From SF Weekly
Paul F. Tompkins on Podcasting for Free, and Why Sketchest Is like Summer Camp
By SF Weekly
Friday, January 25, 2013
Paul F. Tompkins is, as his official bio states, a comedian. Besides having a handful of comedy albums, stand-up specials, and stints on Mr. Show with Bob and David and Best Week Ever, he’s become internet-famous in the comedy podcast boom era. You’ll hear him most often on Comedy Bang Bang! or his own The Pod F. Tompkast in character as one of a handful of his quasi-celebrity alter-egos: rapper and SVU-er Ice-T, cake boss Buddy Valastro, or director Garry Marshall, among others.
Tompkins has stepped outside stand-up, cobbling together comedy and storytelling and old-fashioned variety shows in live performances, web videos, and particularly podcasts, a medium that he says has found its footing and has started to be taken seriously. He’s coming to San Francisco from his Los Angeles home base to partake in his at-least-eighth SF Sketchfest. We talked to him about his many projects, following in Adele’s musical footprints, and what’s worth seeing at this year’s festival.
You’ve got a lot of other things going on this year at Sketchfest — you’re doing the Dead Authors Podcast, The Thrilling Adventure Hour, and the Superego podcast, plus the Paul F. Tompkins & Friends Real and Fake show. You’ve been coming to Sketchfest for a number of years now, at least as far back as 2005 or 2006?
I believe so, that sounds about right.
I’m sure you’ve seen it grow a lot since that time. But what’s the incentive for a well-established Los Angeles comic to keep coming back up north for the festival?
The thing about Sketchfest is it’s just fun. A lot of these festivals, often times they can sort of be industry-driven, so they almost feel like contests. And some of them go so far as to be about prizes and that sort of thing, and what I really like about Sketchfest is it’s for the enjoyment of comedy. We don’t get a sense of competition with it. The city clearly really enjoys it — every show is sold out, it’s nothing but fun. And getting to hang out with people that you maybe don’t get to see often enough — you know a lot of us comedians we don’t get to work together that much really. So it’s an opportunity to have a sort of summer camp experience as an adult.
Are there other all-comedy festivals like this?
There’s Just for Laughs in Canada and Chicago; there are definitely a lot of comedy festivals out there, but Sketchfest is the only one I can think of that nobody’s trying to get discovered out of it, nobody’s trying to get a job, there’s no ulterior motive other than to just do shows, and that’s great.
Should people move to L.A. or N.Y. if they want to be successful comedians, or can they make it happen in the Bay Area?
You really need to go where the cameras are. You know, it’s never been easier for people to make their own stuff, which is great. So I mean there are people whose careers have started because they posted stuff online, you know, and they built an audience that way. But if you’re talking about national television exposure, it only makes sense to go the places where they’re shooting the television. I would imagine there’s a possibility you could get discovered, but most likely you’re going to be better off being in a place where people are talking about that kind of stuff.
There’s something about it too, where those places [N.Y. and L.A.] are like a proving ground; you’re more likely going to be taken seriously if people know that you’ve been slugging it out, you know? There are definitely some people that can emerge out of nowhere from obscurity and become successful, but stories like that are few and far between. It’s also, those are great places to learn and to continue to develop because there are more places to perform, there’s more opportunities.
Tell the readers a little about your live show, Paul F. Tompkins & Friends Real and Fake.
Paul F. Tompkins & Friends Real and Fake is me hosting an evening of stand-up, and in between the performers doing stand-up I’ll be doing character performances, using some of the characters that I do on my podcast and Comedy Bang Bang! and other places that are me in full costume and everything, bringing these characters to life.
And you have other real friends, too, other comics that will be performing with you?
Yes, those’ll be the real friends — Steve Agee from The Sarah Silverman Program, Mary Lynn Rasjkub from Mr. Show and Larry Sanders and 24, and Kevin McDonald from Kids in the Hall.
So I saw recently a video of you singing Adele’s “Skyfall” from the James Bond movie Skyfall. You were wearing a handsome suit, looks like it was shot from the crowd. Can your fans expect that that will be incorporated as a regular part of your routine?
No, pulling together something like that, we had a full band and dancers, that doesn’t happen all the time.
Were you surprised it became such an Internet mini-sensation?
I was happy about it, I was very happy. I was hoping people would get to see it. I’ve been doing stuff like that at Largo in Los Angeles for years, a regular variety show there that I would do on a monthly basis, and I would always try to make the show special and make moments like that as much as possible, and we’ve been recording all the shows. That one we were able to get a guy to come down at the very last minute to record that. I knew I would be disappointed if I didn’t have some record of that happening. But, we’re going to start releasing more videos from those shows.
