Wanna see something funny?
Well, you’ve got plenty of options this weekend as the Triangle weathers a supercell storm of comedy blowing into town Friday and Saturday.
Still, as storms go, this one should be fun. John Mulaney, one of the top touring comics in America right now, will perform two sold-out shows Jan. 26 at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Just down the block, the road dogs of The Second City touring company bring their latest improv show to the Carolina Theatre on Jan. 27.
Meanwhile, comedian and podcast overlord Joe Rogan plays two shows Jan. 27, at DPAC, and the up-and-coming all-star Mark Normand (“Inside Amy Schumer”) headlines this weekend at Goodnights Comedy Club in Raleigh.
As if that weren’t enough, veteran writer and comic Tom Papa is performing Jan. 26 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. If you haven’t seen Papa in his natural habitat – on stage, that is – now’s your chance to catch one of America’s funniest stand-up comedians.
Papa came up in the New York City comedy scene of the 1990s, and while he hasn’t quite achieved the name recognition of some of his contemporaries – names like Jim Gaffigan or Dave Chappelle – he’s kept plenty busy, working steadily on stage and in TV, film, radio and podcasts.
In fact, Papa’s Siruis XM radio show “Come to Papa” has evolved into one of the top comedy podcasts on the digital dial. Every few months, Papa also produces a live version of the show that’s scripted like an old-timey radio variety show, with sketches and live music. Not coincidentally, Papa was recently hired as head writer for “Live From Here,” the public radio show formerly known as “A Prairie Home Companion.” More on that in a minute.
In June, Papa will add author to his professional resume with the publication of his first book, cryptically titled “Your Dad Stole My Rake: And Other Family Dilemmas.” Calling from New York, Papa spoke to the N&O about the new radio show, NYC comedy in the 1990s, and the challenges of subcontracting technical comedy work.
Q: Were you into comedy as a little kid? Did you listen to old comedy records?
A: Yeah, it was around sixth or seventh grade. The first albums I listened to were (Steve Martin’s) “Let’s Get Small” and (George Carlin’s) “Class Clown.” It was such a memorable thing. I was sitting in my neighbor’s older brother’s room, with all these older kids. I was always funny, I was always able to make people laugh, but that was the moment I thought: Wait a minute. There’s a grown-up that made this? That does this for a living? Holy cow. Then I just started digesting everything.
Q: Were these the old vinyl LPs, with the liner notes and the jackets?
A: Right. It was like a love affair, and there was a ritual element to it. Sitting there with the LP jacket. It didn’t leave your side until the record was over. And then when “Wild and Crazy Guy” came out, that was a double album! There’s Steve Martin on this giant stage, in a bunny suit.
Q: You came up in the storied New York City comedy scene of the 1990s. Is there a particular moment you recall when you look back on those days?
A: When I think back now to what we were doing then, it almost seems impossible. You had zero money, you were getting five dollars to go onstage, and that’s the money you would use to go back on stage the next night. And somehow you found a way to eat and drink and have a good time with your crazy friends.
As an adult, you look back and think: If everything in my life fell apart right now, I’d be back to doing that, and it seems like a disaster. But it was actually the best time of my life.
When I think about those early days, I think of the two clubs – Stand Up NY was on the Upper West Side, and The Comic Strip was on the Upper East Side. I would just go back and forth between the two. I’m living in New York City, and it has so much to offer, all these restaurants and shows and landmarks, and literally all I know are those two places. And the pizza places in between.
Q: You were recently hired as head writer for the public radio show “Live From Here,” the new iteration of “A Prairie Home Companion.” How did you get involved with the show?
A: I always loved that show as a kid, listening on the car radio. I liked the writing. As I got older and got into comedy, I thought it would be fun if that show was in the hands of a comedian. (Garrison Keillor) created this place that was humorous at times and thoughtful at times. But as I comic, I thought: What if you were just trying to get laughs all the time?
