing out to the public, there are people in the public that hate Jewish people or hate Paul F. Tompkins. 
Yeah, you don’t need to wonder. 

Here’s another thing that I noticed, the F is Francis. I was going to ask you, but I found it out online. I was disappointed. I wanted it to be a bigger thing. That’s the reason why you put a period after it, Francis is —
It’s disappointing, right?

It is. That’s exactly what it is. There’s such mystery, to find out that it’s also the name of my cousin, it’s not that big of a deal. 
It’s a little anticlimactic.

You’re doing more improv now, right, with your new podcast [Spontaneanation]?
Yeah. Because of podcasting, it’s a road I’ve been going down. I really enjoyed the immediacy of it and the scariness of it. A big turning point for me was doing your show, Snowpants, where you have seasoned improvisers and then a couple of people who have done little to no improv. And then the other inexperienced guest was Jane Fonda, and she said backstage that she was terrified. And then, once the show started and we got out there, she was the first person off the wall to jump in. That is some balls.

She had probably never seen an improv show before. So for her to go out, not having any idea of what was about to happen, was big. Before the show, I was like, “How do you feel?” And she’s like, “I’m really afraid, I’m really scared, but,” and she looks at me and goes, “I’m 73 years old, and I have to do things that scare me.” That was so inspiring to me because she has truly done everything.
I didn’t even overhear that conversation, but that was so clearly the takeaway for me from that night. And it was so inspiring. I think about that night a lot, by the way. Anytime I’m confronted with something challenging or difficult or scary, I think about her doing that, and I’m like, This is what it’s supposed to be all about. 

It’s also because comedy’s a personal thing. The second you realize that you’re putting yourself out there with “I think this is pretty funny,” people are like, “Nope, you’re not funny.”
Oh, yeah. Somebody was telling me the other day about stand-up and how if you’re more experienced and you have a bad set, you don’t take it as a judgment on yourself. You just take it as a judgment on the material. And I’m like, “No. Of course you take it as a judgment on yourself.” The ideas that you find funny and the things that you are offering to an audience are tied up with who you are and your soul and your heart.

There’s a world where people are like, “Who cares what the audience thinks,” but for me, when the audience is laughing and loves something that you’re doing, you add more to it. You find that part of the game and you push it, so you get as much as you can. When they’re really feeling a callback or a character, in an improv show, you’re going to stay with it. How does that compare to stand-up?
That’s really where the writing happens. You go up with the idea of the bit and you build it out onstage. You might have a lot of it written, but it’s the moments when the audience is interested in an idea that you can add to it. It enables you to relax enough that you can think more clearly.

The second you’re in a place of confidence, like when I get my first laugh in a show, you take bigger risks, and hopefully the rewards are bigger. That’s why you love the podcast world. When we’re in a room, if it’s Scott [Aukerman, host of Comedy Bang! Bang!] and I, or it’s me and you, and we’re just playing around, it feels so personal. It’s a whole different type of medium in that it’s just a couple of friends hanging out in a room being themselves.
Yeah. The tricky thing is, Okay, we are having fun together, but is this going to be something that’s infectious and the audience can have fun along with us, or is it something that feels exclusionary where the audience is turned off? Like, “I don’t know what these guys are talking about. They seem to be just cracking each other up, but nothing’s really happening.” Comedy Bang! Bang! has meant so much to me over the years, and has brought me so much and so many new fans. Some of the happiest hours of my life have been spent in that studio just fooling around with Scott and the other amazing people he gets on that show. But it’s never lost on me that people are listening. I’m always thinking of the unseen audience, and so whatever heightening goes on and whatever fleshing out of bits, it can’t ever just be us making each other laugh. To me, the making each other laugh is the by-product of it. But the main thing is, how can this get sillier and funnier?

Right. I will say I do this thing with Scott on “Comedy Bang! Bang!” called “Solo Bolo” [episodes that are Ben and Scott and no additional guests or people in character]. That’s the only time where we don’t think about that anybody’s listening. We literally just sing like idiots. Sometimes I feel terrible. But I’ll say that those are some of my favorite things in the universe to do. “Who cares? Let’s just be stupid idiots for an hour.” 

Also, I was listening to a Chris Hardwick podcast with Tom Hanks when I was on a run. I barely run. I don’t know why I said that. But it was so personal to me. It was just them in my ears. You can’t hear anything else, and it feels like they’re talking like human beings do. They’re not talking like they’re on camera.
A big difference between podcasts and radio is the intimacy. Radio oftentimes feels big and loud. To me, podcasting is closest to that weird late night stuff, whether it’s late night love song request lines, or it’s some talk radio show where you feel like you’re the only person listening to it. I always like things that shrink the world for me, that make me feel a strange connection, not just to the person that I’m listening to but to the world. I remember as a kid watching The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. That show would come on at like 1:30 in the morning, or maybe 12:30, which seemed so late. I remember that feeling of, Wow, this is for people like me who can’t sleep because they’re too excited at the idea of being awake when everybody else is asleep. That’s still a thing that I have, whether it’s late at night or early in the morning. I don’t know what that is. Here’s what it is. I figured it out, Ben. I’m a freak.

[Laughs.] [In a creepy voice] “I like to be awake really late at night, or I like to be up really early in the morning, before anybody’s stirring, so that Daddy can watch TV by himself.” [Normal voice] Yes, you’re a big freak.
You’re like James Ellroy.

[In voice] “I make sure my wife is very asleep, and then I cling to my tiny TV to watch television programs.” [Normal voice] You’re a madman.

