Nick Swardson: Hometown boy headed for comedy big-time
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."
Swardson's comedy often starts with the observational, but it quickly transitions into the surreal as he spins the initial gag into an increasingly bizarre scenario and acts it out, shifting between multiple characters and animating the action.
"Hanging out with a baby is like hanging out with a really small, really hammered person all the time," he says in one of his signature bits. "I find myself talking to a baby the same way I would a buddy at the end of a Friday night. It's the same conversation. You're just standing over him going, 'What's wrong, dude? Why are you crying? What is he saying? Are you hungry? Do you want to eat? I don't know, hey, try to walk. Ah, he can't walk, dude, I don't know what to do. Oh my god, he threw up! And why is he naked?"
Veteran comic and actor John Bush, who was already on the scene when Swardson started, says, "I think the thing that Nick did immediately out of the gate was that he successfully took sketch and put it onstage in one-person form instantly. A lot of comics are searching for their own voice. Nick seemed completely in his own voice immediately."
Swardson accrued industry buzz as a comedy prodigy and was invited to the prestigious U.S. Comedy and Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. It all happened in an incredible rush—winning the Funniest Person in the Twin Cities contest at Acme, getting regular work at Knuckleheads in the Mall of America and on other stages around town, signing with a manager —and within a year he went from his debut open-mic set to performing among the industry elite. He met Chris Farley shortly before the SNL star's untimely death, got to spend a day drinking with David Spade. But the number-one goal he set for himself for the festival he didn't make good on: He never got to meet his comedy idol, Adam Sandler, and shake his hand.
Swardson made TV appearances, releasing his own half-hour Comedy Central Presents special in 2001. It was an enviable career by any standard, one with no signs of a ceiling. Then one day he got an unsolicited phone call. The guy on the other end of the line sounded awfully familiar. It was Adam Sandler.
WHEN SWARDSON'S SCHEDULE gets packed, he rolls up the car windows, shuts off theair conditioner, and drives from appointment to appointment on the Los Angeles freeway, sweating. He's a firm believer in the merits of a night of vigorous drinking and a detoxifying stint in a steam room, but he doesn't always have time to hit up a gym, so he improvises. He calls it Car Sauna.
"It works for sure. I swear to god, I always do it. It's fucking gnarly," he says. "Detox on the go."
And busy he has been. Driven by his standup success, Swardson moved to New York, then Los Angeles. He got commercial work and TV roles—most notably as the flamboyant gigolo Terry Bernadino on Reno 911—and smaller parts in films. But it was the Sandler connection that proved to be his biggest break yet.
The comedy megastar had never met Swardson when he called him out of the blue one afternoon. He was a fan of the kid's work and wanted to know if the young comic would be interested in collaborating. Eventually Swardson would be tapped to punch up a screenplay called Nana's Boy. His unique assignment: Turn a PG-13 script into a hard R. Sandler also suggested he write in a part for himself.
The result, released as Grandma's Boy, remains perhaps the premier big-screen showcase for Swardson's inspired juvenilia. Though the movie was met with little fanfare in theaters, it garnered a cult following on DVD. It's a prototypical Sandlerian combination of sentiment and stoner gags, but redolent with Swardson's particular brand of gleeful filth.
"One thing that always irks me is when people describe my comedy as stupid," he says. "'Oh, it's just stupid bullshit.' If I tell a stupid joke, nobody knows it's more stupid than I do. If I tell a joke about my cat having diarrhea, I'm in on the fucking joke too, asshole. I wrote it."
The next year promises to raise Swardson's profile even further. On October 16, Comedy Central will air the debut episode of his new sketch-comedy show, Pretend Time with Nick Swardson, which he schemed up with his pal Tom Gianis of Human Giant. Each episode will consist of a series of short films that segue into one another. Next April will mark his debut outing as a lead in a feature film with Born to Be a Star, co-written with Sandler and Grandma's Boy star Allen Covert, in which he plays Bucky Larson, an innocent Midwesterner and the son of porn stars who goes to L.A. to live up to his legacy.
"[Born to Be a Star] was more intense because Sandler couldn't be there every day, and it was his idea, so it was more on my shoulders," Swardson said. "Sandler loves it. We're all really thrilled with it. It's really goofy and has got some filthy moments."
He'll also play a supporting role in Sandler's new romantic comedy, Just Go With It, a Valentine's Day release that also features Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston. There's more movie work in the pipeline, too, and he's enthusiastic about the possibility of a second season of Pretend Time. As for the live joke-telling that brought him into the comedy business, though, the standup savant is uncertain.
"I'm trying to write a whole new act," he says. "If I don't, I'll most likely retire from standup. Just because I don't like doing the same thing over and over again.... I do feel like, in all honesty, I just want it to be—I want it to be good. I don't want it to be an hour of new material that's not as good as the last hour. I don't know if I want to do another hour where I talk about getting drunk and stuff. And if it is about getting drunk, I hope it's a funny angle. But I want it to be good. You get to a point where you get tapped out, or you find your muse in other things."
Swardson says he's very aware that he leads a charmed life. What still perplexes him, though, are people who can't find joy in silliness, the types who cover their mouths when they laugh in public—or maybe the types who can't find humor in a high-school prank gone awry.
"Who the fuck gets embarrassed to laugh? Just laugh. Why would you be ashamed about it? The day I get embarrassed when I laugh, Jesus, I'm gonna dive under a fucking bus."
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