Paul F. Tompkins: "The ladder never ends because you’re always building the fucking ladder."

When Paul F. Tompkins Powerfully Opened Up on ‘The Mental Illness Happy Hour’ [Splitsider] led me to listen to the interview and I agree that it's great. I found this exchange about the "you don’t have this yet" mentality that pervades comedy to be noteworthy.

Tompkins: There’s always something more that you’re gonna want. There’s never—because, there’s—I think especially—I think this is true for everybody, but I think especially in our business, because we have these, um, there’s, there’s, um, there’s always a carrot a-and the stick always gets longer, you know. It’s always like, well, OK, you got this, but what about this, you don’t have this yet. You know, and we keep thinking, like, you know, right now, what I would love more than anything, uh, is to get a steady gig on television, you know, where I go to the same place every day, Monday through Friday, um, and I get to come home and have dinner with my wife, you know, at the end of the day. I would love that, absolutely. And (laughs) in my mind, I conditioned myself to think that is a modest goal. You know what I mean? Like, I don’t want to be a global superstar, all I want is my own television show. Is that asking for so much?

Gilmartin: Financially and creatively rewarding, right near my home.

Tompkins: Exactly. Now the thing is, that is, that is a somewhat attainable goal. It’s possible that that can happen. It’s not probably, you know what I mean? I-i-it’s—nothing i-in a weird world like this is probable, it’s only possible...

Tompkins: It’s like, look, I, I, uh, I went through a period of bitterness not that long ago, where I was in a, I was in a really dark place. I-i-it was all about, um, you know, uh, entering into middle age, turning—getting into my 40s. And getting, like, I’m 43 now. So, realizing, like, well that’s just going to continue happening. That’s—there’s not—I’m not gonna wake up and, like, “Oh, you’re 38 again.” What? Fantastic! I didn’t know it could go the other way! Um, you get, like, a reset of a couple years. Um, so, I, I, I got into this, this place where I was just overwhelmed. And it, it was, like, it was so much, like, what I bet my mother experience where it’s like, holy shit. Time is going by so fast, so fast, that all I can think about it, ‘I’m almost dead. I am almost dead and where am I and what am I doing?’ You know, I did not realize how great my life was. I couldn’t see it. And I tried—I was trying to see it. You know what I mean? Like, at this point, I am a married man, I’m a professional standup comedian, uh, I’m having, like, a really good year financially, from all these different things. I’m working on, um, all these other projects that are towards my goal, but I was still at this point where everybody else was doing better than I was. I was, I was not any closer to achieving this goal that I wanted to achieve. It was never going to happen. And, but really what it was about was mortality. It’s that time is too short. It’s never gonna happen. And, uh, I-I-I—it’s embarrassing, that I can’t, um, uh, provide for my wife better. It’s uh, it’s embarrassing that I have, I have fucked up my career with this dumb behavior in the past, that now I’m never gonna be where I wanna be, not even what I want to be, but to a point where, uh, I can breathe, you know. It’s always gonna be like this. I’m always gonna be on the fucking hustle. I’m always gonna be traveling around, I’m gonna be packing that goddamned suitcase.

Gilmartin: That’s so crazy.

Tompkins: It was terrible. It was terrible.

Gilmartin: Because I can tell you, Paul, from—you’re—as a peer of yours, and I know there are tons of other peers that feel the same way, we look at you and think, “If I could only get to where, where ….” And that ladder, I think, never ends. Unless you can say I’m happy to just be on this journey—

Tompkins: The ladder never ends because you’re always building the fucking ladder.

Gilmartin: Yeah.

Tompkins: You’re always adding the rungs on there. It’s always you, you know. Nobody else was telling me, “Paul, you know you’re a failure, right? You know that, uh, you should be a lot farther along.” I was the only one telling myself that.

Gilmartin: Do you ever stop sometimes, uh—

Tompkins: Paul, I’m sorry, I do wanna say this. The life that I’m leading now is the exact same life that I was leading when I was in that horrible place, except now I see it all totally differently. And I see how great it is.


I admire his openness and think this is a good perspective to keep in mind. It's easy to look up at the mountaintop and see how far you have to go. But it's also worthwhile to stop and look behind you and see how far you've come.

Another interesting bit from this talk is when he explains talking about his personal crisis onstage, even if it doesn't bring laughs:

I feel like the, the difference between the entertainer and the artist is that, that the entertainer, the first duty of the entertainer is to entertain. But the first duty of the artist is truth. And I like to consider myself an artist. And I feel like my evolution as an artist has not come all this way to just stop at merely entertaining people. I’m not trying to shut anybody out, I’m not alienate anyone, but I do feel like it is pointless for me to not explore these things.


Related: I previously wrote about PFT discussing the bad of cursing and the good of being conversational.

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