Brendan Francis Newnam: Paul F. Tompkins hosts the fusion talk show “No, You Shut Up!,” the podcast “SPONTANEANATION,” He’s appeared on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and he does the voice of “Mr. Peanutbutter” on the Netflix series “Bojack Horseman.” And honestly, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
His latest project is a comedy special for Comedy Central called, “Crying and Driving.” Paul, welcome, and we’re surprised that you found a moment to join us. You’re very busy!
Paul F. Tompkins: [Laughs.] No one is more surprised than I. But thank you for having me.
Rico Gagliano: But it’s a joyous surprise.
Paul F. Tompkins: It’s a pleasant surprise.
Rico Gagliano: So, your new special, let’s talk about it now.
Paul F. Tompkins: OK.
Rico Gagliano: It mainly deals with how you went from — these are your own words — “a self-loathing guy,” who was struggling to survive in L.A., somehow without knowing how to drive… to being a much happier guy with a loving wife.
What was the starting point for writing this show? Like, which of the stories you tell was the central scenario for you?
Paul F. Tompkins: I think it began with learning how to drive; conquering a lifelong fear. And finally gaining a level of independence that was unbelievably new to me, but very commonplace for everyone else.
Rico Gagliano: Most of us do this in high school…
Paul F. Tompkins: Yes.
Rico Gagliano: …As kind of a matter of course. Was your high school not located in the world?
Paul F. Tompkins: Did you hear the “lifelong fear” part?!
Brendan Francis Newnam: Throughout this comedy special and your humor, there’s kind of a sweetness. There’s almost no cursing or blue humor. Did you purposely decide not to do more aggressive comedy?
Paul F. Tompkins: I’m not a very aggressive person, and so it’s my–
Brendan Francis Newnam: This is why you weren’t a driver, Paul, probably.
Paul F. Tompkins: I’m sorry; the best drivers are defensive drivers.
Rico Gagliano: Of course.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Exactly.
Paul F. Tompkins: Right?
Rico Gagliano: Well, that’s what it says in the lesson, yes.
Paul F. Tompkins: That’s right. As far as, like, the language is concerned, I prefer it that way. Although I’m not here to… I don’t make a big deal out of it, like: “Folks, don’t worry! You’re not going to hear any curse words tonight. The whole family can watch this!”
Because first of all, I don’t feel like the whole family can watch it! Because hopefully, I’m talking about ideas that are sophisticated enough that it’s not just silliness. You know, there’s hopefully sophisticated ideas being represented.
Rico Gagliano: But that’s actually kind of my question… It’s still edgy comedy in some ways. I mean, you’re getting at very dark places. But you’re taking away one of the tools that one uses to express dark things, which is cursing or aggressiveness.
Paul F. Tompkins: Right, right.
Rico Gagliano: Do you find yourself up against a wall sometimes, where you’re like, “Man, I wish I was the kind of person that would just unleash some F-words!”
Paul F. Tompkins: No. I mean, the real challenge with comedy, no matter who you are and no matter what your style is, is getting an idea that is funny in your head, into language that makes sense to strangers. You know, so that they can see the funny idea. “How do I make this relatable? How do I make this understandable to a group of people?”
And, lately, the way my style has evolved is emotions. You can relate what I’m talking about to an experience in your life because I’m letting you in on what I was feeling at the time.
But in my offstage life, I curse like crazy. And sometimes… I actually got scolded at a diner the other day! I was in New York, and I was having breakfast with a friend of mine, and there was a dad at the booth next to us with three kids, and he said, “Could you guys watch the F-bombs?”
I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I forgot that we’re out in the world!”
Rico Gagliano: In New York City, somebody was like, “How dare you?”
Paul F. Tompkins: In New York, yeah. That’s how much we were cursing.
Rico Gagliano: That’s a lot of cursing.
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, well, please, no cursing while we turn to our listeners’ etiquette questions.
To stop, or not to stop, senior citizens’ commentary at the movies
Rico Gagliano: Here’s something from Ann in Los Angeles. Ann asks: “Best advice for getting senior citizens to stop giving their own commentary at the movie theater?”
Paul F. Tompkins: My advice to you is: continue to age. Because the older you get, the less annoying this is, and the more funny it is.
Rico Gagliano: Oh, I see.
Paul F. Tompkins: I don’t know, I have a real soft spot for old people asking questions or explaining the plot of a movie to each other! It warms my heart. I love it!
Rico Gagliano: It is kind of nice. To me, actually, this question is misguided. I don’t find that that problem, generally, is coming from the older generation. I find it’s like, 14-year-old kids who are sniggering behind me. And I’m like, “You haven’t earned the right!”
Paul F. Tompkins: Yeah, and texting. I feel like a bigger distraction at the movies is people looking at their phones, you know?
