A scholar and a well-dressed gentleman, Paul F. Tompkins can really class up a comedy show. Though he’s popped up on everything from Mr. Show to Comedy Bang! Bang!, he’s been making a run at solo broadcast work for the past couple of years. Both the webseries Speakeasy and Fusion’s No, You Shut Up! have cast the stand-up in the hosting chair.
Tompkins’ latest endeavor, the one-hour stand-up special Paul F. Tompkins: Driving And Crying, airs this Saturday, October 10, on Comedy Central. As part of the special, Tompkins spends a good bit of time talking about how he spent most of his adult life—25 years, in fact—without a driver’s license. As befuddled and bewildered by that stat as anyone, The A.V. Club decided to talk to Tompkins about why he made that decision—or, rather, how that decision came to control him.
The A.V. Club: Why didn’t you get your license? Did you try when you were 16?
Paul F. Tompkins: When I was 16, I took the written driving test, just like everybody else did, and I passed it. Then the first time I was behind the wheel of a car, when I was a kid, it kind of freaked me out. I’ve always been a very anxious student of anything, and so not being able to process things quickly enough, feeling overwhelmed, I just got freaked out and so I just never tried again. For years, I just tried to get by as best I could without learning how to drive and it caused no end of inconveniences in my life and in the lives of other people.
AVC: And your parents never pressured you to learn?
PFT: No, they never pressured me to do it. I don’t remember ever having a conversation with them about it.
AVC: How did your reasoning change or intensify as the years went by?
PFT: The older I got, the more intimidating it became, because I thought, “I’m losing the sponginess of my brain that kids have to learn things.” Whether it’s languages or learning how to drive. I just thought, “With each year that passes, the more difficult this will become for me to learn.” But through that whole time, I always assumed that I would learn how to do it one day. I never for a moment thought, “Oh, I’ll never do this.” I just didn’t know when that was going to be.
AVC: What were you waiting for?
PFT: I wasn’t really waiting for anything. It just became the norm for me. It just became my normal life. I didn’t know how to do this thing, I didn’t know when I was going to be able to do this thing, and it was a really inconvenient thing. What it really came down to, I think, looking back on it with some distance, was that it was all that I knew, and I think on some level it was able to keep me in the mindset of being a worthless person who was not a good person, just because I couldn’t do this thing that everybody else could do.
AVC: But you probably didn’t play it off that way, right?
PFT: No, I just tried to hide it from everyone. I tried to keep it concealed from everyone as best I could. There were people who were my dear friends who knew, and who tolerated it, and nobody ever gave me a hard time, but I would try to hide it from people all the time, everywhere I went.
AVC: How long did you live in L.A. without a car?
PFT: From 1994 until 2010.
AVC: You talk a bit in your special about taking buses. L.A. also has a subway, sort of.
PFT: It does now, but the subway is very limited in terms of where it goes. Also, before I learned, there were even fewer places that it went. It didn’t come up a lot.
AVC: You talk about in your special about why L.A. is such a bad taxi and bus town. Why do you think that is?
PFT: I think because the car culture has just dominated everything and has for decades and decades. It’s not a town that caters very well to non-driving people, and I think it’s also because most people that have to take public transportation are non-white. Not that there’s no white people on public transportation in L.A., but the few times that I have taken the subway, and when I would take the bus and everything, it’s lower-income, non-white people. I don’t think that the city is geared toward caring about them that much.
It’s absurd, because this is such a crazy sprawling city that you would think it demands a subway that goes everywhere. It demands more buses. It demands more public transportation of all kinds. But it’s just not there. The subway that’s there, it’s standing now, it was a hard fight to get that done. A lot of neighborhoods, like wealthy neighborhoods, didn’t want their neighborhoods broken up.
Why isn’t there a line out to the beach? Why can’t we all just hop on a subway and go to the beach? It’s like pulling teeth to get that sort of thing done.
AVC: It also seems to play into the American ideal of individualism. You’d rather pay someone to drive you in a car than take a bus with strangers.