So I started a show called “Come to Papa,” which was originally an interview show on Sirius XM. Then I went into doing my own version of “Prairie Home Companion,” but with comedians. I did that for four or five years, writing sketches and having all these comedians and actors come on. It wasn’t like I had any plans for it, I just enjoyed doing it.
Then when Garrison retired, they were looking for someone to help with spoken word elements of the show. The new host, Chris Thile, is a great musician, but he’s not a comedy guy. So they were actively looking, and it was just perfect timing and the perfect resume. I had literally been doing exactly what they needed for five years. It just worked out.
Q: What do you do now as head writer?
A: We have some freelance writers, and I curate what sketches are going to go on each week. I rewrite them and punch them up. It’s funny, I have this very narrow skill set that is just for this kind of thing.
Q: Will you be introducing new recurring bits, in the manner of “Guy Noir” or those cowboy sketches on the old show?
A: Yeah, I do a weekly monologue on the show, “Out in America,” where I’m a traveling comedian correspondent. I report each week from some place out in the country. The idea is that I shine a light on all the good people in America, but then we get funny stories about all these crazy characters.
So that’s recurring, and Chris does a thing where he creates a new song of the week. On the sketches, there have been some good characters that we’re bringing back. There’s this guy who’s a very bloated, pompous critic who pontificates about nonsense.
Q: It feels like “Live From Here” is part of this larger public radio trend where shows are angling toward a younger crowd.
A: Yeah, it is. It’s funny. When I got the show, I was so happy because I loved it so much. But some people, I’d tell them about “A Prairie Home Companion” and they’d say, ‘What are you working on? That old radio show?’ They didn’t understand it. Other people, if they really knew the show and its basic format, then they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s perfect. You’re a perfect fit for that show.’
It really felt like this show was overdue for a change. It really needed to be freshened up and bring in a new audience. I mean, you’re going to lose some of the older people, I’m sure. Because they won’t know Maria Bamford or Nick Offerman. And on the music end, Chris is bringing in all these newer artists. Between the level of comedy and the level of music, it’s such a good show. It’s almost like a revival in a way. You laugh and you have this amazing music.
Q: The #metoo movement has been such a powerful phenomenon in the culture, and particularly in the comedy world. Do you find it has changed your day-to-day work as a writer and a comic?
A: It hasn’t really changed it. As a comic, you’re always talking about what’s in the culture, what’s happening and what’s changing. Even in the relatively short time I’ve been a comedian, I’ve seen quite a change in what is acceptable to say on stage, with mentally handicapped people, or homosexual people, or even fat people or women. It’s a needed correction in the culture.
But as far as comedy, I hope that we don’t lose our sense of humor about ourselves. You definitely have people out there that are looking for any kind of trigger words to jump on. They’ll say horrible things about people who say anything, and that hurts the conversation.
Look, I’ve got daughters. They’re the love of my life. I want them to have every opportunity. So in that regard, it’s like – yeah, let’s go. On the other side, when they come out and literally say out loud: “Screw all white heterosexual men. Let’s go get them and destroy them.” Wait, all of us? Well, sorry, but I can’t support that.
Go get the monsters, leave the good guys alone.
Q: Between the website, the podcast and various social media, you have a very active profile online. That wasn’t part of a comedian’s job 20 years ago. Do you subcontract this stuff, or are you monitoring everything on some secret underground comedy control center?
A: Hah, yeah. I have nobody working for me. I need people. I need a staff. I have so much between “Live From Here,” my radio show, my podcast, the stand-up. Then I have three scripts I’m working on and a book coming out in June. There is not enough time.
I feel if I could just get one kid to come in and deal with the podcast, I’d be good. I’m not built for that. I can do all this stuff and not really stress about it, I just need someone to get the podcast recorder to talk to the computer.
Glenn McDonald is a Chapel Hill-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennmcdonald1.
Who: Tom Papa
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 26
Where: Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Info: 919-996-8700 or dukeenergycenterraleigh.com