As a comedian, Jimmy Pardo is hard to categorize: He’s simultaneously old-school yet cutting edge, confrontational yet self-deprecating. He would not seem out of place at a Dean Martin roast wearing a suit, or on the tiny stage of an alternative-comedy theater wearing a t-shirt. His act is a combination of written material, off-the-cuff riffs, and—as showcased on his 2007 album Pompous Clown—Pardo has the ability to do crowd work like no other comedian today that I’m aware of—a quality that echoes and even rivals that of Don Rickles.
In a time where we are being bombarded with too many podcasts to keep track of, Pardo is the host of one of the few that are actually worth paying attention to—Never Not Funny. Created in 2006, long before most people had even heard of podcasting, the show was originally co-hosted with fellow comedian Mike Schmidt. After it’s first 60 episodes, the podcast switched formats to a weekly, subscription-based model broken down into 26 episode “seasons”. During this change Schmidt left the podcast, leaving Jimmy and producer Matt Belknap who are joined by a weekly guest. Regular guests include comedians Scott Aukerman, Doug Benson, Paul F. Tompkins, and Pat Francis. The show, frankly, is the closest you’re going to get to eavesdropping on great comedians shooting the shit with each other. It’s one of the few podcasts I whole-heartedly recommend to just about anyone who will listen.
For two years running Never Not Funny has hosted the “Pardcast-A-Thon”, a marathon podcast taping that streams live, and is available for download. All donations went to the charity Smile Train, and this past year over $35,000 was raised.
Pardo was also the warm up act for The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien and has currently holds that same position on Conan.
I spoke with Jimmy over the phone and we discussed how his podcast came to be, what it was like during the Tonight Show’s brief run with O’Brien, and some of his comedic growing pains.
How did the podcast come about?
JP: I had been doing Running Your Trap the talk show at the UCB Theater—the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater—and I’d been doing it for years, and Matt Belknap who runs ASpecialThing.com, was a huge fan of it–he would come all the time with his wife—and he then started doing a podcast called A Special Thing Radio. It was kind of a dry, Charlie Rose-y sort of interviews about comedy. I thought they were great. I thought he did a great job. And then after the one he did with me he asked me if I would be interested in doing a podcast. He’s like “I think it’d be more fun to produce and engineer a podcast for you then it would be to host my own.” I knew a little bit about podcasting because of Ricky Gervais and so I said “Yes! Let’s try it.”
I’m guilty of being the last guy on Facebook, Myspace, I still don’t Twitter, and so the idea of a podcast was like “You know what, for once in my career I’m going to be the guy who’s first from my community.” Almost like what Dane Cook was to websites, I’m going to be the podcast guy, cause I didn’t want years to go by and have everyone talk about how great Patton Oswalt’s podcast was and be like “I should have done one!” So basically I was following by leading. I was still a guy trying to keep up with the Joneses but only this time from ahead of the pack. Knock on wood, it’s been crazily successful.
You’ve recently had some write-ups in GQ and ESQUIRE and gotten some high profile guests like Jon Hamm and Conan O’Brien. Do you find that’s caused a surge in listenership?
JP: You know what…our subscribers have grown consistently so that we…I can’t speak to seeing any spike with those magazines coming out. You know, there’s certainly a spike when we have a Conan O’Brien on, or Jon Hamm on the show—we get a spike in listenership for those weeks and then maybe some of those people stick around as paid subscribers—I don’t know the answer to that, to be honest with you.
Do you think that having the podcast has gotten you an audience that you previously wouldn’t have reached? Someone who wouldn’t necessarily have gone to a comedy club in a mall on a Saturday night?
JP: Yes. I will 100% say “yes.” We just talked about it on the most recent podcast. We did New Years Eve in Bloomington, Indiana, and people were there to see me because of Never Not Funny, and that’s happened across the country as I’m going out more and more—I did a lot of dates last year because the Conan show was on hiatus—and I’m seeing a lot of Never Not Funny fans and people that may not have gone to a comedy club coming out to see Jimmy Pardo, and they’re like “Hey, I listen to the podcast. This is my first time at a comedy club.” I’m like “Jeeze. First of all, how are you a fan of comedy not having gone to a comedy club?” I mean, I’m fascinated by that.
You’ve heard the show…it’s silly—it can sometimes border on juvenile—I’d like to think that it’s at least clever occasionally and witty and maybe a little more sophisticated. Sophisticated silliness may be a good way to describe it. But it brings out a smarter audience. Dumb people don’t listen to Never Not Funny, it turns out. They’re pretty sharp folks. So when you have smart people coming to a comedy club you’re getting great audiences.
Do you find that audiences have changed a lot over the past 20 years? Do you find that people are more open to a different experience?
