Q&A: Nick Swardson
If Nick Swardson wasn’t born into comedy, he came close. A stand-up prodigy, Swardson went pro before he turned 20, at a time when many thought stand-up comedy was dead. He’s been a mainstay on the circuit ever since, appearing twice yearly in Vegas, and became a frequent cast member in Adam Sandler comedies after co-writing the screenplay for 2006 comedy Grandma’s Boy. He can currently be seen as a one-eyed bandit in Sandler’s first Netflix film Ridiculous 6 and appears later this year in its follow-up, The Do Over. He spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen recently, ahead of his April 2 show at The Mirage.
You just observed your 20th anniversary as a stand-up. What do you consider your first gig?
It was an open mic. I still have the signup sheet. You couldn’t go over … If you went over three minutes, like, “You can’t f*cking come back, man!” Comedy clubs, it’s like they’re run by people that don’t have any power over any capacity of their lives, so all they have is their club. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but back in the day they would just wield these wands of power over these poor comedians. Self-loathing souls (laughs). It was just a funny phenomenon. I would get banned all the time from clubs. I got banned for nothing. Anytime I talked back or anything, they were like, “You know what? You’re banned.” Then the second I got any kind of fame they were like, “You know what? You’re back. You’re good. We forgive you.” So dumb.
There’s a story in an interview with someone who was one of your early gigs who said the atmosphere you came up through in Minnesota was like you were the young kid and a lot of your peers were “late-middle-aged people chasing a dream.” Maybe the owners were used to a certain etiquette.
When I started, everybody told me that comedy was dead. I mean everybody. People were like, “Don’t even. It’s dead.” There was such a huge boom in the ’80s, a massive boom, that it oversaturated and it bloated. By the time I started in the mid-’90s there was no f*cking money at all. I mean, I was making $150 a week. Anybody who started around that time really believed in comedy and really believed in what they were doing. A lot of great comics came out of that era. They did it because they really wanted to. It wasn’t a cash cow back them. It was like, you had to really struggle. This was pre-Internet! This was before you could post videos on Youtube and Myspace, Facebook and all that that shit. You had to grind it out. I was doing any f*cking gig I could. I was driving through blizzards in Minnesota to do biker bars. It was grimy, man, but yeah I started with … the open-mic night I did was empty. There was maybe 20 people in the crowd and it was housewives performing. It was older road dogs. I was by far the youngest, by a mile. I was just this kid that came out of nowhere, and people were like, “What the f*ck is happening right now?”
That’s so weird. A lot of comedians I interview say they had peer support when they started. And when a comedian got started in the boom-and-bust cycle of stand-up can tell you a lot about where their head was at and what their goals were. You just described a very obstacle-laden path.
Yeah, completely. The support was there, kind of. It was weird. I had different levels of coming up in Minnesota, so there were some guys that wanted to fight me. There was a lot of people that were really bitter. The thing that really sealed it was I won this contest six months into doing open-mic, where HBO picked me as one of the top new comics in the country. This is after six months, after doing an open mic.
You were on a very fast track.
Insanely fast. In six months, after my first step on stage, I’ve got this HBO thing. So there was a flood of, “Go f*ck yourself” … I remember one club was like, “F*ck you, you think you’re hot shit.” And I never ever had an ego. Everybody could attest to that. I was just like a deer in the headlights. I didn’t know what was going on, but people were like, “F*ck you! I worked for 25 years on the road.” I’m like, “That’s not my problem, bro.” It was very bizarre and that was one thing that kicked it into gear, but then I moved to New York. That was another thing of, “Who the f*ck is this guy?” I had to start over in what was way more of an aggressive environment, where Minnesota’s a lot more of “Oh, who’s this guy?” Minnesota was like, “Who the f*ck is this guy? He comes out of nowhere with a hot manager.”
And you didn’t even get to LA yet.
