Paul F. Tompkins’s stand-up act isn’t quite the same as Paul F. Tompkins’s stand-up specials. His act is a traditional – if absurd – collection of observations and routines, like any stand up, but filtered through Tompkins’s unique and particular comic voice. His stand-up specials, on the other hand – in particular 1998 HBO special Driven to Drink and now Laboring Under Delusions, his new hour-long effort for Comedy Central, have as much in common with monologue-driven one-man shows as they do with traditional stand up. They’re more focused and conceptual – more Stop Making Sense than regular Talking Heads concert, by point of comparison.
The hook of Laboring Under Delusions is that it’s all about the bad jobs Tompkins has held (Get it? Laboring!), from a retail gig at the cleverly-named Hats in the Belfry (“It must be really fun to work there…”) to a miserable run at a video store (during which he takes up the new hobby of stealing) to his current job as one of the best standups in the country. The special even takes a short detour to tell some stories about Tompkins’s brief acting stint opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (“I had heard he was a little bit intense, but he’s not…he’s really THE MOST intense person that has ever lived.”) and the time he repeatedly yelled at Weird Al Yankovic during the filming of VH1’s late, lamented Best Week Ever.
Those unfamiliar with Tompkins’s comedy (for shame, by the way) would do well to indoctrinate themselves with Laboring Under Delusions, as it offers some of the comic’s most accessible material since his days riffing on pop culture as a talking head on basic cable. After spending years honing a style that combines the silly and the cerebral in equal measure, Tompkins downshifts somewhat to emphasize universality over specificity; everyone, after all, has had jobs that he or she hated, and Tompkins knows just how to highlight that frustration with hilarious bewilderment. While his typical approach to comedy finds him as an absurd voice commenting on the rational world, in Laboring Under Delusions he’s the voice of reason in an absurd world. Throughout his life, the special suggests, he has encountered an endless series of people whose behavior defies the social contract, from the aforementioned hat-store customers to an audience at a stand-up show throwing ice cubes on stage.
At times, it’s Tompkins himself violating the social contract, such as when years of boredom behind the counter lead him to begin stealing VHS tapes from the video store where he worked. What makes it such a distinctly Paul F. Tompkins routine are the little touches; he’s maybe the only comic working today who would describe his behavior in those days as that of a “gentleman bandit.” Few comedians are as good with the literate turn of a phrase as Tompkins. Only Patton Oswalt and Greg Proops are in his league.
Some of the biggest laughs in the special come not from scripted jokes or one-liners, but just from Tompkins’s reactions to things. It’s funny when he recalls how, while working at Hats in the Belfry, more than one customer requested to try on the “king hat,” but it’s even funnier when he deadpans in total disbelief “It’s not called a king hat. It’s called a crown…What are you doing?” It’s the “What are you doing?” that sells the whole bit, as it’s indicative of Tompkins’s distrust of all humanity, a distrust that comes from years spent working in retail. He’s relatable in his incredulity – everyone has felt the way he felt at some point on the job – but at the same time he stands just outside of the mainstream so as to better comment upon it. He is, like so many of the best comics, an observer and reporter of the Ridiculous.
There’s a risk that a special like Laboring Under Delusions – one with a single specific theme – could come off as gimmicky or limited in scope, but Tompkins is a talented and seasoned enough comic to avoid the pitfalls that could have otherwise sank what he’s able to pull off. He knows how to stretch the premise of the special so he is able to present material that may seem tangential (like the Weird Al and Daniel Day-Lewis stories) but clever enough to make sure that everything still fits under the general label of “bad work stories.” More than anything, though, it presents Tompkins as a gifted storyteller, and that’s not something he’s necessarily been known for in the past. There is a confidence and a fluidity to the special that can only come from the years of experience that Tompkins has acquired, and while Laboring Under Delusions may not feature the best material he’s ever done, he’s never been better as a performer.