Starpulse Q&A: Comedian Nick Swardson Talks About New Album, Life & Movie Projects In The Works
Swardson's career itself is an interesting tale. Performing improv at sixteen and then delving into standup several years later, Nick achieved the distinction of being the youngest comedian to have his own Comedy Central Presents.
One night, Adam Sandler saw the special and was so impressed by the performance that he phoned him the next day, leading to a partnership that allowed Nick to act in and pen several features, including Grandma's Boy and I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry.
Now, on the eve of his CD's release, Swardson looks back on his earlier years in comedy, the messes humor's gotten him into and out of, and how he dealt with a homeless woman with a penchant for defecating on his stoop.
The Gay Robot pilot is hilarious and shows immense potential, and yet it was passed on by Comedy Central. Why is that?
I have no idea. They said it didn't test well. I still can't believe it. It was honestly such a hit show, and they just threw it away. It's fine; we're doing it animated. So that will be good.
Why do they think it will work better as an animated program?
It physically kind of does. Just logistically working with a robot is a lot more work and it's a lot more expensive. And networks like Fox and Comedy Central have had such huge success with animation like Family Guy and South Park, and those type of things that have become literally iconic. I think they just want to swing more in that area.
Where is the robot that was in the pilot now?
Probably at a gay bar somewhere.
You worked on the pilot with Tom Gianas, who also worked on the cult sketch program Mr. Show.
I love Mr. Show. Bob and David are good friends of mine. Tom is a really good friend of mine, too. He was the first person I thought of for this project.
You're friends with Dane Cook, but you're also in a lot of alternative comedy circles. The alt guys tend to bash Dane quite a lot, specifically Andy Kindler. How do you feel when that sort of bashing is going on?
That's a good question, and it's a good point, because it is kind of funny how the comedy scene is kind of divided. Andy Kindler is one of my really good friends. Dane Cook and I have been friends since we both started. I can see both sides. Dane has done stuff that lends itself to being made fun of. I defend him a lot. I don't know about the whole thing with stealing material, I just kind of hope that he wouldn't do that. My argument was like, "You take away those three jokes that he supposedly stole, and he's still who he is." It's not like he stole something that made him who he was.
I think it's fine to make fun of somebody as long as it stays in a certain area. Once you get to a certain point and you're as high profile as he is, you can bust somebody's balls. But if you get to the point where it's just negative for the sake of being negative, like when people bash pop music-- I'll listen to Top 40 radio, I don't care. You can't listen to that weird indie punk band from Boise every time you get in your car. I do get caught in the middle a little bit, especially working with Adam Sandler. I'll get some flak too for that. But I'm really defensive about it. I think if you've got something to say and you're making a funny joke about it, that's fine. But if you get to the point where you're just mean, and you're lashing out just for the sake of lashing out, I think it's lame. Somebody went up at Coachella and was like, "Somebody kill Dane Cook. No, seriously, somebody kill that guy," and I thought that was really lame.
That sounds excessive to me.
It doesn't make any sense. Kindler will do something funny. But slamming people just because they're successful or just because they're in the public eye, unless you have a funny angle, don't waste your time.
You started performing in the Midwest area. Did you take the club route, or did you go more of the alternative route?
I started in the club route. I did the alternative scene later on. When I lived in New York, I did the Luna Lounge and stuff, where Janeane Garofalo and David Cross and all those guys worked out of, but I came from a comedy club background. I'm proud of that background. I'm one of the people that really crossed over and did both. Me and the comedians who did that would always talk about how it was funny that these alternatives would be like, "You're doing the road? You're doing comedy clubs?" And it's like, "Yeah, we're comedians. That's what they do. We're not in the safety of your coffee house every weekend." If you want to be a comedian, go out. Do a week in Des Moines, Iowa. Try to make those people laugh.
Quite a few mainstream comedians hear the term "alternative comedy" and are like, "Alternative comedy? Alternative to what? Comedy?" Where do you think this sentiment comes from?
That's another thing where it's a weird term, but it's basically no different than what was going on in New York when Woody Allen and Bill Cosby were performing. It's just a hipper, more attentive crowd. If you go to the Funny Bone in Des Moines, Iowa, on a Thursday night, and do a show, people are going to be drunk, it's going to be rowdy. It's going to be a different sensibility than performing in the heart of Hollywood or the East Village in New York, where specific rooms are more conditioned for people to listen to stories and offbeat sensibilities. It's just a different kind of vibe. So when they say alternative, it's really not, but it's off of center of what the big comedy picture is.
Since you started out pretty young, what sort of tricks did you use for trying to relate to the older crowd?
I wanted any joke I did to be accessible no matter what age group or no matter what state I performed in. I always thought that the fastest way for me to get ahead and get noticed and to do well was to make my act very accessible. When I first started, I talked about family stuff, my dog, my cat. It was all I knew back then, I wasn't forcing anything, but I wasn't like, "Hey, don't you hate doing homework?" I knew better than to alienate my crowd, so I made sure that what I talked about what was as universal as I could make it.
