Comedian Tom Papa knows what dads wants most this year for Father's Day – and it costs nothing

The comedian weighs in on who's really being canceled, "the McCarthyism of the left" and how we're all a mess

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 18, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Tom Papa (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tom Papa (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"I just don't like cynicism," says Tom Papa. "I like hope." It's a unique stance for a stand-up comic to take. Yet in a profession in which a certain level of jaded snark is more or less the expectation, Papa is an optimistic outlier. He gave his 2020 Netflix special and follow-up book the same unironically encouraging name, "You're Doing Great!" "We're all working very hard. We're all doing the best that we can," he said on "Salon Talks."

The comedy veteran is currently setting a pretty high bar for his own best, hosting his "Breaking Bread with Tom Papa" podcast, touring the US and Canada and promoting his latest book, "We're All In This Together . . . So Make Some Room."

Like Papa's previous books, "We're All In This Together" weaves memoir with opinion and life lessons on love and family in his trademark dry wit, all tied together with the reassuring message that "You're not totally crazy."

Papa sat down with us to talk about how he and his daughters are celebrating Father's Day this year, why it's a good thing that "Everybody is a mess," and why he's speaking up about what he calls "McCarthyism of the left." "The left was always about freedom of ideas and expression of that," he says, "and that's clamped down now. It's a terrifying moment." 

Watch Tom Papa on "Salon Talks" here or read our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

When you came up with the title for this, were you thinking about "High School Musical"

I wasn't, but now that you mention it, maybe subconsciously we are always thinking about that.

This book, like your others, is a collection of essays, reminiscences, philosophy and advice. What did you want the story of this one to be at this particular time in our collective lives?

I started to get tired of the narrative that we're all apart and that we're at each other's throats. I don't find that when I'm traveling around. I think people for the most part are just trying to get along. I just don't like cynicism. I like hope. I wanted to convey what I saw, which wasn't even politically, that we're not at each other's throats. Just as human beings, we all really need each other all the time. I don't succeed on my side of the street if you fail across the street. 

"As a kid, if I would see people that didn't laugh or teachers that never laughed, it was like, something's wrong here."

The more I started diving into it and writing about it and exploring it, I started to realize we are literally dependent on each other and everybody that came before us. Whether you like them or not, they've all informed your life. I started to get this calm feeling. I'm not the first person to go through all of this. There have been millions of people who have tried this, have done it, have learned how to order in restaurants, have learned how to get rid of poison ivy. They've all done it, so why not pay attention to that? That's what this book is. It's funny essays about other humans' experiences because we're all living from the same brochure, so learn from that and just your life will be easier. 

All it took was going through CVS one day. I saw all of these things that are wrong with people and all of these solutions that are waiting. You're going to have to go down every one of those aisles eventually. Now I'm buying something for a rash, and there's that weird section that has medical equipment for bigger toilets and handles and it's like, I'm not dealing with that today, but eventually I'm going to want one of those.

Very early on in the book you quote your grandmother, that there's no such thing as normal. We're all messed up. Why did you want that to be one of the central messages? Because we do all feel alone in our messiness.

You have to cut yourself some slack. We're all working very hard. We're all doing the best that we can, and you start to feel like you're not doing enough or you're failing or that you are a mess and that other people are succeeding much more than you are. They're not. Nobody is. Everybody is dealing with stuff. Everybody is a mess. The most idyllic people that you see on social media, you think that their lives are buttoned down, they're not. They also have to deal with problems.

When I was touring, I used to tell people, "You're doing great. You're actually doing great," and people were coming up to me after the shows and thanking me. They were like, "Thank you for saying that." Because nobody says it. Your family doesn't say it. Your family never says, "Hey, thanks Mom. Thanks for all that stuff that you do." They have no idea that without you, they'd be dead, like literally dead. If I left my daughters with a can and a can opener and came back 24 hours later, they'd be dead. But do they thank you for that? No. So you need a stranger to say it, or a comedian.

I don't know if my kids should say that. I want them to be able to take it for granted that we're going to keep them alive. You had a pretty hands-off kind of a childhood. You were more of a fend for yourself kind of person too.

