Horror. To some, the genre is that of cheap thrills, startles and nightmare fodder to allow entertainment to be entertaining without the need to turn on one’s brain. To others, Horror is a conduit that our deepest fears, anxieties and paranoia are visualized, hence why the community of horror fans has become as large, vocal and intertwined as any group in modern popular culture. Horror molds around our individual perceptions of shock and terror, and often times can be discussed with the enthusiasm and passion that may not apply to other genres. Therefore, Diabolique Magazine presents Talking Terror, a weekly column where we speak to actors, comedians and other public figures about their relationship to the world of horror.
Modern pop culture, especially in the world of horror, has a very fascinating relationship to nostalgia and old fashioned storytelling. As fans return time and time again to childhood favorites, they yearn for new filmmakers to return to the aesthetics that evoke that same enjoyment. In the landscape where found footage continually apes the haunting films of the ’50s and ’60s and exorcism / possession films have returned in a big way cinematically, old fashioned has become an endearing way of making fresh, new horror content. And although this appreciation of nostalgia has grown beyond modern pop culture, especially for a youth that’s connected to the internet where nostalgia is accessible at a click of a button, horror as a genre has found nostalgia to be crucial to its evolution and made the genre a force to be reckoned with at the box office.
It’s that old fashioned mentality that reflects the honesty and integrity of Tom Papa, who has become one of the most distinctive voices in stand-up comedy. By bringing a polite wit to familiar, sometimes off-kilter, subjects, Papa has established himself as a fresh and dependable talent from the vein of the sharp, fast comedic predecessors of vaudeville. And it’s from this stand-up that his career enters even stranger territory, as both of his stand-up specials have been directed by none other than Rob Zombie, who co-wrote The Haunted World of El Superbeasto with Papa, who also agreed to star as the titular, animated demented protagonist. For this week’s “Talking Terror”, Papa spoke with Diabolique about horror comedy, writing with Zombie and slashers changed his outlook on the whole genre…
DIABOLIQUE: You are best known to horror fans as the voice of El Superbeasto in Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, which you also helped write. Have you always been a fan of horror films?
TOM PAPA: Yeah, I’ve always been a fan. It’s funny because a lot of the time, people who are into drama and making horror are fans of comedy because they’re always making that stuff and they want to turn [their brains] off. I’m the same way: I love comedy, which I create and am always working on in all of its different forms, but when I go into the drama and horror world, that’s when my brain can turn off.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you remember your first exposure to horror or your first favorite horror film?
PAPA: Yes. When I was a kid, I had a fever and my parents left me in the family room in front of The Exorcist. That messed me up for a good month and a half. Having a high fever and watching The Exorcist made me a wreck. I had to sleep on my sister’s floor for a week. It was bad. The fever is what did me in. The movie is one thing, but throw the fever in? Forget it.
DIABOLIQUE: Are you a fan of new horror films or are you more inclined to stick to the older stuff?
PAPA: I kind of like the older ones more [than the new films]. I like the horror films that tend to have a little more suspense to them and draw you in that way. Those films tend to scare me a little bit more. I have a friend who worked on the recent versions of Piranha and Sorority Row, and that got me excited about horror movies again because I started paying a little more attention because it’s all come a long way from what I used to watch.
DIABOLIQUE: What do you think is the biggest difference between then and now?
PAPA: Everything’s gotten more sophisticated, you know? It seems that the storytelling is better, the graphics are better and the music is better. It’s the same way that I think about comedy. It’s like, “At this point, everything has been done, so what little twist can I put on it? What kinds of things can I come up with that can make [my comedy] pop and stand up?” It’s the same way with the horror genre. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve seen people get killed A LOT. What’s a cool new way to pull it off?”
DIABOLIQUE: You worked directly with Rob Zombie on The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, which was Rob’s first foray into horror comedy despite some funny moments in his previous, much darker films. How is working with Rob as a director of comedy?
PAPA: Oh, it was awesome. We became pals because he liked my stand-up and I liked his music and films. To sit down and have this common ground was just awesome. He’s just really so funny. We spent a whole summer at his house just writing El Superbeasto, and I’d get to his house, which is kind of spooky and has horror stuff everywhere you look, but then we’d sit and get to work and we’d be cracking each other up the whole day. It was a blast.
DIABOLIQUE: Were you ever intimidated to work with the director who made House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects? You were familiar with his other films, correct?
PAPA: I totally was [familiar], but for me, it wasn’t that much of a departure for him and I didn’t even think about it while we were making it. The thing about Rob is that whenever he’s working on whatever he’s doing, he wants it to kick ass. That energy is behind everything that Rob makes. Even when he does my stand-up specials, which is just straight stand-up, he wants it to rock. He wants it to kick ass. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy because it’s going to have that kick-ass energy.
