He is a master at what he does. There’s a skill to being able to go up onstage, be incredibly funny, and destroy the crowd without destroying any one person in particular. That’s sort of the mojo of Tom Papa. He isn’t out to alienate anyone. That’ll be left to the other guys. What Tom Papa would much rather do is go up on that stage, and share an honest and sincere moment with the audience. And at the end of it, he will remind you that, hey, everything is okay and you’re doing a good job at whatever it is you’re doing. He’s the moral cheerleader we definitely need more of in this world.
He also happens to be one of the hardest working comedians in the business. This is a guy who is always at the grind of stand up, performing, perfecting, and then starting the cycle again. And when he isn’t doing that, he is recording a podcast or his radio show or appearing on someone else’s show or shooting and promoting a special or writing and promoting a book or acting in a movie or television show. The cycle doesn’t end. It keeps evolving and moving forward.
So who exactly IS Tom Papa then? Funny. He is really funny. That’s all you need to do to describe him. And once you see him, you’ll understand. He does a fine job at demonstrating who he is and where his talents lay all on his own. Any fancy words I could use to try and conceptualize what it is that he does would be gratuitous. The man is just really funny.
We recently spoke to Tom Papa about all things comedy, his new Netflix special, You’re Doing Great which is out now, finding the perfect co-host, and who inspires him.
The first thing I noticed in this special was just how good the crowd was when you walked out there. Do you think the homecoming factor, that this is a Jersey audience, helps contribute to that?
Yeah, definitely. I think so. I’ve done specials in New York, which is close, and I’ve done Cleveland. And I really wanted to put it in my home state and make a big deal out of it. And being Newark, which is one of those Jersey cities… After being born and raised in New Jersey, to see cities that have really fallen off and trying to make a comeback, trying to become something again really makes it a lot of love and a lot of pride in shooting there. So I’m sure that carried through.
And on the flip side, I’m sure for a comedian, your biggest nightmare before you go out to film a special is that it’s going to be a bad crowd.
Yeah, exactly. It would be horrible if everyone’s in a bad mood.
Right. And as you’ve done a couple of specials before, do you approach each one the same way at this point, to where it all feels the same? Or is there something new you’re looking to get out of doing each special?
Yeah, it’s a combination. Just the practical part of it, you are more serious about what you should be looking for. What are the things that you should be spending your time thinking about. What’s important and what’s not. You could get better at that. But creatively, the hardest thing about these specials is you want to be as close to the live experience while you were on tour leading up to it. You don’t want it to be this totally different thing than this successful act that’s been touring for the last couple of years. And everything that you see in the special, from it being paired down, from me putting the mic in the stand, to the theme that I’m talking about, to breaking the fourth wall and talking to the crowd, all of that stuff is being as true as I could possibly be to the experience that people saw throughout the country throughout the year.
Of course. And speaking of the practical, with so much having changed since you first started doing stand up in the 90’s, do you find it any different to be doing a special now compared to then? Because now it seems like there’s so many more specials out than there used to be. Does that effect how you approach it at all?
Yeah, well there’s definitely much greater opportunities for comedians to be seen now for sure. But that doesn’t effect how I approach the act or approach the filming. That’s just the media part of it. It’s how people see it. Yeah, it doesn’t effect creatively how I approach it at all. When it’s done, and now people are starting to see it, and they’re going to see little clips on their phone and they’re going to see the whole thing on Netflix, that’s almost something more that I observe than I participate in.
But it doesn’t cross your mind until after the fact. And I love your ability to provide all of this positive reinforcement and, at the same time, also call out just how superficial we’ve all become with social media.
The biggest thing that’s come back to me from this act was that it wasn’t cynical and it was an act that was hopeful. And it was telling people that they should really look at their lives and block out the anxiety that stems from social media and cable news and all this on flood of media, that no other human being has had to deal with before. And people were coming up. They were grateful. They seemed to be reacting to something that I was sending them off to do which was to be sincere and be hopeful and less cynical. And in comedy, it’s traditionally a pretty cynical art form. And I just don’t feel that way. I’m pretty optimistic and I just have this feeling that we’re not doing enough, but I truly believe that living a simple life is a thing that gives you more meaning and more happiness. And that was coming back to me from the crowd in a big way.
Exactly. And I really do admire comedians that can go up there and display more of a positive side of stand up that we don’t often get to see as an audience.
Yeah. And I don’t think you have to attack everything to be funny. I think we can just be honest about where we are right now. Any art for me that I like to watch or read, I don’t mind if it gets dark and it deals with heavy material, but I don’t enjoy it if it doesn’t give me some hope at the end. And for me, life is about being hopeful and I wanted my act to state the same.
Right. As a comedian, you don’t want audiences to leave feeling more negative than when they walked in.
Yeah. That’s kind of what my act is railing against. It’s railing against all of the other forces that are making us feel bad. Look, I like to be aware. I read the paper and watch the news and I like to be up to date on stuff. But there’s a limit to being informed and being manipulated and made fearful so you continue watching. And there’s enough of that negativity out in the world. I don’t think my stand up act should be apart of that.
Let the other guys handle that stuff. And so much of your act does revolve around talking about your family. How does your family feel about the stories you tell onstage? Do they ever ask you to take certain things out?
No. My parents probably say it more than anyone. (Laughs). They hear it from their friends. My wife thinks it’s funny. And my kids I think don’t really pay attention. They’ll see it when they’re older. They’re too involved in TikTok right now to care about my act.
