A new Paul Thomas show is always big news. So when I first heard that Paul’s Intimate and Appropriate will debut at The Den Theatre from October 18-21, I wanted to know everything or at least whatever Paul would tell me. Paul kindly agreed to Zoom. First, he told me, the show is a series of original scenes.
“Can you say more about those scenes?”, I asked.
“I know it doesn’t help you,” Paul demurred, “but I don’t want to.”
“Why not?”, I wondered.
It turns out, like everything this award-winning actor, comedian and musician does, his rationale was airtight, original and so compelling that I wondered why all artists don’t share his perspective. (Or maybe they do, but don’t want to say so?)
So instead, I’ll just share his intriguing press release:
Comedian Paul Thomas’s satiric mind emerged from the pandemic unbowed, leading to “Intimate and Appropriate”, an incisive collection of scenes steeped in the selfie-righteousness of a country that has lost its mind. With grounded characters and the logic of an ancient Midwestern philosopher, Thomas delicately stomps through the “mine” field of identity, language, and recycle bins, putting a hall of mirrors up to a narcisstocracy that kinda seems to wanna offend itself.
Originally from Topeka, Kansas, Paul grew up in Wisconsin and moved to Connecticut to work for ESPN. Then it was on to Chicago to study comedy. That’s when his career took off. In 2005, he and Seth Thomas as the Defiant Thomas Brothers won the Best Sketch Award at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, the comedy equivalent of an Oscar, and signed with the William Morris Agency. Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones said they were like Key & Peele and “similarly formidable writers.”
Paul also became the lead singer and songwriter of Lola Balatro (my favorite rock band) and created an impressive portfolio of critically acclaimed short films, videos and sketch shows which have been featured at film and comedy festivals nationwide. He has an uncanny ability to transform into vastly disparate characters, be they man, woman or hot rock star. You’ve seen him as a chilling psychopath on NBC’s Chicago P.D. You may also recognize him as Dan Peff, the awkwardly confident purveyor of outrageous craft cocktails and host of the series Real Good Drinking.
Here’s what I know: Intimate and Appropriate is scenes and scenarios reflecting on the crucibles of our times that will surprise, engage and entertain you. You’ll want to see the show a second time with friends so you can discuss it on the way home. The actual subject matter will only be revealed at the theater. But Paul was willing to take me behind the scenes of his unique creative process and the personal transformation that compelled this show’s creation.
Teme: It’s great news to hear about your show! How did it come about?
Paul: I experienced a brain reset being away from performing. Some was COVID-related, but some has been being so busy [with work]. At the beginning of the year, I had a breakdown. I had a click of, “What am I doing with my time?” You can say you’re writing stuff. You can have ideas, but unless you’re actually doing it … It woke me up from a four-year, “I’m working. I’m going to have wine at seven o’clock on Fridays.”
Looking back, I was numbing myself. Around that time, somebody at work said, “Oh, I heard you were a comedian.” I don’t announce it, but he heard it from somebody else. Then I’m sitting at my desk going, “Yeah, I am. Oh, by the way, I don’t have any shows. I’m working at a desk here full time … I have some stuff from before.” It was weird to say, “I’m a comedian” because there’re so many people actually doing stuff.
[After the deaths of two friends last winter,] I was crying for three days … “Woke up” is the best word. It wasn’t even just about that. It was more like a breakdown about what I’m repressing that I need to be doing. It’s easy to think, “No, I don’t need it … Oh, it’s Friday night …”
I decided I’m not drinking for a while. Drinking isn’t the problem. But it is when it’s replacing the creative thing, which is what I was doing. It was the escape. I thought, “I have to have something on the books and start working towards it.” I’d always written and had ideas, but this time I approached it differently.
When you first start out, you think, “I hope somebody sees this.” Or you want to connect to the industry. Having had a development deal almost twenty years ago, you’re trying to get back to that. You’re doing it for someone else. It’s an ego sport, like “Look at me!” You’re trying to get somebody to see it, the right person, so that they can connect you with the right people.
Of course, I want as many people to see this show as possible. But this time it’s beyond that. This one is for me. I want to be as good as I can be from an acting standpoint. I haven’t ever approached it like that. Now it’s a lot more of a deeper dig for me into the character in the scene. That’s one reason I’m so happy to be performing this show at The Den Theatre. It’s primarily comedy there, but they also host a lot of great theater.
