Tom Papa has a taste for classic simplicity, both evidenced in the look and feel of his third hour-long special, Human Mule – which premieres tonight at 8PM EST on Epix – as well as in a literal sense with his recent and very public obsession with bread. For Tom, his comedy and his love of bread are actually quite similar. “There’s something about a thing so simple being so powerful that really makes me happy.” In Human Mule Tom stakes his claim as a working man, a family man, someone trying tread water as comfortably as possible in a churning sea of cultural and societal noise. Tom recently called me from a hotel in New York to discuss the new special, the power of bread, and how being quieter in a world full of screamers can actually help you be heard.
Does your family ever join you on the road?
Once in awhile. I try not to go out for too long, maybe two weekends a month and try to get back as quick as possible. I was like that before I had a family. I didn’t like the life of being on the road forever. If it’s a good gig, I know it’s going to be a nice hotel, and I won’t be working too much, I’ll try and bring them along. But that’s always a bad idea. I mean they’re great people, but when you’re working…people think that when you’re on the road, “Oh, that’s a great city! You should go to that museum and go eat at this place.” It’s like, “No, everything is about the show. I’ve got two shows, one starting at 7:30. The whole day is, ‘When am I going to go over my notes? When am I going to eat? When am I going to nap?’” That’s it.
You filmed your Human Mule in Cleveland this past summer. Why did you choose Cleveland?
I really have a fondness for that city. I really like the people. I’ve had a good following there for a long time. It’s a great mix of blue collar, white collar, young hopeful people who are sticking around, people who have stuck it out. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a great mix for me. I felt like it would be a great place to document this part of my career, in a city where comedically I’ve had such a great time.
What do you mean when you say this part of your career?
Each special is kind of mile marker. When I did my first album I just had a baby, I was just becoming a father. If you’re an active comic and staying relevant then you’re writing all the time. As the years progress your act progresses. I see a special as, “Okay, that was that part. That was those three years.” This is the latest chapter and I felt like Cleveland would be a great place to tell that story.
I was looking at your social media and – while I’m not qualified to make an official diagnosis – it seems that you have a real obsession with bread. You’re making your own bread, taking pictures of places that serve bread while you’re on the road.
A friend taught me how to make sourdough bread. It’s this very unique, ancient, original way of making bread from this natural yeast that’s floating around us all the time. I was intrigued by that and started making it. It opened up this whole new world. There’s something about this simple process of making this simple food for your family. It just kind of caught on. I love doing it. It makes people happy. Then I started talking about it on podcasts and posting…the amount of response I get rivals my comedy. People are sending me breads they’re making, asking me for recipes, tips. It really has taken on a life of it’s own. There’s something about something so simple being so powerful that really makes me happy.
Let’s get back to the special. The stage set-up looks great. It had an old-fashioned feel to it.
It’s funny…when you bring it up, it’s kind of like the bread is almost a part of it. I’ve been gravitating toward a simplicity that I think is a reaction to all of the noise that goes on around us all the time. I have this approach artistically right now to just boil things down and make them as simple and enjoyable as I can. I find pleasure in those things. There’s power in that. When everyone is getting loud I think that going a little more quiet is a powerful move.
One theme that comes up a lot in Human Mule is class. You talk about the difference between where you’re at compared to the super-rich, but also you look down the ladder, examining your position in life. Why were money, status, and class such big themes for this special?
I think it’s driving people crazy. People in our society look at other people with money and everybody thinks, “If I can just get somewhere else I’ll be happy.” The reality is the direct opposite. If you can make yourself happy where you are, that’s the key. There’s no need to stress about getting bigger, better, more. But the culture is set up that way. I really feel like if people just lower their expectations a little bit and simplify things a little bit they wouldn’t be so frantic. They wouldn’t be screaming at each other on the streets. I’ve been around long enough, around people with a ton of money and living on a futon with my friends and I can honestly tell you that there is very little difference. There’s a point where you want to make money, be comfortable, provide for your family, and take care of your health. But after that, it’s all BS.
Do you think that being in entertainment creates an added pressure in you? When you’re looking at other people who have had certain successes, or had a big thing that they got rich off of, do you ever feel that “keeping up with the Jones’s” feeling within your career?
Yeah. A friend of mine was complaining about someone who got a TV show that he didn’t respect. I said, “If you’re in insurance or sales there’s always someone in the office who’s doing better than you that you don’t respect.” He said, “Yeah, but in those businesses they don’t have to see that guy’s face on the side of a bus.” I think that’s the difference with show business. It’s not a private struggle. It’s very public. You have to teach yourself early on not to care about what other people are doing. I only care about myself. The only drive I have is to be noticed by more people. As long as my audience is growing, I’m able to have a relationship with my fans, and that that fan base is always growing, then I feel like I’m on the right track.