Being a big fan of Jimmy Pardo’s work and helping bring his Never Not Funny Podcast to Chicago, I was really looking forward to this interview. I call Pardo while he’s driving to Conan, where he’s the opening act each night. He’s anxious to get right to the questions. When I try to make small talk he jokingly berates me for not going to see him do stand-up recently at a theater in Chicago, then he backs off when I tell him I was working. The man is incredibly well known in the comedy community for being a top-of-the-line improvisor. He’s also the Thomas Edison of the comedy podcast, seeing as he was the first professional stand-up to put comedy podcasts on the map. And now, you can also see him burst in on celebrities appearing on Conan on the recurring “Pardo Patrol” videos on teamcoco.com.
Do you remember the first time you did crowd work?
I used to do crowd work all the time as an open micer. I would go up and do a lot of stream of consciousness stuff and then I would deal with the audience as well. When I started working full time and being an MC for Zanies, the Improv, and the Funny Farm and Catch a Rising Star, locally in Chicago, I was a great host because I would do some crowd interacting. Because I had that old school Carson sort of vibe, it didn’t seem like I was derailing the show by doing crowd work, like so many guys do today. When the MC does crowd work today I want to strangle the guy.
It sounds like I’m patting myself on the back, but there was a difference between the way I did it back then and where it felt like I was welcoming the people instead of just burning topics. I did a lot early on, and then I stopped doing it, because I thought I had to be a serious comedian and just started doing an act, and that was atrocious (Jimmy sings the word to me)! Eventually I just was like, “Go back to what you were doing, you’re funny off the cuff, why are you trying to ram Seinfeld-like bits down people’s throats?” It took me a few years, then I finally got back to doing what I do. Since then obviously, it’s grown into what it is today.
Is crowd work an all or nothing type thing for you?
There’s nothing worse than polling the audience. So many comics think that’s crowd work. Again, all they’re really doing is burning a topic, if they’re not going to follow up on it. We all have different skill sets. And if you’re a great joke writer, don’t think you need to add crowd work into your mix. You don’t need to. Just like how I don’t need to add one-liners into my act because I see somebody that’s great doing one-liners. So many young comics after they see me, or Todd Glass or Steve Iott, who’s more local, they’ll go, “Oh I got to start doing more crowd work.” No, no you don’t. Stick with what you’re doing, stick with what works for you. If eventually you figure out that’s what you want to do, then great. But don’t go out of your way to try crowd work if that’s not in your DNA.
In a way, it’s a little insulting to the guys who do it well. Like just the idea that you’re a comedian, “Yeah I’m gonna try doing crowd work too…” Why do you think you can do that? Because you saw somebody do it well? It’s the one thing that does kind of drive me nuts, when you see somebody really great at it, “Yeah I want to do that too.” That’s not what you do, so what are you talking about? I’d like to write great jokes too, I just don’t have that skill set.
Spielberg directed Schindler’s List, I should do that…
Yeah I should do a black and white Holocaust movie. Why?! You make romantic comedies. Yeah, it’s stupid. People are stupid.
With all the comedy podcasts out there now, yours — Never Not Funny — has been around the longest. Podcasts are reviving comics’ careers and helping them sell out shows; what has your podcast done for you and your career?
I don’t think it revived my career, I think it jump-started it. It introduced me to an audience that didn’t know I existed. And it was a format that fit me really well– being able to stream-of-consciousness and talk and banter, basically do what I do in a green room at a comedy club. Because I was so early on, there wasn’t a lot to choose from. So here I was doing a professional sounding radio show from a professional stand-up comedian and people really gravitated towards it. In a way, I was almost like Wal-mart, in that I came in and people said, “Oh I don’t need to listen to those Ma and Pa style ones anymore with the guy talking into the microphone in his computer, this guy is putting out a real show.
I’ve hosted TV shows, I’ve appeared on a zillion TV shows doing stand-up or as an actor, I appeared on the Tonight Show; the closest I can say to the amount of people that have responded to the podcast is when I go on Bob and Tom, that radio show. The return on going on Bob and Tom for ticket sales is great. The podcast is even better. Unless you’re the star of a TV show, I don’t know of any TV appearance that will help you sell tickets, whereas the podcast… it’s night and day, it’s unbelievable what it’s done for me.