The best advice I got was to go to New York before I went to LA. That probably saved my entire career because I wasn’t ready to go to LA. New York is rough, but it’s comedy based. There’s like eight comedy clubs. You cut your teeth, you f*cking bomb, you get the shit kicked out of you, you know what I mean? So the best advice I got was like, “Go to Hollywood when you’re a headliner, when you’re ready.” Don’t go there like, “Oh, I just won a contest and I’m gonna go to LA.” Somebody told me once, “(Once) Hollywood sees you, then they see you, so be prepared to have all your weapons ready.” You know what I mean? Don’t just have 10 minutes of jokes. Make sure you have an hour, because if you have a great 10 minutes then they’re gonna go, “Okay, what’s the other 10 minutes.” Then you’re f*cked. They’re like, “Oh, this guy’s just got 10 minutes.” You don’t have any life experience. A lot of people were developing TV where they were like “We’ll build a show around you.” I remember I would take these meetings and they were like “So, what story do you have to tell.” I’m like “I’m f*ckin’ 19, bro. I’ve got nada. I don’t have any story. I can’t even drink legally. What story do you want, stuff from junior high?”
There’s one account I read that said you went into stand-up from improv because it was a more sure way of getting into movies.
Yeah, I was in an improv group, and I liked it but we had sold it. The company went down. The guy was kind of corrupt and we were all kind of in limbo, and so a lot of people jumped onto their own steer and did a makeshift their-own-thing, and they were like, “Do you want to do it?” The funny thing is I had heard about this HBO thing. I didn’t go to college. I just graduated high school and I wanted to be in movies. I wanted to be f*ckin’ Steve Martin and Woody Allen, and all these guys. In my head I was like, “You know what? The fastest way I’m going to get noticed is not going to be in an improv group. It’s going to be me onstage alone. That’s when I can control what I’m doing. I didn’t like being in a group where people were just coming in with my own agendas if you know anything about improv. People were just doing their own thing, hamming it up. I didn’t want to do that. I was like, “If I’m going to fall on my face, I want to be responsible. If I bombed, okay, I bombed. That’s on me. I didn’t perform well, my jokes sucked, you know what I mean? So that was a very conscious choice, and I also made another choice—whatever I did I wanted it to be universal. A lot of people were very provincial. People in Minnesota were talking about the freeways there, just so specific. In my head I was like, “Well, I want to get on TV. I want to do The Tonight Show. So how do I do that? I want to do stories and jokes that everybody can relate to whether you’re in Boston or Seattle.” I knew what the f*ck I was doing. I definitely had a plan and a goal I wasn’t partying at all back then. I was very focused. I wrote my ass off, and a lot of people helped me. A lot of bookers were great. There was one woman Dianne who booked me and she was like, “Keep writing.” And I would go and kill. I would have a great five minutes, and she’s like “Write another five.” She would never give me any credit. She just kept going, “Write more! Just keep writing.” And she just kept pushing me, and that’s what I tell young comics. Just get onstage and keep writing. I tell everybody that. Just keep writing whether you’re an actor or whatever the f*ck. Anybody in this business should always be writing. Acting, writing, directing—whatever your occupation, whatever you want to do. Just write. Don’t even over think it. Just put pen to paper … that’s kind of archaic, whatever. Just write.
There’s a clip in which Louie Anderson introduces you at Comedy Showcase in Aspen and the person who put it up said it was 1995, which would have made you 19. Not sure if that’s correct.
No, that would have been 1997.
You look like a completely different person. You kind of looked like Anthony Michael Hall from Sixteen Candles. You’re very animated as opposed to how you’d be on stage later. Your arms were in constant motion.
