22 May 2015

Paul F Tompkins: The undisputed king of podcasts

3:53 pm on 22 May 2015

When Paul F Tompkins got into comedy in the mid 1980s, the formats with which he’s achieved most renown and popularity didn’t actually exist.

“None of them did!” he yells, laughing, into the phone during an interview about stage show-turned-podcast-turned-graphic-novel-and-web series The Thrilling Adventure Hour, which he’s part of a group bringing to New Zealand, “None of them did!”

Paul, now, is one of the undisputed kings of the web-based comedy format; one of his podcasts, the Pod F Tompkast, is often listed as being among best of the genre, and he made Paste magazine’s list of favourite account on Twitter last year. He’s both a man out of his time - think Akubra, tweed jacket, glasses, and sometimes, a 1940s detective moustache - and a man among those trailblazing how comedy and art are defined in 2015.

Paul F. Tompkins

Paul F. Tompkins Photo: Supplied

It’s a career that would’ve been unimaginable to him when he started doing comedy at age 17. It was for the usual reasons, by the way: fifth child of six; attention issues; class clown; wanted people to like him. He later says most of these issues have been resolved; partly through therapy, for which is a keen advocate.

At that time, other than live comedy clubs, he says, “There was television, and there was radio and that was it… And they were hard to get on,” he says.

That was before the internet tore down the walls of what entertainment was supposed to look like. Formats like podcasting and web series simultaneously democratised the creation of art and the consumption of it and made the market much bigger and more crowded (a double-edged sword).

Those who’ve been rewarded in podcasting are those who have torn up the playbook of how entertainment is supposed to work; with cult followings granted to podcasts like the Thrilling Adventure Hour, Welcome to Night Vale and Serial. There are numerous other examples, including The Worst Idea of All Time, the premise of which - re-watching Grown Ups 2 every week for a year - was literally the worst idea of all time. Naturally, it’s incredibly popular.

People have expressed surprise about the so-called Golden Age of podcasts and why audio storytelling, a medium that’s supposedly dying, has experienced such a resurgence. But for those of us listening, it’s obvious; the allure of being able to find a show that’s exactly what you wanted, rather than navigating the compromise of TV, and the ability to access it for free (usually) online with no hassle and without doing anything illegal, is a powerful one.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour - written by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker is no exception. Paul F. Tompkins’ role in that show is a genre-defying one; he and Paget Brewster (who will be perhaps best known for dramatic TV such as Criminal Minds, in which her impressive comedic talents were woefully underused) play a pair of fast-talking married mediums who reluctantly solve crimes and are also drunk a lot.

Of all the things that I do to make money, this little show that I do basically for free has been an absolute career high point.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour, which also contains a bunch of other regular segments, began as a stage performance in 2005. Much has been made of its old-time radio drama format, but in reality, its creators just wanted to avoid a large amount of staging and rehearsals for their busy actor friends. When Adventure Hour shows started to be podcast in 2011, Paul, whose career had previously included TV (Real Time with Bill Maher; Mr. Show with Bob and David), as well as a long career in stand-up, found the cult podcast effect meant his career took a new twist.

“Of all the things that I do to make money, this little show that I do basically for free has been an absolute career high point,” he says.

“The fans that found the Thrilling Adventure Hour once it became a podcast, they are voracious… They would then seek out the work of everyone involved.So trhey would seek out movies, other podcasts, TV shows, things like that. So I’ve got this whole other group of fans from Thrilling Adventure Hour; people that checked out my other stuff and enjoyed that as well.”

The Thrilling Adventure Hour’s last stage show is imminent: tomorrow night in Wellington, New Zealand. Due to the flexibility of platforms these days, it’ll live on as a graphic novel and a web series, at the very least, and Paul F. Tompkins certainly does have a lot of what he casually terms “other stuff” to get on with.

The list of “other stuff” is a little bit ridiculous, actually. He fronts a newish podcast series called Spontaneanation which is entirely improvised; another concept that you can’t imagine TV executives agreeing to, but one which is incredibly exciting. He has a comedy-news show on Fusion called No You Shut Up, which - well, it’s hard to explain but it’s basically Paul and puppets from the Jim Henson Company played by improv actors, having political fights, and it’s exactly as weird and as brilliant as it sounds. Then there’s his voicing role on the animated Netflix series BoJack Horseman, web series Speakeasy, his Dead Authors podcast, and guesting on an A-Z of other people’s podcasts, where he often puts his impression skills to good use.

The breadth and depth of it gives a sense of the way new media allows performers to piece together the career they want, with a few things thrown in to pay the bills.

It also raises an important question: is Paul a robot?

“I’m someone who has issues with boundaries I think, and say yes to too many things,” he says. “I am just now slowing down a bit.”

He has learned self-awareness and the ability to say no, and slowly lost the fear that if he turns down the smallest project, he’ll never be asked to do anything else ever again. It’s a real concern for artists and creatives in the new freelance, multi-project age.

But he's happy, overall, where this changing landscape has led.

“It’s a wonderful thing that’s happening right now, that technology’s advanced to such a point that there’s more ways that you can get your creativity out there than ever before, and more control over that, too. That people can make things themselves, and make really good things themselves.

“And they don’t have to rely as much on big funding from an outside source and having to dance to someone else’s tune, because they’re the ones putting up the money. ”

Paul F Tompkins performs as part of The Thrilling Adventure Hour in Wellington on Saturday May 23.