Comedian Tom Papa has, perhaps, never been busier.
Not only is he the head writer of public radio’s “Live From Here,” not only did he recently publish his book “Your Dad Stole My Rake,” not only does he host the “Come to Papa” podcast, and not only will his Food Network show make its debut on Monday, September 3—he’s also touring the country to perform stand-up, including a Saturday, September 22, show at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
“I’ve been incredibly busy, and then we threw the Food Network show on top of all of it,” Mr. Papa said during a phone recent interview. “The way TV works, they don’t tell you that they want you for a while, then they say they do—and they need eight episodes tomorrow. So I had to throw that on top of all of it. I’ve literally had five jobs for most of this year.”
For the new show, “Baked,” Mr. Papa visits a different city in each episode to find the best bread and pastries—and the interesting people behind the convection ovens.
“The thing that makes this show great is that I get to meet these people,” he said. “They all have these great stories, and they’re usually really funny, fun people to be with.”
He said that he is a good host for the show because he is genuinely curious and wants to know how the baked goods are made, and if he can make them himself at home.
In fact, the show arose from his obsession with bread.
“I was not intending to do a television show about this,” Mr. Papa said. “I purely was making bread at home and learning. It fascinated me that from a sourdough starter, this natural yeast, the way that they used to make bread thousands of years ago, had been lost. And people were starting to rediscover it and make breads the old-fashioned way. And it’s better for you, and people can eat it. People don’t have all these issues with their stomachs when they eat. It’s all this other stuff that’s been in commercial bread, that’s ruined bread.
“So I just started baking it with my family. And I started getting obsessed with it. And I started ordering flour from Utah and talking to bakers, and trying to get better at it, and buying tons of books on it.”
Because he is always traveling for stand-up, he started visiting bakeries during the day before performances. He met bakers and asked about their craft. “They would take me in the back and show me what was up. I was just learning—I was just curious. Then, Food Network caught wind of it from me doing podcasts and different things, and I guess they saw that there was a show there.”
Though his gigs are diverse, he said, they all feed each other, and they share a common thread: “You’re doing great.”
“People have been saying that my act is very optimistic, which is kind of unusual for a comedian,” he said.
He explained that everyone today feels so overworked and pressurized, like they’re not doing enough. “They’re looking at everybody else on social media and questioning why their life is not that great. And I really feel like a simple, good life is all you should really expect. That is as joyful as we’re going to get.”
He pointed to bakeries as one source of joy that should be appreciated. “You don’t need a bakery in a town. You need the police, you need the fire department—you don’t need a bakery. A bakery is there for you to go and have a moment of joy and celebrate something.
“It’s, like, why are we the generation that shouldn’t be eating that stuff?” he laughed. “I don’t believe that’s how we should be living our lives. We should be enjoying those moments. And you should be going to a comedy show. And you should be enjoying yourself, because this is it. These are the good years. It’s like an illusion that we have to do more than other generations—we don’t.
“The whole reason for doing this silly Food Network show: I just couldn’t believe that we weren’t eating bread anymore. Why are we the generation that’s not allowed to eat bread? People have been doing it for thousands of years. Bread is good. What am I working out for? No one wants me to take my shirt off for a movie.”
Mr. Papa’s comedy focus is on family. He said it’s just the world he lives in: “I find it so funny.”
And he finds that everyone can relate. After shows, audience members will often ask him, “Are you hanging out in my closet or something? How do you know so much about my life?” he said.
“You realize, we’re not that different. So I feel like it’s my duty as a comedian to observe all of this and report back to you. You’re busy, you’ve got stuff to do. So here are some things maybe you haven’t noticed about your own family.”
“You Dad Stole My Rake” let him expound on the topic. “I can say more in a book than I can in an act,” he noted. “An act, you’re always distilling it down to the fewest number of words for the most impact. But in a book, you can really kind of explore different parts of it. You don’t have to be funny all the time—it’s a very funny book, but people say that it’s heartfelt as well. And I just felt like there was more to say on the subject.”
Mr. Papa wrote both about being a kid growing up, and about now being a parent himself. The title is based on a recurring experience of his childhood.
“It’s a good metaphor for family life,” he said. “You’re stuck with this family. You didn’t ask to be a part of it, and you’re held accountable for their actions. When I was a kid, my father would borrow tools from people all around the neighborhood and never return them. … He would send me to go borrow them, and then they would come and ask for the rake back. And it’s, like, ‘I know, look: I’m not endorsing this behavior. But he’s the only man that gives me food, so I’m stuck with him.’”
Mr. Papa said he had always wanted to see if he could write a book, and he just jumped in.
“And it’s been really well received,” he added. “It’s in its third printing, and I couldn’t be more happy. And I’ve had comedian friends who have written books and swear that they’ll never do it again, because it was so hard. But I really had the opposite. I loved the process of it, and I want to start up the next one as soon as possible.”
He’s also enjoyed making appearances to promote the book. “It was great. It was such a cool thing to see these other people, this other part of my audience, show up in a bookstore.”
He’s noticed his fans all have something in common.
“They’re all good people,” Mr. Papa said. “You know what I mean? For some reason, I just have, like, bakery people and book readers and NPR people—I’ve suddenly found myself in this very nice environment in show business.
“They’re all kind. They’re all nice people. They’re all thoughtful. You rarely meet an idiot who wants to bake cookies for the community.”
And as for NPR people, Mr. Papa joined “Live From Here” before its name change—it was originally “A Prairie Home Companion”—but after series creator and longtime host Garrison Keillor retired.
The new name was necessary after Minnesota Public Radio split with Mr. Keillor, who owns the name “A Prairie Home Companion,” in light of sexual misconduct allegations.
Mr. Papa had mixed feelings about the change. “In a way, it was almost a blessing,” he said. “That show, ‘Prairie Home,’ was so Garrison and it was so his voice. And while he built this thing that we could continue—and still have it be family entertainment—it’s been updated. The comedy is different. The music is different. It still has a folksy flavor to it, but it really had to move forward.”
Though Mr. Keillor was both head writer and host, Mr. Papa does not have to perform double-duty. The current host is Chris Thile, and Mr. Papa is heard on one segment a week.
“I do a monologue each week called ‘Out in America,’ where I shine a light on all the good people out in the country,” Mr. Papa said, explaining that he takes on the role of a roving reporter.
If audience members take something away from his stand-up, Mr. Papa wants them to know that they’re doing fine: “You’re actually better than fine. You’re doing great. This is what it is. This other stuff and this feeling of having to do more is an illusion. We shouldn’t let it get in the way of enjoying ourselves.”
Tom Papa will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, September 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25, $30 and $35. Call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.
“Baked” will premiere on Food Network on Labor Day and have new episodes every Monday in September at 10 and 10:30 p.m.
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