By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
THE BASEMENT-LEVEL showroom at Acme Comedy Co. is packed for the weekly Monday night open mic on a hot August evening. It's midway through a lineup of two-dozen or so of the Cities' sharpest up-and-coming standup comics trying out new bits, and the crowd is already energized. Then a gasp near the entrance becomes a chorus of whispers rolling toward the stage from the air-conditioned dark.
"What? Is he here?" "That's him! I see him."
The epicenter of the hubbub is a short, youthful man standing in the back of the room sporting a dark-blonde moustache and wearing a backwards Twins cap and a t-shirt that reads "Don't bother me, I'm watching the game." His name isn't on the list of scheduled performers, but when the soundman calls it out, the place explodes into cheers.
If you're a fan of comedy, you know Nick Swardson, whose high-energy performances help him spin quirky, often profane insights into hilarious flights of fancy: "I wouldn't player hate if one of my friends was into [beastiality]...because a friend who likes animals, still not a bad friend. You're not going to have to talk him through a breakup. He's not going to let you in on his dating life and make you hear that ad nauseum. 'Hey, I met the greatest horse!' 'Oh, great, what's he like?' 'He's so fast!'"
The 33-year-old St. Paul native made a rapid ascension from first-time open-micer to festival darling in just a year, and he has already aired a trilogy of specials on Comedy Central. He's co-written four feature films and has appeared in over a dozen more, including Art School Confidential, Blades of Glory, and You Don't Mess With the Zohan. In the next year the standup whiz kid from Minnesota has his two biggest headlining gigs yet: fronting his own sketch show on Comedy Central and taking his first star turn in a movie he co-wrote with his idol, Adam Sandler. If you're still not familiar with Nick Swardson, he plans to change that soon.
BEING FUNNY WASN'T always an asset, not at St. Paul Central High, where outrageousness—not to mention early troubles with drugs and booze—kept a young Swardson in perpetual trouble.
"I was expelled from high school four times," he recounts. "Once for pulling fire alarms to go out and smoke, another for smoking weed in school, one for inadvertent sexual harassment of a substitute teacher, and the other one for fighting."
Inadvertent sexual harassment of a substitute teacher?
"Um, yeah," he says. "I made a sign, like a piece of paper with tape on it, and I was going to put it on this guy's seat. It said 'Insert black cock here.' When he sat down it would be on his ass, right? I put it on his chair, and the substitute sat down, this woman, and she sat in the chair and talked to this other student. I was like, 'Oh, fuck, what do we do?' My buddy said, 'Just leave it.'
"And it stayed on. The class ended like five minutes after that, and she was walking around the hall like that. We thought it was kind of incredible. She was very upset. We're sitting in the principal's office and he was like, 'Do you think this is funny? "Insert black cock here?" Do you think that's funny?' There were cops there. It was fucking insane. In my head I'm like, 'How does nobody find this funny?'"
After a stint in rehab, Swardson turned to theater, which he describes as "a new kind of high that I got into," one that led him to dabble in comedy forms—acting and sketch. But it wasn't until he turned 19 that he decided to try performing solo. "I never really had the bug until the first time I did standup, and I was pretty hooked on that."
Acme owner Louis Lee recalls, "It was a very interesting time, the early- to mid-'90s. Not too many younger comedians at that time. It was more middle-age people who decided to chase their dreams in the middle of their life. And Nick was very young."
Young—and different. It was a tough time for comedy as an industry and an art form. The boom of the late '70s and early '80s that birthed legions of Chuckle Huts and basement venues went bust by the dawn of the Clinton era. Many of the old stars of the stage and late-night talk show circuit had either transitioned to laugh-tracked sitcoms or watched as their acts ossified into stale groaners as surely as Henny Youngman-style one-liners met their expiration date three decades before. Almost immediately, Swardson's style—high-octane delivery juxtaposed with the chilled-out, oddball musings of a frat-house philosopher—heralded something new. Along with fellow Minnesotan Mitch Hedberg, he was at the forefront of a new wave of standups who would help cast aside the old templates and give voice to a new generation of comedy.
"I'm not saying I was a great comic out of the gate," Swardson says, "I just had a lot of energy, very spastic and physical and crazy. This young kid was basically vomiting up three minutes of comedy."