Tom Papa’s Human Mule: Optimistic, Positive, With an Undercurrent That Things Are Wrong


tom papa human mule

Tom Papa has more than 20 years behind him in his career as a stand up comedian, and his experience, confidence, and skills are very visible in his brand new hour stand up special which will premiere this Friday, December 9th on EPIX. Human Mule– his third hour special- was filmed in one of Tom’s favorite cities to perform in- Cleveland- and it’s a genuine breath of fresh air, covering topics unique to Tom, and delivered in Tom’s signature persona. I talked with Tom about the new special, his subversive undercurrent, and why he chose to head to Cleveland to record his hour.

A few things you should know about Tom before we get started. Obviously, he’s funny. You don’t get three specials into a career without knowing how to make an audience laugh, and hard. He’s also smarter than most of us. He’ll say he’s a regular guy, and talks about sweating too much and eating nachos and hating kale, but don’t let that fool you. Tom’s got a solid handle on life and the universe, and he’s got the sneakiest way of feeding it to you without preaching or making you feel like you’re eating vegetables. Tom’s special plays like it’s all dessert, but underneath the whipped cream, there’s a lot that’s good for you. He’s got a lot to say.

The other thing you might not notice at first glance is how subversive Tom’s comedy can be. It’s observational, and fun and light at its surface, but Papa goes much deeper than jokes about airline peanuts. This special is full of interesting and surprising analogies, and it’s quite provocative. When Tom told me he had just welcomed a new dog into his family- mostly Labrador retriever, and part rottweiler, I told him that was amazing, because that’s exactly how I would describe his comedy. He didn’t disagree. “That’s very good,” he told me. “That’s perfect. It’s also a lot more chaotic than it seems from the outside.” He said Dana Carvey once described him as a “Disney face” who could say awful things, but people think it’s really nice because it comes out of that Disney face, and it may well be part of the reason Papa gets away with being dark in his comedy without seeming dark. But it’s definitely more than just his appearance that allows him to go to such unique places.

His style, he told me, naturally evolved over time, and comes from talking about his own life. That helps him to keep his material fresh and unique. “There have been people that have talked about family, but there’s never been a Tom Papa that talked about his family, in his perspective,” he said. “The only way that you can not end up hacky, or re-tread, is to really dive in as much as you can. Get as deep as you can into whatever your experience is. Try to uncover everything you possibly can to talk about. It really just came from a point of just trying to write really, really honestly. I guess that that’s just what emerges.”

Some of Tom’s topics seem familiar, he’ll talk about Disney and Whole Foods, but it’s when Tom dives head on into some more social issues, like the quest for cash and status that runs rampantly through our culture in 2016 that things get really interesting. He has strong views about wealth, for example, that run through the hour. “Part of it seems like it’s a sickness in the culture,” he told me. “I tour around a lot. You go to areas that don’t have a lot of money, and all the people are spending their free time walking around the mall. It’s like, why are we all shopping? If you have money or if you don’t have money, why are we all inside of a mall? We should be doing other things. There’s other things to being a human being than trying to get cash, to buy stuff you don’t need.”

He jokes that he could easily live a poet’s life, but has kids in his house who are “greedy capitalist pigs,” and that’s a jumping off point for taking on the topic. I asked him how he handles those issues at home with his own kids. “You have to constantly reset their values because everything they see, from TV shows, to kids on YouTube, to music, everything is about getting more. You have to constantly reset them that the world isn’t just this one giant online shopping experience.” His answer is to constantly remember it’s okay to say no. “I really think that it’s a constant culture of yes, and to hear no, I think is the most valuable, even if it doesn’t make sense, in any practical terms. If they ask for something, and it’s not a lot of money, I can give that to them; it’s not a problem. It’ll stop this argument in two seconds. You have to just throw all that out the window, and just say no. Walk them to the car, and let them be unhappy. It’s a very strange, strange culture that we live in.”

All of this subversiveness is wrapped in a beautiful package, and Tom chose to film it in a city that might surprise some– Cleveland. It’s a rust-belt city with a reputation for having seen better days, but whether that’s true or not, the city boasts a vibrant comedy community. And Tom says he chose Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre to film Human Mule because he has developed a real affinity for Cleveland and its audiences. “I would always go back to the same club, Hilarities in Cleveland, and I built up a real following there. There’s a mix of young people and older people, and working class and white collar. It just seems to be this big mix of everything. I just really always loved going there. As someone who grew up in New Jersey, I know what it’s like to grow up in a place that people have a lot of jokes about,” he said. “There’s real reasons for those jokes. I think maybe that’s why the audiences are so great. They have a sense of humor about themselves that a lot of fancier places don’t have. I just felt like this would be a great little mile marker in my career, to shine a light on this city that I really keep going back to, and really, really like.”

