Tom Papa couldn’t have been blessed with a better name. On the phone from his home in Los Angeles, he’s warm yet playful, jibing me gently about living in Portland, Oregon (“Ohhh, aren’t we lucky? Aren’t we living the life?”) but also wise and resolute about his lifelong pursuit of laughs. Like his belief that the methodology that most comedians hold to, that when you film a TV special or record an album, all that material is tucked away, never to be heard from again, is foolish.
“I don’t create my stand-up just for specials,” he says. “I feel like you’re always working on these jokes and you’re always getting better at them. An act for me is always evolving. And as much as you want everybody to see your stuff, there are still people coming to see you perform who haven’t seen anything. To not be able to tell any version of a joke because it was in my special? That just wouldn’t be nice to the public.”
Papa does seem like a nice guy. He’s got soft features and a friendly open face. He seems to be in a perpetual state of bemusement at his own luck that he gets to tell jokes to strangers for money. And the jokes he tells are of the same old school, working class bent of folks like Tim Allen and his buddies Jim Gaffigan and Jerry Seinfeld. In his latest stand-up special Human Mule, which premieres on Epix tomorrow night, he has fun with small absurdities like coloring books for adults and people bringing small, skittish animals on airplanes as service pets.
Mostly, he shines the spotlights on his own failings and foibles. His lack of sex appeal, his crummy eating habits (lots of nachos), and his messy efforts trying to raise two daughters. Yet even when you hear him explain that he shouldn’t be trusted to pick up his youngest daughter from gymnastics because all he’s thinking about is which one of the moms he would sleep with first (“Not which one I would have sex with because I’d have sex with all of them”), there’s still this urge to invite him over for a home-cooked meal or come to him with your problems.
The affable spirit that Papa projects in person and onstage is key to the longevity of his career. It’s what helped endear him to Seinfeld, which led to gigs opening up for the former sitcom star around the world, as well as landing him multiple guest spots on The Tonight Show. And it’s what has made him an ideal TV host on shows like The Marriage Ref and Boom!, the strange short-lived quiz show that involved defusing bombs filled with mac & cheese or hot fudge.
He also makes for a great everyman in movies and TV shows, able to comfortably play parts as varied as a turn of the century medical equipment salesman (The Knick) and part of Liberace’s retinue (Behind The Candelabra). They’re small character roles that never get top billing, but represent the kind of work that Papa is willing to take on.
“I never really go out and audition a ton,” he says. “I’m not against it. I love acting but I don’t consider myself only an actor. It’s more fun for me when people say, ‘Hey we want to put you in this part.’ That sounds worth it. I don’t have it in me to get in the car and drive down to Santa Monica for two lines in a Pepcid ad. I’d much rather be working on the sets I’m going to perform that night.”
Work is what he does best, and what he’s doing a lot of these days. Like a proper comedian, he has a podcast, Come To Papa, that he produces every week featuring interviews with his fellow funny people as well as occasional scripted Prairie Home Companion-like variety episodes. Right now, he’s also working on a book and some television scripts. That’s all in and around his regular stand-up dates and his busy home life.
“I always aspired to write a lot,” Papa says, with a laugh, “but lately it seems like more than I asked for. There’s so much to do right now that it’s overwhelming. That’s when you end up just cleaning your desk. I didn’t write a word this morning but everything is in neat piles now.”
Up next is a busy run that includes spots on Colbert and Conan as well as recording a holiday special edition of Come To Papa. And early next year he will be back on the road, hitting theaters throughout the U.S. Between the two? “I’m going to completely unplug. I’m going to stay at home and bake a lot of sourdough and sit under the Christmas tree.”
Is it that easy to just turn the switch off? “No, it’s not,” he says. “I have these fantasies as I’m getting super busy: ‘Oh I’m going to have the 18th until January 1st off and it’s going to be great!’ But two days in, I know I’ll be, like, ‘I should go to the Comedy Store and do a set or something. I’m going crazy!’”
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.