Wednesday, December 17, 2008

INTERVIEW: Jimmy Pardo

Jimmy Pardo is a L.A.-based, Chicago-raised stand-up comedian and host of the widely successful podcast Never Not Funny. Known for his (really) quick-wit and stream of conscious style, Pardo's live material consists mostly of crowd work. He'll be performing at the Helium Comedy Club tonight through Saturday.

You were a record executive at a young age?
"Executive" is a strong word, I was a sales and merchandise rep for MCA Records. I came out of record sales and got "called up to the bigs" when I was 21. And I was not well-liked, the old guard didn't care for this young kid coming in and taking jobs from in-house people.

What did the job entail?
I would have to call the record stores and get them to buy the album. I would basically call up the buyers of these chains and say "Hey, the new R.E.M. is out" (because we distributed IRS too), or "the new Tiffany or the new Fine Young Cannibals, how many do you want?" The problem was that I was a horrible salesman because I loved music. So we had a quota of x amount of the Little River Band and I would say "hey, this is a pretty good album", but no one's going to buy it. No one cares about the Little River Band in 1987. So all of my customers liked me for the most part, but I was horrible at the job.

So you started doing stand-up around the same time?
My first open mic was in 1987 right after I turned 21. Then I got the job at MCA and thought "well I've got to focus on this job" and I didn't do any open mics for six to eight months. Eventually I was working at MCA during the day and doing open mics at night and finally after I had been working quite a bit in Chicago getting paid to do stand-up, my boss basically gave me an ultimatum: "you want to pursue this crazy dream of yours, or do you want to work for the record company?" And I went "I'll tell you tomorrow" and I knew the answer, but I told him the answer the next day, "you know, I'm going to pursue my crazy dream." And the weird part is that everyone that had worked at that branch had come to see me and truth be told, I sucked. I was green and doing comedy for less than a year so when I told them I was going to quit, you could see it in their eyes, "oh he's fucking ridiculous, what is he doing?" And in retrospect they were right, because I stunk and they don't know that you get better. Real people don't think that you improve at a craft.

They think you just have it already or not...
Right. And the other funny thing is that head of the Motown-Chicago branch (because MCA and Motown were connected at the time) told me that he could get me on Evening at the Apollo. "I'll make a phone call right now to get you on the Apollo." And I would go "Ben, I've got no business going on the Apollo, they would kill me. They would boo me so badly." And he would say "no no, we'd let them know that you were one of our guys" and they wouldn't care if I'm one of your guys! And to the day that I quit he couldn't understand that I didn't want the exposure of Evening at the Apollo.

What was your material like back then? Was it a lot of crowd work like it is now?
That's the interesting thing (only to comedy nerds, not to real people). In my open mic days, I was very much like what I'm doing today. I took chances, I was in the moment. And everything I say very humbly without bravado, but I was an open miker that other open mikers liked to come in and watch. They'd see me really just get up there and riff and the crowds would go crazy. And back in those days, there were crowds at open mics. This was the late '80s and everybody loved comedy. So what happened is I started getting paid in March of '89 and once I started getting paid I panicked and thought "oh now I have to start being like a comedian. I need to start being like what people see on TV." And I won't say that I sold out, but I just kind of became milquetoast for basically '89 through '92. At the end of '92 I don't really know what happened, but I guess I just got tired of people telling me I was the funniest guy to hang out with and if I ever found what I was doing offstage, on stage, people would love me. And I didn't even understand what they were saying because I'm doing well on stage. But something clicked and I said "go back to what you were doing and who you are." In retrospect I wish I would've never stopped doing what I was doing when I started.

You started in Chicago, which everyone knows for improv, but what was the stand-up scene like back in the late '80s and '90s?
Oh, it was huge. At the time that I started, we were going to one or two open mics every night and when I started getting paid in '89, I did not leave Chicago for six months because I worked non-stop in the city and suburbs. There were so many one-nights and full-time comedy clubs and that's why I came up through the ranks so quickly. Every club or one-nighter needed talent and everything was spread so thin that while I still should have been open miking, I was getting paid to be an emcee. Which is why I became what other people refer to as a "great host" or "great emcee". That's really where I learned my chops instead of the open mics. The comedy scene in Chicago was just phenomenal, I don't know what it was like in L.A. or New York or anywhere else, but everyone was very supportive of each other. Obviously there were the guys that you thought were hacks or arrogant, any scene is going to have that, but you find your core group of guys that I'm still great friends with today and we all just got our asses kicked together and learned together.

