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From the Bookmobile to the Strip: Tom Papa takes storied trek to Vegas

Tom Papa is chatting between gigs.

He has a lot of gigs.

“I am between my radio show and ‘Breaking Bread,’ ” the 20-year stand-up comic says. He’s referring to his popular daily satellite radio show with Fortune Feimster, “What a Joke With Papa And Fortune” on Sirius XM, and his “Breaking Bread With Tom Papa” podcast, in which he dines, imbibes and shares in the repartee.

The star of five concert specials on Netflix (most recently “What a Day!”), Papa returns to the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas on Saturday.

Highlights of our recent phone chat, beginning with a comic legend of yesteryear:

Johnny Kats: I was looking over some of the material about you, you have an unmistakable Jack Benny vibe. Was he an inspiration?

Tom Papa: It’s incidental. When I got glasses, I was like, “All right, I definitely look like Jack Benny now.” … But I am a lover of all comedy history. I’ve digested all comedy, and he always stood out to me. He’s one of those guys, you see him on YouTube, and it’s still fun to watch. His sketches are still as funny as anything out there.

It’s a little strange to bring up, because hardly anyone has an active memory of Jack Benny. But if you can find him, yes. Amazing, even today.

It’s tough. Maybe someone has seen this, but I haven’t been able to find any recording of him doing stand-up. He would go out and do shows, but I’ve never seen that, him just standing there and doing a show, and I’ve definitely looked for it.

Do you remember your introduction to Las Vegas?

I did a weeklong gig at the Comedy Stop at the Trop. It was exciting and humbling at the same time. I flew to Vegas. I was going to be on a show. I wasn’t the headliner, but I was very excited. Then I got there and realized, your name is not up in lights. You don’t get any food except for what you can find in the cafeteria, with all of the angry servers smoking cigarettes — at the time they were still smoking cigarettes. And two shows a night for a full week, in front of varying sizes of crowds. By the end of that week, I was like, “Whoosh, if this is Vegas, I’m in trouble.”

You wound up opening for Jerry Seinfeld, many years later, right?

I was just moving up through the years. Eventually, I headlined the Comedy Stop or I would play the Improv at Harrah’s. And then I’d come in for some corporate dates. Then I started opening for Jerry Seinfeld at Caesars, started headlining on my own. Vegas is always a special place for me. I don’t care how cynical or jaded as a performer you are. When you’re there, you know it’s built for show business, and you are lucky if you are anointed to be a part of it.

How about the first time you were ever on stage, in a proper show, what was that like?

It was June 12, 1993. At the New York Comedy Club.

OK! How was it?

The only people in the audience were five of my friends. So, on the bill was a host, a young Greg Giraldo and myself. The deal was, if you brought friends into the audience, you got on stage. That was my first spot.

Do you remember a joke from that night?

At the time, it was in the news that a school was giving out condoms to students. And I said, “When I was a kid, I needed three notes and a blood test just to get a ride on the Bookmobile.” See? It had structure. It was a real joke. It had a punchline …

It had a Bookmobile reference!

Amen! The Bookmobile was in there. That was pretty much my first joke.

And that meant it went well enough to keep going, right? It’s 30 years later now.

My DNA as a comic is from that night. In that situation, it can only go so well. But to actually tell a joke into a microphone, and have the audience be surprised by the punchline, was great. Even though they were my friends, to me it was just a blank audience, in my mind. They were surprised by the punchline, and there was definitely a rush of fulfillment. I knew immediately, there’s no going anywhere else.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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