That was one year after open mics, so it was almost exactly to the day of my first open mic. I had just gotten back from that HBO Comedy Festival and they called me. And Louie’s from Minnesota so I was really excited, and he’s become one of my best friends. But at the time it was just a huge deal. I was totally excited, and I was so terrified of silence onstage that I just kept moving. I was like a f*cking Tasmanian devil, and that’s why when I broke onto the scene in Minnesota people were just like, “What the f*ck? What in the f*ck is happening?” I was this cyclone of comedy. I was just babbling. It was so crazy that people didn’t even know what to do. A lot of it was this fear of silence, and that’s one thing comedians have to get over just to be able to stand onstage and not worry. And that’s one thing I learned from Mitch Hedberg. When I first started, he had been doing it for a little while. Not that much longer, but I remember he would stand on stage and he would tell a joke, and then he would wait like a minute. There like dead silence, and I would be in the back of a comedy club and I’m like “What in the f*ck!” And he would tell a joke and he would wait like a minute, and I was just so blown away. “How can he do that? How can he just stand there?” It was so fascinating to me, and so the polar opposite of my mindset, because I was just so freaked out. I’ll never forget seeing him for the first time.
Did you see him before the open mics or after you got into stand-up?
After. I became a comedy club rat. People were like, “Mitch, this is Nick. He’s this young kid who’s coming up.” Mitch was like, “Oh, hey man,” and then Mitch and I became friends. It’s a very sad loss. He was a really good guy, but I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him and met him. It was one of those moments where it was very, very distinct.
So you, Mitch Hedberg and Louie Anderson are the favorite comedy of Minnesota basically.
And Maria Bamford. I would say us four are the most notable. Mitch went to high school in the same conference I did, which is funny.
This has been a busy month for you. You’re getting ready for a Nick and Friends show in LA March 16, and you were just at sea. How was the Sail Across the Sun cruise with Train and NSYNC?
It was amazing! It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. The shows were phenomenal, the people were great, the atmosphere was great. The bands were a blast. We had so much fun. Me and Chris Kirkpatrick from NSYNC got matching tattoos. We’ve all become like really good friends. I talked to Chris. I just talked to Pat Monahan from Train today. We’ve all become really close.
What kind of tattoos did you get?
I had gotten a previous tattoo in Hawaii called “Best Trip Ever.” It’s called “BTE.” A handful of buddies from the Plan B skateboard team, a bunch of us got these tattoos. So I got BTE2 on my forearm with half a heart, and then Chris has the other half (laughs).
You couldn’t really tell if that was a joke or not on social media posts. So you were serious?
Yeah, there wasn’t even a question. I mean, we were drunk. Like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” The next day people were like, “Dude, how much do you regret that?” I was like “I don’t f*cking regret this at all.” I think it’s amazing. Me and Chris are like super-stoked. Whatever. Life’s too short. Chris is a great guy. It truly was one of the best trips I’ve ever had. It was phenomenal. Michael Franti … It was a just week of dancing and going to Jamaica. It was great.
Did you open their sets or did you have your own showroom on the cruise?
I had my own showroom. I had a theater on the ship. I did two shows. I did opening night and closing night.
Is this becoming a thing? I’ve known about rock cruises for a while, but are cruises starting to have comedians on the bill as well?
A lot of them do, yeah. I’ve been invited before but my schedule never worked out. This one just worked out. It was a blast.
Is that what kept you from being booked as part of Adam Sandler’s weekend at the Hard Rock?
Yeah, yeah, because I had booked the cruise nine months previous and they had done all this press. Sandler called me up and he’s like, “We’re doing this tour.” And I’m like “When?” He’s like “This week,” and I was like “F*ck, dude.” And he’s like, “Are you kidding me?” I’m like, “Dude, I already booked it. I’m not going to bail on them.” So I was able to do one gig. I did Seattle as a surprise guest, which was super fun. The crowd was super-amped. But yeah, I missed that whole wing of shows.
I interviewed Norm Macdonald before the Vegas date and he said you were part of the San Diego warm-up show. He said it was a real blast. I saw some photos and it looked a little more extra-dimensional in comparison to the tour itself. Looked like there was a lot of fun going on.
