Not so “Freaked Out,” Tom Papa finds his voice, makes bolder choices in EPIX special

Tom Papa‘s new one-hour stand-up special, Tom Papa: Freaked Out, premieres tonight on EPIX HD (check your cable listings or go online to watch).

While many Americans and others around the world might feel freaked out due to the global economy, national politics or local issues, Papa seems cool, calm and confident. So much so he decided to make his special truly special, and also retro, going back in time with director Rob Zombie for a late 1970s look and feel to “Freaked Out,” complete with flashing, colorful lights and a troupe of dancing ladies.

Here’s a clip, in which Papa discusses the power of opinionated gay men.

Papa sat down with The Comic’s Comic earlier this week before a live recording of “Come To Papa,” his SiriusXM radio program, to talk about his stand-up, his other passion for old-time radio sketch comedy, and about finding his own voice and confidence as a headlining stand-up comedian.

Papa was texting Joel McHale as we spoke to see if McHale could drop in Tuesday night to perform in a sketch for “Come To Papa.”

After checking in with Papa on his picks for the “Fantasy Comedy League” for Jim Breuer and SiriusXM (apparently, that league’s not even a thing seven months into the year any longer), Papa lets me know that hiring the dancers wasn’t also just a fantasy brought to life.

“I do these things with Rob Zombie, because I want to make them more of a film. I want to have it be special. You know. And the last one I did, ‘Live in New York City,’ (available on Netlfix Instant) was so sparse. Just me in a black suit, black theater, spotlight, very simple. It was good and classy, but since then, I’ve been kind of — the whole reason I went with ‘Freaked Out’ as the theme for the thing. I think that people are freaked out. I think everyone’s nervous. And we’re living in a very nervous time, and I don’t really believe that’s the way we should be living. We should be celebrating! Having a good time. Living for the future. There’s a lot of great stuff going on. There’s a lot of amazing things happening. We shouldn’t be freaked out. We should be fun freaked out. So Rob and I were talking this through, and I said, ‘I want to celebrate it! I don’t want to just walk out in a T-shirt and just not care.’ I want to enjoy that people gave me money in show business, and I want to use that money. So we came up with the idea of, when’s the last time people really kicked ass and had fun in show business? I always liked that late ’70s, early ’80s kind of vibe. That’s why the set is very gonzo, Gong Show.”

It’s very reminiscent of like Match Game, too.

“Yeah. Donny and Marie kind of thing. Blown out. Fun and light, and dancing girls. A Vegas kind of thing. Have girls come out. Set the tone. Be sexy and flashy. And then come out…so really, the short answer is, it’s a celebration of show business more than it is a fantasy of girls.”

The retro choice is just a personal preference, then, and not a conscious message?

“It’s a design choice more than anything else.”

Because when I think about the 1970s and comedy, I think about how the Norman Lear hit sitcoms of that era were so bold and wouldn’t fly on network TV now. You come out and right from the start, your first declaration hits the audience very much like something the late George Carlin would do. Let’s talk about the Chinese. “All of them.” Which was a hallmark of Carlin. To come right out of the gate swinging.

“Yeah, fuck Lance Armstrong.”

“All the Chinese.”

“I have to say it wasn’t really because of the material, the ’70s stuff. It was really a design, presentation, being more confident and owning a creative choice, is really what it was. Not being so timid, and hiding behind your material. Be bold. Be out and in front of it. Be proud of it. Hopefully, the material from my last special to this one, I am going in some new directions. I still have that base where I want to talk about my real life, which is my family, my wife and my kids. But I’m trying to relate it more to a bigger picture.”

Well, the material itself feels bolder from you now than even a couple years ago. Telling the audience, you know what, I’m going to talk about how gay men are more vicious than women. Or how I raise my kids, and let the other kids call her “shit mouth” if she won’t follow my instructions. Not that you were afraid of what the audience would think of you before, but it really feels as though this hour, you’re saying: ‘Guess what, people. I’ve got opinions and I’m not afraid to share them.’

“I think that’s a natural thing with comedians, and I am one of them. With confidence comes freedom. I’ve always been confident, moved along, had some success. But I don’t want to just stay at what’s made me successful. Like, ‘OK, I just did my last special, so let me just make five of those. I want to, wherever I’m at in that moment, have the freedom and the confidence to just go, whatever direction it was. It could have been spacecrafts or a space set, or who knows what. But that’s what I was feeling at the moment. Just be bold about it. And own it. Have the freedom to just do it. And that means the material and the presentation and the whole thing.”

You mention personal growth. You could find plenty of comedians even in this day and age who’d be content and comfortable to just be Jerry Seinfeld’s opening act on the road.

“Right, right.”