When you started doing open mics, do you have any memories of literally crazy people, like the homeless or heroin addicts, performing at the open mic with you?
I always laugh, because when I started doing open mics in Minnesota, comedy was kind of on the way out. I had started doing stand up, and people were like, "What? You're starting stand up?" And I'm like, "Yeah," and they're like, "Dude, stand up's dead." They were like, "There's no money on it, it's on the way out," literally it was like this dying art form. So I always said that anyone who started doing comedy in the mid-nineties really loves and believes in doing comedy, because it wasn't hip, it wasn't anything. It was on the way out. So the people who started then really loved what they were doing. The open mic that I went to was this complete mid-life crisis, housewives, drug addicts. There was this one redneck guy did a joke about spilling crystal meth on his cat and then trying to chase his cat around the house just to snort if off the cat. I was like, "What is going on?" It was the most bizarro show you could imagine; it was so funny.
You perform a lot of material about your grandmother. What did she think when you got involved in stand up?
She loved it. She was so sweet, she would come to my shows even when she couldn't hear very well, and she would just smile. Later on in my career, it was probably for the better that she couldn't hear well because I got a lot dirtier. But she was so proud; she loved it. She loved that I had these jokes about her. And I would point her out in the crowd, "There's my grandmother!" and people loved it. She loved it; it was great.
Did she ever give you any tips?
No, she would just give me cookies.
When you finally achieved success in stand up, how did that benefit your grandmother?
She got all of her drugs for half price immediately. I don't know if that benefited her. She passed away before it got really crazy. I don't think she ever got to see me selling out two thousand seat theaters or anything, but she saw the beginnings of it.
Another thing that you talked about on your album is that you've always wanted to be on a game show. Do you think that's something that you could make happen now?
I don't know, that's a good question, if I could pull the strings just to get on Wheel of Fortune. I don't know, I've always been fascinated by game shows. I would. I don't know if I could get on Jeopardy. If it was like the Junior High edition of Jeopardy, maybe I could do that.
You mentioned your displeasure with shows like Deal or No Deal, but the Game Show Network has a lot of really esoteric weird shows. Do you think if you couldn't get on Wheel of Fortune that you would do one of those?
Yeah, I could. Or maybe Survivor, just take it to another level. I could do Survivor, but I would have to do it in New York City or something.
Growing up, did you use your humor as a survival mechanism, like if there was a bully, you would just tell a joke and he would leave you alone?
Yeah. It's funny because you really do do that. But when you have a really acerbic wit-- I had honed my sarcasm pretty extremely- and when you're a kid, you don't really know what you're saying. You have no filter. So it's almost like this superpower, where you're just being extremely crass and mean, and you just don't know what you're saying, and you're making girls cry and teachers angry. It's definitely a defense mechanism. I was always short, too. I was always the runt of my friends. So I definitely needed to be a goofy kid to get by.
What are some things that you did to make little girls cry?
I was just mean. I would sell out anybody to get a laugh. I was in third grade, I didn't give a shit. It was terrible. I remember me and my friends all went out after school, and we were at a local pizza shop. My friend had kind of bad acne. And in front of everybody, I took the cheese off my pizza, so it was just the sauce on the bread, and I was like, "Hey, look, Mike! A mirror!" I held it up in front of everybody, and everybody was laughing. There could not be a meaner thing to do. If I were Mike, God bless his heart, I would have forked my eyes out. But he didn't. I would do stuff like that. I was so mean. I remember my friends would just laugh, "Jesus Christ, you're so mean!" So I had to really dial it down.
Was there a particular incident that made you tone it down?
No, it was just in general. I just realized, "I gotta mellow out a little bit." When I was in high school, I realized that I had been mean to people, so on my last day of school in high school, I went up to several people and apologized and was like, "I'm really sorry, I was a raging asshole. I'm so sorry that I gave you any grief," and they were really taken aback and like, "Yeah, no worries." And I was like, "No, I'm serious. I'm really sorry. I know you're not acknowledging it, but I really am sorry."
Did that touch any of the people you spoke with?
I think so. It had to be a little jarring, but they seemed to be really appreciative. I was a hundred percent serious. When you get older and look back, you don't want to make anybody feel bad. We're all living this life together. The less grief you can cause other people for no reason, the better off you are.
Having performed for as long as you have, why did it take you so long to release your first CD?
I just have a weird attention deficit. It's hard for me to focus sometimes. I would record my shows in the past, and I would hate them. Even listening to my CD now, I can't listen to myself. It wasn't until Sandler came along and gave me that kind of drive and foundation to go, "Hey, let's do a CD, let's work and really get this down," it helped that he was kind of the catalyst to that. Otherwise I would have kept listening to shows, and been like, "I don't like this." Sandler also came with the dimension of doing sketches and adding other elements to it, so that was really cool.
