You can never make a second first impression, even when that first impression is made through an answering machine.
Comedian Tom Papa left a lasting impression in just that way.
His phone rang a few times before his voice came onto the line: “Hi, it’s Tom.”
Not realizing it’s a recording rather than Papa himself, callers respond. Or at least I did.
“Hi Tom, this is Melissa from the Las Vegas Sun. How are you?”
After a few seconds of silence, I realized what had happened: I was just punked by Tom Papa. Or, more specifically, by his answering machine.
And so the first impressions were set and the joke, as it was, was on me.
The gag is as old as answering machines themselves and about as sophisticated as a Whoopie cushion but the ‘ol voice mail “gotcha” is still funny – especially if you can laugh at yourself.
Is it childish? Yes. But Papa insists that’s what makes comedians like him laugh the most.
“Comedians [are] all just big children,” he says.
Though he and Jerry Seinfeld aren’t schoolyard buddies, the two are good friends and are bringing their stand-up routines to Las Vegas this weekend for a shared show.
The two have known each other for nearly a decade after first meeting at the Comedy Cellar in New York City.
“Colin Quinn swears that he introduced us,” Papa says of the Saturday Night Live funnyman. “He always likes to take credit for Jerry and I becoming friends.”
Papa’s name-drop is an effort to provide context, not to impress. Unlike the Hollywood set, he says comedians are all just down-to-earth, regular people, regardless of their success.
“In show business you can have different people that have different levels of arrogance,” he says, but comics aren’t like that.
Though he didn’t meet Seinfeld until after his namesake sitcom ended its nine-season run, Papa says Seinfeld is a funny guy first and celebrity second.
“He’s had a lot of great success, but at his heart he’s a comedian,” Papa says. “He still likes to hang out, drink coffee and talk about funny things.”
In addition to drinking coffee and discussing the humorous things of the day, Seinfeld has been bringing Papa to Las Vegas for years now.
“I’ve been coming to town with Jerry … (for) four or five years,” Papa says.
While Seinfeld is expected to return to the Colosseum stage later this fall, Papa doesn’t think he will be joining him – not that he’ll be sitting at home in New York twiddling his thumbs. The comic has a handful of other projects on the horizon and a feature film that’s about to hit theaters, as well.
“I’m in this new movie called The Informant with Matt Damon,” he says. “I play Matt Damon’s boss.”
“It’s a serious-funny role,” he says, then quickly corrects himself. “I’d say seriously funny.”
Though he has done stints on the small and silver screens, including Comedy Central specials and Seinfeld’s animated flick, Bee Movie, stand-up comedy remains Papa’s meat and potatoes.
Despite their varying degrees of success, both he and Seinfeld are still regulars at places like the Gotham Comedy Club and the place where they met nearly a decade ago, the Comedy Cellar.
In fact, they were at the latter of the two just last night.
Though both comics have traveled the well-trodden comedy club circuit and seen a lot of things along the way, Papa says our city is always special.
When you land in Las Vegas, he says, “You get off the plane [and] you’re like, ‘OK, this one’s a little different.’”
Still, it’s not the allure of the blackjack tables or flashing slot machine lights that he finds most alluring: It’s the food.
“It seems like I always get into a routine of performing, eating until I explode, and going back and performing again,” he admits.
“I’m a big fan of the Palm at Caesars … and Rao’s,” he says. “I do enjoy the giant meatballs.”
Thankfully for his waistline, however, the focus is usually on the stand-up.
When asked about his routine, his response is neither long nor modest: “Hilarious,” he says. “In a word, hilarious.”
When asked to elaborate, he says, “It’s observational about real life, friends and family – but hilarious more than anything else.”
Steroid use, the economy and his ongoing efforts to get rid of the children he and his wife produced are all fair game in his act.
“They’re seven and four,” he says as he begins his pitch. “Interested?”
His wife and kids stayed home this weekend so Papa says his child-hawking will take a back seat to other, more ironic issues.
“I do enjoy being in the middle of the great depression version 2.0 and in Las Vegas at the same time,” he says.
Papa takes comfort here, amidst what he believes to be a like-minded crowd, and says Las Vegas is the perfect place to visit during tough economic times.
“You could either wring your hands and stay home and disconnect the cable or you could say, ‘You know what? We only go around once; let’s go to Vegas.’”
“That’s what I’m doing,” he says. “[And] it definitely makes me feel better that I’m around my kind of people.”
Though the state of the faltering economy is hardly a laughing matter in Las Vegas or elsewhere in the cash-strapped country, Papa will do his best to make it funny.
Lucky for him, he has two nights to get it all out: He will open for Seinfeld at Caesars Palace tonight and tomorrow night, as well.
“I always love coming to Caesars,” he says. “We play so many places, you know, with each other and separately and … they’re all the same even if it’s, like, New York or Des Moines, Iowa … but there is something about Vegas.”
“I think the expectations are a little higher and it makes us work a little harder and everything gets just heightened,” he says. “They end up being very cool shows.”