I got to work with you in Chicago and I’ve never seen anyone be so approachable with their fans. You talked to each of them like they were old college friends. Did you realize it was important to treat your fans well early on?
When I met my heroes, the guys that were nice I remembered and the guys that were dicks, I call them dicks now, and it’s heartbreaking. When these people are nice enough to come out and they spend their hard earned money to watch me, I’m not being a phony, I’m being very truthful and from the heart. I close all those live podcasts with just a maudlin goodbye, but I’m very sincere in that this podcast and my fans mean the world to me. So if they want to stick around and talk to me afterwards, I don’t want to go out and have a sandwich with them, but I will certainly hang out… In New York we were backstage for two hours meeting people. Because if anybody wants to stick around, I want to be that guy that sticks around, shakes everybody’s hand, and I thank them.
Growing up, I used to make my dad bring me to see any celebrities that came to Chicago. Toys “R” Us would have people from Star Trek or they would have these people come and sign autographs and one of the people was Richard Simmons, the exercise guru. He was scheduled to sign autographs between like one and three o’clock at this event. And I made my dad drag me there, and at three o’clock he got up and left and they said, “No more signatures.” And honest to God, it was me and one other person. And I thought, “Really!? You can’t stick around for two more?” And they went, “Nope, one to three…” So that’s always stayed with me. Come on, man. So I’ll stay till everybody wants me to stay. I’ve remembered that since I was 11 years old. Plus I like meeting people. Why not?
I’ve heard you say when you were offered the warm-up spot for Conan’s Tonight Show you didn’t want it right away. Was that because you thought being a warm-up guy was a downgrade to your career?
There’s is a stigma to being a “warm-up comic,” so in a way, yes. I didn’t want to be a warm-up. I literally had a dream while I was sleeping, that the Conan O’Brien show came to Los Angeles and offered me a job, and when the phone call came, offering me a job, it was like, “I have to take this meeting,” even though it was for warm-up. And I always knew that Conan and I had the same sensibilities, so when I met him and I had that meeting and I saw how great of a guy he was and comic sensibility-wise how similar we were, not just him, but his staff and stuff, it was like, “I have to take this job.” They immediately explained to me that it was not a warm-up job like any other show, this is opening the show, more than doing warm-up. There was no babysitting involved like there is with other warm-up gigs.
The second they said that, it was like, “I’m going to take this job,” because it wasn’t the typical warm up thing. Whenever I said I wanted to turn it down, it was because I didn’t want to be the babysitter type of warm-up. When the Tonight Show went off the air, I got offered tons of warm-up jobs and I didn’t take any of them. I certainly could have, it could have been very lucrative. I took it because it was Conan O’Brien and the Tonight Show. I found that he wanted me special and I wasn’t going to be this warm-up guy for hire.
Can you describe the moods and tensions rising around the show when Leno said he wanted the Tonight Show back?
Even before the TMZ announcement, Leno had in the press, let it leak that if they offered it back he would take it. So we were all walking around work going, “What the f? Who says that?” And I think Richter even went on record with some interview saying such. It was like, “Who says that? What man says that?” You left that position, another man has that job now, so to say “I would take it back…” He leaked that to the press so they would ask him. And it’s so transparent. I can’t speak for Conan or anybody higher up, but the guys at my level, writers and all that, we were just like, “Who the hell says that?” And then when that TMZ thing broke, within three days it went from rumor: there’s nothing to this, to the next day was: hey, there is something to this, to the next day; hey they’re going to give Jay Leno his time slot back and we’re going to move to midnight, I have to decide if that’s what I want to do.
