Mark Normand, one of the fastest rising and most versatile comedians in the country, cut his teeth at open mics, bar shows and by performing in loft apartments. It’s that work ethic — and his joke writing prowess — that helped the Louisana native earn the respect of his fellow comedians and industry alike. His first album Still Got It was released recently on Comedy Central Records, as well as his episode of Comedy Central’s The Half Hour. I talked to Normand about producing successful shows, not being complacent, the clubhouse mentality of the indie comedy scene and much more. Check it out!
You’re not Jewish, correct?
I was actually poking around your website and you’ve got a whole page on your website called ‘Jews.’
Oh yeah, all my heroes are Jewish. I love the Jews. I wish I was one. You know how there’s wiggers? I’m like a wigger for Jews. I think as a kid growing up in a black neighborhood, Jews were cool because they had their own tribe. You’re white but you have your own gang, you know? You had a little flavor. White is white– we’re just the enemy. But Jews, it’s like you’re white but you still have a crew.
So you grew up in Louisiana but moved to New York and really shot up through the scene. Now you’ve got this great album out, Still Got It. How did you get to this point?
I was in college. I was rudderless. I had nothing going on. I was a drunk idiot who lived in a house with five guys. All I would do is get drunk and fuck fat chicks. That was my whole life, plus watching sports and making barbecue. But growing up I was a creative kid. I was in theater, but that kind of all went away because I wanted to be cool. I was afraid ‘they’ were going to call me a fag. I had the creative thing in me still. I loved comedy. I always saw stand-up like being an astronaut. It was something other people did but I could never do it. One day I said, ‘Fuck it,’ went to an open mic and got hammered. Then I got on stage and talked about a yeast infection– it worked! I did another open mic and another one and started thinking, ‘This is what I want to do.’ My friend was talking about moving to New York and I said, ‘I’ll go with you!’ There was nothing going on in my life. I was hopeless.
Was that Sean Patton you moved out with?
He moved first. Then he came down to visit New Orleans for Thanksgiving and we all huddled around him like a prophet. He told us, ‘It was great. There were a million shows and hot chicks. We’re drinking beer every night and taking the subway.’ Two weeks later we all bought a ticket.
Are those guys you moved out here with still doing comedy?
Yeah, there’s Zach Simms. He moved out to LA and I think he’s writing on a show now. But some of them have started taking it easy.
What do you mean by ‘taking it easy?’
Well I love this one place, The Creek and The Cave in Long Island City. A lot of funny people have come out of there: Mike Lawrence, Nick Turner. But some people kind of ‘fall into the Creek.’ They’re super funny and a really good comic but they’ve lost some ambition. The Creek is like the clubhouse. You get to know the owner, Rebecca [Trent]. by just hanging there. She’ll throw you a free meal now and again. Sometimes you wanna get on a show, but you can’t just go to a comedy club. You’ll look like an idiot. But at The Creek you know everyone there. There’s an open mic. ‘Hey, I’ll jump on that.’ There’s a show. ‘Hey, I’ll watch the show and have a few beers.’ Then it just becomes a daily thing. You start going there every day. You just ‘fall into it.’ It ain’t healthy for a career. It’s very easy. It’s super laid back. Always a party at night.
I’ll say as someone who’s not ‘in’ with that crew, it can be kind of intimidating going for the first few times because it does seem like they’re all really good friends with one another.
Yeah, the only reason I’m in over there is I had nowhere else to go. It felt intimidating as well, but I just went so much eventually I was one of them.
So how’d you keep yourself loving it there without ‘falling in?’
I was very intuitive. Like, I didn’t like the idea of people paying money and watching me bombing. That really bothered me. That’s someone’s paycheck, ya know? I was a big bar show guy, big Creek guy, big whatever. Art space, loft show– whatever the fuck you got. I did all those shows. Eventually I wanted to break into club. I thought, ‘I gotta get into clubs because this isn’t America. The clubs are America!’ When you go out on the road, you’re doing clubs. There’s no Creek and the Cave in Wisconsin. Well, there’s a creek but it’s not The Creek. So I knew I was going to have to break through.
When you do these small shows a lot you kind of fall into that world: lots of references, lots of obscure punch lines, kind of meta bullshit. So I knew I had to break through to the clubs to gain that mass appeal. Plus, I wanted to make a couple bucks. So I started doing clubs more and getting a little away from those alt shows. The Creek will get your feet wet. It’s like that shower before you jump in the pool. But the clubs are the pool. A lot of alt guys bitch about ‘fucking club hacks’ which there are, but Marc Maron went through the clubs. Louis C.K. went through the clubs. These are all their favorite comics.
