Paul F. Tompkins Reveals His Improv Process with Marc Evan Jackson Ahead of JFL NorthWest

"If we can avoid strangling ourselves on stage in Vancouver, this will officially be a trend that we're good together."
Paul F. Tompkins Reveals His Improv Process with Marc Evan Jackson Ahead of JFL NorthWest
When Paul F. Tompkins and Marc Evan Jackson took to a Toronto stage in September of 2018, it was the first time these frequent collaborators had ever done so as a two-gentleman show. Yes, they'd worked together on podcasts and live shows in various group dynamics in the past, but this was something new. They'd never before taken on these roles of "Mr. Jackson" and "Mr. Tompkins" for an improv outing.
As we said at the time, the resulting performance was magical and astounding — one of the most staggering comedic feats Toronto has ever witnessed.
"That night, from the moment we walked out on stage, we both felt right at home. It was one of the top five experiences I've ever had on stage in my entire career," Tompkins tells Exclaim! from his home in Los Angeles. "It was magical for us; we just had the best time. It was the most amazing audience and everything felt right.
"You have good nights, but when it feels transcendent like that, that's the thing you're always going for, but of course, it's impossible to always reach that. But man, when you do, you really feel it."
If anyone has the mileage to suss out a magical experience from an ordinary one, it's the gifted and prolific Tompkins. Originally from Philadelphia, Tompkins is well known for his work as a writer and performer on Mr. Show with Bob & David and for roles in films like There Will Be Blood and The Informant!
He is also a serious contender for "king of all podcasts," as he has redefined the medium with his appearances and work on Comedy Bang! Bang!, the Pod F. Tompkast, the Thrilling Adventure Hour, Superego, Dead Authors, and Spontaneanation, an improv podcast he hosted and produced that just celebrated its 200th and final episode on January 21. He says the show became a lot of work to maintain, plan and book, and so shutting it down at the nice round number of 200 just made sense to him.
"I'll take some time to figure out what my next thing is going to be," he reveals. "I have some ideas to do with friends and we'll do more episodes of Threedom, the podcast I do with Scott Aukerman and Lauren Lapkus. I definitely want to host another show. I just don't know what the format is going to be yet."
On Sunday February 17, Tompkins and Jackson, a very talented comedic actor (The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation), reunite to stage their production, Mr. Jackson & Mr. Tompkins: A Two-Gentleman Improv Show, at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver as part of JFL NorthWest.
"The two of us, doing a show just by ourselves and wearing the tuxedoes — it very quickly became its own thing," Tompkins explains, recalling the Toronto show. "Of course, there's a fear that instantly sets in after the show is over that, if we do this again, is there any way it can be as good," he laughs. "But the good news is, we just did a show in Detroit and it was an absolute blast. So, proof of concept. If we can avoid strangling ourselves on stage in Vancouver, this will officially be a trend that we're good together."
Tompkins and Jackson first met doing the Thrilling Adventure Hour stage show and podcast. It began as a live show that resembled a scripted radio show, and the two performed together in a Hollywood bar with a close-knit ensemble for ten years. When they can, members still get together to work or socialize, and Tompkins and Jackson's stage show seems like a fun, efficient way for the busy performers to carve out time for a bit of both.
"There's a lot that we have in common," Tompkins says of Jackson. "The idea that there'd be anyone else who'd agree to do improv in tuxedos is absurd. I suggested it and he agreed to it immediately. We're both from back east but are a few years apart in age and experience. He started improv when he was young and I got into it late after starting with standup and got into improv with the dawn of podcasting.
"Marc is one of the most solid improvisers that has ever been on a stage," he adds. "I learn something from him every single time I either see him or perform with him. We have a playfully antagonistic relationship at times, but Marc is a really good dude. The fact that he started a charity to teach improv to kids in Detroit to help them learn life skills — that's the kind of guy he is.
"It's the tennis partner analogy; he elevates my game to a degree like few other people could. I have to be better, because he is so good."
According to Tompkins, improv is still subject to certain misperceptions. Because a night like the aforementioned one in Toronto felt so flawless, with one strong joke following another in rapid succession, there's a perception that such a performance must have been prepared or sketched out in advance. But in improv, that's not the case at all.
"There are a lot of people who flat out refuse to believe it's made up," Tompkins says. "I can understand that point of view, because sometimes things come out perfectly because someone can take the time to phrase things in such a way that it sounds like a perfectly written joke. But it's not; what makes that happen is experience.
"What makes it magical is that it's meant to be ephemeral, so of course it's all made up, because that is absolutely the point. What I love about improv so much is that we are all discovering it at roughly the same time. The performers are maybe, what, a half second ahead of the audience? There's very little lag time. I think of a thing, I say it, then the audience is laughing and it all happened in a second."
See Mr. Jackson & Mr. Tompkins: A Two-Gentleman Improv Show at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, as part of JFL NorthWest on Sunday February 17.
Listen to this interview with Paul F. Tompkins on the Kreative Kontrol podcast on iTunes or below