Focus on Comedy - Catching Up With: Tom Papa

The latest standup-turned-sitcom-actor, Tom Papa is the writer, producer, and star of the new NBC sitcom Come to Papa, debuting in March. In the semi-autobiographical program, he plays an East Coast reporter trying to make it as a comedy writer. "He and his wife are trying to make it to Hollywood," says Papa, laughing. "But they're probably going to be stuck their whole lives in New Jersey." The real-life Papa always had television in mind but spent the last 10 years concentrating on his standup act. "I always figured that [standup] was my first love and anything good would come out of that. So while I always knew that TV was going to be the place where I'd end up, I wasn't going to push it and come out earlier than when people wanted me."

Under the influence: The first comedy album Papa ever listened to was by Steve Martin; one by George Carlin followed quickly thereafter. "That was the first time that I ever got the concept, 'There are some grown-ups that do this?'" Papa recalls. "From that point on, it was growing up watching every comedian that I could." He describes his own style as very "observational"; he speaks frequently about everyday life with his friends and family. And how do they feel about being included in his act? "They always think I exaggerated or made something up," he notes, laughing. "Sometimes they're right, and sometimes they're not."

Another person who continues to influence him even today is Jerry Seinfeld, with whom Papa tours regularly. Seinfeld discovered Papa in a comedy club, and the two became fast friends. "For the last three or four years, we've been hanging out, going and doing shows, and it's been, No. 1, a great friendship and, No. 2, an amazing, amazing learning experience," enthuses Papa. And does he ever go to Seinfeld for advice on the television world? "I don't know what I would have done if I couldn't call him and ask for advice on everything. Every day something comes up, and you think, what the hell is this? And you start panicking. But then you realize it's no big deal. It's like having the best coach in the world available."

Funny business: Asked if anyone can learn to be funny, Papa quickly responds, "No. There's a lot of people running classes and making a lot of money off of it. You know, we just did an episode with a lot of 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old kids playing baseball, and I sat in the audition, and as these kids came in, it was so clear you're either funny or you're not. At age 12, there were certain kids who came in and just had it. When you were a kid, there were always those kids who made you laugh. You really can't learn it." In addition, Papa emphasizes that there are no shortcuts to learning how to do standup. "You just have to write and perform," he says. "It's an endless loop, and every once in a while you think there's a different way around it, but there's no other way."

Although there are many different kinds of comedians, Papa doesn't look down on any medium his peers may use, including that of prop comics. "There are some things that aren't my taste, but a quick thing you learn is that everything works because there's an audience for it. The guy with the props, he probably can't stand up there and just talk to the audience, so he plays [by using] his strengths. When you look at it that way, how can you fault him? He wants to be in the game; he's pleasing a certain audience."

In addition, comedians can often be the toughest critics. "Even if you do a good job, you're nervous about it because comedians can see past that," says Papa. "A bad comedian can do a great job, but then you walk out into the lobby, and he's standing there, and he's going to know if it's really good or if he just tricked the audience. And when another comedian says it was really good, you think, 'Ah! Maybe I'm doing something right here.'"

Good versus evil: Asked what the best perk of his job is, Papa doesn't hesitate. "It's such a cliché to say, but it's when you're getting paid and making a living doing something you would be doing anyway that you just really love. Just doing what comes naturally and making a whole career out of that is amazing. You can lose that perspective at times. Every once in a while we'll be doing something like walking around Hawaii while I'm on tour, and my wife will say something like, 'Thank you, comedy.'" And the worst part of the job? "Having everybody come up to you and say, 'You should hang out where I work! My family, that's where you'll get material.'"

A special day: According to Papa, one of his biggest breaks came when NBC saw him do a set on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and sent someone out to talk with him about getting his own show. "That was June 12, 2002," says Papa. "I know that because it was—exactly to the day—the eighth year that I had been doing standup."