Tom Papa is not only a great comedian, he’s also a consummate writer and proud of it. When I sat down to talk with him in the lobby of a beautiful NYC hotel about his brand new book, he was excited to talk about writing- but not just writing his book- all the forms of writing he dives into- and there’s a lot to talk about. Just months after finishing writing a fantastic comedy book, Your Dad Stole My Rake, he’s also writing for his own radio show, Come to Papa, the NPR radio show Live From Here (successor to Prarie Home Companion), his upcoming Food Network series about baking, and of course, stand up. Most people would take a break after writing a book; Tom has five jobs going strong, all involving writing, and he loves it. “They’re all great. They’re all fun stuff. I’m not taking any gig that I don’t really enjoy right now.” He didn’t necessarily plan to take them all on at once, but when you pitch things, he said, you can’t always control when they’ll be greenlit or if they’ll be greenlit. “There’s not a moment when I’m not writing,” he told me. “It’s non stop. Gotta just squeeze it all in,” he said.
The book itself is our favorite comedic offering of 2018 so far. It’s really funny and so relatable to anyone with a family. And like so much of Tom’s stand up, it works on a “light and fluffy” level for those just looking for a laugh, or those who enjoy some 70’s nostalgia; but there’s real depth behind the stories exploring what has changed in the family structure over the course of three generations (his parents, his and his kids), and what hasn’t. It’s also a Papa family memoir told through anecdotes, and they’re such great stories.
“I had a build up of all of those stories and all of that stuff, and I had thought about certain parts of my childhood as a screen play, and I’d always thought about things of like, maybe this was in a TV show, but none of those things really panned out or were written that way,” Tom explained. “So when I sat down to write about families, each chapter is based on some member of a family, a mother, a father, a cousin, whatever. And in italic, like the beginning of the chapter is my personal view on it. Then as I started writing it, it was like using my family as examples started to come into it. So it wasn’t just the beginning of a chapter that was me. It was also other parts that was my family and stuff. There was no plan, basically. That’s just kind of how it happened.”
The book emerged from a build-up of material that Tom had been collecting but felt he couldn’t quite express through stand up. Performing stand up, he explained, “you can only go so far with a certain narrative because you’re always playing for the joke, and it’s got to be short. It’s got to be distilled down. You can tell some stories, but you’re not going to go into a whole story about flying a kite with your grandfather. Or fishing with your grandfather.”
Beyond the anecdotes and stories are some lessons that we can all use. For example, one of the throughlines of the book is a message that in 2018, everyone needs to just relax, and stop panicking. It’s an attitude Tom says he tries to maintain in his own life, something he credits his grandmothers for teaching him. “I was around a lot of positive thinkers in my family. It was a big family… on my father’s side, this Italian, big mess of a family, led by a grandmother who was positive thinking.” While his father’s mother preached positivity, his maternal grandmother lived it. “Just like, it’s okay, you’ll get over it and just go to church and don’t overthink things. Everyone had that mentality of don’t overthink things. That generation, I think, had that mentality. Don’t overthink it. That’s why I’ve never gone to therapy.”
His simple advice is that you can just be yourself. “All this other stuff that’s torturing you like what friends are thinking of you or girlfriends you’re trying to get with … All this stuff is just so angst filled, I was like, this is all meaningless. It’s all kind of silly, so why would I torture myself?” It came from very positive thinking people around me who said, ‘Life is really to be lived, not analyzed.’ I think that’s the base of it.”
Writing the book proved to be therapeutic for Tom too. It changed how he feels about writing. “When I was writing stand up just for my act, it was kind of like going to the gym. It was a little bit of- Yeah, it was like, “Ugh, I got to go do this now.” And even though he would say he wrote every day, there were times he would fall out of it compeletely. “Months would go by where you think you’re writing, but you’re not really,” he said. “You’re just looking at your notes on your way to the club. But then when the book hit, or I got contracted for the book, then I was like, ‘Alright, someone’s waiting for this now.’ Then I was working, really writing hard.” Before he knew it he was 300 pages in and editing.