Why did you originally start your podcast "Never Not Funny"?
I had been doing my live talk show at the UCB Theater ["Running Your Trap"] and Matt Belknap was just an audience member that of course ran He was just this guy that would come to the shows and he had me on his podcast ["AST Radio"] where he was just interviewing comedians. And he said to me, "we should make a podcast out of the talk show" and I said "ok that sounds good. I don't know what any of that means, but ok." And after talking a little longer he said "I don't even want to do AST Radio anymore, I want to produce a podcast with Jimmy Pardo doing it." Again, I didn't really know what podcasting was but I wanted to do it- I'm a horrible businessman and I thought, this is going to be the one thing that I'm going to be first at. I don't want to not do this now because it's got a cable-access vibe to it, and then two years later hear about how...I'm just going to use someone's name, I didn't want to hear about how great Andy Kindler's podcast was and then go "why didn't I do one!" Then I'd be the guy following, so the way I like to describe it as I was kind of following by leading because I didn't want to be left behind on this new format. So I jumped in really early and did it out of panic and of course it grew into this crazy thing that it is today.

Has doing the podcast affected your live material in any way?
Not on the road necessarily. The nice thing about the podcast is that A LOT of people are coming out to see me that probably didn't know who I was two years ago. It's phenomenal to walk out on stage and have people know who you are, there's no better feeling than that. But as far as material goes, the only thing it's really affecting is when I do my live shows around L.A. So many of the people there also listen to the podcast and if I tell a story on the podcast one week and then I'm doing a live show the next week, now it gets diffused a bit. I don't really put anything on the back burner, but sometimes I wish I would have. Some things I think I probably should have worked this out on stage, but the podcast has sort of become my stage. Sometimes that thing makes it to the stage, I'm telling a story now about my son at the CVS walking up in the middle of the gang bangers and saying hello. So sometimes there's pieces that I think are too good to just let sit on the podcast.

Besides laughter of course, when do you know that you're really "clicking" with a live audience?
It's not a matter of just laughs (and I don't want this to sound arrogant), but it's feeling that you have the freedom that the audience will go wherever you want to go and trust you. You just feel a trust with the audience where you think "oh ok, they're going to get me." And that I can make as many '80s band references as I want and whatever riffing and know that they are going to go with it and love it. The truth is, although I don't really "bomb" anymore, there's nights where they don't want to hear that crap and I just stick to the material and though those shows are good, the audience doesn't know what it could've been. Because when they trust me and it's loose, the more fun I'm having, the more fun they're going to have and the more open my mind is and it's going to be a lot more stream of consciousness stuff coming out.

It really is a conversation and not just a guy telling his jokes regardless...
And I know you just interviewed Todd Glass, Todd and I are very much on the same page on this. There's a big difference between performing and communicating and Todd and I want to communicate with the audience. We're two guys that if we perform in clubs with no more than 100 people every night, we'd be the happiest performers in the world. I think that's what comedy should be. If you listen to those old Woody Allen albums or even the first Steve Martin album, these are small jazz clubs, people crammed in, low ceilings and people listening to this performer talk and that's all they're doing. They're talking. Steve Martin's first two albums are two different worlds because by the second one [A Wild and Crazy Guy], he's in a stadium.

And the audience is screaming, it's not even laughter.
The same thing happened with Kinison and Dice Clay and to the lesser extent with Cosby in the '80s with Himself where he could get a laugh just by lifting a finger and everyone claims about how genius he is for not having to swear. To me it's all about communicating and connecting than it is performing. You know, Madison Square Garden, for comedy? And when you watch that special, and I don't even want to say the guy's name, nobody's laughing. They're just hooting and hollering and yelling. Granted, yes, wouldn't we all want to play Madison Square Garden? Maybe, for our egos, but me, I'd rather do a two-week stint at a 100-seat theater.

You were host of National Lampoon's Funny Money on the Game Show Network and are currently the host of "Running Your Trap" and the live remake of Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" at the UCB Theatre in L.A. What do you like about hosting game shows?
I like the formated looseness of them. I like that there's things that need to be done, but in those parameters I can be loose and do what I do. Which is actually why "You Bet Your Life" is the perfect vehicle for me because it's basically just talking to people and then playing this tiny little game that kind of interrupts the interview. I just think it's from being a kid nerd coming home from school and watching game shows and just loving them. When I was a child I would sit and watch Match Game and laugh at jokes that I probably didn't understand.

Jimmy in "You Bet Your Life"

Would you say Groucho Marx is an influence of yours?
I would say any "insult" comic is, although that would take away from what Groucho or I do. Newspaper reviews compare me to Don Rickles and that's a compliment because he's such a genius and legend, but one night in Lexington I mentioned Groucho on stage for some reason and when I came off stage, the middle act, Matt Fugate, who is a great comic out of Minneapolis, said "you know what, that's who it is. You're not Don Rickles, you're Groucho! You insulting them, but there's a love behind it and it's not so much insulting as getting them involved with it." And yeah, I grew up idolizing Groucho, Don Rickles, Johnny Carson and Robert Klein (who has nothing to do with insult comedy).

Other influences?
Richard Lewis and Paul Reiser, even though they are very similar in a way. But as I look back I realize how much Richard Lewis played into what I do. Don't be fooled by his list of notes that he brings out with him, he refers to them but everything else is stream of consciousness and he was doing that before other people were doing it. He was just brilliant and I still think he's great.

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