JP: That’s a good question. I can only talk about me. I would imagine, sadly, there’s still the image of the Jerry Seinfeld-ian knockoff from the late 80’s that people envision when they go to the comedy club. You know, they want to see the guy in the sport coat and the tie…I think your older folks think that, or at least someone who doesn’t go to a comedy club. So obviously audiences are different. Comedy Central has changed comedy, showing much younger comics and such…uh…I’m not answering your question. I’m just talking in circles. [LAUGHS] I’m a failure. I’m a failure. Let’s just say “yes.” I’m going to say “yes.”
You do warm-up for Conan. Am I correct that you almost turned that gig down when it was offered to you?
JP: I had done warm-up back in the late 90’s. I did maybe 5 shows for Craig Kilborn and I did warm-up in 1996 or 7 on Andy Kindler’s short-lived talk show on Animal Planet…and I did 2 days of that and I did not enjoy that experience at all. I mean, I walked away from both of those with…like, I dreaded going to that. It was so…I just hated it. I really did. I felt like “Nah, I just couldn’t be farther away from show business.” There’s a skill to it and some people are very good at it. I’m a sarcastic jerk by nature. And I say “jerk” humorously, but I’m a sarcastic guy. Audiences don’t necessarily want to hear sarcasm as they’ve come to sit and watch a TV show be taped, even though they’re coming to see a comedy show. I hated it. So then 10 years went by and I got a phone call asking if I wanted to meet to do warm-up for the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, and I had had, oddly enough, a weird dream one evening—you know, not in an “boy, I have a dream that one day this will happen”, I had an actual dream—that I got offered a job on The Tonight Show with Conan moving out here. So when the phone call happened it’s like, “Well that’s really weird. I have to at least take that meeting” even though I don’t want to do warm up for any show. So I kind of went there with the attitude of “I’ll take the meeting, good luck to them, but I’m not going to take the job.” I showed up and I was just so taken by how nice and funny everybody was. The first person I met was the writer’s coordinator who works in conjunction with headwriter Mike Sweeney, and Mike was so funny and friendly and it was none of the Hollywood nonsense that I had been dealing with. It was like “Wow, this is a unique experience. Nobody here has an attitude.” But I still turned it down. And they’re like “all you got to do is 10 minutes a day. You show up and warm up the crowd and then you’re done. You don’t have to do the commercial breaks, you don’t have to do anything.” At that part Conan was part of the meeting and he’s like “We’d really like you to take it.” For whatever reason I was cocky and I said “Well, let’s give it a try and if you like me and I like you I’ll keep it.” And here we are with 7 months of The Tonight Show and a month and a half of Conan and every day I show up praying to God they don’t fire me.
Do you ever think about what it would be like if you didn’t take it?
JP: Luckily enough the podcast is successful and there’s always the road, so who knows. I don’t know if I would have been like “Thank God I didn’t take that” because I wouldn’t know how great it was. I’m really glad I took it. I’ve become friends with Conan and all the writers, who have ended up being on our show. I’m not a religious man at all, but I’m blessed to have that job, and I mean that sincerely.
What was the climate like on the show during the whole NBC scandal?
JP: We went from thinking—and being told—“there’s nothing to this rumor on TMZ. It’s just a rumor. For whatever reason someone is talking.” A couple of weeks before the TMZ rumor came out Jay Leno said in an interview, you know, the interviewer said “What if they offered you 11:30 back” and instead of saying “That’s another man’s job now.” Jay said “I would take it back.” And so I’m sure that started some wheels spinning and this rumor happened, everyone assumed it was based on that statement he made, so for a day it was a rumor and then the next day it’s like “Hey, there’s something to this” and then the next was “Oh my God. This is real.” So within 3 days we went from “nah, this is ridiculous” to people going “Oh my God! We’re about to not have a job.” And then 2 weeks later was our last show.
Those last few shows were phenomenal. There’s nothing like doing comedy with a big “F You” hanging behind you. The vibe at work was very “Hey, f you man” but at the same time “What are we gonna do?” Now, I didn’t move out here from New York like those people did. They uprooted their entire family, they moved across country thinking they were going to be on The Tonight Show for 16 years. I kind of thought the same thing even though I was already based here. I was like “This is great, I love having this job. I’m going to have this job forever.” So the last 10 days was a little like zombie-land. We all kind of were going through the paces, but yet putting on the best show we possibly could.
How’s the new TBS show been going?
JP: It’s unbelievable. Everybody talks about how The Tonight Show wasn’t really Conan—I thought he did a terrific job. I was one of the people who will speak very positively about what he was doing with The Tonight Show. I think it was a man who had respect for the history of The Tonight Show and the entity and he was great with that name. The show he’s doing now, man everybody is having fun and enjoying working there and there really is a different vibe coming to work there then there was at The Tonight Show, and, by the way, the vibe at The Tonight Show was GREAT. That vibe was phenomenal, this vibe’s even better.
