Tom Papa is a comedian and character actor known for his polished, besuited stage presence and wry observations about modern life and his family. After being discovered by Jerry Seinfeld in 1993, Papa traveled the world as the sitcom star's preferred feature act; Seinfeld then tapped him to host NBC's The Marriage Ref. Along the way, Papa appeared on such late-night touchstones as The Late Show, Conan and The Tonight Show, and ably hosted standup showcases like Gotham Comedy Live and Just for Laughs. Papa's acting resume is thick with roles on shows including Inside Amy Schumer and The Knick, and films ranging from Analyze That toThe Informant! and Behind the Candelabra. His two specials can be streamed on Hulu and Netflix, and his latest hour, Tom Papa: Human Mule, debuts on EPIX in December.
Westword caught up with Papa in advance of his headlining engagement this weekend at Comedy Works South to examine his relationship with auteurs like Rob Zombie and Steven Soderbergh and talk about Come to Papa, the name of both a canceled sitcom and his weekly podcast.
Westword: What’s your history with Comedy Works? Have you worked there before?
Tom Papa: I have. I’d say that for about ten years, maybe twelve, I’ve come there all the time. I’ve done the downtown one and the Landmark one, where I am at this time. When you first start out in comedy, you play every single place that will say yes to you. And then at a certain point, you get to start picking places that you like to go to — and Denver makes that list for me.
You’ve appeared in a lot of Steven Soderbergh projects, including The Informant!, Behind the Candelabra and The Knick, in roles that aren’t overtly comedic. How did you come to be a part of his reporatory?
I just straight-up auditioned for him for The Informant!, a movie with Matt Damon. I just did a regular casting call with a bunch of other people, and I ended up getting the part. And that was it: Once I’d done that — and it’s like this with everyone who works with me — he just fell in love. And he asked me to come back.
That movie was interesting because there were a lot of comedians in the cast, but Matt Damon got most of the laughs.
Tommy Smothers actually played my father in that movie, and when he came on set he literally came up to me like, “Can I ask you an honest question? Is this movie a comedy?” If Tommy Smothers is asking you that.... But it was a really cool thing; Soderbergh thought even though it was written straight, he said that everyone in the story should be a little off-center. Everything in the whole story is a little off-balance, and he was smart to populate the movie with comedians, because comedians all have that naturally off-kilter energy. Patton Oswalt, the Smothers Brothers and all these great people were in it. And it really does work, because you never know if the guy’s telling the truth or not, and it kind of helps keep the viewers on their toes. And thank God he did it, because if I was just walking in for a straight part, I probably wouldn’t have gotten it.
Are your standup instincts an asset or a liability when you’re performing in a more dramatic role?
I think they’re an asset. Unless you’re someone who’s freaked out by acting, which I’m not, I think it is an asset. Because the one thing you have more than anything as a standup is confidence. If you’ve done it for a long time and learned to survive, you’ve gotta be fearless. You’re so tough from playing in front of horrible crowds and weird situations, you really come away with a level of confidence that most performers don’t have. So then when they throw you into a scene where you’re opposite Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, you’re not gonna freak out. You can still be yourself.
Do you have to ignore the impulse to go for a laugh?
No, no. But I do think when I watch some comedic people trying to tackle a really serious role, sometimes they can’t pull it off even if they’re a really good actor. Because their face is just funny, you know what I mean? Comedians have a thing behind their eyes that is just goofy. You can play it serious, but a majority of comedians will have a little tongue-in-cheek distance.
A lot of them are also just weird-looking.
Yeah, exactly. You became funny as a child because you knew you weren’t going to be a leading man. If you’re a funny-looking dude, you gotta work that angle.
Over your career, you’ve developed a reputation as a consummate emcee on a variety of shows. What are the unique skills required to be a good host?
I’ve always said that when I first started doing standup, hosting actually helped me improve as a comic more than anything else. You have to actually talk to the crowd between acts, and you have to be yourself. You have to be yourself, but then when you go into a joke, it becomes so obvious that you’re no longer being yourself and that you’re doing prepared material. Being a host teaches you to merge those together, so you can tell your jokes while talking as naturally as we are now. If you never host, I don’t think you really ever figure that out. I mean, you can, but being a host makes it happen a lot quicker. My act is more organic and about my life, so it lends itself well to being a host, I guess.
Your most recent special, Human Mule, premiered earlier this year.
It comes out in December. We shot it earlier this year.
My mistake. So anyway, are those jokes pretty much retired now?
Not entirely. Honestly, until you’re one of the top three most well-known comedians, I think it’s kind of arrogant to think that when you walk in to do a show somewhere that everyone has seen your stuff, you know what I mean? I could break out a joke that’s one of the first ones I ever wrote, and if the situation that I’m in calls for it, it’ll be the biggest laugh of the night. So, I feel like while you do always have to move ahead and keep writing new stuff, it doesn’t mean that there’s some unwritten rule that I can never tell that joke again. There are jokes in the special, which I recorded in July, that are better now than they were for the recording. Because it’s still growing. Some jokes take five years before they’re great.
