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Paul F. Tompkins: uncovering the story

Comedian Paul F. Tompkins has spent his whole life telling stories, only to discover he’s unwittingly crafted his own.
Image by Paul F. Tompkins
Paul F. Tompkins could be the best-dressed comic in this hemisphere.

Paul F. Tompkins scurried through his living room hanging pictures — hammer in one hand, box full of dishware in the other and phone cradled on his shoulder — a casual effort for the comedian.

“We’ve just moved into a new place,” he explained to A&E over the phone.

Tompkins weaves storytelling and humor with the same coordinative ease in his stand-up act. His style focuses on breaking down the numerous narratives within his life into sections that culminate as a theme, peppering punchlines throughout his commentary.

The comic’s look is equally clean-cut — Tompkins always performs in dapper dress, complete with matching bow ties and pocket squares. He’ll bring the whole ensemble to St. Paul on Saturday as a guest on the live public radio variety show, Wits.

Of course, Tompkins’ path toward the sharpness he now possesses took upwards of 20 years. Tompkins grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Los Angeles to cut his comedy teeth in the mid 1990’s, despite being the only member of his family interested in performing life’s wealth of goofiness.

“My parents never quite understood it and were never quite on board with it,” he said.  “It didn’t matter, though. The desire to do it was so all-consuming. There was no way I wasn’t gonna do it.”

Tompkins eventually found a comedy home at Largo, a now-famous Los Angeles venue that regularly hosts composer Jon Brion and legions of comics, including Sarah Silverman and Jack Black. He also established a relationship with film director Paul Thomas Anderson at the club, which would land him a minor role in “There Will Be Blood.”

From that time on, Tompkins began regularly hosting comedy revues and discovered the nuances of his artistic voice.

“The way I build the connection through the audience is emotional, so it’s not about the content of the story, it’s the feeling behind it,” he said. “It took a lot of time to get to the point where I could put things in the back of my mind as much as possible and be in the moment.”

The comic also hosted VH1’s “Best Week Ever” through the mid-2000s, working as a professional talking head.

On Tompkins’ 2012 album “Laboring Under Delusions,” he describes it succinctly: “Myself and a number of other standup comedians would appear one at a time sitting in front of brightly colored construction paper and we would make jokes about famous people — and that was a show.”

Today, Tompkins continues to do stand-up and has expanded his repertoire to include podcasting and an interview series called “Speakeasy,” in which he intimately chats with comedians and actors about their personal lives.

On the podcasting side, his bow-tied look pairs nicely with “The Dead Authors Podcast,” in which he plays the role of H.G. Wells and interviews other comedians impersonating literary greats. Even when they’re playing characters, Tompkins loves talking to people.

“I just love stories — what’s interesting to me is discovering how the person started out versus where they are now and what they learned along the way,” he said.

Tompkins said comedy has led him into a deeper understanding of his own journey.

“I realized and accepted that it’s an ongoing process and the ideas that you’ll think about forever are, ideally, things that evolve,” he said. “Our perceptions continue to deepen and shift as we try to understand more of the world and learn how to not get so freaked out about stuff that we don’t understand.”

When it comes down to it, Tompkins said what he’s doing now is all he can ask for out of his career. The opportunity to entertain and perhaps make a small discovery, he said, is what keeps him engaged with the craft of comedy.

“You have to care about what you do, and sometimes that’s gonna cause heartbreak. It’s better to throw yourself into it and do something that you feel you can give your life to.”


What: Wits
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul
Cost: $40-56


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