Brendan Francis Newnam: Completely. It messes with the light, even!
Paul F. Tompkins: Yeah, but also, can we admit: Most movies? Not that good. Do you know what I mean?
Rico Gagliano: They could be improved by some commentary?
Paul F. Tompkins: Yeah. I went to a movie with an old girlfriend of mine. We kind of knew it was going to be a garbage-y, dumb action movie. I think it was, like, an Ashley Judd/Morgan Freeman joint, right? Like, we knew this was not going to be our favorite film.
Rico Gagliano: That’s a genre now.
Paul F. Tompkins: Yeah! And so we were kind of making little comments to each other, and a third of the way in, a guy leaned over and said, “Would you mind? We’re trying to watch this.”
We’re like, “Oh, OK.” We didn’t make any comments. And then, at the end of the movie, the guy said, “You know what? I should’ve let you talk. That was a terrible movie.” [Laughs.]
Brendan Francis Newnam: Exactly! I was thinking I want to sit in front of senior citizens to really enhance it. It’s like the old men from “The Muppets.”
Traveling cousins not welcome
All right, our next question comes from Laura. She sent this to us via our website. Laura writes: “My second cousin, who I am not close with, wants to visit my town, and asked to stay at my house. I don’t want to house him, however. How do I tell him no?”
Paul F. Tompkins: I would say if you are feeling distanced enough from this person to not want him to stay in your home, you’re distanced enough to lie and say you don’t have the room.
Rico Gagliano: But if said cousin knows how many rooms you have in your house, and perhaps you’re a single person… what’s going on with that room?
Paul F. Tompkins: Here’s the thing about lying: The world is your oyster. You can say so many things. You can say somebody else is staying there already… You’ve had a plumbing issue and that room has been —
Rico Gagliano: What if the cousin’s like, “Great! I’ll come over and help fix that plumbing issue.” Or, “Who’s staying in that room?”
Brendan Francis Newnam: Bulk up the lie! You keep going. Lies can grow.
Paul F. Tompkins: This is what’s fun about lying! You have to look at lying as a fun occupation.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Exactly.
Paul F. Tompkins: Don’t look at lying as a chore.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, sure.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Lies can grow. Lies can change.
Rico Gagliano: It’s like being a fiction writer, you know? One thing follows the other.
Paul F. Tompkins: That’s right.
Rico Gagliano: You set a character in motion, and you follow him through to the end.
Brendan Francis Newnam: There we are. All right. So, Laura, the answer there is: lie.
The over/under dispute
Rico Gagliano: Great! Here’s something from Dell, via Twitter. We don’t know where Dell is from. Classic question: “While in a bathroom at a party, the T.P. roll” — we’re being public radio and abbreviating that — “is set to roll under.”
Paul F. Tompkins: I hope no one’s delicate sensibilities are offended!
Brendan Francis Newnam: We’re allowed to say “toilet paper!”
Paul F. Tompkins: Can you say “toilet tissue”? I like when commercials say “toilet tissue.”
Rico Gagliano: OK, then I’m going to restate this: “While in a bathroom at a party, the T.T. roll is set to roll under. Is it rude to correct this obvious oversight?”
Paul F. Tompkins: Maybe it’s rude. Do it anyway.
Rico Gagliano: Really?
Paul F. Tompkins: People who put that roll so it goes under… that is demented to me.
Rico Gagliano: Really?
Paul F. Tompkins: It’s the most logical thing!
Rico Gagliano: I set my T.T. roll to roll under.
Paul F. Tompkins: Why do you do it? Answer me! Why do you do it that way?
Rico Gagliano: It seems to me that when you tear it away, there’s a fulcrum that is created that allows it to tear more easily.
Paul F. Tompkins: I would say you’ve got to change your technique, and here’s why: because it’s harder — if you lose the thread — it is harder, when it’s under, to get at the thread to pull, than if it’s over. Of course, people with cats are exempt.
Rico Gagliano: That’s true.
Paul F. Tompkins: Because cats love to unspool a roll of toilet tissue.
Rico Gagliano: Boy howdy, do they!
Paul F. Tompkins: But I have done this in people’s homes, where I have changed it around, and it’s very satisfying. It’s a crazy, anti-social thing to do, but you have to–
Brendan Francis Newnam: But like, why are you spending so much time there? Do you clean their medicine cabinet while you’re there? What is going on? You’re at a party for goodness’ sake!
Paul F. Tompkins: You know what? I’ll change the toilet paper roll. I will never look in a medicine cabinet. I have made a vow to not do that.
Rico Gagliano: That’s very nice of you. And with that, we have found where Paul F. Tompkins draws the line. Paul, thanks for telling our audience how to behave.
Paul F. Tompkins: Thank you, guys. Everyone out there: smarten up!