I think that unwritten rule comes from comedy-nerd journalism. Because of Louis CK, now everyone is expected to burn their material every year.
Yeah, but what do they really know about comedy? Really? Unless you do it, there are some things you’ll never understand. I take a lot of advice from Jerry Seinfeld, and he rails against that idea. He doesn’t understand how people can think a joke is ready after only doing it for one year. He’s been doing comedy for forty years, the guy has a real instinct for how comedy actually works. So I’ll listen to him more than some guy with a blog.
What do you think of the preponderance of think pieces about comedy? On the one hand, it’s good that people are interested in comedy, but it kind of saps the joy out of it when there’s like fifteen different essays about an SNL sketch.
I literally just opened something online that says, like, “All 140 SNL cast members ranked.” Ugh. How awful is that article? I’m sure there’s somebody out there who had a great time at SNL who ‘s gonna look at that article and be like, “Oh, they put me at 120.” You’re right, there really couldn’t be anything worse for comedy than overanalyzing it. Because it all means nothing. It doesn’t mean anything beyond performing for those people on that night. It really doesn’t. You can have some snarky guy who can rip apart some mainstream comic who they think is goofy, and they can make their case for that, but it still means nothing to that guy’s fans. They love him because they love him, and that’s true for every single comedian. I mean, God bless you, everyone needs a gig, but you’re right: Writing about comedy analytically completely saps the joy out of it. Unless I read something really great about myself, in which case I take back everything I’ve said.
You definitely lose the purity of the stage, whether something’s either funny or it’s not. Though I guess I’m contributing to it right now.
Yup, here we go. I do think that some people have a really good sense for it, and it is kind of refreshing when you read something by someone who really understands comedy. Because that’s very rare. Even comedians are struggling to understand it.
So, to segue back to the interview: Where do you go to try out new material? Do you work it out on tour?
I do like to work it out in town before I go on tour with it. Because you’re always working stuff out, but you know when people are paying to come see you on a Saturday night I feel like I want to make sure that I really give them a show. I don’t think that they’re there because they want to see me work stuff out. So when I’m in New York, I work everything out at the Comedy Cellar, and when I’m in L.A., I’m either at Largo or the Comedy Store.
Your prior special, Freaked Out, was directed by Rob Zombie —who seems like an unconventional choice. It makes more sense when you see the game-show aesthetics and wardrobe, but how are you guys even in the same orbit?
Well, I’m a badass rocker. Everyone kind of gets that vibe from me when they see me perform. We were just friends. We first worked together writing an animated movie called The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. He asked me to star in it, and then we spent the whole summer together writing it. He loves comedy and he’s a really good filmmaker, and I didn’t want my special to just look like any other special on Comedy Central. I wanted to be distinct, so we decided to collaborate on it.
You’re in regular contact with two auteurs.
Yeah, if you don’t have a lot of talent, then it’s good to have friends who do.
What was the fate of your NBC sitcom Come to Papa? What did you take away from the experience, and would you attempt something like that again?
Yeah, for sure. That was the first time I'd ever done anything. I did my first set on Conan and they pretty much gave me a shot at this TV show. It was fun — fun to work on it, fun to do. It was the first time I learned how any of that works. Then unfortunately, NBC changed presidents just as my thing was being decided on. This happens a lot where the new guy wants to go with his own stuff, so we got cut after six episodes in the summer. And I knew at the time that I could either be really bitter about that kind of thing and never try again, but I like this process too much. Sure, I would have loved to have gone on to be Ray Romano, but like most people, I had to keep going on to make the next thing. Any chance I get to be on television is still so much fun. I feel lucky every time that happens. So it stung a little to be canceled at the time, but not to the point of doubt. I knew then that I was going to keep going. And the cool thing about being a comedian is that a month after NBC canceled my show, I walked through the same doors to go do a set on The Tonight Show. You can't get rid of a comedian that easily.
Are you still doing live episodes of your radio show/podcast that is also called Come to Papa?
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Yeah, I wasn't about to just let that name die after six episodes.
Too good to let go.
Exactly. So, yeah, I still do a live show every month. It's a classic radio play, kind of like Prairie Home Companion. We just recorded a Halloween episode that should air this week. I love doing them, I love writing the scripts and then having comedians come in and perform them. Because comedians aren't going to die, even if I write a bad sketch. She's not gonna bomb because of my bad writing, because she's going to add whatever she needs to make it funnier. There's comedians, live music, and then there's sketches that we write. And we'll have Jim Norton or Bill Burr or whoever act in these sketches. The weekly episodes are more an interview format with my co-host and fellow comedian Paul Morrissey.