You’re a regular on some popular podcasts, and you have your own, and this is how I and, I imagine, many others have actually discovered you and become familiar with you as a performer. What kind of shift have you noticed in your fan base — did you find you were selling more show tickets and more albums once you became such a popular podcaster?
Absolutely — it’s a direct line between making those appearances and making my own podcast. And ticket sales and CD, DVD sales — it’s a commercial for myself that’s the most fun commercial possible. It’s all entertainment, and it’s for free, and I’ve had people literally say to me, write to me on Twitter or Facebook or something, and say, “I have enjoyed so much of your comedy for free via podcast that now I’m going to buy all your stuff.” That to me is the proof right there that it actually works. And it’s fun to do, you know, I really enjoy podcasts a lot. I’m a consumer of them as well as participant in them. So for me, it’s the best possible means of promotion.
So you don’t ever feel like you’ve given away too much for free?
Umm, no, I don’t. Some people take things for granted, but most people don’t. And there will probably come a time when I won’t be able to spread myself quite so thin. But, there’s ways around giving something for free, where you’re not just ripping yourself off. There’s ways to monetize — as disgusting a word as that is — there are ways to make money off the podcast while giving away the podcast for free. And that’s some of the stuff I’ll be doing in the new year.
Are you seeing any changes in the podcast medium for comedians?
I think the biggest change is that it’s becoming, people have stopped laughing at it. As it is with any kind of new form, people just want to dismiss it right away; that’s the first thing they want to do is make fun of it, mock it, and call it “dumb.” And I think now, I don’t think anyone’s doing that anymore. I think people realize the incredible tool that podcasts are and they’re taking it seriously. You could look at a guy, like Marc Maron, for example, or somebody for whom it’s had a profound impact on his career and life. Adam Carolla, you know, was, whatever gig, the last gig that he had, he decided, “I’m just going to do this podcast and make that my job,” and it worked, you know.
How well do your podcasts that you participate in translate into live shows? The Dead Authors, Thrilling Adventure Hour, the Superego podcast, for example?
Well Dead Authors and Thrilling Adventure Hour both started as live shows, but were easy to translate into podcast form, because Thrilling Adventure Hour is a radio format, and Dead Authors is easy because it’s just two guys speaking to one another.
Superego is different though. It started as a podcast, done by guys who are experienced live performers, but it’s only in the last year or so that they’ve been really doing a lot of live Superego shows. And because of the technical nature of their show that includes a lot of sound effects and post-production, it was a little bit trickier for them to figure out how they were going to do it live. Now they’ve got it figured out, and it’s always a joy. I love working with them. It’s a pleasure.
You seem like a natural talk show host on your web series, Speakeasy. Are you enjoying that role too?
Oh I love it. Especially the format of that show is my favorite kind of thing because we have the luxury of talking for a longer time and being able to have a conversation that’s a little more in-depth. I like having interesting conversations with people, especially creative people. I like hearing their stories and how they, you know, their processes or how they came to be who they are, what they think about things, what they think about life. It’s always interesting to me.
In that show, you only interview men. Have you thought about interviewing women?
It’s produced by a very guy-centric website and that’s all they’ve booked so far. I wish I had more input into the booking because I would absolutely love to do some women. We almost had Maya Rudolph on, who’s one of my favorites of all time, then that day apparently her shooting schedule changed and she couldn’t come in. But I would love to interview as many different people as possible.
Any other shows you’re going to see at Sketchfest?
Unfortunately I haven’t looked at the schedule yet, but I’m looking forward to catching as many shows as I can while I’m there.
What else do you have coming up?
I’m going to London for the first time to do standup. I’ve been there before, but I haven’t done standup there, which I’m very excited about. And I’m developing something, a television vehicle for myself that is in very early stages right now. But yeah, I’m just looking forward to being as creative as possible in the coming year.
Paul F. Tompkins will be appearing at SF Sketchfest at a couple of different shows:
Paul F. Tompkins & Friends Real and Fake with Steve Agee, Kevin McDonald and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Friday, Jan. 25 at 8 p.m., Verdi Club. $25 (sold out).
Superego Podcast with guests Colin Hanks, John Hodgman, Paul F. Tompkins and James Urbaniak. Saturday, Jan. 26 at 3 p.m., Eureka Theatre. $20.
The Thrilling Adventure Hour. Saturday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Marines’ Memorial Theatre. $40-$50.
The Dead Authors Podcast with Paul F. Tompkins and John Hodgman. Sunday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m., Eureka Theatre. $25 (sold out).