Some might call Paul F Tompkins the “podfather”, because he turns up on so many podcasts. Okay not “some”, it was Tompkins who called himself that on a recent episode of Comedy Bang Bang. And okay, it wasn’t exactly Tompkins because he was playing Buttonwillow McKittrick, an alien who turns up to warn the human race of impending danger, even though everyone seems to keep getting side-tracked by funny stories. All this may seem a bit convoluted, but it is par for the course for Tompkins, an American comedian, actor and writer, whose work is not easily summarised.

There is a slightly more conventional side to Tompkins’s oeuvre: comedic roles on sitcoms like Frasier, Community and Curb Your Enthusiasm and the occasional “serious” role, such as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. His voice acting roles mean a certain set of people know Tompkins best as the voice of Mr Peanutbutter on the Netflix show Bojack Horseman. And then there’s the usual collection of stand-up comedy specials and YouTube clips, including a viral defence of political correctness in which Tompkins explained how edgy comedy is supposed to punch up.

But in most of those cases, all the material is carefully written and rehearsed. To really get a sense of what Tompkins can do, you have to enter the world of improv comedy podcasts. Comedians only have a broad idea of what they’re going to say in improvisational comedy and put much more effort into extracting humour out of given situations, which tends to make it a hit-and-miss affair, particularly because the most common form of the genre is sketch comedy, which eventually turns into products like Saturday Night Live.

Podcasts add another dimension altogether to improv. Take Comedy Bang Bang, Scott Aukerman’s flagship improv comedy show, which the Daily Beast called the funniest podcast ever and has been the most consistent source of great humour for me over the last few years, ahead of any sitcom or stand-up comic. Aukerman hosts the show as himself, but every week a comedian turns up and usually plays a character, improvising their way through what would otherwise be a radio interview. Unlike sketch comedy, which usually offers short vignettes of humour, the podcast format – usually an hour-long at least – allows comedians to flesh out their characters, to pick up riffs and work through them, and to mine rich veins of callback humour, often referencing previous episodes and past storylines.

Paul F Tompkins, an American comedian, actor and writer, can be your gateway to the world of improvisational comedy podcasts, since he seems to have turned up on nearly every one of them. An easy way to start is to run down the episode list and pick one in which Tompkins, or another comedian you recognise, is a guest.

Podcasts to listen to:

  • The Dead Authors Podcast, hosted by Paul F Tompkins, in which he plays HG Wells and brings on a comedian friend to play a famous author every episode. 
  • Comedy Bang Bang, the grand poobah of improv comedy shows, with a guest list that would cover nearly every one in the scene. 
  • Spontanenation, Tompkins’ own improv comedy show, in which he interviews a celebrity every week, and then does an improv sketch with other comedians based on the conversation. 
  • With Special Guest, by Lauren Lapkus, in which she is always the guest on a show run by a comedian friend usually playing a character. 
  • The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project, where comedian Andy Daly plays a different character trying to record a podcast pilot every week. 

Podcasts by their very nature are intimate, because you have someone talking directly into your ears. But improv deepens this feeling. Because nothing is scripted, the comedian is working their craft right in front of you. Listen for a while and you can identify those who know how to pick up a joke and develop it into a full-fledged, often absurd storyline. And when done well, simply because of how fresh the humour often is, the product can be both stunning in its ingenuity and outright hilarious, often prompting inconvenient guffaws out in public.

Tompkins has appeared on Comedy Bang Bang more than 200 times, although almost never as himself. Instead he has turned up as rapper Ice-T, director Werner Herzog, TV show host “Cake Boss”, Michael Jackson’s ghost, actor Alan Thicke, Santa Claus and, most recently, as the aforementioned alien Buttonwillow McKittrick. Many of those characters have gotten a life far beyond the podcast, making appearances on other TV shows and online. Some even credit Tompkins’s wonderfully macabre depiction of Herzog as being the reason that the famously dour German director turned up in a cameo on the sitcom Parks and Recreation. But Comedy Bang Bang, despite its massive success, can also be hard to get into, especially since, more than 500 episodes in, it has built up a huge pile of inside jokes and callbacks.

Instead, a good entry point into Tompkins’ improv comedy world is The Dead Authors Podcast. The show was created with 826LA, an organisation dedicated to helping children with creative writing, and worked as a live show that was also recorded for podcasts. Tompkins plays HG Wells, the author of the Time Machine, who goes back in time to retrieve an author who is no longer alive and have a conversation with them. As a result you get Ben Schwartz, of Parks and Recreation, playing Roald Dahl, Kroll Show’s Nick Kroll as Jorge Luis Borges and comedian Mary Holland as Virginia Woolf.

Some of the comedians do tons of research and arrive on the show prepared to truly essay the author they’re playing, even as Tompkins pushes the comedic buttons. Others, like Scott Aukerman playing Benjamin Franklin, simply show up with an attitude, letting the host prise out as much humour from the situation as possible. Regardless of the approach, the results are usually uproarious, even if you know nothing about the “dead author” in question.

Once you’ve worked your way through the 50 or so episodes of The Dead Authors Podcast, you can begin dipping into Comedy Bang Bang, or Tompkins’ own ongoing improv comedy show, Spontaneanation. These shows can also be treated like the blogrolls of yore – they all feature guest comedians, most of whom you can look up and discover their own podcasts or appearances elsewhere, giving you a steady supply of humour. How else will you find yourself in the magical land of Thune with a talking, shape-shifting badger or listening to a show where the host is always the guest?