It’s definitely optimistic. It definitely is positive, but there is an undercurrent of things that are wrong, and that’s okay. I feel like that’s what my act was saying. I feel like that’s what Cleveland represents.

He’s not joking or paying lip service either. The opening to the special is a beautifully styled love letter to the city filled with landmarks, and women in summer dresses, and a real mix of all the things that make up the city of Cleveland from vibrant neighborhoods filled with shops and bars and theaters, to other areas that are closed up or run down. “That’s the sweet, melancholy mix,” he said. “I was inspired by the opening of The Last Waltz, by The Band.”  The music that accompanies the opening will also ring familiar to fans of the Last Waltz.  “There’s something about that waltzy tone that it’s sweet, but it’s melancholy.”  The open is more than just an add on, it sets the tone for the hour, and is a perfect fit for Tom’s persona. “I think that’s what a lot of what the act is like,” Tom agreed. “It’s definitely optimistic. It definitely is positive, but there is an undercurrent of things that are wrong, and that’s okay. I feel like that’s what my act was saying. I feel like that’s what Cleveland represents. I wanted to try and capture some of that. If you and I were the only ones who noticed, that’s fine. That’s exactly what I was trying to pull off.”

The sense of style Tom exhibits in the short opener continues throughout the hour. In an era where so many performers prepare for their special by choosing a favorite pair of jeans and t-shirt, Papa’s sense of style is unmistakable.  In addition to the open to the special, he has a set design on stage that is somewhat nostalgic, including a writer’s desk and typewriter, and he’s dressed in a suit and tie. It’s a bit nostalgic, but he describes it as classic, and says that helps to keep his performances from coming across as dated. “Whenever I would see specials of comedians who I really loved or that they shot in the 80’s, it really looks dated when you see it 20 years later. When you see things that are classic, that are just timeless, I guess timeless is actually the better word for it. Even my material, I don’t really talk too much about politics or what’s happening in the news just today. Because, that’s not going to last very long.”  He’s trying to tell a more universal story, he says, and so creating a timeless feel with the setting seems more fitting. With all his specials, he was aiming to ensure that when you look at it, you can’t pick out what year it was shot.

Tom’s appreciation for classic things extends offstage as well.  “When I sit down in the living room, the first thing I put on television is Turner Classic Movies. It could be some movie from the 30’s that I have no idea what’s going on, but just to watch how people interact for a little bit. There’s a civility. I know it’s movies, but just to see civility and people speaking in a mannerly way… And it’s filled with wit, and with depth. There’s something about that that I definitely wrap myself up in. That definitely is a huge part of my influence. Maybe I was born at the wrong time.”

When he was younger, he admits to paying more attention to his grandparents than his parents. “I loved watching the World War II adult generation. I liked the way they handled themselves. They were funny. They would sit, they would drink at the end of the day. They would have a cocktail. There was always something smart, and funny being said. I just liked their music. I just liked the whole rhythm. It seemed like what they were doing was all figured out. You know what I mean? They knew how to operate in adulthood.” That’s not to say he thinks everything was better then. “There was a lot of things that they did wrong,” he was quick to point out. “They weren’t very nice to their children, or their wives a lot of times.” But the surface elements- a cocktail hour with Sinatra in the background, a “let’s sit and talk element”, and dressing up appeals to him. “All of that just seemed to me like these people know how to be an adult. Even as a kid, I really always aspired to that.”

Again, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not, Tom’s given me another metaphor for his hour- stylized and fun, and yet full of awareness that not all is right in the world. But there’s also a very calm attitude running through the hour, that we don’t have have to live in a perfect world, and we don’t have to panic when things aren’t the way we want them to be.

“I totally live in a very optimistic way, but that doesn’t mean that I have these high expectations for it. You know what I mean? It doesn’t mean we all turn the volume up to ten. I’m very optimistic. I think there’s a lot of beauty, and good things in the world. I think if we get up to about a seven or an eight, that’s probably as good as you’re going to get.”

Tom Papa’s new special, “Human Mule” premieres on EPIX this Friday at 8pm, and you can see him on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Friday December 9, and on December 13 on Conan.

Watch a clip from the special below, where Tom talks about how great it is to cancel plans.

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