The sketch that opens up the CD is you listening to answering machines after a terrible night of just drinking way too much. How is the sort of stuff you encounter in that sketched compared to the stuff you really encounter after a night of too much drinking?
It's verbatim. Unfortunately that sketch is based on many a true instance, which I talk about in my act too. I like to drink. I'm really unapologetic about it. I don't drink and drive, but drinking is very fun to me, and that has come with it. Me and my friends are big partiers, and we black out, and I definitely have had many a Sunday where I'm listening to the machine and it's like, "Oh boy. What happened?" But I always thought it was really funny. People tried to crack down on me, like, "Nick, you shouldn't do that. It's really bad. If you don't remember what happened, that's terrible," and I'm like, "What? That's hilarious." There's nothing funnier to me than hearing what I did the night before. It makes me laugh so hard. People are like, "You don't remember that? You jumped on that guy's car when it was moving, and then you kicked that guy, you built that church, and then you taught all those kids to read."
Have you made any big purchases while drunk?
Yeah. One I got talked out of. I was in Vegas with my friends, and I got wasted, and I offered to buy everybody ten thousand dollar diamond bracelets that said, "Holler." For me and my friend Wee Mack, who is a little person, and my other friend Jeff, and I was dead set on it. My friend's like, "Dude, don't," and I'm like, "Fuck that! Let's do it!" I was so into it, and luckily he was like, "Dude, you don't want to do that. It's thirty thousand dollars. It's an obscene amount of money."
How are you with money?
I'm getting better. I'm pretty generous. If somebody needs help or something, I lend my friends money, I donate to charities, but I'm not extravagant. I have a modest apartment, and I don't go crazy. I do spend a lot on my own clothes, but I give a lot of clothes away to Goodwill. I try to balance it.
When is it that a shirt of yours or a pair of pants has gotten to the level where it's time to give to charity?
I give really expensive clothes. I don't really give a shit. I'm kind of a clothes freak, so I'll switch my wardrobe every year or twice a year, I'll kind of move stuff in and out. Some t-shirts will stay obviously, but some, I'll make a shift and give it to Goodwill. I'll leave clothes in my back alley, because I live by the beach, so literally you'll see a homeless guy with a three hundred dollar jacket. It's so funny.
Do you think you're making it harder for these homeless to beg people for money now?
Yeah, I might have cockblocked a ton of guys. "Can I get a dollar?" "What, for another Dolce & Gabbana shirt, you f**king weirdo?" "What do you mean? Who's Dolce? Is that an alien?" They have no idea what people are talking about.
Are there a lot of homeless in your area?
Yeah. I live in Venice beach.
How do you deal with the homeless?
Rat poison and burritos. No, they're nice. I give away my food and stuff. If you're homeless and you're genuinely down and out, I'll give them twenty bucks, and I'll give them food. But if you're just a shitty homeless person and you're just going to take a shit on my doorstep-- there's people that do that. Every morning this old lady would squat and take a huge shit on the doorstep of me and my neighbor, and finally we chased her with a bat, and she stopped doing that.
You mentioned you're friends with a little person. In the context of comedians, what sort of relationship do you notice people having with a little person? Are they respectful, or as comedians do they feel the need to make jokes?
I always think it's lame when comedians have midget jokes. It's the hackeyest thing you could talk about. I've seen comedians do that on TV, and it's such an easy reaction and such a cheap laugh. It's so uninteresting to me. And obviously every premise has its funny stuff, I've heard funny jokes, but for the most part, that's one of my biggest pet peeves. Anyone who talks about midgets. "Oh yeah, the midgets!" I'm like, "Oh my God, really? I didn't know you were not a good writer of comedy. That's cool."
What do you think are some indications of good or bad comedy?
Anybody who talks about midgets a lot is not a good comedian. I can't really generalize. I don't like comedians who get really mad at the audience and freak out. I've had rough sets, and I always think that's kind of lame. Comedians who are dirty just for the sake of being dirty, or are too shocking, just for the sake of doing it. I love dark comedy, but I don't like where it's contrived. The same thing with midgets, just saying stuff to get a reaction. There's nothing worse than somebody who's fake edgy. It's awful.
Outside of the show and the CD, what are some projects that you're working on?
I'm developing a couple movies right now. I'm writing two films for me to star in. One of them is produced by Sandler, we're getting ready to shoot it early next year. And the other one we'll shoot after that. The Sandler one is like a broad PG-13 comedy, and the other one is a rated R drinking comedy.
When you think about a project like that, do you use terms like "broad PG-13 comedy?" That seems like a professional sort of piece of lingo.
I guess it is. I'm so used to doing interviews and stuff, it's just a quicker way to sum it up. One of them is very specific, it's a rated R drinking comedy, and the other is more in the vein of Dumb & Dumber and Bench Warmers.
Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer
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