Just have that be their thing for 20 years. But you took that and said, ‘I’m going to be the TV host. I’m going to be the big, flashy guy with the colorful set and the dancing girls.’

“I always looked at the thing with Jerry as being the greatest blessing of my career. Because I met this amazing guy at the height of his popularity, and he takes me under his wing, and he’s going back to stand-up. And the opportunities, just between the live shows and learning about how to be a comedian, learning how to carry yourself and how to work, it was reinforcement of everything I thought I understood but didn’t know. Then you see this guy, it’s like: Oh, writing all the time does pay off. Carrying yourself a certain way does pay off. All these things are really good, and it was a real blessing and the money was good, too. Because I’m opening for him on all of these dates, going around the country, and I was making a lot of money. But I was always conscious of, I didn’t want to be that guy, that just was Carlin’s (or Seinfeld’s) opening act. You can make a good living at that. But I’m not just in this to make a living. I’m in this to explore and see where it’s going to take me artistically and have fun with it. You’ve got to be your own guy. It’s almost like moving out of your parents’ house. I’m ready. I can do it. I’ve got the rent money. But it’s so nice here. They really like me. They like having me around. I’ve always been conscious of where I want to go, so it pains me not to go out with him as often, just because we’re friends. So we always try to keep a date on the books just so we can have a great weekend. But I have to go out and have my own Tom Papa dates.”

What would you say was the most important thing you learned about yourself as a comedian from working with Jerry?

“I think I learned my instincts were kind of confirmed of how I wanted to do this. You know, when you start out. I’m pretty clean. I work a certain way. I bring stuff to the stage, but I rewrite it. I write all the time. I do that stuff. But then you see Dave Chappelle, or you see Dave Attell, or Mitch Hedberg, you see Eddie Izzard, and you think — that guy says he never writes down anything his pad, that guy says he just comes up with stuff on the stage. Whether it’s myth or not, you get confused as a young comic. Am I working the wrong way? And by luck, I met a guy who was the tops in the industry who worked very similar to the way I was working as a young comic. So I think the thing I learned about myself was that my instincts were OK. That I was onto something. I was approaching it the right way.”

What is a lesson, then, that other young comedians can take away from your experience? Because a lot of young stand-ups ape or imitate their comedic heroes. Ten years ago, there were plenty of young Mitch Hedbergs and young Dane Cooks.

“Yeah, tons.”

What’s the secret of breaking through that phase to find your own voice?

“I think honestly it’s just time. A lot of guys show up, and there were a lot of Dave Attells, too. At a certain point, guys either really have something, they get confidence and they’re able to just be themselves, and the Dave part wears off and leaves the act. Then the guys who don’t ever find it, or don’t have it, you don’t see them that often. So I think it’s really just time. Everyone’s trying to be an individual. No one’s showing up on the scene because they wanted to imitate somebody. Most guys show up because they’re funny, they get around and they’re like, ‘Holy cow! That guy’s so creative. I want to be like that.’ I went through about a week when I was doing Dave Attell when I first passed at the Comedy Cellar.”

Really. Can’t even imagine or picture you as that. A Dave Attell version of you.

“Because he was on after me, the first week I worked at the Cellar. I was like, ‘Oh!’ So I just tried to be dirty. Tell dirty jokes. The crowd was just looking at me thinking, ‘We don’t know who you are, but we know you’re not the guy you’re showing us right now.'”

I wasn’t consciously ever trying to be Attell, but when I did open mics in Seattle at the Comedy Underground in the 90s, I was a newspaper reporter and going onstage looking like I did as a reporter then, with button-down shirts and bow ties, and then writing and telling dirty jokes. One night, Ron Reid pulled me aside and said, ‘What are you doing? You can’t tell jokes that! You look like you.'”

“I was going to say, when you first asked me the question, you need someone to slap you out of it! You need someone to come up to you and say, ‘You’re doing Hedberg!’ You know.”

You’ve got the “Come to Papa” throwback radio hour. Paul F. Tompkins has the Thrilling Adventure Hour. It used to be everyone wanted to be the next Johnny Carson, but secretly, does everyone now want to be the next Garrison Keillor?

“I love Garrison Keillor. Always have since, I don’t know, college, whenever I discovered him. I always thought, how cool would it be to do a Garrison Keillor show but in the hands of comedians rather than humorists.”

Or just other than Minnesota types?

“Right. So I’ve been doing this ‘Come to Papa’ where I interview all these people. It’s fun. It’s great. But it’s not that creative. So I started thinking, why don’t I do the Garrison Keillor model, but from the comedians’ perspective. I’ve got to tell you, it’s the most fun I’m having right now. The response from people. It’s the only thing I’m doing that I’m not trying to push into something else, and it’s just growing on its own. You know what I mean. Just as a result of people liking it and wanting to do it. The audience really likes it. Comedians really love doing it. I write the whole script in the week leading up to it. That part’s really rewarding. It’s just a blast!”

