Comedian Michael Palascak’s story is a classic small town Midwestern boy done good tale. Palascak started standup in Chicago after leaving a comfortable corn fields-aplenty upbringing in Indiana. He took his outsider status and childhood anxiety and – with a little help from The Secret – created a comedy career that would land him on Conan, Letterman, and in the top five of Last Comic Standing. Palascak just dropped his second album That One Thing (available digitally on iTunes and on CD from Rooftoop) so I caught up with him to talk about his childhood, how Jerry Seinfeld helped him choose his career, and the power of the law of attraction.
You grew up in Indiana, right?
Yeah, a smaller town called Wabash.
I’m not familiar with Wabash. What type of town is it?
It’s the county seat. It’s the biggest city in the county, a town of about 14,000 people when I lived there. It’s a small Midwestern town. I grew up in the city, but within five minutes you’re in corn fields. There were about 20 miles of corn fields between each city. My dad said that back in the day people would travel from town to town and 20 miles would be about a day in horse and buggy. I kind of liked it. We moved there when I was seven. Before that I went to a big school in Buffalo, New York. That created a lot of anxiety in me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but once I moved to a smaller school everything sort of clicked school-wise, friends-wises, sports-wise.
How did growing up in a smaller Midwestern area shape your outlook on the world and your sense of community and values?
When you were asking that question I got really dark. I was an English major in college and remember how Kafka always felt like an outsider and I was going to try to make a comparison to myself, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. But I saw myself as an outsider because I was old enough when we moved there to be like, “Oh, this isn’t what my life was like before when I was living in the suburbs of Buffalo.” We were also Catholic and that was not a Catholic town. I was always a little more different than all of my friends. My parents were stricter than my friends’ parents. I would get made fun of for that type of stuff and feel embarrassed about it. Eventually I started to own it more. When I got into standup comedy I realized that all of the weird things and rules that my parents had turned me into who I am today, which is only helpful in standup. Part of me thinks that the less cool you were in high school the funnier you’re going to be onstage because you have more interesting things to say. People make fun of you about that stuff, so obviously there’s something funny about you.
Was there a sense when you started standup that you were able to reclaim some power that may have been taken away from you by the teasing?
Yeah. I haven’t really talked about those specific things onstage, but I definitely feel like comedy sort of allowed me to find a way to make myself okay around people. I learned that if people are laughing because you’re telling them what to laugh at you’re immediately accepted.
And that gives you a sense of control.
Yeah, even when people heckle they still don’t have a microphone. They still don’t have the majority of the audience on their side. You’re going to win most of the time as a standup comedian. Even if you don’t kill you’re still in control.
Eventually you left Wabash for the Chicago suburbs.
It was kind of a weird thing. Everyone in my family fell in love with Wabash, including myself. I was very grateful for it. But when I was a junior my dad got a new job in Joliet, Illinois, which is about two and a half to three hours from where we lived. Instead of pulling me out of high school he was just going to stay with my grandma who lived in Chicago and drive back and forth on the weekends. He did that for a year and a half to two years. I graduated high school, but my younger brother didn’t want to start high school and finish in a different place, so we just moved up there. Everyone was kind of sad to leave, but it was really great because I was in college and had just started to do comedy. Chicago was the best place in the world for me to do that.
What was the Chicago scene like when you started?
I took improv classes at night because that was something I was interested in. The improv scene was still really big there. I remember Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell were starting to get famous at that time. But standup was a lot smaller. I would do shows in the suburbs at a couple of clubs because that’s where my parents lived and then go to the city on the weekends to do shows. The people that were there then that a lot of people recognize now were Hannibal Buress, TJ Miller, and Jared Logan. Because improv was so popular in Chicago and people really cared about it we just kind of bounced around to all these different open mics.
At what point did you realize that comedy was going to be your career?
I realized it before I really started it. I listened to an interview that Jerry Seinfeld did in the 80s and I just decided that it would be my job. My parents kind of didn’t like it, but I said, “No, this is it.” They relented because they didn’t really have a choice.
But as you well know you can’t just say, “Comedy is my job,” and then start making money at it. I guess I should follow up with the question: at what point did it really start to become a career? When was the first time you looked at your tax return and said, “Oh, this is an actual job now?”
I laugh because I’m fourteen or fifteen years in and I’m still going, “Is this going to pay for stuff?” First time I went on stage was in 2002, but I didn’t really start doing it all the time until I finished college in 2004. So I consider 2004 to be the true beginning of my standup. 2008 was the first year I made money. I did NACA Northern Plains, Live at Gotham, and Montreal. I haven’t had to ask my parents for gas money since.
I read an interview with you where you said that you read The Secret and it really helped you.
100%. I remember it was Easter 2007. My mom and I used to go to this yoga class and the yoga teacher kept saying, “You’ve got to watch this thing.” So we watched The Secret and I immediately started implementing it into my life. I specifically remember imagining being on The Tonight Show, telling them about a movie I was doing, and also receiving an award from Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Those were two of the things I imagined. I had never been on TV as a standup at that point and had never had any real success or made money. That was April 2007. Next summer I did a Comedy Central contest and got flown out to LA, started working more at the clubs in Chicago, got my college agent, and did Montreal. In 2010 I did The Tonight Show and the other two guests were Steve Carell and Jane Lynch.
The title of your new album Is That One Thing. Where did you record it?
I recorded it at Skyline Comedy Cafe in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Why that location?
That was one of the first places I never worked on the road. The owner does a really good job setting up the club well for comedians. I wanted to record it and was thinking about places to do it. I had that week booked already and the Audible/Rooftop people said they would be able to do it.
What do you have coming up now that the album is out?
I’ve got some tour dates. I’m going to do Zanies in downtown Chicago March 14th to the 19th. And I’ll be doing Crackers in Broad Ripple, which is sort of close to where I grew up, March 23rd to the 26th. It will be fun to have the album out and start putting in the new stuff and working on it.
Photo by Matt Mismisco.