Even people amongst them eventually go through clubs. You and Mike Lawrence started in that scene and you’re both touring.
It’s all fear-based. They say, ‘Fucking club hacks,’ but they’re scared of the clubs. They’re intimidated by it. It’s just an insecurity thing.
Do you think any of that has to do with the fact that they’re not in the clubs [yet], they think it’s better to shit on the clubs?
That’s what I’m saying, Yeah. ‘Oh you don’t want us? Well fuck you. You suck. You’re just talking about men vs. women, black vs. white and all that shit.’
Do you still run independent shows in New York?
Yeah, I run two. I’ve got Hot Soup every week. That show’s going great– we had Aziz Ansari on last week. Sometimes Todd Barry will pop in. Jim Gaffigan stopped by recently. There’s always a hot line-up. We give you the Michael Ches, your Chris Distefanos. Then I run We’re All Friends Here which is a monthly interview show. It’s the longest-running show at The Creek and The Cave. We’ve got six years. We’ve had everyone from Pete Holmes to Kumail [Nanjiani] to Hannibal [Buress]. We interview people about their most fucked up shit. It’s kind of like WTF with Marc Maron but we did it first.
I remember when I was in college, you let me do Hot Soup. You let me do the Boo Spot. Can you tell us about what that is and where that came from?
Jesus, I forgot all about that. That was Andy Haynes’ idea. We wanted to do something fun and different. We had this fun tradition that we came up with where the comic would go up for two minutes and try to be bad. It was supposed to be intentional. The crowd would collectively boo him off the stage. It was a fun way to get the crowd involved.
Yeah, that was certainly an experience.
Yeah. You were great! You really bombed!
So you’ve run a couple of shows for a long time. Hot Soup has been around different places for a long time. What are some of the keys to producing a good independent show?
The key I think is you have to stay on top of those emails. You’ve got to build relationships. You have to really give a shit. You gotta have good line-ups. You’re gonna have one person go, ‘Please, book me please!’ Then he or she bombs. That reflects badly on the show. You’ve gotta be serious about it. You can’t just put your friends on if you really want to have a good show.
And you need to get a bar deal: our show has $15 bucks all you can drink from the beginning of the show to the end of the show. It keeps people drinking because they wanna get their money’s worth. And you want to get those [big name] drop-ins. Everything helps. I really think it’s about keeping the emails. Blast out to the email list every week. It helps you develop regulars. And it also helps create stage time for yourself so that you can get better. With your own shows, there’s less pressure. Of course you want to do well, but no one’s going to say, ‘Hey, you bombed. You can’t do the show again.’ It’s my show!
Now you’ve got the album out. That’s new. That’s hot. It’s funny. Nice to see that success for you. I remember you first late night spot on Conan, I was up at the Comic Strip Live and they put the volume on for it in the lobby and all the late night comics gathered around to watch you. We’re like, ‘Yeah, Mark!’
I appreciate that. It feels really great knowing you guys are there watching that. There’s something about it playing in a comedy club and comics seeing it that really means a lot.
How did it feel to finally get your material onto an album?
Well, it’s a milestone for sure. But of course, the nice feeling of the milestone is trumped by the anxiety of having a good album. It’s on record now. I can’t go back and tweak a joke. I can’t go get a better laugh. I can’t make it better. But it’s a great feeling that people are going to hear this on iTunes. They’ll be like, ‘Hey, I saw this guy at a show. Let me look him up!’ They can get the whole album. It’s kinda cool. It feels more legit.
And it sounds like all it took for you to get there was to work hard, get out of the clubhouse mentality and go fucking do it.
Yeah. People always try to put these spins on comedy. ‘Aww, you gotta do this. You gotta do this.’ All you gotta do is work on a joke. If it hits, keep it. Write what you want. If it doesn’t hit, tweak it or get rid of it. Then do that again. Then do that again. Then you’ve got five minutes. Then you’ve got 10 minutes. It takes forever. It’s hard as fuck. Nobody gives a shit about you but that’s all you gotta do. If the joke works, keep it. If it doesn’t work, change it. Then do it again and again and you have an hour. It takes months and years but it’s what you’ve gotta do!
People ask me all the time, ‘How do you do it? What’s the key? What’s the secret?’ What do you mean what’s the secret? Let me watch your act. Okay. You did five minutes and three of the minutes you bombed. Stop doing those jokes. They’re not working! You gotta hit! You just have to hit. That’s all there is to it. It’s not rocket science. People ask me, ‘Why am I not making it?’ You’re bombing!