There’s a loose divide in comedy today. A lot of old guard comics work in an observational, “Here’s something I noticed about society” mold, while many newer performers are highly vulnerable and personal—more of a “Here’s who I am and how I think” situation. (There are many exceptions, of course, but go with me!). The problem with a lot of this is that the old dogs sometimes don’t age well or move with society, so their critiques can seem at best out of touch and at worst harmful (transphobic/racist/sexist, etc). Meanwhile, a lot of younger comedians don’t resonate with more traditional audiences (anyone over 35/people who know what to do with corn). And then, somewhere in-between, surprisingly, is Tom Papa.
Tom Papa is a 51 year old white man from New Jersey. He’s been doing comedy for over 20 years. He has two daughters, a wife, and a good view of humanity. He lands on progressive views but he gets there in a 51 year old way.
In the opening joke of his new Netflix special You’re Doing Great—after saying hello and shitting on Staten Island for a little bit—he calls everyone in the audience fat. He then takes a turn announcing, “You’re fat cause you’re all winners.” He explains that we’re fat because life is good. “You wake up, it’s 72 degrees and snacky,” that “Ghandi didn’t look like that because he was killing it at Soul Cycle,” and then concludes we don’t have the body of an Olympic athlete because we’re not one: “You’re Don. From sales. You got a fat ass. You wear khakis, you hike’em up when you walk. We still like ya,” Papa says in his New Jersey accent. This is the classic Tom Papa joke: an unexpected idea coded with a relatable delivery, written in the best possible words. The relatability is one of his greatest strengths, which he somewhat jokingly acknowledges:
Paste: You’re incredibly relatable. I think you could say anything—I think you could say we should eat cats and the way you present it people would be like, “Alright!”
Tom Papa: That’ll be the name of my next special. Let’s eat cats.
Many established comics feel negatively about the aforementioned newer approach and are slightly pejorative, but we don’t get that from Papa. He seems to not only embrace different perspectives but even see them as helpful. “I think it’s a good era for comedy,” he tells Paste. “People are putting out a lot more stuff so it’s forcing everybody to write more, keep exploring, push further. I think that’s totally positive.”
Right now a huge divide between political parties, and in a larger sense the country, comes down to the idea of personal responsibility. Many conservative people are resentful of the notion that they should be responsible for someone else’s healthcare, or calling them their correct pronouns, or caring if they’re being murdered by the police.
The basis of the worldview this special sits on, and that we kind of happily soak in for an hour, is that we are all connected and together. Papa’s consciously trying to avoid the divisions that are rampant today. “The one thing I wanted to do in this special was be less cynical,” he says. “And I think that a lot of comedy is very cynical. And I don’t feel that way, I don’t live that way. And the other part, which became a little trickier, is also being sincere. Like, you don’t trust what a comedian says.”
The kind of unity and togetherness that Papa is aiming for might not be political, but it does skew closer to one end of the political spectrum. You could even say it’s a little progressive. So I asked Papa about that. “I sincerely believe these things and I wanna be less cynical,” he answers. “I like comedy, I like any art form, for me—it can be exploratory and it can be deep and it can get dark, but if you leave me with no hope at the end I’m not interested. And look, I pride myself on being about ‘we’ rather than about me. And I feel like that kind of informs what you’re saying about being more progressive or where do you stand politically, it’s more of a human—my take on humanity, really. It’s we. It’s all of us. And it’s kind of my job as a comedian to be observant of whatever it is I’m focusing on, and I focus on that. I focus on us as a family, not only my kids and my parents and my family, but my community and my country, I do see it all through a familial lens. And I guess if you approach it with sincerity and hopefulness and love, it’s going to seem more progressive, for sure.”
Being reminded that we’re all connected and exhausted together as we cycle through a variety of topics—the news, pets, Instagram (“It’s like being in a traffic jam with all your friends”)—has a persistently positive feeling. You end the special feeling optimistic and comforted rather than tired and cynical. When was the last time you felt like that? It drives home the point that we’re all each other’s responsibility because we entered this social contract together. And really, what’s the point of anything without human connection?
Julie Mitchell is a comedian and writer in New York.