Tom Papa is one of the most well-respected stand-up comedians in the country. Now, he’s the host of NBC’s highly anticipated Jerry Seinfeld-helmed The Marriage Ref.
A longer version of this interview was originally published on Punchline Magazine in July of 2007. The videos in the story are updated. Every once in a while, when the time is right, the editors of Punchline Magazine will re-publish an archived story… just to remind our readers we have tons of great interviews from the last four and a half years. Enjoy!
I always thought you had an old-school charm in your delivery.
Yeah, I’ve read a review like that once.
Are you conscious that you have that type of style?
No, I don’t really know what it means. [laughs]
I guess that’s probably a good thing. You don’t want to be too aware of what’s working.
Yeah, I just write the jokes and say them the way I say them. What makes you think of my comedy that way?
The first few times I saw you, you were dressed up a little bit. You wear ties. Or am I making that up?
No, sometimes I do.
So you may have had a tie on, and I was like, ‘Oh, this guy’s kind of old school; he looks kind of dapper, and he reminds me of a different generation of performers where it was important to be presentable.
Right, right. I never caught on to the t-shirt and ‘maybe-I-haven’t-showered’ look.
Right, the oversized leather wristwatch look.
You should maybe try it. You know, frost your hair a little, spike it out.
It’s really nothing more than I don’t look cool in casual clothes. You know what I mean? It’s too much to think like, ‘What, now we’re all doing retro t-shirts with some kind of baseball cap that’s frayed on the edges? Jeans made by who?’ To me it was just always easier to just grab a suit and go onstage.
A suit will always look good.
And I always thought it’s funnier to see a guy who’s coming out who looks like he’s presentable, then starts acting like a moron.
What would you say is the biggest difference in the way you perform now from, say, 10 years ago?
I have a lot more confidence now, and for me that translates into giving myself more room onstage.
And in your case, what does ‘more room’ mean?
I don’t have to be up there rapid fire, talking out of fear of being judged by the audience. I know what’s funny. And now I have the room or the courage to play with pauses, and be more relaxed, and let what happens in between the jokes be as funny as what’s happening in the jokes.
It’s funny you mentioned that. I definitely picked up on that when I last saw you at Gotham [Comedy club in New York]. You went through a series of jokes, and you slowed it down, made a few comments, talked to the audience a little bit, and then after a minute or two, you were right back into material.
It breaks it up a little bit, and it’s nice to have that uneven pacing sometimes.
Yeah I don’t want to be up there just throwing fastballs all night. It gets tiring to listen to that. You start to lose the importance of what’s being said, or the clarity of it all. So I throw a couple curves in, throw a couple sliders, throw a couple fastballs. It’s mixed up. It’s very lyrical, too. You want to kind of change it up.
Do you have a strict writing regiment?
I try and write when I wake up. I try to do it before I do anything else, before I read; it’s coffee and writing. Because once I get to the point of the day where I’ve seen some newspapers, I’ve had some phone calls, I’ve watched some TV, I’m a lot less productive. When I’m first up and I don’t really know what’s happened yet, that’s when I can get some writing done.
You try to do that every day, or does it matter?
I usually don’t do it on Sunday. Sunday I usually blow it off– and sometimes Saturdays. It depends how busy the weekend is. If I’m doing a lot of shows during the week, I may tweak a little something, but I don’t actually sit down for an hour or two and write. I usually blow those days off.
That sounds like a pretty dedicated system.
Some guys can just go up and wing it onstage and be brilliant at it, but I was never that guy. I kind of had to sit and get my head around it and then head out that night and work on it. I always find if I don’t sit down and look at it and work on it, then when I get onstage I just kind of fall back into old patterns.
Do you sit down with pen and paper or do you bang it out on a computer?
Pen and paper.
See, you’re totally old school.
Yeah, who knew?
I bet you don’t even use pen. I bet you use a pencil.
It’s actually a little stubby piece of rock and some slate.
That’s impressive that you have that kind of dedication. Which actually reminds me– why do you feel compelled when you’re headlining three shows at Gotham, to jam 10-minute sets at the Comedy Cellar in between your headlining spots? That seems psychotic.
I don’t know. I’m up, I’m out.
So Why not?
Yeah, what am I going to do? What else can I do between shows? Sit there and talk to somebody about the basketball game? I’d rather go do comedy. At Gotham I’m showing everyone the new hour or so, and then I could go down to the Cellar in between and work on my next short set, which is a whole different process.
I’d assume that most guys would give themselves a break if they were doing three one-hour sets a night.