Yeah, it was insane. Me and Norm took the train down together. I was the one that got Norm on the f*ckin’ show. I was like, “Dude, you gotta come to san Diego.” He was like (affects Macdonald voice), “Ah, I don’t know. Adam didn’t tell me.” I was like “Yeah, Adam would love it. Just come down, dude. I would be great.” He was like “Eh, ask Adam! I don’t wanna ask him.” I’m like “Dude, you know Adam.” So I was like, “Adam, Norm should come down.” He’s like “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah!” So Norm came down and did a surprise set and killed, and now we’re all doing this tour, I think we’ve got a week coming up with Adam set in May.
I saw you on his video podcast. You guys had a pretty good rapport. He brought something out of you during that episode. You were really funny.
Yeah, that was fun, man. I’ve known Norm now for a while. Adam, David and Rob, I’ve known them now for 10-plus years. We know each other so well, which is bizarre because I’m kind of the odd man out. They all came up together, but they’re all like family to me now. So it’s pretty fun. They’ve all been really great. But yeah, Norm’s hilarious. He’ll never forget that I beat him at ping pong. If you ever talk to him again, bring it up. He’ll be like, “Swardson, yeah! Stay away from him on the ping pong table. Jeez!”
When was this?
I beat him at ping pong like five years ago, six years ago. He still brings it up, so competitive.
You have a “Nick and Friends” show at Largo at the Coronet in LA March 16. Who are your Friends?
I don’t really announce it but there’s a really great lineup. The last one I had, I had Sandler and Spade. I had my buddy who’s a magician. He’s amazing, my buddy Pat. Right now I’ve got three killer comics. They’re different shows every time, but I’ve got three really strong comics for this one. I don’t announce them though because I don’t want to put pressure on the comics. This one I could, I guess. Sandler’s more wary of it, but it’s kind of fun to keep it ambiguous so people are like, “Okay, who the f*ck is it going to be?”
This comes out after the show. I was just wondering if this was an annual thing you did.
We do it every once in a while. They’ll call me up like, “Hey, we got a date.” This one it’s Whitney Cummings, Kevin Nealon and Bill Burr.
Your sister’s posted a picture of you and Whitney Cummings online. She’s funny too. She said, “Nick, you look like you just passed the GED class she was teaching.”
(Laughs) Yeah, we always slam each other.
I figured there was a lot of humor around the dinner table when you were growing up.
I mean, I guess so. My parents are both really sharp-witted. My brother was really funny too, but my humor developed just out of survival, being the youngest and going to kind of tougher schools, and being small. It was just kind of a self-defense. I always tell people it was like a super power that I couldn’t control. I just built up this really strong sarcasm, really cutting. I would roast kids. I would make fun of kids and it would get laughs, but it was just evil. So mean. It was like this power that I couldn’t control. I would just say horrible things to get laughs at other people’s expense. I had to kind of grow up. I remember this very vividly—and this is a hundred percent true—in my senior year we had a lock-in, like a big sleepover, and I went around to everybody and apologized to probably like six people. I pulled them aside and they were kind of weirded out. I was literally like, “I am really, really sorry. I was a piece of shit sophomore year and I’m really sorry. I was an asshole and a moron, and you’re f*cking great and that’s really my fault.” I was really candid with a handful of people and they were taken aback—“Oh, yeah, that’s cool.” No, that’s not cool. I was a f*cking dick.
Now you can look back at it as removing your filter to develop your comedy talent. Sounds like you had a natural ability to free associate and you had to say what popped into your mind. Does that make sense?
You were last in Vegas for your birthday October 9. Were there any fights or vomiting? Is Vegas a safe place for your audience to see you?
I love, love the Mirage shows. Oh my God. My birthday show was epic. It was so fun. People were … I’m expecting this show to be crazier. Just so people know, my Vegas shows are kind of my greatest hits. I’ll mean, I’ll definitely have new stuff, but it’s Vegas. I’m not going to just sit there and wing it. Nobody goes to Elton John like “Oh, really? ‘Tiny Dancer’ again?” But I’m a huge college basketball ball, so it’s like Final Four weekend is going to be f*cking nuts. Final Four audiences are right in my wheelhouse.