Tom Papa has to be considered one of the least controversial comedians working today. And yet, as he explains in his return to The Last Laugh podcast for this bonus episode, even he has been subjected to “cancel culture” for a past joke that was considered culturally insensitive.
The veteran stand-up comic, whose latest hour-long special What a Day! premieres on Netflix next Tuesday, Dec. 13, reveals the gig he lost out on and why more famous comedians may be able to evade similar fates. He also breaks down how his wife, teenage daughters, and elderly parents feel about being the target of his jokes and teases a new bit about meeting your heroes that just might end up in his next hour.
After his previous special, You’re Doing Great!, premiered on Netflix in February 2020, Papa took what ended up being a longer-than-expected break from stand-up comedy. So when he finally got the chance to go back on the road to work out the material for his new special, he was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to fill up 1,000-seat theaters across the country.
“It’s what you kind of wish for from the beginning, so when it starts to happen, it’s hard to say no,” he tells me, contrasting his new reality to the early days of his career when success meant selling out a small comedy club for the weekend. “It’s so nice to walk into a theater and it feels like a show. Especially if it’s something that you really take a lot of pride in, you don’t want to be fighting against the waitstaff.”
Papa has been on the road so much over the past year that he says he recently received a text that read, “Did you move out and not tell me?” from his wife, who he jokes about at length in his new special, as can be seen in the exclusive clip from What a Day! below.
The ability of someone like Papa to draw larger audiences to bigger venues is just one of many ways that he has seen the comedy industry change since getting his start in the early ’90s. He describes the current “minefield of cancel culture” as being “very real,” explaining, “There are real people that are running into real problems and people that have no ill will being called out. That is a very real thing, and it’s not even just the big stories, it’s smaller stories that you don’t even hear about.”
And while he sees value in the fact that stand-up comedy is more popular than ever and there are “more voices from different communities and different genders and ethnicities that are all having moments,” Papa admits he has felt the impact of so-called “cancel culture” personally.
It can manifest in small ways, like people online chastising him for joking about suicide or accusing him of “fat-shaming” himself. But then there was the game show hosting gig he says he lost out on because of one joke he told years ago about his own ignorance of different cultures.
Late last year, reports emerged that Game Show Network would be producing a new trivia show called In the USA Today in partnership with that down-the-middle newspaper and with Papa attached to host. The show never materialized, and now Papa reveals that it was because “somebody didn’t like a joke from one of my specials and they pulled the plug on the whole project.”
“And then they went through all of my material from my whole career,” he adds, including all of his appearances on Joe Rogan’s podcast, “and they couldn’t come up with one other thing and they still yanked it.”
When I note that other, much more famous comedians don’t seem to have faced similar consequences for their own controversial jokes, Papa laughs and says, “Right, but it’s definitely real, it definitely exists.”
“I have a lot of comedian friends that say, ‘Once they come for Papa, then we know the game is over,’” he jokes, alluding to his own reputation as an inoffensive comic. But if certain organizations are “so afraid of backlash from their own people or whatever gutless reaction” there is to a joke, then, he asks, “Why would you bother wasting any time censoring yourself?”
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to ‘The Last Laugh’ on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.