Now one of my favorite things to ask comedians about is who they appreciate, because I’m fascinated with the idea of a “comedian’s comedian”. And your name has come up before quite a bit by others. Would you agree with that assessment?
I don’t know. I’m always hesitant to think that way because that means you’re not as popular with the rest of the world. But it is meaningful to me and it does mean a lot to be respected by my peers for sure. And I am aware that I do get that from my peers, and I think it’s because I do truly work hard at it and I’m very dedicated to it and I really love the craft of stand up comedy. And because I care so much about it and work so hard at it, that’s probably where I gain their respect.
That makes sense. Who has gained your respect?
Oh there’s so many. It’s such a good time for comedy. When I started, there were headliners who would have a headline set and that was it. Once they got 45 minutes, they just ran that into the ground for their whole career. And now that people are having their stuff be put out there in a big way through streaming services, I’ve never seen comedians work as hard as they’re working right now. They’re pushing their material and their podcast. So I’m inspired by people like Bill Burr and Jim Gaffigan and Brian Regan, but I’m also really inspired by younger comics. They’re all pushing in different directions. There’s Chris DiStefano from New York, Mateo Lane. There’s just inspiring new energy from people who are coming up. I respect a lot of them. I don’t think you could survive anymore as a comedian who doesn’t work hard at creating new stuff all the time.
Right. People get bored so much easier now, with so many different options, that if someone doesn’t like you anymore, they’re onto the next thing.
Exactly. And even if they do like it they’re onto the next thing. Stuff is coming at you all the time. If you’re not creating stuff… And that’s why I’m on the radio, podcasts, I’ve got my second book coming out, I just did a couple movies. You’ve got this great opportunity. There was this time when you’d hear people complain that they didn’t have work. Well now there’s no excuse. You don’t need people to tell you whether or not you could write something or do something or film something. You have the power to do it. So it’s really up to you whether or not you’re going to take advantage of it.
And so through your radio show, even for a guy that’s done as much as you have, it must still be inspiring for you to sit down with these people who inspire you and have in depth conversations with them.
Yeah, and really the coolest part is most of these people I’ve had on the show I’ve known or I’ve seen at clubs. But as you know, when you interview somebody, you get to ask questions in a different way, and a much deeper way, than when you’re just hanging out at a club. So you get to ask people really in depth things like “What were you thinking back then?” Or “What were you feeling? What was it like getting off of drinking,” or whatever, it’s been a really fun experience. More and more so. I love comedy, and I didn’t think that this point in my career there would be things that would be taking me deeper into it and that’s what this show is doing.
I think it’s a very different vibe to listen to two comedians talk to another comedian, where there’s this sense of comradeship. Like it’s a break from speaking to civilians like me.
(Laughs). There’s a brotherhood because while there are a lot of comedians, it actually is a very small number when you really get down to it who are actually living this life. There’s kind of this unspoken bond.
And talking about the show you host on Sirius, Netflix is a joke, with Fortune Feimster, how do you go about finding the perfect co-host? Is that something you just know?
When they all asked who I would like to work with, her name was mentioned on a long list of people. I knew immediately because she’s one of those people that I could be around where she makes me funnier. Comedians when you’re around certain people they can make you less funny. And for different reasons, there’s an energy. And with her, whenever I would run into her, we weren’t friends but we were acquaintances and every time I was around her, I felt better and more fun and more playful. And I knew it would work, without a doubt. And it’s really proved that way. When you have that thing where you click with somebody and have that chemistry, you don’t have to work hard to get it going and it doesn’t fade away.
That makes sense. Is there a different part of your brain that you have to utilize when you’re hosting with someone as opposed to hosting your own show solo?
A little bit. It makes you listen more. It’s a slightly different thing. You’re still thinking about being funny all the time, but it’s more of a rhythm thing. Rather than just playing a solo now you’re playing a duet.
And let’s go back to your book that you mentioned earlier and is coming out in May. It is also titled You’re Doing Great. How much would you say from the book had made it into your special, or vice versa?
It’s a small percent that comes from the act. It’s more of a launching off point, because in a book you’re able to expand. It’s the same thing as with my first book, which was predominantly about family. There was some elements in my book from my act, maybe 10 or 20 percent that you’d recognize from my stand up. But in a book you naturally get to go much deeper and take on so many more subjects. A book is probably, I don’t know, six hours of material. The special is just about an hour. The theme is the same, though. The theme is one of “Let’s open our eyes and enjoy ourselves before we realize we’ve wasted our life watching TV”
And a very typical question to ask a comedian is what is the worst they’ve ever bombed onstage. But, going off of your positive outlook onstage, I want to know what is the best you’ve ever done onstage? Where you walk off thinking “This cannot be topped”?
Man, I don’t know. There’s so many. It’s always when I was performing and there was someone I was happy was there. Like when I would open for Seinfeld or Steven Soderbergh is in the audience, and to come offstage and have them compliment you sincerely on what you’re doing as an artist and comedian, I think the good feeling from those shows last a little bit longer.
And my final question for you, and I ask this of everyone, is what would you want your overall legacy to be?
Probably that I was a really good writer. That I wasn’t lazy, that I wasn’t trying to take the easy way out. And through my writing, I was trying to push a little bit further to almost get a little bit further down the road. And look, everything’s been talked about. Everyone’s talked about family, everyone’s talked about politics, everyone’s talked about everything under the sun, but if I do my job correctly, I’m going to add to the perspective that should be fresh. If it’s thoughtful and it’s honest, it should bring me further down the road.
Tom Papa’s You’re Doing Great is now streaming on Netflix.