I’m a broken record when I say Pat Francis said to me, “Dude, it’s the Tonight Show, you’re going to have a job for the next 16 years if you want it. They’re not going to fire the host of the Tonight Show.” Even for me, as a local hire, I was like, “Oh no! I just got this great job, and now it’s gone?” So I couldn’t imagine what people who moved out from New York were thinking. People were walking around like zombies and some of them were teary-eyed every day of those two weeks. They uprooted everything to come out here to LA with the same thinking: “I will have a job for the next 16-plus years of my life.” So it was awful. Behind the scenes it was awful. On screen, they were doing the best shows they had done on the Tonight Show. It was really freeing and creatively great.
Can you describe the average day for you working at Conan?
For Jimmy Pardo!? I get there at 3:30. I talk to the stage manager Steve, we go over who’s on the show, what they’re promoting. By the way, everything I’m saying right now sounds more serious and intense than it is. I go and get a water, a Vitamin Water Zero. I chit-chat with some of the writers, at 4:05 I walk to the stage, at 4:10 I go onstage, at 4:21, 4:22 I am done. When I’m done with my warm-up I introduce Andy, then Andy introduces the band. While the band is playing, Conan comes out of his dressing room, we chit-chat for 90 seconds about our lives, then he says, “How’s this crowd?” I tell him how the crowd is, and he’s able to go out there knowing if they’re a little tight, knowing if they’re really loose and willing to go in any direction… For the most part, they’re an eight out of 10. I think I say eight out of 10 more than any other number, or nine out of 10, 10 out of 10. Very rarely do I get below an eight.
It’s so that he can adjust. If he’s doing a monologue and his jokes aren’t working, he knew from me they were a little tight and that it’s not him and it’s not the jokes. It’s almost the same as when you’re doing stand-up and the middle act walks off and says to the headliner, “Boy they’re not fun.” As the headliner, you’re able to know, “Okay, they’re not fun. So don’t take it personally.” Then you try different tricks to get their attention. And I think it’s the same for Conan. I watch the monologue from the audience, and then when the monologue is over, I watch the rest of the show from the green room.
When you get a bad crowd there, what do you do to lighten them up?
There really hasn’t been a bad crowd, there’s been tight crowds, but my job is just to get them ready for Conan. And if they’re good for Conan, they’re good. There’s been nights when I walked off going, “Boy, that was a tough crowd.” And the second he walks out, they’re fantastic. I just try different angles, if they’re not really responding to me, it’s happened too infrequently, and that’s not bravado, I get good crowds. But there’s been a couple where it’s not, maybe I just go a little softer with my humor, maybe I don’t go as edgy. Everybody’s there to see Conan. Even the tourists signed up to get tickets months in advance. So they’re excited to be there, it’s not like walking down Hollywood Boulevard and saying, “Hey you want to see a game show taping!?”
So we’re getting audiences that want to be there. So sometimes… yesterday it was 100 degrees outside and they’re waiting three hours in line in the seating area before they get into the studio, so they might be a little tired from the heat; it’s obviously shaded and they have water and everything, it’s not a jungle, but I know going out that they’re going to take a little while to warm up because of the elements. They’re just relieved to be sitting somewhere comfortably. It’s just a mindset of knowing what to do to know where they’re at, and not just get angry if they stink, which I can’t do because I’m not headlining, I’m opening the show for Christ’s sake.
Conan has been finding ways to get you more involved with the show, can you talk about those projects?
I actually did a couple things on the Tonight Show that didn’t air, for time reasons. When Conan came to TBS he did say, “We’re going to try to find ways to get you on the air more, as part of the repertory company.” One of the writers had come up with that Andy’s sidekick idea. When we finally did it, it was such a huge success it came back two more times that week. And Conan even said when it was done, “We wanted to wait and have it be the right thing. We didn’t want to just plug you into something.” And I think that was a smart move. I was on in just this funny idea, and visually funny and everything about it was great. I was able to be funny. That’s always a plus. The Pardo Patrol, the Conan website gets it. It site gets so many eyeballs that Conan in general said, “Why don’t we start doing original content on the website, and let’s use Pardo.” So again, it was his idea to use me and utilize my skills and my talent. And we bounced some ideas around, and I’m not a big fan of this phrase at the end of the day, keep it simple, let’s not convolute this thing, I’m talking for them now, let Jimmy just barge in on celebrities. It might be the same every time, it might be different every time, but it gives us an opportunity to play around and have fun.
