Paul F. Tompkins Takes to the Stage to Take to the Air

The accustomed electronic model of the Pod F. Tompkast. The show was rendered live Saturday night at Largo.

Join us as we return to the thrilling days of yesternight! Paul F. Tompkins is on the air!

Or, as the articulate indie-age interlocutor puts it himself, “It is once more nighttime on the internet.”

Paul F. Tompkins isn’t the sort of measured performer treasured by golden age radio producers. His material is manic: contemplative one minute, riotous the next. Laughter spikes at unexpected moments, which would drive old-school audio engineers nuts. A Tompkins joke can fester like a bacterial infection, slowly coursing through your system until it paralyzes you. He himself is not immune, cracking himself up on a frequent basis.

Yet there he sat calmly onstage Saturday night at the Coronet Theatre, poised behind a desk ornamented with big microphones, for a first-time live taping of his monthly Pod F. Tompkast. Tompkins was dressed in quasi-military attire, which in tandem with his trim mustache and clenched-eyebrow glare made him resemble a cross between a British World War I officer and Mr. McFeely from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

“You can’t see it,” he shared, “but I just hit my knees.”

The Pod F. Tompkast is a vortex of several new theater forms, all of which have been around for eons. It’s his combination that’s fresh: golden age radio clichés, talk-show tropes and settled comedic commentary archly laid before the certified hipsters of Largo at the Coronet. He’s shifted his online act into a club which itself shifted locations from a cramped cabaret space to its current theater digs (with outlying bars and lounges) a few years ago.

Tompkins’ resume covers sketch comedy (including the plum postmodern credit of being an actor/writer on HBO’s alt-comedy milestone Mr. Show), cartoon voices and celebrity impersonations, stand-up specials, a double act (with the late Rick Roman), hosting duties (for VH-1’s Best Week Ever), straight acting (There Will Be Blood) and amiable chat-show guesting. He brings all those talents into play on his podcast. The Pod F. Tompkast also relates to some live Largo comedy-and-music revues Tompkins has hosted.

A natural improviser and rambler, Tompkins’ show attempts to be more than the single-voice ramble that this no-longer-newfangled media format has largely settled into. In adding music, guests, sketches and an air of decorum (we won’t go so far to say class), Tompkins sets a high personal standard for his broadcast work—while keeping the proceedings fast and loose.

For the 12th episode, which ends the online series’s first season, the entire show was staged live, recorded before a highly amused but generally civilized audience in Largo’s unhelpfully warm and dark auditorium. This was a moody night, with shadows and suspense undercutting the considerable mirth.

Tompkins invoked classical theater imagery in his sprawling opening monologue, building a long multi-character routine out a random thought that “Knucklehead” might well have been used as a compliment in Shakespeare’s time. He impersonated Ice-T as an aspiring Broadway hoofer. Tompkins’ references traverse pop-culture time and space: He makes a Veronica Mars joke, then makes a joke about having made it a Veronica Mars joke instead of a Sherlock Holmes joke.

 

For much of the show, there were only three people onstage. Tompkin’s producer/accompanist Eban Schletter was as deeply involved in the moment-to-moment mood swings in the show as the host was, plinking a constant keyboard soundtrack of ominous chords and ambient melodies. Announcer Daamen Krall, on the other hand, conducted his brief vocal duties (in that classic baritone old-world radio voice) then plopped into a chair at the back of the stage and read for most of the show. Which was strangely compelling, amusing in its zoned-out nonchalance.

A white-haired guy lounging in the corner doesn’t exactly make the Pod F. Tompkast sound like a riveting live stage spectacular. But there were plenty of moments for the Largo-goers to appreciate which desktop audiences will only imagine. One of the podcast’s regular features, “the sleepy voice of the internet,” was personified by a silhouette behind a shadow screen. There was a visit from an angel—meant to be a Hobbit, Tompkins explained at length, but that costume hadn’t arrived so a last minute seraphim substitution had to be effected. “A crippled angel,” in fact, he chortled, because the wings would’ve cost extra.

When bright-eyed guest star Judy Greer (known to the cool crowd for a recurring role on Arrested Development and to the family demographic as the pet-oppressed mom in the Marmaduke movie) was announced, she breezed onstage cheerily, only to charmingly breeze right out again, giggling. Another guest was Chelsea Lately regular Jen Kirkman, animatedly explaining her first surfboarding experience.

“It’s a crazy thing,” Tompkins proposed, amid one of the many routines which veered into places far from where they began. “A crazy thing we should have planned out before we started.”

No, he shouldn’t have. Tompkins has a leg up (with banged knee) on other unfettered stand-up. He’s got a set, a spatial sense, a spooky score, upsets and surprises. He’s got theater smarts.

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