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Tom Papa speaks about his influences, marriage, coming projects

Tom Papa, star of NBC’s “The Marriage Ref,” says he’s learned a lot from friend and boss Jerry Seinfeld over the past decade. He’s learned to be a better writer, a harder worker and a first-class professional.

“But one of the great things I learned from him” is how to handle strangers.

“People always come up, and they want to tell you jokes,” Papa says. “I thought you just had to take it.

“Then you watch Seinfeld in an elevator with an overzealous bellhop, and he’ll start quoting jokes at Jerry. Jerry won’t even do the fake laugh. He’ll just look at him and go, ‘Do you realize there’s nothing a comedian wants to hear less than his own material said back to him in a worse version?’ ”

I told Papa that Seinfeld’s New York manner could be crushing to that bellhop. Papa sticks up for his pal.

“If nothing else, it’s really funny to your comedian friend who’s standing next to you,” he says.

Papa (who has opened for Seinfeld for nearly a decade) adds that Seinfeld (executive producer of “The Marriage Ref”) is very generous to others.

“Any situation you could face as a comic, I know I can call him. He will have been through the experience. He will have learned something from it. And he’ll have some funny way to sum it up and give you advice about it.”

Some comedians have a nickname for Seinfeld.

“We call him The Scientist. Life for him is completely a laboratory.”


“The Marriage Ref” is taking a toll on Papa’s marriage.

Papa has told such jokes onstage as:

“My wife has a belly on her right now because she’s pregnant, and her breasts have quadrupled in size. They’re Fs. Fs! … She put on one of her old bras. It looked like a shoestring going across the bottom.”

His wife was cool with stuff like that.

But now she’s less comfortable with jokes he tells in relation to his TV show.

The other day, he did an interview with Reader’s Digest, and when her sister informed her of it, Papa’s wife said, “What did he say about me?!”

Papa laughs reciting that story.

“It’s funny, because when I do my stand-up, I always talk about being married and my wife. And she was able to separate herself from the wife character in my stand-up.

“With this (TV) show, I think she hears me using enough specifics to realize it’s really her.

“Things will happen in our relationship, and she’ll be like, ‘Don’t you talk about this!’

“But what I hear her say is, ‘Wait a while to talk about this,’ ” he jokes.

I told Papa he should negotiate a settlement for each joke — maybe one Fendi bag per killer punch line about her. That’s not a terrible idea, he jokes about that terrible idea.

“I could come in with a big diamond necklace, and she’d be like, ‘What did you say?’ ”


Papa has been a consistently solid comedian for years. He doesn’t do hacky jokes.

He said he uses his own honest perspectives to avoid being a hack.

“When you see someone that’s hacky, there’s always that familiarity to it, like, ‘We’ve all heard this.’ That’s what hacky is — a regurgitation of something else you’ve already seen — and everybody knows it, and everybody smells it.”

It’s actually fine for comedians to start their careers by doing some kind of homage to another comedian, he says.

“Even Richard Pryor, when he started out, said he was doing Bill Cosby. That’s OK in the beginning to be influenced by somebody.

“But eventually, Richard Pryor’s gotta find his own voice, or he doesn’t become Richard Pryor.”

Papa’s influences: In the fifth grade, he heard his first comedy albums by Steve Martin and George Carlin.

All these years later, he headlined this summer’s comedy series at The Orleans, where Carlin was a regular. The series comes to an end this weekend with Papa and opener Greg Giraldo.

Next up, “Oceans Eleven” director Steven Soderbergh is planning to film a Papa TV special. That was set to happen this summer, but it’s been postponed until winter, because Soderbergh is working on a pandemic movie.

And just last week, Papa went into a studio to record a bunch of disparate voice-over work — for a Disney “Transformers”-like project; for an animated show for adults; and for a museum advertisement for radio.

“So it was going from space robots to stoner ‘Family Guy'(-like) characters to a very sincere voice-over salesman.

“As soon as you have a TV show, they’re like, ‘Read this. Read this. Read this.’ ”

And the man who gave him that TV job: Jerry Seinfeld — he who suffers no bellhop’s unbridled enthusiasm for him.

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail delfman@reviewjournal. com. He also blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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