Monday, January 14, 2019

A requiem for "Spontaneanation," Paul F. Tompkins' podcast utopia

I started today the same way I have nearly every Monday for the past five years or so, by opening up my podcast app and downloading the new episodes of Comedy Bang Bang and Spontaneanation. Next week will be the last time I’ll be able to say that, because next week Paul F. Tompkins is bringing Spontaneanation to an end. I am more than melancholy about this prospect.

I first got into comedy podcasts via the same route I presume most people take: via an undemanding day job involving plenty of mindless tasks and downtime. I started out listening to the audio of old Dr. Katz episodes on YouTube, which led me to dig into the guest comedians’ other material, which led me to some of Paul F. Tompkins’ stand-up sets, which led me to Paul F. Tompkins playing characters on Comedy Bang Bang. I don’t recall exactly what my first PFT clip was — knowing my own clickbait parameters, it was probably one of his bits as Ice-T or John C. Reilly — but I was sold pretty much immediately.

Discovering Comedy Bang Bang was easily the most important development in my comedy education at least since the debut of Arrested Development, and probably reaching farther back than that. Scott Aukerman’s dizzy blend of casual conversation, bone-deep irony, and untethered improv rewired my brain and tickled funny bones I never even knew I had. It was nothing short of a religious experience for me.

Other than Aukerman himself, no performer played a bigger role in my conversion than Paul F. Tompkins. An effortless and seemingly tireless improviser, PFT has spent much of the last decade building a reputation as the podcast comedian. He’s been on everybody’s show, from reliable chart-toppers to relative obscurities. He’s both a ubiquitous presence and one of the industry’s best gets — I’ve heard a number of hosts mention that his appearances are far and away their highest-rated episodes.

Over the past nine years PFT has been the most frequent guest on Comedy Bang Bang, usually playing a character ranging from a playfully snobbish take on Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to a buttoned-up rendition of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger to my personal favorite, a sad-sack “soup-bubble artist” named Big Chunky Bubbles. No one is a more reliably hilarious guest, even on a show that regularly features certifiable improv geniuses like Andy Daly, Lauren Lapkus, Brendon Small, and an inexhaustible list of other names that make comedy nerds swoon.

When Tompkins launched his very own improv podcast in the Spring of 2015, then, I was giddy with anticipation. I was too late to the table for his beloved previous venture, The Pod F. Tompcast, but I was a great fan of his work hosting the English-major catnip Dead Authors Podcast. My anticipation for Spontaneanation was probably unreasonably high, but the show wound up meeting and even exceeding my expectations.

Unlike his previous podcast, which involved a great deal of editing and post-production, Tompkins devised Spontaneanation explicitly as a “free-form conversation” — several of them, actually — that would flow naturally into a long-form improv scene at the end of the show. A standard episode opens with a brief, improvised monologue, often touching on pet Tompkins topics (tompics?) like linguistic oddities, weird chapters in history, or the nefarious secret lives of birds. Next up is a one-on-one conversation with a special guest about a topic suggested by the previous episode’s guest, followed by short interviews with the week’s roster of improvisers (usually a three-person crew but ranging from one to six). The final 20 minutes or so is a continuous long-form improv scene that usually draws on topics discussed in the interview segments. And it’s all scored on piano by Mr. Eban Schletter, a fantastic composer and musical improviser whose ability to pick up a verbal cue and shift into an allusive tune is astonishing.

It’s a pretty simple format, elevated by the uniquely charming presence of Paul F. Tompkins. Beyond being one of his era’s most gifted comedians, the man is a natural interviewer who seems to be genuinely liked by nearly everyone who comes into his orbit. His interview subjects are mostly comedians, but can encompass anyone from writers to wrestlers to musicians like Robyn Hitchcock, Aimee Mann, and Open Mike Eagle. PFT guides each interview with the deft touch of a journalist, intuitively sussing out the most interesting avenues to follow and keeping his guests candid and comfortable. Even when the intro question doesn’t resonate with a particular guest, Tompkins can almost always steer the conversation into fruitful territory. (The most notable and hilarious exception being a young spelling bee champion who would not be coaxed into anything beyond monosyllables.)

I used to harbor the standard artistic fantasy of what I would say on stage when I accepted my first Oscar. A few years ago I changed focus to what question I’d ask the following guest when I appeared on Spontaneanation, along with how I’d answer each week’s new question. Those questions have ranged from the benign (“What kind of small business would you like to own?”) to the evocative (“Does everyone deserve to be heard?”) to the barely coherent (“What about baseball?”) and every one has given me plenty to think about. However unlikely, I always harbored a hope that I’d accomplish something noteworthy enough to find myself sitting across the table from PFT, providing fodder for some of the world’s finest improvisers.

I’ve always been the type who identifies too much with my choices of entertainment, thinking about characters from books and TV shows almost like real friends. Podcasts take that delusion to a different level. There’s a specific intimacy that comes with inviting a familiar group of voices directly into your ear canals on a weekly basis. That makes me genuinely distraught at the thought of losing my weekly appointment with not just Paul F. Tompkins, but also his cast of recurring improvisers.

Some I was already acquainted with from their other podcast and comedy work (Matt Gourley, Marc Evan Jackson, Sarah Burns, Craig Cackowski, Erinn Hayes, Eugene Cordero, Chris Tallman, Mark McConville, Gary Anthony Williams). Some were new commodities with whom I became quickly infatuated (Amanda Lund, Maria Blasucci, Coleen Smith, Carl Tart, Tim Baltz, Tawny Newsom, Jean Villepique, Chris Grace. Little Janet Varney!). Throughout the show’s run, and in the last couple of years especially, PFT has shown a strong dedication to providing a forum for comedians of color, LGBTQ* performers, artists with disabilities, and anyone else who’s traditionally underrepresented in the comedy arena. I’m going to miss every one of them.

It isn’t as though I’m going to be hurting for entertainment in the absence of Spontaneanation. I currently have at least a dozen comedy podcasts in my weekly rotation, many with deep archives that I haven’t worked my way through yet. I have complex emotional relationships with each of them, but there are times when I'm simply not mentally ready to dig into the gonzo experimentation of improv4humans, the arch irony of Hollywood Handbook, even the infectious optimism of Off Book. That's a big reason why Spontaneanation has occupied a particular place in my heart f
or the past four years.

More than any other podcast, this one has been a stabilizing presence for me, a true hangout show that comforts me in times of trouble. It’s definitely not a show that avoids dark comedy or adult themes, but it’s by and large a friendly, welcoming kind of comedy that I can wrap myself up in like an audio blanket. It’s the show I turn to during traumas and bouts of depression, when I need an hour or so away from the demands of the real world.

On election night of 2016, for instance, my brain wouldn’t allow me more than a couple hours of terror-sleep. Everything seemed soured and grim. I couldn’t watch TV, couldn’t listen to music, couldn’t even fix myself a drink. I got out of bed at 3am, opened my podcast app and loaded up four hours’ worth of back episodes. I spent the morning before my family woke up cleaning the house obsessively as I immersed myself in the only nation that seemed to make sense anymore: a place called Spontaneanation.

I’m excited to see what Paul F. Tompkins does next, but I’ll be feeling this gap for a while. Thanks for all the good times, Paul, and semper in praesenti to you and yours.

No comments:

Post a Comment