Yeah, you can, but a nice card once in a while? Do the things. It's like with the book, people figured this stuff out. There's a reason there's a holiday. There's a reason that you have cards. There's a reason that there are thank you notes. Do those things and it'll be enough.

I love that you talk in the book about when people now just say, "Appreciate you." Where did that come from?

I don't know. It became very popular. It works though. When the phrase first showed up, you're like, "Oh, that's nice. No one's said they appreciate me." But now it's been overused and now you're like, "No, you don't."

In this book you say, "I love people." Yet you also have to deal with rude people every step of the way. How do you separate those two things so that you don't become cynical so that you don't become tired and you don't become cranky? You don't seem cranky at all.

No, I get cranky. If I get tired, I get cranky. But I do love people and I try to cut them slack when I'm out. When I was younger, I had less patience. I was more aggravated traveling and if people were rude. Now I just realize they're just bumbling around. They can't see. This is their first time in the airport all year. If you have a little bit of a sense of humor about it, you can cut them some slack. It doesn't mean I'm in this blissful state of loving them all. There are some times you want to strangle somebody, especially if they're being overtly rude. 

"As human beings, we all really need each other all the time."

I was just on a flight yesterday. Everyone's just waiting, and there's going to be a preboard, and there's going to be 50 people that do that. This one guy was just like a housefly. He was going to board before everybody. He just kept trying, and everyone's looking at him. He's violating the social contract of all of us, and he's trying to jump the line and you can feel everybody getting aggravated. Even now, I'm trying to cut people slack. I'm watching him and I'm like, "I hope he doesn't make it. I really hope he doesn't make it." They finally got past the preboards, which he tried, and then he tried to jump and they turned him back and he had to go back through the crowd. It was so satisfying. It felt so good. It was a little triumph.

You talk in the book about how it's a red flag when people who don't laugh. Why is that something that sends up a flare when you see people who just don't have that in them?

It terrifies me. Before I was a comedian, as a kid, if I would see people that didn't laugh or teachers that never laughed, and it was like, something's wrong here. Right now with my kids, we'll meet these other parents through your children and you realize that husband doesn't laugh, that wife never laughs. What's it like living in there? There's no release valve. You're taking everything too seriously, it's got to be a pressure cooker. It makes me very, very uncomfortable. I don't understand that way of living. So you just brood over it and have real honest conversations every night?

In that same chapter though, you talk about the comedies that you and I grew up on. I really appreciate that you talk about "the McCarthyism of the left," because those of us who consider ourselves progressive don't always hold ourselves accountable to what it means to be tolerant, what it means to believe in freedom of speech.

It's a terrifying moment. It really is, and I think it's really exemplified by the book banning. I think that's the culmination of it, watching that there are people from the far right and left both banning books. That we're at that moment is really frightening and it's a real alarm that we've gone too far and you're not allowing people to live. The left was always about freedom of ideas and expression of that, and that's clamped down now. You're not letting people speak. 

And then the right is just like you're taking all these groups of young people who just want to see themselves represented or just find their way, and you have a little book. It's insane. I was listening to a librarian, and she was talking about how they wanted to ban this book that had something about a gay teenager. She said people act like this is being held up and marched around and trying to change people. She said, "This is a book that sits on a shelf. And one little kid has this bravery, because he's alone and he's trying to figure out his life, to go and find that book in that library and do this brave thing of checking and making eye contact with the librarian and finding comfort and some kind of lesson from it." That you're taking that away is really, really terrifying. It's upsetting. It's upsetting that both sides have gotten so involved with it.

I feel like when you want to see an example of "McCarthyism of the left," it often comes down to comedy. What are you experiencing in the comedy world about that kind of pressure to not offend?

Look, if you're a comedian and you have your audience, you can say whatever you want. You can do whatever you want, and your audience considers the source. They know when you're joking. They know when this is an idea that is just trying to push us further and we all find funny and we're all grown-ups about it. It's when you're attached to some corporation, If you have a show on NBC or if you're being hired by a company in a studio, then you're in trouble. 

"That's the greatest thing about comedy: if you're funny, you're unstoppable."

