Interview: Paul F. Tompkins, Comedian Every month, comedian Paul F. Tompkins plays the late science fiction author H.G. Wells in hosting different famed writers (played by some of comedy's hottest stars) for in-depth interviews about their work, their personal lives and their anger at critics.
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Bringing 'Dead Authors' To Life For Book-Smart Comedy

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Bringing 'Dead Authors' To Life For Book-Smart Comedy


Here around Los Angeles, there are plenty of celebrities who look unnaturally young. One character in particular looks especially amazing for someone who died in 1946.


PAUL F. TOMPKINS: (as H.G. Wells) I am H. G. Wells. I'm your host this evening and every evening. Oh, please. I don't do that for applause. I do that to see who doesn't applaud.

RATH: That's comedian Paul F. Tompkins. He becomes H. G. Wells for a monthly series at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Wells activates his time machine to pull famous writers back from the beyond for improvised interviews called "Dead Authors." The night I was there, it was Wells in conversation with Tennessee Williams played by the hilarious Kristen Schaal wearing a white suit and fake mustache. You'll hear that in a bit.

But first, I asked Paul F. Tompkins exactly how much historical research he expects from his actors.

TOMPKINS: People are always daunted at first, like, I don't really know that much about, you know, whoever. And I say, it doesn't matter. You can pick anyone you want. I will do all the research, and I will only ask you questions that you can answer any way you want. I call them emotional questions so that I will never ask for a fact or a date or anything like that. I'll just say, this happened - I'll lay it out for them and for the audience - how did that make you feel? And then they're free to say whatever they want.

RATH: I want to give people a little taste of your H. G. Wells who has - he's been called the father of science fiction.

TOMPKINS: That's right.

RATH: And what I like about it is that we get to hear H. G. Wells talk some trash about other writers.


TOMPKINS: That's right.

RATH: Let's hear a little bit of you as H. G. Wells.


TOMPKINS: (as H. G. Wells) Jules Verne, of course, the author of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," which it's very title is incorrect. League is not a measure of depth. It is a measure of distance going rather more horizontally. Although at least it shows some imagination because the rest of the book, frankly, just takes things that exist and then writes them down. Oh, no, a giant squid. There are giant squids. That's neither science nor fiction.


RATH: What do you do for research to get into the mind of H. G. Wells?

TOMPKINS: I have - of all the research that I've done on authors for the show, I think H.G. Wells is the one I've researched the least. Sometimes it's completely unnecessary. I did one - episode 20 had John Hodgman of "The Daily Show" and the author of those great books as Ayn Rand, and I spent - there's pages and pages about Ayn Rand, pages and pages on Wikipedia.

And I spent a couple hours in a hotel room in San Francisco - this is the part of the San Francisco Sketch Fest - turning down lunch invitations, all this stuff, condensing, condensing, condensing.

RATH: So you were cramming.

TOMPKINS: Yeah, I was cramming. Yeah. And then he, I think, let me get out two questions. He just, in character, was just rambling on and on and on. And it was hilarious. But I did regret not accepting those lunch invitations.

RATH: So one of the shows that I caught recently was you had Kristen Schaal as Tennessee Williams.


RATH: Maybe gender bending is a theme with these authors with you.

TOMPKINS: It - yeah. It's happened many times.

RATH: And she just chewed it up.

TOMPKINS: She's hilarious.

RATH: Tennessee Williams was savaged by critics late...


RATH: life. And, well, let's hear. Here's Kristen Schaal as Tennessee Williams talking about that.


KRISTEN SCHAAL: (as Tennessee Williams) Have you heard of "Red Devil Battery Sign"? "Red Devil Battery Sign"?

TOMPKINS: (as H.G. Wells) I've heard of it, yes.

SCHAAL: (as Tennessee Williams) They said it was (bleep). They all - they said it was (bleep). I used to be the one they said was saving the American theater by myself, and then all of a sudden, you write something like "Red Devil Battery Sign" and now you're (bleep) and then you drink more, and then that makes you write weirder stuff.

(as Tennessee Williams) And then you start taking sleeping pills and drinking and you're writing. Things are coming to you, and you're putting them out there and everybody's like you're (bleep). So I died.


RATH: That's actually a pretty good summary of the end of Tennessee Williams.



RATH: This is - not to laugh about it, but I think it's...

No, certainly not. But it is - it is succinct, yes, absolutely.

TOMPKINS: Yeah. One of the things that I've noticed about the show is that all the performers seem to gravitate towards the bitterness that can come out of a career in writing. And there's a lot of jealousy, there's a lot of anger at people that rip people off and so much anger at critics, so much anger at critics. And it comes up again and again.

RATH: So you also - you do interviews not in character. You have this podcast series in which you give these great interviews, which is kind of rude. I don't really do standup.


RATH: Is there something about this format?

TOMPKINS: You know, I - yeah. I really like talking to people, you know? And I - my social trick always in a situation where someone's asking me about my life is to turn it back around on them. And honestly, it's not completely just a deflection move. It's like I'm genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say. There's always something about the way people choose to tell you about themselves that is interesting.

RATH: Paul F. Tompkins is the host of the "Dead Authors" podcast. Paul, it was a real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

TOMPKINS: The pleasure's mine, Arun. Thank you so much.

RATH: And if you want to hear more of Kristen Schaal as Tennessee Williams, it's chapter 27 in the "Dead Authors" series available now on iTunes.

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