Those guys are babies. [laughs] You know, a comedian’s life is pretty relaxed. I don’t know how much more relaxed I’ve got to get. That’s the great thing about being in New York– you can do lots of sets in one night. When I’m in the middle of Arizona, you do your set, and then you just sit up there and stare at the MC for an hour before you go on again. And try not to fall asleep.
You’re pretty much split evenly between living in both New York and Los Angeles. What kind of advantages does that give you?
It’s great because there’s definitely different influences and that results in people performing slightly different styles of comedy on each coast. You can see LA comics and know that they’re from LA for the most part, and New York comics and know they’re from there. Both have great aspects to it. So for me, it’s kind of good to mix it up.
A lot of people adhere to the generalization that New York comics are in it because they want to be comics and LA comics are in it because they want a movie deal. Do you find that’s at least partially true?
It’s partially true. I think that there are real comics on both coasts. And I don’t know any comic that hasn’t had some success in some other area that they didn’t take advantage of to then further themselves as comedians. You know, Chris Rock, Eddie Izzard, Jerry Seinfeld, whoever. Everybody wants to do something else.
That doesn’t mean that they turn their back on comedy. And there are some guys in LA who aren’t truly comics that get up and share the stage to try to host some reality show. But there are still a lot of guys in California who are true comics. Just because someone goes out on more auditions doesn’t make them less a comic than the guys in New York.
That’s very diplomatic.
Well, it’s true. I used to think that way as well, but then I got out here and found guys like Daniel Tosh, Paul F. Tompkins and Arj Barker. These guys are real comics. They’re not just out here trying to host the next round of The Bachelor.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Yes there is.
Is there anything bad about being bicoastal?
Anytime I’m in LA I’m needed in New York, and anytime I’m in New York there’s some big thing happening in LA. So that part of my plan is completely screwed up.
You mentioned Jerry Seinfeld. You guys are good friends, right?
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about comedy from Jerry?
How to be a successful comedian. You know, I was kind of adrift and I was doing my thing, but I never really had confirmation that writing every day and going up and telling jokes was really a good thing to do. And being with him, he kind of simplifies everything to just do the work, write everyday and the success will come.
When I met him it was like showing up as a freshman and seeing this guy who was like a grad student saying, ‘Yeah, this is exactly how I did it, keep doing this and you’ll be fine.’
You guys met while you were performing at a club, right? Or was there a connection before that?
No, there was no connection. It was at the Comedy Cellar. I never knew him. He saw me several times, and we just started talking, and had the same sense of humor, and became friendly after that. And then Colin Quinn was also around at the time and I think he quietly told Jerry I wasn’t an idiot.
That was nice of him.
Yeah. And then we just hit it off. We just really became friends more than anything else. It’s like being friends with somebody who’s also your mentor in a lot of ways.
And you guys constantly tour together.
Yes, we actually worked on Bee Movie together as well.
You have two daughters now.
Yep, five and two. I’m blessed amongst women.
And how does that generally work out for you?
Not very well. It’s like being invited to a game that you know you have no chance of winning.
Well, as long as you know that going in–
Yeah. it’s fine. You just try and figure out ways to cheat.
Does your five-year old understand what you do for a living?
Yeah, she knows. She has kind of a twisted view of reality, I think, because all our friends are comedians or actors, and everybody’s on TV.
Yeah, that’s going to be strange when she’s in second and third grade and starts realizing that everyone’s parents’ friends don’t have a TV show.
Yeah, she’ going to want to quit school pretty quickly I think.
You mentioned some comics you respect. Do you find yourself obsessed with knowing what’s happening in the national comedy scene, or do you kind of just ignore it because you feel it’s distracting to what you’re doing?
It’s kind of like this weird combination. I don’t like to dive too deep. I love comics; all my friends are comedians. But on the other side of it is that you get too mired into the who’s doing what and who’s got what and that kind of taints the fun of it all. So I like being abreast of everything, but I tend not to obsess on the business end of it.
I don’t need to get annoyed when I see some comedian I don’t respect selling out some theater somewhere. That doesn’t help my writing. That’s why I write first thing in the morning before I learn those things.
When you’re not doing something comedy-related, what are you doing?
Everything’s kind of comedy. [laughs] And then just, as Kurt Vonnegut said, a lot of puttering around.
Would you ever go back to working on a sitcom?
Yeah, I would love to. I just cut a deal last year to try to get something going. Working on a show is a lot of fun, and I would love to do it again. I’ve got a couple ideas up my sleeve.
Yeah? You said that very deviously.
It was supposed to be devious. That’s one thing I learned about being in Hollywood. A little devious never hurts.
For more info, check out www.tompapa.com.