He learned his process while writing for his radio show– Come to Papa– and has since extended into all his writing. And that process, for Tom, is “Get it down on paper.” Even if it’s horrible. ” I could either sit there and worry that I have nothing, or I could just start spitting it out. And if you can just spit it out and write a horrible sketch, and write another horrible sketch, and another horrible sketch, now I’ve got something I can start to play with. And this is the same as the book. Same exact thing as stand-up, same exact thing as the book.” The spitting out method, he said, takes the pressure off. “You know its garbage, so you can just go to the end and start chipping away and make something out of it.”
And he did it all solo. Tom swears he didn’t show what he wrote to anyone to get feedback until he was done. And for a stand-up comedian who thrives on feedback from an audience to hone their material, that’s a new experience. He says he used to bounce jokes off his wife, but she was too harsh a critic. “I was like, “She doesn’t think that’s funny?” And I brought it up on stage, and I’m like, “Well, the audience thinks it’s funny.” So then I just stopped running it by her. For whatever reason, our dynamic doesn’t work that way. So no, I don’t bounce it off anybody. But really, the radio show was the thing that taught me how to just spit stuff out and then go to work on it.”
Tom’s writing in the book works so well as storytelling that he could have tested the material on stage but he says he didn’t do that either, and he has no plans to use the book as stage fodder now even though his good friend Colin Quinn (who turned his own The Coloring Book into a brilliant stage show) advised that he should. “I was like, “I don’t know. It’s the book,” and he was like, “You’re an idiot! You have all this material. Why not put it in?”
Although he admits it could work as a tour, for the moment he’s content to leave the book…as a book. “It’s kind of its own thing. I really do kind of feel that way. My act is that book thing anyway. It is kind of the book. I am talking about everyone and everyone’s family, and there might be a couple things I could pull out. But more than anything I just got into this really disciplined way of writing.”
Now that the book his behind him he’s enjoying the writing he does for his weekly “Out in America” monologues for the Live From Here radio show. “It’s my report from the road of shining a light on all the good people in America,” he said. And for Out in America, he’s enjoying writing about other people for a change. “I’m really, for the first time, legitimately keeping my eyes and ears open for people’s conversations, and I’m talking to people everywhere I go. I’m just like, “Say, what’s up?” and just to get them talking.”
And he’s doing it without a targeted agenda or message. “I find if you don’t have that, if there is no message and you just have Carol from Chicago and Don from the taxi, and then you try and put a thing on it, it always falls a little flat.” If there is a message, it comes from the people he writes about. “I’m just reporting back on these people and their funny stories, and that kind of just kind of has meaning on its own. And they’re funny. Like a lot of them are just … the way they talk, the way they … I’ll just write little phrases down that people are saying. Some guy was saying, “You know, we’re gonna just go down here and chuck a u-ey.” I was like, I haven’t heard that in 30 years, chuck a u-ey. Yeah, so I’m just trying to capture any of these things that people are talking about and putting them into it.”
Although he admits that some of his addresses are fictionalized, it’s all coming from what he’s hearing around the country. “You just want to hear these voices. I think that’s really the heart of it. You just want to hear what these people are.”
And when you’re interested in hearing voices, traveling everywhere helps. He’s been all over the country with “Live From Here”, and zig zagging to other places for his new Food Network show which hits up different cities. His Come to Papa Live Show alternates coasts with shows in New York and Los Angeles, and of course his book promotion tour has taken him to a whole different roster of cities. And then there’s stand up- which remains Tom’s first love and top priority.
Before I left Tom to go back to planning his insane travel schedule- and by the way true to his word, he was amazingly calm for someone who had so many flights coming up in the upcoming week- he shared some quick thoughts.
Follow Tom Papa- pretty much everywhere. He’s touring his stand up, traveling with NPR’s Live From Here, his new Food Network series visiting bakeries around the country starts later this summer, keep an eye out for it, and catch Come to Papa Live in both Los Angeles and New York City. But most of all, check out his new book, Your Dad Stole My Rake, which may be the perfect summer read. It’s in stores now.