Tom Papa is bringing classic showbiz style into modern comedy. His Sirius XM show, Come to Papa, features both long interviews with comedians and a monthly scripted show in the style of an old-fashioned radio comedy. His latest Rob Zombie-drected standup special, Freaked Out, is also an homage to variety shows of the past, complete with a brightly colored set and dancing girls. I caught up with him in Montreal at the Just For Laughs festival to talk about making his special stand out, doing jokes about his kids, and bouncing around the New York comedy scene.
How did you get involved with Rob Zombie? I know he also did your last one.
We became friends years ago, through mutual friends who brought him along to see my standup. That same mutual friend had a wedding, one of those travel weddings where you’re there and you don’t really know anybody. Rob and I kind of knew each other so we just hung out the whole weekend and became really good friends. And then he had this idea for an animated movie he wanted to do, El Superbeasto. It was like this big Mexican wrestler, a big dominant guy, and he thought it’d be funny if I was the voice of it. And then we ended up writing it together. We spent all summer working together and it was a blast. He’s a big comedy fan and we just had so much fun working together, when I was doing my first special, I was kind of thinking out loud about it and he was like, “I’ll do it. I would love to do it. I’ve never done a special before.” And he’s done all his movies, of course, and lots of music videos. I really wanted it to have a real film look. I wanted it to be special. Being with a guy who’s artistic and thinks that way and on the same wavelength as I was, it just worked. So when I was doing the second one, I didn’t even ask anybody else. I was just like, “Let’s do it again.”
It has a sort of old-school variety style. Was that your idea?
Yeah! I just liked all those design elements. We both were talking about how there’s a trend in show business to not give a shit. Everyone comes out on The Tonight Show in a t-shirt. It’s just this kind of boring attitude. We were talking about how, when we were kids, you wanted to get in show business because it was fun and bigger-than-life and exciting. So let’s make the special like that. Some people are giving us money to make something. Let’s make something. So we created this crazy, Gong Show-like set and the dancing girls and the whole thing. It just felt fun and fresh. And also, the title of it is Freaked Out. I feel like we live in a nervous time and everybody’s very cautious. It was like, “Let’s go back to the time when you could celebrate and be confident and enjoy yourself.” That era means that to me.
You talk about your kids a lot. How much do they know that they feature in your material?
Now, they’re eleven and eight, so they’re aware of it. I think they like it. They don’t really get a lot of it. Like now I’m working on this new joke about them traveling, wheeling their own luggage, and what a great thing that is because I had to carry their stuff my whole life and now they’re just wheeling their luggage. I was, like, crying at the gate. But they’re horrible packers. I assume because they have this suitcase, they’ll know know what to put in it. And you get on vacation and the only thing in there is a Curious George and some magnets. [Laughs.] I came home and I’m like, “I’m working on a new joke about your guys’ suitcases.” And you can see in their eyes, they kind of dig it. But I am aware that they’re listening, which is kind of a strange thing. I’m aware of what I say now because they’re digesting it.
Do you think there’s going to be a point where you have to pull back on talking about them?
Yeah, I think I’ve got to be careful. They’re girls. I don’t want to start talking about them dating or them with guys. I’m very conscious of them being able to just be women without my judgment as a father, so why am I going to do that publicly? That’s gonna get weird. The only other part that I really think about is drugs. I want to be careful about any kind of flippant drug talk that they can misconstrue as “Oh, he thinks it’s okay.” Even doing the special, I make a point to say what an idiot I was. And I even say, in kind of a goofy way, “Don’t do drugs, kids.” Or something like that and that’s because I know they’re listening. That’s the scariest one. What’s weird, too, is we go to LA and there’s pot shops all over. They’re like, “So you’re saying that drugs are bad, we’ve been hearing that our whole lives, and now it’s next to the Baskin Robbins? What’s happening here?” [Laughs.] It’s kind of confusing.
And how did your Sirius XM show come about?
I started because I was in New York and after I did The Marriage Ref, I was like, “Well, what other New York things should I be doing? I’m here.” So I went into Sirius XM and drummed up the show and it was great. I interviewed a lot of really great people, like [Jerry] Seinfeld, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Rob Zombie, Ray Romano, Alec Baldwin, and all the way to Dave Attell, John Mulaney, Marina Franklin, and Kathleen Madigan. It’s just this great mix. And what’s cool is when you interview people, even if you know someone really well, you don’t really know everything about them. Even with a lover, you never say, “So, what were you thinking when you walked into that…?” There’s always information; that’s the most intriguing part to me. We can really learn stuff from these people and ask them things that you normally couldn’t. And then I started doing these live shows.
Those sound amazing. How did they come about?
It’s great. I always loved Garrison Keillor. I love A Prairie Home Companion and I always thought to myself, what would it be like if it was in the hands of a comedian? Populate it with comics so you’re really playing for laughs all the time. So I created this showroom. I have a band, we do it at The Village Underground with this really top-of-the-line jazz trio, and I host it. I have an old-time announcer. It’s like a classic radio show where you have a theme. I write the whole thing, it’s a 40 to 55 page script, and they come on holding their scripts, just like a radio show. There’s a live audience. Jim Norton’s a regular on it. William Stephenson. All these great people and we do some sketches, then people do standup in between. We have music. Dave Hill was on the other night doing music. Joel McHale came by and he did a sketch. Matt Damon did the one before. And it’s just grown, I really love it. I love the writing of it. It’s just a real creative, fun thing. And being around all the comics is so great and they love it. They all love doing it because they don’t get to really perform like that which each other that often. A lot of times when you develop stuff in this business you have an eye on, maybe I’ll make this into a TV show. Maybe this’ll lead to something big. What am I gonna get out of it? This thing, I’m just purely having a blast doing it and, of course, that’s the one thing that’s growing faster than anything else in my career right now.
It’s interesting that you were talking about the range of comics that you have on your show. You’ve been in New York for a long time and you seem to have embraced the variety of the scene there at the moment.
It’s great. I was on the van coming in from the airport, and I was with this girl, Sam Martin, who’s doing New Faces: Characters. She’s just out of school and it’s just such a cool thing to me that there’s constantly new, creative people coming in to New York to do this stuff, from all these different places. And it’s always evolving; someone’s always starting a new room. She was naming a couple rooms I’d never even heard of and that’s where she’s doing her thing all the time. And then you got all these established places like The [Comedy] Cellar, Carolines, and Gotham, and then you’ve got UCB. I find it so incredibly diverse. What I really like to do is bounce into all of them. So I can go be on Opie & Anthony, which is completely their thing, and then to go into UCB with those guys. I feel if I can keep going, bouncing around in all those places and making it work then it feels like I’m doing something.
And what’s next for you? Are you doing any more acting?
Yeah, I just did a thing in Chris Rock’s new movie, which he’s shooting in New York. Scott Rudin’s producing it and it’s kind of an homage to comedy. Chris plays a character, based on himself, who he starts doing dramatic work. He’s a comedian and he goes off the rails and becomes famous but he kind of goes in the wrong direction and finds his way back to standup.
So I feel like I’ve got a little momentum going with that and Behind the Candelabra. But it all just feeds back to my standup. The goal for me, whether it’s the radio show or film or TV or any of that stuff, is just to get the name bigger so people can come see my standup on my terms. Rather than going and playing some club that I don’t want to be at for three nights, I can just go into a city and do one night with people that want to see me. And that’s started, but I feel like I need a little bit more before it’s really on my terms.
Tom Papa: Freaked Out premieres tonight, July 26, at 10 PM ET on Epix. He can be found on Twitter at @TomPapa.
Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider. She barely has time for Twitter anymore.