Theater
3:32 pm
Sat January 11, 2014

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

Originally published on Sat January 11, 2014 4:40 pm

H.G. Wells looks remarkably good for having died in 1946.

That's because he's being played by comedian Paul F. Tompkins.

Tompkins assumes the role every month for a series called "Dead Authors" at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles.

Wells — author of War Of The Worlds and other early sci-fi novels — activates his time machine to pull famous writers back from the beyond for improvised evenings starring some of comedy's biggest stars. The show has featured Kristen Schaal playing Tennessee Williams and John Hodgman as Ayn Rand. It's also become a popular podcast.

Tompkins talks to All Things Considered host Arun Rath about reassuring comedians that their literary knowledge is adequate, and trash-talking sci-fi author Jules Vern.


Interview Highlights

On recruiting improvisors to impersonate literary figures

People are always daunted at first. ... 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." 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.

On Jules Vern, author of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Its 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.

On the common themes of the performances

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. There's a lot of jealousy, there's a lot of anger at people that ripped people off — and so much anger at critics. So much anger at critics, and it comes up again and again.

On getting into the mind of H.G. Wells

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DEAD AUTHORS")

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.

(LAUGHTER)

TOMPKINS: That's right.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DEAD AUTHORS")

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

TOMPKINS: Yeah.

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...

TOMPKINS: Yeah.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DEAD AUTHORS")

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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

(LAUGHTER)

TOMPKINS: Yes.

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.