And people are really responding to them, and I’m grateful. I’m just thrilled to be part of this team. I got to work the day that Tom Hanks was there and just went about my regular day. I was out on stage doing the warm-up, and I walked off and Aaron, the head of Team Coco said, “Hey, Tom Hanks wants to do a Pardo Patrol.” And I was like, “What?” And he said, “Yeah. He got here and said I want to do one of those things with the guy on the web.” “You got to be kidding me!” So we have to do it in five minutes and we have five minutes to shoot it. So here we go. And luckily he was as gracious and wonderful as Tom Hanks always is. But that was the neat one. Here’s the biggest star that comes on that show and he wanted to do it. It was really cool. (watch below)
You’ve had Conan on your podcast twice now. You said you briefly speak with him everyday, but how do you approach him to be on the podcast?
He did it back when we were on the Tonight Show, and somebody else did it and Conan said, “Hey I heard about your podcast, I’ll do it.” And I was like, “You’ll come on the podcast?” “Yeah. When do you want me on?” Then I walked away and his assistant said to me, “He really thinks you’re funny, and he wants to be a part of things.” So that’s really how it happened. It took a couple months to schedule it and get him on the first time, and then the second time… I tried to get him a few times while we were off the air in between the Tonight Show and Conan, but he was busy. So when we got back on the air at Conan, I said, “Got to have you back on the podcast.” And he was like, “Yeah, let’s schedule it.” That was it, it was that simple.
The second time you had Conan on, you all went out for a steak dinner after the recording. I think your fans want to know, what was that dinner like?
Stop-start because we were interrupted by people every five minutes. It was unbelievable. We went to a restaurant one would think celebrities wouldn’t be bothered at, and if we were there and hour, he got bothered, probably seven times. It was crazy. But it was nice. He was gracious. The thing about Conan O’Brien is he’s just a guy, who happens to be one of the five most well known talk show hosts in history. When he leaves there he’s just a guy who wears jeans and a T-shirt. It was fun. It was me and [Never Not funny producer Matt] Belknap and the other two guys, Dan and Elliot. We just talked about show business and he did 90 percent of the talking, but that’s how it should be. When you’re around a guy like that, you want him to hold court.
Can you describe your shows you put on at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in LA?
“Running Your Trap,” the game show is a celebrity bluffing game, I guess that’s the best way to describe it, a comedic bluffing game. The next one we’re doing is Aug. 14th. The Writer’s Room is a neat concept, where I host it. There’s three stand-ups that do a set of stand-up comedy while there’s three writers onstage that hand me roast-like jokes after the comics’ sets. I just read from those cards and then the comic has a chance to rebut after my roasting of them. Boy do I have fun doing that show. I love it.
What’s it been like doing your live podcasts?
It’s amazing. There’s nothing like walking out onstage to a room full of people that are there because they subscribe to your podcast. It can’t get anymore niche and cult than that. It’s not like, “Oh I’m going to go see this guy that stars in a sitcom because he’s performing at a theater nearby.” These are people that are all there to see this show. And that is so overwhelming. You were there in Chicago, even though there were five hundred people in a five thousand seat theater, it was still overwhelming. It was still unbelievably great. In New York we had four hundred people in a four hundred-seat theater and that was like having a tidal wave of love crash down on you, it was unbelievable. So it’s great.
And it goes back to meeting the fans and all that stuff, it’s great to be able to do all that. We make no money from them. We kind of break even on every live show that we’ve done. We do it to meet the people and have the experience more than anything else. We’re doing one in San Francisco Aug. 19. We’ll be doing “Running Your Trap” live that night as well. The podcast is at 7:30, the game show is at 10.
See Jimmy host Running Your Trap at UCB-LA on Aug. 14 (tickets here). You can check out Pardo and the Never Not Funny gang do a live podcast recording on Aug. 19 at the San Francisco Sketchfest (tickets here). And remember, Pardo’s doing Running Your Trap right after (tickets here). Finally, if you’re not already, visit pardcast.com to subscribe to Never Not Funny.