Jimmy Pardo’s Very Good Year

It’s hard to tell if naming his podcast (excuse me, pardcast) “Never Not Funny” might have been Jimmy Pardo’s clever ploy to limit internet research on his detractors – Googling “Jimmy Pardo not funny” only points you right back to the podcast. Because it’s difficult to find much criticism of Pardo, a “comic’s comic” who’s been performing stand up professionally since the early go-go ‘90’s heydays. But really, you need to look no further than the man himself if you want to know Jimmy Pardo’s limitations. He’ll tell you about them (more on that later).

Pardo’s honesty is what makes him endearing and, combined with his considerable charm, probably plays a large role is his success as a comedian and a podcaster. And his popularity has reached new heights in 2010.

“Never Not Funny,” which Pardo co-hosts once a week with Matt Belknap, recently began its eighth season with more paid subscribers than ever and is one of the top-rated comedy podcasts on iTunes. Pardo also ended 2010 with his new job as the full-time opening act for Conan on TBS after serving in the same capacity when Conan O’Brien was hosting the Tonight Show on NBC.

Pardo, a fast-talking throwback comedian who was born to host, closed out 2010 with his 2nd Annual Pardcast-a-thon, a 12-hour event featuring comedians and performers that raised $28,000 for children’s charity, The Smile Train. I recently caught up with Pardo to talk about his career and his craft while he was driving to the Conan studio in Burbank.

2010 seemed like it was a pretty good year for Jimmy Pardo. Do you feel the same way?

It was a crazy year for the podcast. With Conan, everybody losing their job at NBC and then starting up a new show, it’s been a crazy year. The podcast is more popular than ever. We have more listeners than we’ve ever had. Word is certainly getting out. That’s bleeding over to the live shows too. A lot of people are coming out that may not have come out to see live comedy before or coming out because they know the podcast and they want to come see me live. I had the pleasure of being on the Team Coco Presents The Conan Writers Live Special. And of course that was nice recognition too.

In addition to your job as Conan’s warm-up act, do you also write bits?

I always like to call it the opening act, because I really don’t have to do the other nonsense that most warm up guys have to do. You know “Keep the energy up, keep clapping you guys.” They throw candy bars and t-shirts and have sing-a-longs. I don’t do any of that. I come out and do 10 minutes of stand up, mostly crowd work, mostly improvisation, and then when I’m done, I’m done and it’s show time. I don’t do any writing. I get there at 3:30, I go on at 4:10, I’m done at 4:20. I’ve got my whole day free. When I’m done, I watch the show, and then I go home.

What’s the most fulfilling aspect of being the opening act for Conan?

The most fulfilling thing is that I’m working with a great group of people. And it trickles down from the top. Conan is a great guy, which is evidenced by everything post-Tonight Show, with him reaching into his pocket and paying severance to some of the crew. He’s a naturally funny guy who’s fun to be around. Jeff Ross, the executive producer is a great guy. And Mike Sweeney, the head writer. Everybody is great. There’s not one day that I go ‘oh damn it, I have to go to work.’ I look forward to being around other funny people and laughing and making them laugh and having them make me laugh. What’s most fulfilling? Being part of a great show.

You favor the improvised style of comedy. When you get in front of a crowd, are you a blank slate? Is there an outline you’re working from? What’s your process there?

There’s the skeleton. There’s always my act to fall back on if I need to. For Conan that mostly is improvisation. For my standup, I try not to do the act. It’s going to bleed in because it’s ridiculous to just improvise an entire hour. People’s minds can’t keep up with that so you need to have these written bits to slow the pace down a little bit. But I try to keep away from it as much as I can to keep things interesting for me. The fun is contagious and bleeds over. I always say, the more the crowd sees my act, the less willing they were to have fun. The tighter the crowd, the less improvisation I can do because they just don’t seem to want to go with it. That’s not to say they’re a bad crowd because they like the material, but I like a crowd that’s willing to let you experiment and have fun with you and go along with it.

In terms of your act, did you get tired of writing jokes? Did you feel like you weren’t being true to your comedic persona?

I wasn’t being true to myself. I wasn’t being true to what made me interesting or unique. I felt like once I started getting paid, I felt like I had to be a quote unquote comedian. I was doing very average material and performing it very averagely. I wasn’t doing anything that made me interesting. I was just another white guy in a Roebucks sport coat talking.

Were you average for lack of effort?

No, I was trying very hard to be average. I was working really, really hard to come up with this mediocre act that I was doing in the early 90’s. I was a better open mic’er than I was for the first three years of being paid as a comedian. I was fearless as an open mic’er because I didn’t know what I was doing. Nobody does when they first start. I would talk off the top of my head. I would find funny in the moment. Once I started getting paid, something in my head made me think, ‘oh well now you’re getting paid, you better take this seriously.’ That was the biggest mistake I ever made. But you learn from it.

Where you do rank quick wit when you’re analyzing comedy? Is it something that you value and think about when you’re watching comedy?

It depends on what you want to do. I’ll watch Anthony Jeselnik and marvel at his writing, or Patton Oswalt or Paul F. Tompkins, or Todd Barry. When I watch them, the jokes that they crafted, I think god I wish I could do that. Then I’ll watch Conan or Letterman or Johnny Carson and Don Rickels and look at the quick wit and marvel at that. Obviously, both are very valid ways to do comedy. I personally don’t have the skill to craft the jokes that these great writers can. I have to rely on what I’m talented at. And I don’t think one is more important than the other as far as I’m concerned.

