The theater setting fits Tompkins for other reasons. Tompkins, who favors dandy three-piece suits over the jeans-and-T-shirt uniform for the standard-issue comedian, isn't your what's-the-deal-with-airplane-food sort of comedian, after all. His set feels more like a Carol Burnett-style reality show than the joke-punchline bread-and-butter of most comedians. Convivial and conversational, his set is more about stories than it is about jokes. He tends to build laughs rather than toss off well-crafted one-liners. It's the reason he's not wildly popular on Twitter, where many comedians (including old heads like Steve Martin) have found a voice via 140-character missives. "My style of performance is where it's a blend of writing, sensibility and performance," Tompkins said.
Take Tompkins' joke about Hats in the Belfry, the South Street hat shop where he once worked. ("His joke was that he had worked at every store on South Street," said Aly Lynagh, a longtime Tompkins friend who owns and operates Queen Village's New Wave Cafe.) "Let me walk you through that title," Tompkins says in the bit. "You know that expression ‘bats in the belfry'? It means something's a little crazy. It's not quite what you expect it. And, y'know, hats."
OK, that's not a funny line when you read it, but add Tompkins' delivery, with his voice going up at the end on the "y'know, hats" bit, and all of sudden you're laughing at something that's completely lost in translation when you try to repeat it.
Tompkins' atypical delivery means his work doesn't easily transfer to TV either. A recent Comedy Central special felt odd, as if it had been edited by someone who didn't know Tompkins' work or sensibility.
All of which would seem to doom his career prospects these days. But Tompkins has found his footing — and a larger audience — through his podcast, " Pod F. Tomkast," which includes a meandering monologue, snippets from his live monthly show (often including celeb guests such as Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" or musician Fiona Apple) and a surreal faux story line featuring Tompkins doing impressions of Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, rapper Ice-T and "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro as "they" work to create a movie together.
The medium has allowed Tompkins to recreate the intimacy of his live show to the degree that he has changed how he tours. "We've made a connection of sensibilities. Their sense of humor intersects with mine," Tompkins said.
The insta-feedback is what allows Tompkins to skip comedy clubs in favor of the theaters he prefers, since he doesn't have to build his fan base by constant touring of comedy clubs. It means he gets fewer drop-in audience members, but he doesn't really mind. Tompkins has always been selective about the way he wants to work.
Lynagh remembers visiting Tompkins in Los Angeles and listening to him turn down a major film role because it didn't fit the type of comedian he wanted to be. Lynagh didn't get it. Why not take the money and run? "He knew better. That's what separates him from everyone else," Lynagh said. "There's economic desperation inherent in trying to be a performer, but there's a creative desperation with him."
Lynagh knew that if anyone was going to make a living from comedy, it was going to be Tompkins — even if that meant not having heat for a winter or forgoing food in favor of other necessities. Other comedians he knew had fallback plans, but there was no "If this whole comedy thing doesn't work out … " for Tompkins.
Todd Glass, another Philly-expat comedian in Los Angeles who regularly performs with Tompkins, agreed with Lynagh's assessment of Tompkins' early potential. "Whatever art form, you just hope someone brings a unique perspective," Glass said. "The only thing you can bring to stand-up is bring a unique slant to it. It takes a while to do that, but he did that early on. I remember doing comedy in the '80s, and I knew there was a lot of bad comedy. There's always bad comedy, but in the '80s there seemed to be more bad comedy, including me. But he was funny even the first year."
Even though Tompkins hasn't been a resident of Philly for awhile, every time he comes back, he feels like he's never left. "I did my first eight years of stand-up in Philly, and you had to be on your toes," Tompkins said.
"It definitely helped me develop a thicker skin and realizing you've got to be ready and entertaining people. You've got to hold their attention or you're going to lose them at any moment."
Plays and Players, 1714 Delancey St., 8 p.m., Friday, Saturday, $20, 215-735-0630, playsandplayers.org.
Contact Molly Eichel at 215-854-5909 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @mollyeichel. Read her blog posts at philly.com/entertainment.