Why Flying Solo Is a Joke

Have you heard the one about life on the road? Comedian Tom Papa gets the last laugh by making the most of his busy travel schedule.

By Tom Papa
Illustration by Olivia Waller

When I travel, I am a lone wolf. I am a comedian and a writer, which are two solo careers that keep me on the road. I don’t have backup singers or teammates coming along for the ride. There are no audiences coming to my living room and no book tours held in my kitchen. I must go to where the people are, which means that I must journey alone, through multiple time zones and across numerous sticky car rental counters far from home.

People assume that this solitary travel is a horrible aspect of what I do. But here’s a little secret — it’s one of the best parts.

This is not to say it’s glamorous. Most of the time, it’s not. Right now, as I write this, it definitely is not. I am catching a connecting flight at the Philadelphia airport on my way to Syracuse. When the routes get shorter, the planes get smaller and the boarding gates get crammed together with other small-market cities like Buffalo, Columbus, and Burlington.

There’s no lounge in this part of the airport. Why would you put a lounge in a meat processing plant? And that’s what it feels like. There’s nowhere to sit. There’s nowhere to even stand. Adults are lying on the floor, sleeping standing up, and trying to charge their phone from an outlet they found under a garbage can.

There’s no Starbucks; there’s just a mock deli with even more mocking coffee served in Styrofoam cups. Televisions hang from the ceiling, blasting CNN’s bad news of the day. We didn’t ask to listen to this, but we have no choice. We also have to listen to the traveling high school basketball team harassing each other. We have to listen to announcements for flights that have nothing to do with us. We have to listen to people loudly FaceTiming friends without headphones of any kind, a habit that is somehow acceptable now. There was a time when I would dread being next to a crying baby, but with how rude adults have become, I long for a screaming infant. At least a baby won’t be watching music videos on full volume while eating a smelly chicken sandwich.

When my flight is finally called, my escape from all of this will be to climb aboard a plane the size of a Toyota 4x4 and bounce along at low altitude and high turbulence to our final destination.

Despite all of this, I still I love it, because I’m going somewhere.

Something new is waiting for me, and I will be joining it soon. There will be coffee shops, bakeries, and diners. Outdoor patio bars, beaches, and lakes. I don’t live in a place where the streets are lined with honky-tonk dive bars, but I might be headed to a city that is.

There will be people who act, speak, and look slightly different from the people in my town, and they are out there waiting for my arrival. There are cowboys, truck drivers, and teachers skipping school. Students, clerks, and retirees drinking in the middle of the day. Groups of young women headed to Nashville for their bachelorette parties. Businesspeople headed to Vegas for “work.” And thankfully, for my profession, they all have a story to tell.

There’s something about being out of our element, away from home, that makes people want to connect. I don’t find these people annoying; I find them fascinating. Some of my greatest insights and best jokes have come from striking up a conversation on a plane. And it’s inspiring. For as big and unwieldy as this country can sometimes feel, in a time when the focus seems to be on how different we are from one another, my travels have taught me the opposite. We have so much in common, and a lot of it is based on a love of enjoying life and heading out on the open road, hopefully eating as much junk food as we can along the way.

And traveling alone, as I am right now, there will be no distractions. My only concern is my carry-on with my backpack on top, and maybe a small coffee in my hand. There are no discussions about dinner or what we’ll do when we get there. No one is spilling his or her anxieties about delayed flights or the limited space in the overhead.

It’s just me.

I am a traveler. An observer. Reporting on the real life that I see. Jotting down notes from conversations that I have overheard. The hopes of a young, newly married couple. The worries of the grandmother heading to a family reunion on her own. The passionate woman trying to come up with a new way to peel and eat a banana. (She couldn’t do it.)

Traveling alone, I can become a chameleon. I can become a citizen rather than a tourist. I can rest at the streetside café for hours. I can sit back and observe the rhythm of this city’s roaring human river and pick the right time to cross. I can lie down in my bed, in my new town, arms and legs outstretched, no longer a stranger but someone who belongs here.

But, of course, my true place is at home with my family. I carry them with me when I travel, and they will pull me back when I have seen enough. I love to go, but it’s even better when I return. At least for a while. Until it’s time for another show or another tour, and I get to go again.

About the author: Tom Papa has been a stand-up comedian and comedic actor for more than 20 years. He is a regular on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Conan, and performs on the nationally syndicated radio show Live From Here. He is the host of the podcast and SiriusXM show Come to Papa, whose guests have included Mel Brooks, Ray Romano, Carl Reiner, and Jerry Seinfeld, and the author of Your Dad Stole My Rake: And Other Family Dilemmas. Follow Tom on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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