Tom Papa talks working with TV legend Jerry Seinfeld, HBO's Behind the Candelabra

After grinding out his act in New York and getting the golden touch from the King Midas of comedy, Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Papa's career is on fire. Papa has been touring the country with Seinfeld for well over a decade now.

He also went on to host the short-lived NBC series the Marriage Ref. Tom has two one hour comedy specials under his belt, and he will be seen alongside Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in the HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, directed by Steven Soderbergh in May.

Papa will be performing several stand up shows at Chicago's Mayne Stage this Friday, March 22nd (1328 W Morse Ave. ) Tickets.

You started your career at Stand Up NY, what was it like starting at that club?

They had these things called "bringer shows," if your friends agreed to pay and sit in the audience, and buy two drinks, you could get onstage for five or ten minutes. I was just dragging my friends from New Jersey in, like twice a week, and you would start to see you're running out of friends with money, and you're going to lose your stage time.

What was cool about Stand Up NY  back then, was it was a pretty hot club, and there were a lot of really good acts coming through, and the owner was always involved. He saw me, and I would always do well in the "bringer shows," so I quickly got moved to hosting the regular shows.

That's when I realized how quickly you can kind of rise up in stand up, because I was just starting out and I was hosting a show with Brett Butler, Jon Stewart, and I'm on the same show with them. To do this in film or television would take years, and people saying that you're allowed to do it... And here I was, just because I was available on that Thursday. I'm on the same stage, getting the same laughs as these guys. So it was really, really exciting and a great place to work out.

Is working the Comedy Cellar a big deal to comics over there, with all the club's history?

Yeah, it totally is. You talk to young guys who haven't passed there yet, and you talk to guys who've been working there for a long time, and it hasn't changed from when I was the younger guy coming up. It really just is a super, special place. It's special not just because you are now told that you belong, but now you're on every night with all the best acts in New York, which are the best acts in the country.

Just to be a part of that, you grow so much faster, you learn so much faster, it's just a really special place. And now I live pretty close to there, and just to be able to walk through and go on and do a set, it's like my second home. New York real estate is so valuable, now it's like I expanded my apartment.

Where did you first meet Jerry Seinfeld?

The Cellar and Stand Up NY. It was one week where each time I was on, he happened to walk into the club. I would see him come in, he hadn't been up onstage yet, he was just scoping things out, seeing what was going on. So I arrogantly was like, "Let me show him a new joke," like I was going to fool Jerry Seinfeld with how much material I had. One night I came up, it was actually at Stand Up NY, and that's where he first said that I was very funny, and that was it. It was like someone in the mafia making you.

Was that right after you started?

Yeah, I guess the show (Seinfeld) was going off the air when I was starting. It was funny, because I was hustling, so I didn't get to see that much of the show because I was always getting spots and trying to work. I think that kind of made it easier for me to relax when he came around. People were freaking out, and I was like, "Oh yeah, Jerry has that show."

What's it been like opening for Seinfeld?

I think at the beginning, you're a little freaked out about "How are they going to receive me?" I learned very quickly, that these people are paying good money to come see this comedy show, and they want to have a good time. If you just go out and you're funny, it's the best gig there is.

So I quickly learned that the intimidation of  "Oh, I'm the opener, they don't want to see me," that goes away real fast. It's not like opening for a band. Like, "We're here to see Metallica, and this guy comes out with these jokes about his family." So it was great, I learned a ton. Now that I'm busier, I don't have as much time to go out with him, but we still carve out time to go do it, just because we're friends and normal guys go off on their golf weekends... this is what we do.

Was it intimidating at the beginning before you two became friends? 

Yeah, it definitely takes a little time, but he is a regular guy. He's super professional and there's an intensity to him about his work that is different than being around other guys. At the heart he's a comic, and he grew up in the New York area, which I did and we relate on so many more levels that the super stardom of it is a smaller part of the whole relationship.

I think it was harder for other people in my life to digest it and really hang with him. You hang with him and it's just like you hanging out with your friends. It's hard to be intimidated by somebody when they're making stupid jokes about breakfast or whatever (laughs).

Do other comics give you a hard time about your relationship with him?

If we're all ripping on each other, once in a while they'll say something like, "We're all going to so and so's for a barbecue, Tom do you want to ask Jerry if he can come?" We all have that stuff, it's like making fun of Jimmy (Norton) for putting Opie and Anthony on his HBO special. It's like we're all kids.

With that little group in New York, when you're getting ready to go do your show, you're not thinking about your jokes, you're thinking, "What are the guys going to say about these pants." Those guys are such ball busters.

How do you get Rob Zombie do direct two of your comedy specials?

Rob and I became friends when we wrote the script for this movie The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, an animated feature. When we started working on it, we just spent the whole summer at his house just laughing our asses off and writing the script. He's a big comedy fan and I'm a fan of his music and his films, we just became friends, and professionally we became partners. So when I was going to do my first hour long special, I really wanted to make it more like a film, I didn't want it to be another "lights up, set up the camera for Comedy Central, I really wanted it to feel like a film.

He's a film director and he was like, "When are you doing it?" And took out his book and we just did it. Even when we were doing that one, we were like, "What are we doing next?" So it was natural to have him do the one I just recorded last week. It was just so great, you have a real film maker, you have a real vision, and we make it happen. The new one is called "Freaked Out" and it's coming out on Epix and Netflix.

What was the best moment of your career so far, looking back?