They are apples and oranges, so to speak?

They are, they’re apples and oranges and they’re in the same basket if you can pardon that phrase. They’re different muscles, they are different skills. You know Phil Mickelson has a great short game and Tiger Woods can hit a 500-yard drive. They’re both getting the job done. And by the way, Phil when we meet each other I want you to punch me in the mouth for that golf analogy.

I started it by using apples and oranges. That was pretty bad.

You’re right, you started it, but I wasn’t happy with apples and oranges, I had to use putting and long game. I’m an idiot.

So how did you and Matt Belknap hook up? (Editor’s note: Matt Belknap started the comedy forum, aspecialthing.com, and is co-founder of AST Records.)

I was doing a non-televised show at the UCB Theater called Running Your Trap. He was a fan. He and his wife would come to watch the shows. He started doing a podcast where he was interviewing standup comedians. I was a guest on his podcast, and when we were done, he said to me, ‘you know what, why don’t I stop doing this and let’s start doing a podcast version of Running Your Trap.’ I knew a little about podcasting because of Ricky Gervais and Matt doing his thing.

It goes along with the fact that I can’t really write jokes. People used to tell me that I should start a blog. I tried that and it just sounded like the ramblings of an 8-year-old girl. It looked ridiculous. When Matt came up with the idea to have me do this audio blog once a week, I thought that was the perfect way to solve this problem. I can do this radio version of a blog, talk about my week, get these funny thoughts out of my head and luckily people started liking it immediately. It started in March of 2006.

How important is your and Matt’s chemistry to the success of your show?

I think the fact that he’s not a professional comedian is helpful. There was a long time, and he’s kind of gotten away from this recently, where he was the voice of reason on the show. He makes sure we stay away from, “in my day we did this” kind of stuff. He’s eight years younger than me. I think that’s helpful. Luckily we grew up in different worlds and we get to bring that to the party.

How much prep work do you put together into each show?

For better or worse, I do zero prep work. I really like the idea of sitting down, stream of conscious, and just talking off the top of our heads. Sometimes, it might be a little rough sledding until the guest finds their footing or I find my footing with that particular guest. But for the most part, my goal is to book people I think are funny. If I get lucky and those people happen to also be famous, that’s great. But my goal is to book people that make me laugh so when that person sits down, I trust they’re going to be funny, they trust I’m going to be funny, and we can go back and forth. Some of my favorite guests are people that aren’t household names, like Pat Francis or Rachel Quaintance or even my wife, Danielle Koenig. The audience responds to them. I do my best to try to avoid booking guests that have been on other people shows recently. Sometimes you can’t avoid it.

Are you ever concerned about an oversaturation of comedy podcasts?

Maybe in the first six months to a year, when other podcast started popping up specifically from the scene that I’m involved with – UCB, AST, sort of alt-comedy scene – I did get a little territorial, I will admit that. It was like “well this is kind of my thing, why are other people doing it?” Then it hit me that we all do stand up comedy. Now I see podcasting as another way for comedians to entertain people.

I know you probably don’t want to get into specifics, but could someone raise a family on what you’re making off “Never Not funny?”

We do very well. I don’t know that they could raise a family on it but they could certainly make a living with it. I am embarrassed to say sometimes that it’s my side project, and truth be told its no longer my side project, it’s what I do. I’m making good money doing the podcast. It does very well. It’s part of the reason why I got into charity. The bulk of our listeners are paid subscribers. Advertising pays almost nothing. We were making nothing, which is why we went to the paid format.

Was it a tough decision to go the pay route?

It was not a tough decision. We had been doing the podcast for two years. The boom you described had not happened yet. I still kind of felt like I was doing a cable access show. I felt like ‘Are you really in show business doing this?’ At what point are you a nerd in your basement with your CB radio. I was like let’s try to get paid for this. The worst that can happen is that nobody does it and we’ll quit. Luckily, people really responded to it.

We did get a lot of fallout, though. A lot of podcasters, not necessarily comedy podcasters, were being petty, telling us “Hey good luck, we tried to make money, but you cant.” A lot of listeners said they weren’t going to pay for it. That’s ok. I don’t find that as an insult. But at the end of the day, it’s 76 cents a week. People throw that on their dresser and forget about 76 cents. It’s $20 for 6 months of entertainment. I don’t think it’s a lot of money.

How intimidating was it to fill 12 consecutive hours doing the Pardcast-a-thon?

We did nine hours last year, but we did 12 hours this year, which gives you an idea of how it’s not intimidating anymore, because we decided to add three hours. We kept coming up with these ideas on how to fill time. We raised a lot of money last year, and we almost doubled it this year. So we’re thrilled.

Why is it so important for you to give back?

We’re doing OK with podcast. We raised $26,000 on the podcast alone last year. It was a feeling I never really felt before. At the end of that 12 hours, I was able to say we just raised $26,000 for Smile Train. I understood why people give to charity. It’s such an amazing feeling. It just feels great.

What’s the plan for 2011 and beyond?

I’m always pitching shows for TV. I would love to get back on television. We would love to get more listeners for the podcast. Not even just financially. I would like more people to hear it. I’m proud of it. I think it’s a funny show. And spending time with my wife and son. I’m on road once a month, and still doing shows at UCB. I like getting out there. Once a month is perfect.

Phil Davidson likes to tell himself he’s the best-kept secret on Twitter.

Jimmy Pardo’s Very Good Year