Teme: I remember your show at the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival before Covid. In every scene you were a different compelling, engaging character. You completely transformed.
Paul: Thank you. I’m very conscious of that. The bar is if I had to audition, would I get this role? For every one of my pieces, for every scene, if somebody else could do it better than me, that’s a problem. So I always feel that I have to audition for my own pieces; that no one else could make any one of them better.
Teme: How do you prepare at that level?
Paul: This show in particular I did differently. Every weekend last summer, I set the timer for ninety minutes and told myself, “Every week you’re going to write a new scene. You’re not going to go back the next week and polish it. You can do that later.” So for fifteen weeks, every week, I wrote a new scene in prose.
When I finished, I revisited the scenes and found the character for each one. Before, I was writing both the scenes and characters at the same time. I drive a lot back and forth to work, so I’m a crazy person in the car. At the stop sign, I was looking at each scene and trying to find the character for it. When I found the character was when I started to rewrite the scene to fit that character.
When you know comedy, you can see patterns. You can tell when a joke is coming or how a sketch will end. I wanted to remove patterns, even where I knew it would get a laugh. I don’t want to have “a rule of three.” I didn’t want to sell myself out for laughs or rely on a structure that everyone is expecting.
I have fifteen different characters. The goal is for them not to be similar. There are a million options for each. If three of them are angry, they’ve got to be different kinds of angry. I pay attention to the voice, their pacing, the intonation, the physicality, breathiness, the way they stand. I’ve always done that, but this time I’m paying a lot more attention to it so that nobody is cartoony. So even if the script doesn’t make people laugh, you would still watch it to see that real person.
Teme: How do you visualize so many possibilities?
Paul: I visualize the character and the scene unfolds in my mind. I studied people who do voiceover work and create characters. I started to think about things linguistically. I’d done that before, but now I’m thinking of it more scientifically, like how to measure things like suprasegmentals.
Finding that character after I had the script allowed me to improvise more because you’re not simultaneously trying to think of a scene. You are already in it. It’s helped because I’m trying to get Paul’s mind out of it and discover how a character would actually talk which is funnier because of them saying it versus being a funny line – where people are laughing because they’re thinking, “I know somebody like that.”
Teme: How did you figure out the nuances of each character and what their thoughts and approach would be?
Paul: Creating familiarity helps. I’m a pretty good mimic. I pay a lot of attention to people on the street. I’ve lived in many places and picked up characters along the way. I pay attention to all the nuances of voice, pacing and word choice. I try to do all that without being clowny.
Teme: When you’re writing different characters, how do you know what they’re going to say?
Paul: I can just visualize it. It’s like I’m watching it in a movie theater. To me, it’s just not fun mapping it at the beginning. You can always go back and organize. To me visualizing is fun – that blank page and then I can visualize the delivery and the timing.
Teme: Who are some of the characters? What would you like the audience to know about them?
Paul: What do I want them to know? In a weird way, I don’t want them to know anything. It sets an expectation. Please just come to the show. Please.
Teme: Are any of your characters in this show similar to you?
Paul: There’s only one scene where it’s very close to me. That was interesting because it was the only one where I’m like, “Wow, I’m just playing this like me.”
Teme: Do you think the audience will guess which one it is?
Paul: I think it’ll be pretty obvious.
Teme: What can you reveal about this show’s sketches?
Paul: I’m not calling it sketch. It’s scenes. It’s sixty-five, seventy minutes of scenes. I want it to be engaging. It’s entertainment. If you’re not laughing, you’re still absolutely engaged. If you’re not laughing for a minute, it might very well be intentional because I’m either setting something up or you’re having the feeling of watching a play. You’re drawn into it, really paying attention to see, “What’s this thing about?” They’re really all point-of-view scenes. This is not “I want to say something about something.” This is scenes taken to their logical end where you go, “That’s crazy,” but it’s very real.
Teme: What are some of the situations that your characters will grapple with?
Paul: Everything’s current, what’s going on, what people have opinions about. We’re in this heightened sense of identity now. I never have an agenda. Let’s explore ideas. What’s the logical end, if you push an idea a little more?
This isn’t the “rah-rahs” instead of “ha-ha’s” and it’s not “clapter.” “Clapter” is where, yeah, Trump’s head is orange, he’s a pumpkin head, and people clap and you’re like, “This is what we’re doing for satire?” You see that enough where everybody in the audience is on the same page exactly and it’s the most homogeneous crowd. I’ve never bought into that. Instead, let’s explore.