I've watched a lot of people get shows taken away, a lot of people you don't even hear about. There's the big cancellation, but there's a whole other level of people being canceled quietly you don't even know and you don't hear. Because of one joke, they end up in trouble and have projects taken away, and it's pretty terrifying.

The good thing about the moment though is that you don't need those corporations, so all these comedians you notice are starting their own podcasts, starting their own networks, writing their own material, going out and performing. If you're not beholden to a company that's frightened and hasn't figured out how to make an adult stand, and they're just playing to the whims of a few people complaining, that's when you run into trouble. So all these comedians now, we have freedom to speak, but you have to do it on your own terms.

It seems to me then the test of whether you sink or swim is, are you funny? Which is what it should be.

One hundred percent. That's the greatest thing about comedy: if you're funny, you're unstoppable. You're unstoppable. It doesn't matter what you are, where you come from, if you're funny. I've never seen one truly funny person show up in the clubs or in wherever we do it and not succeed. It's unstoppable. Will they get hired by "SNL"? Maybe not, but they'll be a great comedian, and people will find them.

It's interesting. Chris Rock had his special come out. The people writing about his special were not comedy people. They were people who write about culture and people writing about his opinions and how it fits in our woke society and all this kind stuff. It was embarrassing how little they understood about comedy itself. But comedy's become so big now, and in the absence of real adults in news, comedians are seen as the grown-ups for some reason. You can't write about comedy in those terms to fit your section of your culture that you have to write about all the time. That's not really what it's about, but it's kind of bled over.

I want to ask you about being a girl dad. What has being in a female household done for you as a man giving you a perspective on women and womanhood? 

I was raised with two younger sisters, so I was very aware of it at an early age. I'll admit, I used it as an advantage to get girlfriends when I was young because I could understand. I knew what was going on and how they were growing, and I was just more in tune. But then raising daughters, I wasn't sure what was going to pop up because you hear all these cliches of when your daughter starts dating and how you're mean to the guys and all of that. I really consciously tried to just back off and just be there, and just be supportive, and just be around, and let them know that I wasn't an opponent. It really worked out. 

"There's a reason that there are thank you notes."

They're so much more impressive than I anticipated and so different. Raising one was not the same as raising the other by any means. They just have different complete outlooks, but still both just so impressive. They've completely lapped me, by the time they were juniors. I was just like, "All right, I'm here to support you." Of course I give them advice and I'm still their dad, but it became obvious that I was no longer the smartest one in the room.

This generation is way, way, way smarter. Because it's up to them to save the world, right?

They do have to save the world.

Because we're not going to do that. We've had a good run.

We gave it a shot.

Father's Day is coming upon us. You have told Stephen Colbert what dads really want for Father's Day is like nothing. What do you want for Father's Day? 

"I give them advice and I'm still their dad, but it became real obvious that I was no longer the smartest one in the room."

Nothing. I just want them to be around. You don't even have to hang out, just be around. I would always say, "Sunday's family day." If anything was going on, if someone had something, I would say, "What do you mean? It's family day. Well, you can't go to your friend's house. All right, but it's family day." I would make a bigger thing of it than it really was, but I did mean it. I just want to see your faces. That's all.

Now that you're saying it, my one daughter's going back to school. She has a job for the summer working at school, and she's not going to be there on Father's Day, so I guess that's ruined.

I want to ask you one more thing, because you bake bread. You said something so beautiful about what the power of bread making is, and I feel like I can apply that to everything else in life.

It's slow and forgiving. There's no reason to be scared of it.

I would not be scared of anything slow and forgiving.

Yeah, like a manatee.

What has baking bread taught you about how to interact with the world?

When I was first learning to do it, it was when I first started writing the books. It was a great pace for that because I would be working and then I'd have to go and fold the dough and then I'd go back to working, and then I'd have to go fold it again. It's about a three-day process and there's always something to be tended to. It meant for me that I was home, that I was in my office and that I was writing. It was just a nice synergy between working and just enjoying something. And then once you fill the house up with smells of bread. I'm not really a great baker for precise pastry, that kind of thing. I'm a little too sloppy. I feel like bread is somewhere between cooking and baking. You can make mistakes, you can correct it.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Books Cancel Culture Comedy Father's Day Salon Talks Tom Papa We're All In This Together