“It was a classic case of a kid in a large family trying to get attention,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles. “I was always trying to make friends and family laugh.”
The class clown at Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote couldn’t wait to go pro. A month after graduating, the 17-year-old was performing at the Comedy Works, the storied club that sat atop the Middle East restaurant at Chestnut and Second.
“Sometimes on the way up the stairs you would see a belly dancer performing,” he recalls wistfully. “It was a huge club. It seemed gigantic to me. My memory of walking in there — it might as well have been a stadium. It probably sat 100 people.”
Just a taste of the stage made college seem like penance, and Tompkins dropped out after a semester. For a time, he performed as half of a double act, doing sketch material with a Temple student, Rick Roman. Tompkins went to solo stand-up after his partner moved to Chicago, founding the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe before dying behind the wheel of a taxi.
While paying his dues, Tompkins held down some dubious day jobs, which is pretty much the focus of his Saturday special, Laboring Under Delusions. One of its funniest bits involves the time he spent as a clerk at the Hats in the Belfry outlet at Third and South.
After a few more unfortunate experiences as a wage slave, Tompkins did forge an eclectic career in show business in Los Angeles. He’s had regular segments on The Daily Show and Real Time With Bill Maher. He’s guest-starred in such TV shows as Weeds and Last Man Standing. He hosted VH1’s spoofy Best Week Ever. He’s even appeared in such films as The Informant and There Will Be Blood.
Fair warning: Do not have anything in your mouth during Tompkins’ hilarious recounting of his scene with Daniel Day Lewis in the latter movie.
Tompkins, 43, developed his chops the old-fashioned way: hundreds of hours in dinky comedy clubs that smell like crab fries even though they don’t serve food.
Nowadays, young comics get exposure by shooting a video in their bedroom and posting it on YouTube.
“Well, there are pluses and minuses to all that,” he says. “You can reach a lot of people right from your own home and cut out the middleman.
“The downside is you really have to stand out because now your competition is everybody. Your competition is a cute cat video that got downloaded three million times.”
Tompkins has adapted quite well to changing times. Glance at his website, and you’ll see that he’s aggressively omni-digital, which is a little surprising because his image is so old-timey. He takes the stage formally turned out in a jacket and tie, his mustache neatly trimmed. He looks for all the world like a cross between Dennis Miller and Terry Thomas.
“When I first started out in the ’80s, that was not as unusual as it is today,” he says of his dapper appearance. “It was a holdover from the old show-business days. I’ve always liked clothes, so I’ve just kept doing it.”
Riddle us this, Paul Francis: Your comic style is elegant, one might even say eloquent.
That refined rhetoric doesn’t square with a blue-collar family (his father worked for Conrail and later SEPTA) and a 12th-grade education.
“I’ve always loved words,” he says with enthusiasm. “My whole family are readers. We all read voraciously. Learning that there was a fancy way to say a very specific thing always delighted me. I loved it when I was reading and would come across a word I didn’t know. I would underline it and then look it up.
“It was as if there were secret words in plain sight. It was like finding a prize when you would look up the definition. I always found that to be a lot of fun.”
Is there a setting for which your urbane standup style is not suited?
“Certainly anything outdoors is a recipe for disaster,” he says. “The most recent one I did was the Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco. I was performing in a circus tent, and people were coming and going. I was competing with bands playing on three stages. All you could hear was the drums and bass of these three other bands. I could have been saying anything up there. It was like trying to talk over a wall of noise.”
There you have Paul F. Tompkins’ idea of hell: stuck in a tacky circus tent, lost in the shuffle.
Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, “Dave on Demand,” at www.philly.com/dod.
Television Paul F. Tompkins: Laboring Under Delusions 11 p.m. Saturday on Comedy Central