Teme: Right. It sometimes feels like people are choosing to adhere to a single narrative these days and treating that narrative like a religion.
Paul: Oh, religion is the word. The last five years, that’s exactly the word. I’ve had this opinion for a long time. I recognized immediately: this is religion. You have to say certain things. You have to post certain things. Having grown up with that, it’s weird to see that people railing against religions are following a religion of its own, that religious adherence to, “If you’re not doing this, then you’re this.”
Teme: You’re excommunicated.
Paul: Yes, you’re excommunicated.
Teme: You don’t want to get kicked out, so you succumb to peer pressure and behave in a prescribed way. Then you stop thinking for yourself because it’s too dangerous. There’s no allowance for nuance.
Paul: That’s the word. There is no nuance. Now that you’re saying that, I would say my show is diving into the nuances of all these things that people polarize on, but haven’t thought a lot about.
Having gotten myself out of that religious part through my own thinking – and I’m thankful I was raised the way I was raised – but I have a deep appreciation for recognizing when things aren’t logical and also for understanding why people believe certain things.
Teme: Yes, things are often not as simple as people want them to be.
Paul: Yes, and that’s my whole thing. I’m like, “I just want to know how you think,” when I’m talking to somebody. I want to know, “Are we having a good conversation or is it just you repeating The Atlantic article you read?”
Teme: Is part of the goal of the show to get people into a more nuanced way of thinking, where they can think about contradictions and —
Paul: Oh, a goal? No, I’m just presenting my take, but not a goal. If somebody sees, “Oh, shit. I do that?”, that’s awesome. Nothing is overt. There are parts where a character says something that’s not logical, and I guarantee a lot of people go, “Oh, I never thought of it like that.” One of my mottos in life is I want to be wrong.
Paul: Because then I think through why do I believe this? I have no problem being wrong. Then I can see, “Oh, I didn’t think”, or “Now I know something else.” A lot of conversation got preachy for a while and it still will be, but I think there’s now preachy-fatigue.
Teme: What do you most want people to know about the show?
Paul: Really, through and through, it’s social satire. At one point I wrote, “If you like social satire, the target might be on you.” I guarantee at some point, everybody’s the target.
Teme: What do you hope people will feel on their way home?
Paul: That people walk away going, “I never thought of it like that, but that makes sense” and especially, if people leave saying “I was engaged 100% of the time. I laughed a lot, and I hadn’t thought of a lot of those things that way.” My goal would be that somebody wants to see the show again and to bring a friend because they feel like, “I want somebody else to see this and I want to see it with them.” That would be the ultimate.
Teme: Can you say any specifics about what the different scenes are about?
Paul: Here’s my thing. The bane of my existence – because it’s happened to me – is when a reviewer sees the show and gives away the reveal or the premise. It’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. Then I’ve gone to those shows and thought, “Did I not like this scene because I read the review?” – instead of exploring it myself. I remember going to a show where I thought, “I don’t know if I don’t like this, or the scene isn’t funny because I was waiting for it to come up, or because I saw five scenes mentioned so they had zero surprise for me.”
That’s why I’m hesitant to do it on the front end because I’ve had it happen on the back end where somebody does that and you’re like, “Stop giving away my premises.” If I’m reading that you liked it, that’s enough. It doesn’t matter what the scenes are.
Paul: By the way, how do you read the title of the show?
Teme (pronouncing them as adjectives): Intimate and appropriate.
Paul: But that’s not the show.
Teme [confused]: …..
Paul: They’re verbs.
Teme: Yeah, I’m curious about that title.
Paul: Well, it’s verbs. Those are verbs.
Teme (slow, but catching on to pronounce them as verbs): Oh, intimate and appropriate! Got it!
Paul: We see what we see. I can’t get mad that most people will see it the way you did. It doesn’t mean that people are malicious. We’re going with our experience, but our experience may not reflect what is.
Paul Thomas’ Intimate and Appropriate premieres at The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, Chicago:
Wednesday, October 18 at 8:00 p.m. TICKETS
Thursday, October 19 at 8:00 p.m. TICKETS
Friday, October 20 at 8:00 p.m. TICKETS
Saturday, October 21 at 8:00 p.m. TICKETS
More about Paul at bigheadpaul.com
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