Was there any sort of defining moment growing up that made you say “I’ve got to be a comedian?”
JP: I did a bunch of theater and stuff like that. When I was moving out to LA in ’95 and I was cleaning out the bedroom at my mother’s house we came across a drawing I had made when I was 12 or something of what I thought was a comedy club…it was like a spotlight shining on an empty microphone. I must have been even younger than that. I think the project at school was “what do you want to be when you grow up” and I drew a stand-up comedy stage. I don’t remember drawing it and so apparently I wanted to do this for a long time, I just don’t remember that being the case.
You’ve commented before on the podcast that you were a great open mic’er and a great headliner, but in between you weren’t as proud of what you were doing. What’d you mean by that?
JP: I think the best way I’ve managed to put it over the last few months is that I worked very hard to be an average comedian. I was too worried about getting laughs and I was too worried about getting re-booked. I was too worried about the business end of it and not worried about the art of stand-up comedy, and I really wasn’t true to myself. Once I started getting paid I thought “now that you’re getting paid you’ve got to ratchet it up. You got to be something different from what you’ve been doing.” Obviously I needed to go through those growing pains to figure out what I’m doing today. I really wish I would have stayed who I was as an open mic’er. It was really the early 90’s where I was just kind of a generic white guy talking. And who cares?
In the era when everyone was getting sitcoms.
JP: Yeah. I remember one day I decided I’m going to start writing like other guys do. So I sat down and I gave myself a topic, and the topic was tornadoes and then I tried to write jokes about tornadoes with no…no gut behind it, no heart behind it. Just jokes that would get laughs—and by the way, they would just get ok laughs. They wouldn’t kill—so I’m doing all this work to be average and then, I don’t know what happened, but something finally clicked where like “hey, I’m better than this. What am I doing here?” and I just started going up on stage and bombing and talking from the heart and even when I sucked people would quote certain bits of mine and now that I look back on it, those bits were the most heartfelt and real. You know, talking about a break-up. I remember people talking about this break-up that I went through…that was their favorite bit. And, again, now that I look back on it, it’s like, oh, I was just talking. It wasn’t like [dons hack-ey comedy voice] “Hey, tornadoes are crazy.” I’m grateful to have gone through that because of, you know, that old adage “that which does not kill you, makes you stronger.”
You’re well known for your crowd work. Do you ever leave the stage feeling like “I went too far”?
JP: Yes. There’s maybe just a handful of times where I will even—maybe 3 times I’ve actually gone to look for that person after the show to go “Hey, it was all in fun.” Because there are times when I see it turn in their face, like “I came here to have a good time, and you’re just shitting on me.” I try not to shit on people so much anymore. There was a time when all my crowd work was “you’re stupid, you’re dumb, you’re a fool” and I try now to turn it around on me as much as possible, so that people don’t think “really? I left the house just to have this guy mock me?” And even though the comic can say “Hey, I’m just having fun,” is that fun to be sitting there and just get made fun of? I try to do it as cleverly and as fun as possible, but yes. To answer your question, there’s been many a time where I think maybe I’ve gone too hard on somebody.
Anyone ever try to get physical with you?
Yes. And this was when I wasn’t good at what I do. I was working with my friend Pete Schwaba and another comic by the name of Mike Burton at a club called Wacko’s…it’s now defunct. This guy—I will never remember what I said or did to this fella—but he came looking for me after the show and I think I hid in the kitchen of the comedy club. I do for a fact remember hiding. I do know I hid. Where I hid is up for debate, but I do remember hiding. I do remember Pete and Mike talking about “Oh my God! That guy was going to kick your ass, and we were ready to fight with you.” I’d rather just hide, guys.
You’ve been doing the Pardcast-a-thon for a couple of years now. How did that come to be?
We had decided we wanted to do something special on the weekend of Thanksgiving back in 2009. And from that we said “Let’s do a longer show, let’s do a marathon show.” I grew up loving telethons. I grew up loving the Jerry Lewis telethon, and so I was like “Hey, let’s make this a telethon!” and we’d already done a contest where the money went to Smile Train, and I so I said “Let’s do a telethon! Let’s do a 9-hour show,” I don’t know why we decided on 9 hours, I think maybe it just made sense “and then let’s have some people donate as we’re going, and let’s give that money to Smile Train.” So that’s really how it came to be. Let’s take this fun show and have this charity be rewarded for this ridiculously long show we’re doing.
The podcast, including the Pardcast-a-thon, can be found at www.pardcast.com
His album Pompous Clown is available at www.aspecialthing.com and on iTunes.
For live dates check out www.jimmypardo.com