Review: Paul F Tompkins, Life’s Work
Starring: Paul F Tompkins
Appearing at: Melbourne Town Hall, for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival
The last few years of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival have seen a trickle of so-called ‘alternative’ comics arrive from the US. Though their number is increasing, it doesn’t feel as if the trickle is going to turn into a flood any time soon.
Despite success in the States, comics such as Philadelphia native Paul F Tompkins can’t rely on the gentle, inoffensive pillow of familiarity and goodwill generated by years of appearances… as do the flock of international artists whose yearly migration here is so unerring they may as well be arctic terns (or any one of your favorite migratory birds, really). We all know who I’m talking about.
Despite appearances on just about every comedy podcast of note, his own podcast, his eponymous “variety show for the 21st Century” at Largo in Los Angeles, and having appeared on and written for the comedy-nerd catnip sketch show Mr Show with Bob and David, Tompkins remains a relatively unknown quantity in Australia. That is, except among those whose idea of a rollicking good time is to listen to comedy podcasts.
Presumably this is part of the reason his act is organised as a history of his working life told chronologically, though a series of anecdotes. It tracks his career from the prototypical origin story of child starved for attention, lost in a sea of siblings, through to his current success. Packaged this way the show feels like a letter of introduction, a kind of presentation of his comedic bona fides.
Tompkins’ clotheshorse tendencies are something of a signature. He appeared in a grey double-breasted suit with scandalously broad pinstripes, a four-pointed pocket square of which even Roger Sterling could be proud tucked into his breast pocket.
This is something of a metaphor for his act, and also for what a misnomer the ‘alternative’ appellation can sometimes be. Tompkins’ comedy is totally bereft of transgression or salty language. This absence doesn’t feel pointed or judgmental of those who relish a good poop joke; it just indicates that Tompkins’ predisposition is towards crafting jokes into fine points rather than relying on the blunt club of shock.
Like his suit, there’s something charmingly traditional about his stories, which run from his tenure at the puntastically named “Hats in the Belfry” hat shop through to acting alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. They are united by a universal fear of being yelled at. This thread of self-deprecation stops anecdotes about his encounters with Tom Cruise feeling braggy or unidentifiable.
Tompkins is supremely comfortable on the stage and his delivery is nonpareil; it’s just that for those familiar with the delirious riffing of his albums Impersonal and Freak Wharf, this might feel like an entree when you’d really like the main course.
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