Preview: Tom Papa at the Wortham Center – Houston Press
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October 5, 2022 4:30AM
Chances are you know Tom Papa. But where do you know him from?
The old-school stand-up comic has made many appearances in many unlikely places. He’s appeared on the couches of Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, had mini parts in Matt Damon’s The Informant and Behind the Candelabra and hosted several projects about baking bread (Baked with Tom Papa and Breaking Bread with Tom Papa) — but it seems like all this diversification is by design.
“I’ve thought about that on stage: Where do you people come from?” the 52-year-old dry wit muses with a laugh. “You can kind of tell, this is a Rogan fan, this a Netflix fan, this is a radio listener.”
With an appearance coming up at the Wortham Center courtesy of Performing Arts Houston on Friday, October 7, Houston is going to get to feel the excitement with one of stand-ups most even-handed comics.
Despite his many homes away from home, the stand-up stage is where Papa says he feels his best. “It’s the most fun, literally. The rush of standing on stage and doing that show, a laugh every 30 seconds. The shows are such a joyful space. That’s what you got to do.
“All the other, making movies or writing books, they have other aspects that are good and it’s cool to tell people you are in a movie. But on a purely emotional level, nothing beats stand up,” he says. “You’ll get that confirmation, you know. I’ll write stuff in a book and hope that they’re getting it. Then when you’re on stage and you get up and talk about trying to sleep in the same bed as your wife for 22 years and how you haven’t slept for half of it. And they laugh back at you – you feel less alone, I feel less alone, it’s a uniting experience.”
For the record, Papa was likely one of your last glimpses into the stand-up world when everything went into lockdown in March 2020. His special which dropped on Netflix in February of that year, titled You’re Doing Great, was one of the last tastes of recorded communal comedy goodness the streamer got for months.
Ironically, when his book published in May 2020, his title was similar but everything else in our world was upside down. “It was pretty insane,” Papa agrees. “There’s a slight difference in the title: the stand up was called You’re Doing Great, and the book is called You’re Doing Great and Other Reasons to Stay Alive. That took on a whole new meaning when the pandemic hit and everything went crazy!”
“At the time, it was frustrating. You want to go on a book tour and do your stand-up and meet all the people and have people get this stuff. All that stopped. What horrible timing, right? But now I’m on tour and I do book signing at the end of my show, and I can’t tell you how many people come up and say this book saved them through COVID because it’s all about perspective and when things are bad, you still should still be grateful. It kind of has this hopeful air to it. Somehow it found its way to people. I didn’t expect it to be a self–help motivational book and special. But that’s kind of what happened.”
Being back in-person has given Papa more than enough reasons to feel grateful – it made every old encounter fresh again. “It’s actually renewed [my enjoyment]. It’s given me such a greater appreciation. I used to just show up at the theater right before I go on, do it and get out of there. Now I go like two hours early. I hang around the theater. I go over my act. Really, it’s such a – you realize how cool it is. Why would I be in my hotel room when show business is literally right down the street and we actually have a show tonight.”
Yet on those days when the comic is not getting onstage, he has another outlet: Sirius XM’s weekday series What A Joke, hosted by Papa and fellow comic Fortune Feimster. Papa loves being live on the radio, but acknowledges the technological elephant in the room. “It is funny that everyone calls it a podcast too, we always laugh about that. I figure whatever they want to call it, as long as they are listening.”
The oft-viral show has become a great place to catch extended conversations with headliners like Nick Kroll, Jo Koy and Chris Rock, which can be insightful and laugh-out-loud funny. Has all this time in the minds of other comics impacted Papa’s own stand-up journey? “You’re probably right, but I haven’t really clocked it,” he admits. “You do get to see how different comics run their shows. More than anything we wanted the show to be a cool stop for comedians, like a central space where it’s all stand up comedy. I really feel like we’ve done that, like I enjoy that we are this little comedian oasis.”
With so many hours on air between stage, screen and audio, it’s a natural impulse to wonder what pit stop is most likely to convert someone into a Tom Papa fan. Are the people who watch him play games for seven minutes on Jimmy Fallon the same people that listen to him for hours on Joe Rogan’s popular Spotify podcast?
“I don’t know if they really have a relation anymore. It’s hard to tell what’s happening in late night,” he says. You know, the numbers are really going down as far as how many people are actually viewing the Tonight Show. But the clips that people watch, the just watch it in a different way. I was just watching Colbert’s monologue on Huffington Post this morning through Apple News on my iPad. You know what I mean?”
“The lines from late night to a podcast to a morning show to a stand up set – what are those lines anymore? We’re all just running our own studios and deciding what we’re gonna watch and when. I feel that with just putting my stuff out. I’ve realized it’s not my job to chase everybody down. It’s my job to make stuff put it out there and your fans will find it.”
Speaking of putting himself out there, beyond stand up – Papa will appear in the currently untitled Ben Affleck director film about Nike’s deal with Michael Jordan. “It was really cool,” he says. “I’ve worked with Matt [Damon] a bunch and I did a TV pilot with Matt and Ben, but I was directed by Ben before but I quickly saw why he’s an Oscar winning director. He was so good and clear and got it and energetic. It was like: I get it. When you see those two guys you quickly realize, their whole lives have been making movies! You don’t have that kind of success if you’re not great.“
Excitingly, one of Papa’s best friends in business is also helming his first movie as Jerry Seinfeld has jumped in to direct a film about the invention of the pop tart. While Papa is mum on whether he might seen in the film, he acknowledges two facts about his friend Jerry. “Yeah, he loves pop tarts. And yeah, I did a bunch of projects with him and he’s kind of similar [to Affleck]. He’s super professional, knows exactly what he wants. And then will make like the silliest joke and have everyone cracking up. It’s always comedy first with that guy.”
While he doubts Seinfeld will spend the next 30 years only directing films (“I doubt it, he always seems to do a big project and go back to stand up unless something really excites him”), Papa is not against the idea of directing his own movie one day. But with pop tarts off the board, what other piece of dumb minutia might be the perfect candidate? “Maybe bread,” he deadpans. “I don’t know how exciting it would be. But these breads that just came out of the oven are pretty sweet.”
Thankfully, Tom Papa is the master of the multi-task.
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