When you look back at it, there's so many moments where you run into amazing people: Clint Eastwood, or Soderbergh... When you look back on what was really a special moment, as far as the career goes, I think it's walking off that stage and having Jerry Seinfeld say that he thought I was very funny. From that moment, there was a real shift. That's when I knew one of the elite guys saw something in me. He becomes a friend and a mentor, everything got shifted into high gear from that point.

After he tells you you're funny, how long is it till you're opening for him?

Probably a year. He started at clubs, he was just doing clubs in the New York area, and asked if I could do it. He told me he was working on a set and was going to do theaters. He was talking about theaters like I knew what he was talking about, and I said, "I've never done that." He said, "Oh really? That'll change." So it was about a year then we went out and did a couple clubs, then theaters, and he hasn't looked back.

The Marriage Ref seemed to do very well, why did it go off the air?

You look back on why things go away and you can only kind of speculate. I think the biggest problem was... I swear I don't go a single day where I don't get five tweets, or Facebook messages, or people coming up and asking, "Where is it, when is it coming back?" Because they really were into it.

The biggest thing I think, because there were a lot of moving parts, everything was getting ironed out... I think what really happened was Leno went off the air, he was being pulled off from his prime time special, that's going off, and the network is panicking. We were just supposed to start on a Sunday night, a little comedy show that slowly builds. They start freaking out that Leno is leaving, and they come to us and say, "We have to put you on Thursday, at ten o'clock." And the producer said yes to that.

I think that's where everything started to go wrong. Because then they were desperate and started promoting it like it was the best comedy show, the second coming, Seinfeld back on NBC, and it wasn't. It was this little family show. I remember, during the Olympics they were shoving it down people's throats, and it was too much. When people start getting forced fed something like that, they recoil.

By the time it came out, people were just ready, and if it wasn't the best thing on Earth, they were going to rip it apart. It got a lot of bad press, and the new executives came into NBC, and they had this show that everybody ripped apart. We were doing well in the ratings, we were the best thing they've had since, but there was too much stink on it from the press. And when executives get nervous about that kind of stuff, and you're deciding whether or not you're going to put your new job on the line, it's tough to make that call I guess.

Was it disappointing having it go off the air and did it illustrate how hard it is to make a TV show last?

I've had several things on TV, and guest roles on things, and it really would be fun to have a hit. Once you have a hit, things turn so positive so quickly. It is a lot of work. It sure is. Especially when you're pushing something up that you don't have the real support on.

As much as it is difficult to have things like that, I still enjoy television so much that it's like "alright, what's the next one?" How many people in their careers have had one show that went all the way? It's usually an accumulation of a whole bunch of stuff. That's the nature of TV, there's not that many hits. So it stings a little, but there's a lot harder things in life than having a TV show taken off.

On the Marriage Ref, when Greg Giraldo was talking to Gwyneth Paltrow like she was Jim Norton at the Cellar were you in panic mode (See gallery below)?

No, I loved it. Greg was the very first comedian I met, and we became best friends. To be on national TV with me and Greg, these numb nuts who started in New York, and Seinfeld, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and me having the balls to host it and Greg having the balls to call them out, we just kind of looked at each other like, "How the hell did we get here?"

Mainly working "clean" do you have to try to not be "dirty" with your material to preserve your image?

It's not so much an image thing as it is just wanting to do really good work. I really feel, in regards to my stand up... Somebody asked me, "Why are you clean?" I said, "I don't really talk that way." I know there's an audience for it, but my act is a special place. All my hard work goes into my act.

When I do these specials and I do these live shows, this is my work, this is what I do. It seems especially now in the culture, when I walk through the park and there's twelve year-old girls dropping f-bombs, it's like my act should be more special than what's going on on the sidewalk.

I want my thing to be better. I want it to just be a good, classy piece of art. Some guys can use that stuff [foul language] and make it that way, that's not me. That's not what I'm about, so it's not really about trying to keep an image, but about trying to make this act as special, and potent, and as funny as I possibly can. From the way I work and the way I am, limiting it with all that language and cop out, it just becomes average. I want it to be better than that.

What's it like going from stand up to being in movies with top actors like Matt Damon?

It's pretty great. It's really awesome. I would love to do more of it, and I'm really comfortable doing it. It's almost like, the [part] I did in Liberace: Behind the Candelabra, we shot it all summer long, it felt like comedians going away to movie camp. All of a sudden I'm with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas and Dan Akroyd and we're just acting and taking direction from Soderbergh.

It really is work, but it's not like stand up work. Stand up you have to write every single day, there's a lot more personally you have to put into it. Especially, Michael Douglas, he was working a lot harder on that film than I was. It's a blast. The short answer is, it's a real blast. And it feels like it is a gift from working so hard in stand up.

How do Opie and Anthony roll so well with comedians when a lot of radio hosts fail at it?

Yeah, it's funny, I was listening to them yesterday on my way to LA and they were talking with somebody and it got really, really crude  really, really filthy. It's funny, when I'm there, that doesn't really happen that much. I think they have a real love of comedy.

They're funny themselves and they really understand comedy, more than other people in radio. And they know when they're with Brian Regan, how to make that work, and what to feed him. They don't feed him in a corny way, it's just a conversation, you kind of go down this road. Then they know when they have Joe DeRosa on and Robert Kelly, they know where to go with that, to make them really funny. I think they just have a real keen sense of comedy and the comedians themselves. They make it really a blast to do it.

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