Paul F. Tompkins with Spencer Hicks
7 p.m. Saturday
City Arts Center
3000 General Pershing
$22 advance, $25 door
With a thick coif of hair and a gap-toothed grin, stand-up Paul F. Tompkins stands out from the rest of the comedy crowd.
His formal attire only helps.
“I came up with the idea back when I started,” Tompkins said. “I’ve just always really liked dressing up, and the dandier, the better. I do try to stop a couple degrees short of Cedric the Entertainer, though.”
You will rarely, if ever, see Tompkins in anything but a tailored suit and tie, which perfectly complements his identity as a comedian. His material is slick and full of sharp wit; an air of sophistication defines his set, despite how bizarre his bits often are. Most of this refinement is thanks to his delivery, a combination of exaggerated, sweeping phrases and grandiose word choices.
“I was one of those students that was bad with math and science, but loved anything involving language. I’m always loved words, especially older, more fanciful words,” Tompkins said. “Conversely, using a flat word in a very grand sentence can be hilarious. It’s this kind of clever turn of phrase, paired with outraged or deadpanned delivery.”
With his love of language and an intelligent demeanor, it’s surprising that Tompkins didn’t graduate from college (he laments having to check the “some college” box on forms and applications).
But dropping out after his first year proved to be an intelligent move. He did so in the middle of an ’80s comedy boom and made good money performing in clubs in his native Philadelphia. But when the boom died down in the mid-’90s, Tompkins headed for Los Angeles, a move first met with struggle.
The comedian held a series of retail jobs while working to restart his career. It was almost enough to make him give up club comedy altogether, but stumbling upon a burgeoning alternative comedy scene gave the performer’s routine new legs.
Tompkins began to rework and revamp his material. In Philadelphia, his set consisted of more traditional material. Inspired by the conversational style of comedians like Janeane Garofalo and Greg Behrendt, he revised his material into a series of narratives and tweaked his delivery.
Basically, Tompkins quit telling jokes and started sharing stories.
Those stories, equal parts surreal and bizarre, work to find explanations for the most seemingly mundane occurrences in everyday life, like smashed pennies and sexy bee costumes.
“You start with this idea that’s in your head that makes you laugh,” Tompkins said. “Then you translate that to a roomful of strangers. It becomes this thing where I have to explain this to you, this weird thing I have to break down.”
He also drew inspiration from his new Hollywood digs, including his first encounter with Fabio and the characters around Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
“L.A. is composed of people that come from all over the place to get famous. That’s the common goal here,” Tompkins said. “It’s not going attract normal folk. It’s a little twisted, really.”
Fans quickly latched onto his new style. He parlayed his success on the stage to roles on the small screen, contributing to programs like “Best Week Ever,” “Countdown with Keith Olberman” and “Mr. Show,” starring alt-comedy heavyweights David Cross and Bob Odenkirk.
But stand-up is where Tompkins’ heart is. He’s filmed three Comedy Central specials, as well as a one-man show on HBO, and is frequently featured in webcasts like “Comedy Death-Ray” and “Never Not Funny.” He’s even started his own, cleverly titled “Pod F. Tompkast.”
And his love of live performances has always had him touring and performing regularly. But with his latest tour, he opted to schedule his shows in a different way: Tompkin’s “300 Scheme” tour is fan-driven and fan-demanded. Facebook groups popped up for most major cities, in which the only requirement for Tompkins to book a show in that city, was for the group to assemble 300 fans. The plan has proven to be good for both the fans who want to see him outside of traditional comedy markets, as well as Tompkins himself.
“The attendance has been good, and they have been the some of the best shows I’ve ever done. I don’t have the worries of the comedy club stuff, don’t have to worry about losing people’s attention to drinks or food,” he said. “It has been so tremendously different to have everyone there for the same reason. I don’t have to win people over this way. I still have to do a good show, but I’m starting off in a better place. I can be a lot more in the moment.” -Joshua Boydston