PFT: The taxis here, people only take [them] if their car is in the shop or if they’re going to or from the airport. That’s most of your taxi rides. If their car is disabled in some way and they’re forced to get around. I was probably one of the few people that was taking taxis as a matter of course. And it was so that I could stay closest to a timetable of my own choosing as opposed to standing on a corner and waiting for the bus when the bus decided to come. But the problem with this plan is that the taxis in Los Angeles are extremely unreliable, and there would be a lot of times that I would call a taxi for a timed pickup—you know, I need to get a cab at 3 p.m., and the guy would just never show. So that was not helping me feel less humiliated.
AVC: Did you consider other transportation? Did you consider becoming a bike rider?
PFT: I did. I rode a bicycle for many, many years. When I started going out with the woman who is now my wife, I felt terrible that anytime we went out on a date she had to drive, and even though she was very patient and understanding about the whole thing, I didn’t want to have to call a cab if I went to the supermarket. So I eventually got a bike, just a beach cruiser, and I rode that thing all over town. I rode it everywhere. I rode it in the rain, I rode it as much as I possibly could. Anytime I could afford the independence of the bike, I used the bike.
AVC: Isn’t getting on a bike just as dangerous as getting in car? Arguably, it would be even more dangerous for the rider.
PFT: Well, yeah. It’s more dangerous for me. But the bike has very few controls. It’s very simple to operate and understand and your field of vision is certainly greatly expanded as opposed to being in a car. But more important than that was, the thing that I was struggling with at the time was independence. I loved the bike because it gave me some measure of independence that I did not have.
AVC: What did you say to people who said, “Hey, Paul, you should get your driver’s license”?
PFT: I don’t remember a lot of people saying that. I don’t think I recall a lot of conversations about it. Mostly the people that would want to talk to me about it were the people that could drive and made assumptions on my behalf as to why I didn’t drive, and that it was a choice that I was making and I didn’t care that it put people out, and I could if I wanted to but I was lazy or I didn’t feel like it or… It was very strange. These people would all jump to this conclusion immediately. They never asked me about it. They would literally tell me, “Oh, so you do this, this, and this.” It was horrible. It was humiliating. But anytime it came up with people that I knew, I would always say that someday I would do it. I knew that someday I would be capable of it.
AVC: Once you started driving, how long did it take you to get comfortable with being behind the wheel?
PFT: Once I got my license, I had never experienced that sort of independence before. I’d never experienced that total freedom and independence and it was absolutely amazing. When I quit smoking after almost 20 years, it seemed ludicrous to me that I ever started. And when I started driving, it seemed insane to me that I hadn’t always been doing it. I love it. I still love it.
I think it was rough going at first, but now I think I’m a pretty good driver. I think I make the same amount of mistakes as the average driver makes per year. I’ve been in two accidents—one was a really bad one right after I got my license that totaled my wife’s car, and then one was a fender-bender that was my fault. But since then, not a single incident. And I’m very careful and very respectful and I’m a good defensive driver, I think. And I love being in my car and I love driving.
AVC: Did you have to sit down and figure out what the safest or most efficient or easiest to drive car was?
PFT: I wanted something that was fuel efficient and easy to park, and so I got a Mini Cooper. That was also my wife’s car that I destroyed as well, so I’d had some experience driving one of those.
AVC: Well, I’m glad that you drive.
PFT: I am, too.
AVC: It’s always interesting what we can convince ourselves of due to anxiety or depression or whatever. And then when we snap out of it, for whatever reason, it’s just shocking we ever thought that to begin with.
PFT: The thing I have to keep in mind and I try to keep in mind about myself, about anyone, is you do the best you can do at the time. You work with the tools that you have. And for a long time that was not a tool that I had. And then living in New York for a year and being just like everyone else, that flipped a switch in my brain so that when I moved back to Los Angeles, the first time I had to call a cab to go somewhere, I realized, you know, I’m ready. I can do this. I was ready to believe in myself that I could do it and I could do it now.
AVC: It just needed to be the right time.
PFT: Yeah. So much of life, any kind of emotional thing, is about how you get there when you get there.