THE WASHINGTON POST – In a time when we could all use some inspirational uplift – not the saccharine variety where celebrities sing John Lennon with mist in their eyes, but something truly connective and comforting – Tom Papa’s got your back … plus some tips for your sourdough starter. With a voice like a cartoon forest ranger, the comedian, radio host (of Sirius’s Come to Papa), head writer (for NPR’s Live from Here) and avid bread baker (of Food Network’s Baked) has become a fount of happy distractions and avuncular wisdom, at the ready via Instagram with calming shots of fresh-baked loaves and videos of dancing healthcare workers.
Like many comedians, Papa’s outlook is plenty cynical. “These global tragedies where the party seems to be humming along, and then something big happens? Those aren’t a surprise to me,” he tells The Washington Post. “When we were all of a sudden locked in the house, my wife said, ‘Why do I get the feeling you thought this was gonna happen all along?’ ”
Still, he’s determined to hammer home some optimism: “You’re Doing Great!” is his unironic catchphrase, the name of his latest Netflix special and the title of his new book of autobiographical essays (subtitled And Other Reasons to Stay Alive). “As rough as things can get, it still is your life,” he says. “You should be grateful for this. You’re doing great.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: In your book, you write: “Because of social media we think we’re lacking. … Calm down. No one has a great life. No one.” You’ve met a lot of successful people. Really, no one?
A: On the surface they do. It’s not that they’re not enjoying themselves, but nobody escapes all the other stuff. Everybody still has worries about their kids and sickness in their family and death to deal with. It doesn’t matter how many cleaning people you have – all that stuff does not provide enough bubble wrap to create a truly great, carefree life. But it’s about recalibrating: What is a great life? A lot of bad stuff happens; that is a great life. It’s not the avoidance of all that stuff that makes it great.
Q: In today’s context, parts of your book feel uncanny – like riffs about germs that “dance on handrails and fly right up your nose.” You call cruise ships “giant white toilets” from which there’s no escape. Do you think it’ll be awhile before anyone finds them appealing again?
A: I’ll never go on another cruise. But so many people love them and don’t care and will jump if you gave them a ticket tomorrow. I do have a feeling that all of these things, whether you enjoy them or not, are going to be scaled back a bit. Maybe a cruise only needs 1,000 people; do you really need 4,000 people on a boat? Things were a little too freewheeling. I saw they canceled the running of the bulls, and I was like, “Well, there’s some good news.”
Q: You write a lot about your obsession with baking bread. The quarantine has inspired a surge of at-home baking and grocery shortages of flour and yeast. What makes it such a source of solace?
A: There’s something about the smell of home-baked bread that’s just the ultimate comfort. The process of making it is satisfying, yes; having something to work on and take your mind off of stuff when you’re home all these hours, sure, that’s a benefit. But it really comes down to this: When you smell that somebody took the time to bake something for you, it’s an expression of love, of nourishment. It’s part of our DNA.
Q: It also seems to have a seductive element of low-stakes risk – even a perfect recipe can fail.
A: Yeah, and you know, that’s life. That’s what comedy is. That’s what writing is. That’s what relationships are. There’s very few things where you get it locked in and it’s golden all the time.
Q: Your comedy isn’t all sunny, but you go out of your way to be hopeful; you genuinely want people to feel like they’re “doing great.” Why?
A: I could tell when I was touring over the last couple years, people got tired of negativity, of everybody attacking each other. My life is pretty optimistic. When I started just being more myself in that way on stage, the reaction, and the people who started showing up to my shows, kind of changed everything. It was just a nicer place to be. I used to look at my Twitter and Instagram and wince – like, what are they saying now? I don’t do that anymore.
The only people attracted now are people who want bread tips.
Q: You suggest the trappings of wealth don’t make for a fuller life. You write, “the people you’re surrounded by when you pay for a hotel room that costs USD2,000 a night … [are] a lot of rich duds. They’re no fun. No one plays music. No one has real conversations. They just walk around with labels on their goofy shirts … and talk about interest rates and taxes.” Is the one per cent really having less fun?
A: Yes. It’s a trap. I’ve been around some very wealthy people and they seem to worry about money more than other people. The more they have, the more they spend, the more they become obsessed. But I wouldn’t mind seeing if my theory holds true by getting a private jet. How fun do I really need to be?