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In an interview with Maxim last year, Tom Papa recalled his struggling post-college years. “I lived in a New York apartment with two other guys on futons and old mattresses, and there was no sink in the bathroom so we had to brush our teeth in the kitchen sink. There was an occasional roach problem, and we were on the first floor with windows that faced the garbage.”

Of course, it was the happiest he’d ever been. As an 11-year-old, Papa heard some Steve Martin and George Carlin comedy albums and had a miraculous revelation: Grown men could make people laugh and get paid for it. That was all he needed to know, though he graduated New Jersey’s Rider University anyway. Shortly thereafter he was in the city, hustling for open mic spots and shows wherever he could get them. Consequently, he wasn’t home watching a lot of Seinfeld. Which was probably why he wasn’t too nervous when Seinfeld himself walked into Stand Up NY while Papa was performing. (“Oh yeah, Jerry has that show,” he recalls thinking, when someone pointed him out.) Well, Seinfeld thought he was pretty funny and asked Papa to open for him on tour. There are breaks, and then there are Breaks.

Maybe Seinfeld was seeking an act with potential marketing legs as the Tom and Jerry Show. More likely, he recognized a kindred comic spirit. Papa specializes in wry observations of the everyday. As one description of his 2013 comedy special Freaked Out put it, “Tom Papa tackles the hazards of churches, loose change, old age, make-up, raising women, Chinese grocery stores, and magical gnomes.”

Obviously, Papa’s a guy with a lot to say, and his now-fast tracked career gave him plenty of opportunities to say it: His one-man show Only Human opened to raves at Montreal’s noted Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, and his debut comedy album Calm, Cool & Collected was equally praised. And his one-hour Tom Papa Live in New York City is one of the few (if not the only) comedy specials directed by Rob Zombie.

Pretty soon he got his own show, Come to Papa, which ran for just four episodes, but which he’s managed to reformat as a SiriusXM radio show (guests include a firmament of comedians like Mel Brooks, Ray Romano, Dick Cavett, Carl Reiner and that Seinfeld guy) as well as a hit live show in the style of Prairie Home Companion. He also hosted The Marriage Ref for two seasons. (The show arbitrated the squabbles of real-life couples; critics didn’t love it, but it did cause many to wonder if maybe Dr. Phil couldn’t benefit from a few standup classes.) All of these gigs showcased Papa’s knack for seamless transitions between host and main act, often in the same show.

He also made regular appearances on Cinemax’s The Knick, and has scored several big screen roles, most notably in The Informant! and Behind the Candelabra. Steven Soderbergh wasn’t looking for funny guys who could play funny characters; he was looking for guys who could play characters that felt a little off center, and keep the audience feeling that way. Watching Papa in those films, you realize he can wink at the camera without batting an eye.

If there’s anything Papa doesn’t do, it’s dark, tortured, misanthropic comedy riddled with drug references and lewd misogyny. Nor is he trying to be particularly slick or hip. “Comedy isn’t supposed to be cool. It’s supposed to be funny.” If you’re not going to rely on our world’s ready supply of the crass and churlish, you have to work harder. “I want my thing to be better. I want it to just be a good, classy piece of art,” he told Chicago Now. “Some guys can use that stuff and make it that way; that’s not me. That’s not what I’m about, so it’s not really about trying to keep an image, but about trying to make this act as special, and potent, and as funny as I possibly can. From the way I work and the way I am, limiting it with all that language and copping out, it just becomes average. I want it to be better than that.” His wife and daughters probably appreciate the effort, too.

That’s not to say he’s not irreverent, or a 49-year-old naïf. It just means he finds enough fodder in the anxieties, disappointments and small contentments of everyday life that he doesn’t need to dirty them up to make them funny or relatable. On his latest special, Human Mule: “The culture creates this feeling that we should all be incredibly happy and beautiful all the time—that there should be fireworks shooting off your lawn every day. Then if it doesn’t happen, people are miserable, and they break off their marriages, they leave their jobs and they feel depressed. No, that’s not how real life works.”

No, it does not. But if you’re lucky, you’ll at least get to work at something you like to do. And if you’re wise, you’ll feel grateful to do it. And if it doesn’t work out every time? “The cool thing about being a comedian is that a month after NBC canceled Come to Papa, I walked through the same doors to do a set on The Tonight Show. You can’t get rid of a comedian that easily.” Since he’s proved that to be true, we figured we might as well sit around and talk with him for a while.