Paul F. Tompkins

August 7, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

We went to see Paul F. Tompkins the other night and it really, made me so happy. I haven’t often been to stand up comedy. The first time I went to Reno as a six year old–my mom, my dad, brother, sister–we went to see Joan Rivers at someone of those crazy-light-casino clubs. My mother, who had booked the show, was horrified I think. She kept trying to cover my ears, or take me outside (an effort I was strategically oblivious to) as Rivers continued to make drunk and old vagina jokes. While I don’t remember laughing, I remember being intensly curious–as though some curtain was being drawn back. Behind which revealed a real adulthood–no doubt something I struggled to recognize, with the expectation that it might somehow explain the curious and on-going stress of my parents.

The second time I went to something in San Francisco–it was a non-date group date, where I think these friends of friends were testing out dating strategies. We were probably 18. One friend wore a sports coat with a t-shirt and referred to himself as being “very L.A.” They took use (there were probably six of us altogether) to a comedy club’s open mic night. We saw maybe five people, and at the time I loved it because I saw the beginnings of that comedic path. In other words, aside from one woman who was embarassing, the comedians were pretty funny. They were also really raw. It was clear they were putting a lot into their performance, learning in the process how to pull back and push themselves–

In any case. Last weekend I saw Tompkins and it blew my mind. The clip included doesn’t likely do him justice. The whole I felt like I was in the hands of a polished and generous performer. An excellent story-teller too–I couldn’t help thinking about that aspect of his practice. How you are being born along by a carefully composed narrative–one so well crafted as to allow for improvisation–where old jokes are brought back with new relevance in a later part of the set.

In talking to Devin after wards, he mentioned how Charlie Chaplin was never the butt of the joke. Or, maybe another way to put it–he is often the victim of circumstance. The idiocy of others (say in the above instance, the fainting woman,) that he transforms into comedy. By contrast, Devin mentioned Tati, who is always the butt of the joke–a character incongruous with modern life, he bumbles through those scenes and, by way of his own absent-mindedness causes them to fall apart completely. (I’m thinking here of the restaurant scene in Playtime, though the following clip from Mon Uncle also illustrates the point).

At any rate, Tompkins was the butt of many jokes, jokes about the foibles of one’s own psyche–curious and unescessary. He began with a nod to the Europeans who “still don’t get that comedy doesn’t have to be about falling down.”  There tends to be a fall-back comedic method of  self-loathing/confession where one makes jokes about how he or she can’t “get laid” (I feel like netflix comedians love to say that) or jokes about weight–the kind of boiler plate lowest common denomenator, generally mean-spirited, heteronormative knocks. But here, instead, I felt like I became part of a narrative that carried me along–opening up in curious ways, so that, say a punchline would be about a nap. Or about stealing. Or the curious industry of celebrity and when it abutts one’s own small life.

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