You’re in control of your own stuff in terms of you creating and collaborating with people. With Louie and with Baskets out, do you feel like you want to do things like that? Do you have a huge desire of having one of those gritty character pieces where you can be a version of yourself and just go bananas?
No, not really. I have nothing but respect for the people who are doing that kind of thing, but I think that my disposition is just different. Increasingly, I enjoy less the comedy of uncomfortable things and sad things being funny. I enjoy silliness. I feel like, Man, life is hard enough.

It’s one of those things where when you are a professional, you can understand why a thing is good and you can appreciate why people like it, but still not seek it out. New shows like Transparent and Casual, on these new platforms, there’s no doubt they’re quality shows that are well-written and well-acted, but seeing people be horrible to each other is difficult for me.

Can you give me a new show that you do connect with?
Something like Billy on the Street makes me laugh so hard — out loud — which is not something I do watching entertainment a lot. It’s a huge thing for me, and that’s pure silliness.

So if I were to write a TV show for you, I should just write Mr. Bean? Correct or incorrect?
[Laughs.] Something like that, yes. To play a weird, silly character would be a lot of fun. You know what else I would like to do is a multi-camera sitcom.

Oh, yeah. I grew up on that format and loved it. I grew up on shows, like Cheers and WKRP in Cincinnati, that were about characters. The laughs came from not just jokes, but characters. It’s great that a show like Undateable is doing live shows. Man, I love live television.

I know that stand-up will always be a part of you because that’s where it started, but do you find yourself moving further away from getting onstage with a microphone for 30 minutes? Because it seems like your projects take you further away from that.
I’m a restless person by nature. A new thing comes along, and it’s very shiny and very exciting. Right now, improv has captivated my attention because I’m still learning how to do. It’s so immediate, even more than stand-up, because in stand-up, you’ve got to write material. The last special that I did, “Crying and Driving,” represented the last of my material. Now I have nothing. So when I get a break from No, You Shut Up!, I’m going to make myself go onstage so I can force myself to write material. You and I talked about this before, about when you were living in New York and you were doing a bunch of shows, as many as you could, but you found that it was difficult for you to do comedy. You finally realized after talking to someone that it was because you weren’t living life.

It was Christina Gausas, who is a great improviser in New York.
If you do that, you have fewer experiences to draw from to make stuff. I’m in that position now where I’m doing the TV show and that’s a day in, day out job — we’re in the office with the writers all week, and then we’re shooting the show on Tuesdays — and that’s it. And then I get home and I’m just hanging out with my wife. But then, of course, I’m taking on too much in between. My life is really just revolving around scheduling. I want to make sure that I give myself enough of a break that have stuff to talk about. So, when I go onstage, I’m not starting from a completely blank page.

At the beginning, and maybe this applies to you as well, I was like, “I got here. I finally did it. I worked so hard to get here.” “Here” being, like, making even a dollar to do comedy. And I just didn’t want it to stop. I found myself working every day on this show, and then on the weekends, I’d write my movies that I sold. I started getting really sick. I realized I had to take care of myself. Now, I don’t work on the weekends unless I have to. And after a certain time I’m like, “Okay, work’s over.” Those are things that you have to mandate. You and I are both very driven people, and want when we put out stuff for it to be the best version of what we can put out.
It’s important to be able to make hard choices and say, “I could do this. I technically have the time to do this, but I know I need time to just be – to not be working and to rest.”

There’s a famous quote from the musical Hamilton [Hamilton spoiler alert], where he is about to cheat on his wife and the line goes [in faux academic voice], “Show me how to say no to this.” [In normal voice] And again, he was referring to having sexual relations with someone other than his wife, but for us, what a great sentence to think of. The idea of being able to say no to something is so difficult. It was a huge thing for me to be able to say no to things because I knew that it would take up so much of my time that the quality of my life, the quality of my real life, would get worse. [In voice] “Show me how to say no to this.”
[Laughing.] Wait, now on the topic of Hamilton. I have not seen the show, obviously, because it’s a gigantically hot ticket. I downloaded the album, but I have not listened to it yet because I thought, Oh, I want to see the show first. Then people have said, “Well, you’re never going to see that show, and also, the album works by itself.” And then I was talking to my friend, and we had an idea that I would put out a version of Hamilton just based on the song titles and me guessing what the song was about.

[Laughing] That is so brilliant. Will you isolate just the instrumentals of each song and sing over them with what you think is happening? Or do you just make up the music the whole time?
I would completely make it up. I would do it with just a metronome for timing and get someone, maybe Eban Schletter, to put music behind it. [Laughs.]

Oh my goodness. I would like to get behind this in any way I can. By the way, there’s like 100 songs in the album. There’s like 20-something in each act.

You should do a one-hour podcast, and you’ll just do, like, quick snippets from each song of what you think they are. We can go to Earwolf together, and I’ll just be the person who gives you the title of each song.

I will say, in the future, there is another Solo Bolo coming out, entitled “Solo Bolo Trio” – “Solo Bolo Trolo” – and I don’t want to say that we do, but there is a chance that there is a Hamilton tune or two sung. Because Scott and I went and saw Hamilton together in New York.
It would not be a big surprise.

I’m very behind this project. I’m very excited for you to do this. It’s just idiocy.
[Laughing] Well, it will happen, then. That’s the kick in the pants I needed.

You’ve got to just do it. Do you even have time? You should just do it this week, or you’ll never do it.
Nope! I sure don’t. I’ll tell you what, I’m flying tomorrow, so maybe I’ll just do it on the plane.

You’ll record it on the plane?
No, but that would be amazing. If I just did it under my breath into a cordless microphone.

And in the background we hear, “WHOOSHHH!” This is such a good idea, Paul.
All right. I’m going to do that.

And it is “Paul,” right?
[Laughs.] This is the most pleasant telemarketing experience I’ve ever had.

Ben Schwartz Talks to Paul F. Tompkins