DIABOLIQUE: As a comedian, you’re known for using clean, articulate language to cover some hilariously off-beat and un-PC subjects. What is it about that particular approach that appeals to you as a professional?
PAPA: I just really like the craft and I want it to be a reflection of me and to be unique. There’s a lot of different ways that you can make stuff, and I don’t really talk that way in my real life, so how can I articulate my personality? It might happen to come off clean, but words, to me, are very important and the crafting of those words are very important. It’s not a matter of coming off clean, it’s about being as unique and as good as it’s going to be.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you think projects like “Superbeasto” and “Opie and Anthony” lets you release some of that pent-up vulgarity?
PAPA: No, it’s not, because if it was a release or a relief, that means I’d be holding backing my stand-up and I’m really not. I’m writing it and performing it. If I’m up on The Opie and Anthony Show and I’m hanging with those guys, that’s closer to my real life than it is my act. If I was sitting there talking and some subject came up about sex, I would be able to talk about it. I’m not a conservative Christian or anything where I can’t have adult conversations and have a lot of fun doing it. It’s just a completely different thing than my act.
DIABOLIQUE: Horror is one of the most interactive films for a theatrical experience, even more so than Drama, Sci-fi and Comedy. Do you remember any particularly unforgettable in-theater experiences at a horror film?
PAPA: When I was a kid, I saw The Exorcist and The Shining were really cerebral and haunting, but when I was in Junior High School was when Friday the 13th and all the slashing stuff started coming out. What I remember distinctly when I was out seeing one of those with my friends, I couldn’t understand, especially after those other films where I was like, “Oh, so horror is bad? If you sit through The Exorcist and sit through The Shining, that’s evil and evil is bad.” And I’d be watching these slashers like Halloween and the Friday the 13th series, and I’d be laughing just as much as I’d be horrified. It was like, “Oh, you can actually have fun with evil subjects.” That’s the thing that really stood out to me.
DIABOLIQUE: Superbeasto, like many of Zombies films, are filled with a lot of horror legends and cult actors. Did you write any of the characters in a specific voice for these actors in mind?
PAPA: Oh yeah, Rob’s head is a whole rolodex of that stuff. As soon as [the characters] came up, we’d try to write it and cast it at the same time.
DIABOLIQUE: Did you encounter these actors during the recording sessions?
PAPA: Yeah, it was kind of separate but I got to see Rosario Dawson; I was there for her [session]. I was there for Paul Giamatti playing Dr. Satan and I think Danny Trejo came when I was in. Those were the ones I saw. To tell you the truth, just to see Paul Giamatti in a booth going crazy as a masturbating Dr. Satan was enough.
DIABOLIQUE: Is there any horror convention that you notice that would a dealbreaker for you and take you out of the film completely?
PAPA: The only thing I really have a problem with, and I don’t know enough of it to know when it’s hacky in a film, but the only time that I have a problem with it is when it’s exploitative stuff against women. For me, that angle of horror instinctively checks me out. If it’s tied to the story and it’s relevant, it’s fine but there are certain times when it comes up and it’s like, “Alright, this is just some fetish that the director is into.”
DIABOLIQUE: Why do you think horror and comedy compliment each other so well?
PAPA: Yeah, for sure. I think comedy can really come from tension, where you build up the tension and you build up the uncomfortable space and then you let the audience off with a laugh. When the laugh becomes bigger, there’s more tension that you can build. So when you’re doing horror with a laugh in it, it’s like getting a laugh at a funeral or in a business medium. Horror is such a tense environment. Rob does this with his horror films where he brings you to really dark, dark place and then he lets you off with a laugh or some relief. He’ll make you feel safe and okay and then he makes it dark again. It’s that constant pull and tug between tension and comic relief, so that’s why horror works great with humor.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you have any projects currently in development or in production?
PAPA: Rob and I just released my second stand-up special, Freaked Out, and that’s on Epix now. So you can see it on EpixHD and it comes to Netflix in the fall. It’s got a totally blown-out, ‘70s-type of vibe and that was really fun. I did that and now I’m going on tour, and you can go to www.TomPapa.com for dates. I do want to do more horror! I keep telling Rob that I want a role where he can kill me in some heinous way.
For more from Tom Papa, you can visit his official website, check out his official Youtube channel, like his official Facebook page and you can follow him on Twitter: @TomPapa. You can currently view his previous stand-up special, Live in New York City, and Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto on Netflix. Furthermore, you can check out his weekly podcast, Come to Papa, here.
Remember, you can learn more about the evolution of horror comedy in Issue #17 of Diabolique, now available at the App Store, Google Play, Barnes and Noble and wherever horror magazines are sold! Next Monday, we’ll be speaking Saturday Night Live alum, stand-up comedian and documentarian Jim Breuer!
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