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Modest Proposal Magazine

photo by Robyn Von Swank

by Brodie Foster Hubbard
June 2005

Paul F. Tompkins, a Philadelphia native whose first major foray into television was “Mr. Show With Bob and David” (”I was spoiled on television by working for ‘Mr. Show’” says Tompkins, 37), crossed the Atlantic to work on a Kelsey Grammar production for the Fox Network, an adaptation of the British “Sketch Show.” It was a two month shoot that produced six episodes, only half of which aired.

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For those who think “people will watch anything,” Tompkins says “As it turns out, they will not.”

“I feel like it could have been a good show. The format of it, the quick hit-and-run sketches, because a lot of sketch comedy has a tendency to go on too long.”

The show was produced by the same man who brought “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” onto the airwaves. It had a talented cast, including Mary Lynn Rajskub and Kaitlin Olson (”We all certainly bonded from that experience,” Tompkins says).

So what was the problem?

“It just needed better jokes.”

The show’s scripts were adapted straight from the British material. “What nobody seemed to see… there’s a much bigger difference in the sensibility between British humor and American humor. All of our crappy comedy aside, I think that we are as a nation less forgiving of the corniness that ran throughout the show.”

A month into the shoot, the performers were asked to contribute material, but it had to be based on whatever sets they had available. Although this technique served Roger Corman well, bad 1960’s horror movies and fresh sketch comedy require far different creative strategies. Tompkins, a comedy veteran, could have been an invaluable resource, but his talents were squandered.

“Most of the cast had come from comedy and sketch, and it was a frustrating experience because we didn’t feel like we were listened to a lot of the time and treated like we didn’t know what we were doing. We were directed to mimic the original performances of the British cast of the original show. It’s more than just insulting, you don’t do that to an actor at all. You have to let people put their own personality on it.”

A lack of network support did the show in for good, though not after a prime placement following “The Simpsons.”

“It was a good time slot, but they did not promote the show until about a week before, and then after that, they ran (only a few) ads, and that quickly stopped. They just didn’t care about it.”

Tompkins, who jokes in his routine about the money he makes in developing television series, reports “It was a real frustrating experience. ‘This could be a good thing… if only…’… it was so slapdash… it just felt like nobody really gave a fuck about it. If this is your show, if this is going to be on television with your name on it, you should really kind of give a fuck.”

When asked whether it’s lazy audiences or unimaginative network executives responsible for bad television, Tompkins says “Part of me thinks it’s television’s fault because they’re constantly second guessing the public and saying ‘Here’s what you like to watch,’ and it’s a lot of stuff that’s just not that good. On the other hand, there’s plenty of shit that’s on that air that people are watching in the millions.”

If good things do sneak onto the airwaves (”Arrested Development” is one such treasure Tompkins cites), it still needs network support. “Many things that are challenging in any way are not promoted well.” With the amount of material available to produce, including low-investment high-yield ventures like reality television, networks are “much quicker to axe things” nowadays as opposed to when shows like “Cheers” took a few seasons to find an audience. “The ‘Cheers’ set is in the fucking Smithsonian now. That will never happen again.”

Money is the motivating factor in what gets on the air, says Tompkins. “When they say ‘why should we put this show on the air,’ you can’t really say ‘Because its noble to do so?’”

Having survived the “Sketch Show” experience, Tompkins is enjoying his fame as a VH1 panelist on “Best Week Ever,” an upcoming role in the “Tenacious D” movie, and hosting nights at the Largo in Hollywood every last Monday of the month.

But how does he keep it real?

“I try to be aware of when I could have done something better and not necessary just listen to everybody telling me ‘that was good.’ I like to be extremely hard on myself and assume that everyone’s lying to me. You have to know that you’re doing what you think is funny, not trying to predict what an audience is going to laugh at.”


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