Does that help relieve any self-internalized or outside pressure that might make you feel forced to look for another TV hosting job or submit to pilot season, because you’ve got Come To Papa?

“I feel like I still need the public to know me more. I still need that exposure. I just (Tuesday) shot a scene in Chris Rock’s new movie. And I did (Behind the) Candleabra, the Liberace movie. So any of that stuff is getting my name out there, so people will come to my shows, whether it’s my stand-up or Come to Papa, that’s the ultimate goal. You want people to come to shows that you can put on on your terms, and not have to be in a place for a week and not making that much money. So it’s not pressure. Well, it is pressure. It’s pressure because you want to get your name out there. It’s pressure because you want to be bigger. But, what’s cool about now, it’s stuff we can generate ourselves which can end up bringing that exposure.”

That’s what Patton Oswalt talked about in Montreal last year. You don’t need the gatekeepers.

“It’s all changing…That speech was so great.”

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t to get too watered down, and do a little radio, and a little acting, and a little hosting and a little stand-up. I don’t want to get thin in all of that. You want to keep your eye on the ball as much as you can. You know, it’s hard. Up until a certain level of success, people always ask, ‘How do you pick your projects?’ For 90 percent of people, it’s whomever says yes! If they yes, you’re doing something. You’re not picking. Johnny Depp picks. George Clooney. Matt Damon. Those guys are figuring out what they’re doing next. The rest of us are waiting for the phone to ring. So. I don’t know. As long as I have the stand-up as a base, all the other stuff is kind of gravy.”

Here’s another clip, in which Papa visits the Post Office.

Is this hour from “Freaked Out” out of the act already?

“No. No. I shot in April. I hate talking in terms of the hour or the half-hour. It’s starting to drive me crazy. Because I don’t think, I don’t like quantifying stand-up in that way. I was just in a gig last week. Someone said something in the audience, which popped off an old bit from before my last special — two specials ago — it was just this little chunk that I went into. Which I never do. It was even hard to remember what was coming next. And it killed. It killed. And I was like, these people have never heard that bit. They’ve never heard that bit. And bits get better over time. They just get better over time. So for me, it’s more of a balance of great shows. You’re always writing. Writing every day. Some days you get creative, you get bold. Other times, you can go a year just cranking out shit. I’m not going to put out a special a year just to put out shit and be part of the new hour club. George Carlin put out a special what — every two years. There’s no one on the planet more brilliant than that guy. So who are the rest of us to think we’re going to do it every year? That’s arrogant. It’s arrogant.”

It’s the culture that’s crept up. I don’t know how much podcasts have contributed to that, where comedians think, they’ve already been talking and broadcasting so many hours already.

“Maybe. We also live in a time where people are digesting your stuff so much faster. There was a six-year gap between my first album and my second one, because I didn’t think — I thought that’s how long it took for stuff to get great. And you know. There’s some truth in that. Some stuff it does take a while. But the public, in six years, is like, where the hell are you?”

So that’s a case where, is the pressure self-imposed or from the outside. Louis C.K. certainly, when he decided to follow Carlin’s model and release new specials, had an impact. To now it seems every comedian feels the need to put out a new record every year.

“Louis busted it open, for sure…You can be more patient. I think what Louis did was great, because he woke everybody up. The days of being Jay Leno and living off of your act for 30 years is over. And if you’re not aware of that, you’re going to die on the vine. So it was a really nice wake-up call. But then, everybody’s got to make that personal. You’ve got to either say, ‘I want to do it every year, but it takes me every three.’ Or other guys will say, ‘I’m going to do it every year, because I’m a guy that just improvs.’ Everyone’s got to make it personal. But why would we, because one guy kicks open the door and shakes things up, why are we going to all act like that guy? Back to that original thing — you were asking about guys imitating Hedberg and Attell — why would you 10 years in, 20 years in, start imitating someone else, the way they work? It’s crazy!”

“The whole key to comedy for me was learning a lot about it, and then forgetting what everyone else was doing. And that’s when I really started to grow. When I stopped being in the hallways and watching Dave Attell, and watching everybody else. Because it was making me crazy. And you’re suffering, looking back, you’re suffering from not being independent and being yourself. That’s such a key to being a great comedian. So I learned a lot. I loved watching my friends. But you’ve got to find your own path. That’s all I’m trying to do.”

Tom Papa: Freaked Out premieres at 10 tonight on EPIX HD.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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