Talking to Jimmy Pardo About ‘Sprezzatura’, ‘Never Not Funny’, and Combining Structure and Improv

Jimmy Pardo’s comedy is aptly-named. His long-running and much-beloved podcast Never Not Funny is one of the most reliably excellent podcasts in a medium filled with mediocrity. That show is characterized by a loose, stream-of-consciousness style that is carried over into Pardo’s new album, Sprezzatura. The word, which dates back to the Italian Renaissance, is defined as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” I recently got a chance to talk to him about why he doesn’t release more material and why comedy track names are always terrible.

So I have to ask, as I’m sure everyone does - why did you name the album Sprezzatura?

Long story short is, I was talking to my friend and fellow co-worker Todd Levin – he’s a writer over there at Conan. And we were talking about heckling, and about people that just get on your nerves in comedy shows. And I said, “Yeah you know, I run the risk of, people think that my show is so loosey-goosey that they can interupt anytime they want to. They feel like they’re part of it because it looks like I’m just up there talking, when in fact, what I do is like organized chaos. It may look like I don’t know what’s happening, but that’s the magic trick. I know exactly what’s happening every step of the way.” And he said, “Oh the Italians have a word for that. Sprezzatura.” And then when I looked it up, and saw that it basicaly was rehearsed to look improvised, it was like – pardon me saying this in third person – but like, oh my God, that word is the Jimmy Pardo Experience. Yes, I go off on tangents and I go in every which direction on stage and if it’s a great audience, we go as many directions as we can, but the reality, I know exactly what’s happening. It looks effortless. It looks like I’m just making it up on the spot, but in fact I worked really hard to make it look that way.

And then the album tracks, I also had to look up. They’re from a Chicago album?

Yeah. I’m a huge Chicago fan, and the album that those tracks are off of, Chicago 13, is considered their worst album. And for whatever reason, I think it was just the time in my life when I got into Chicago, that I kind of just dug that album. It’s much maligned but I like it, so I thought it’d be really funny to use the track list from that album. It’s something I kind of always wanted to do as a little tip of my hat of that band being so important to me growing up.

And also, I also think, when it comes to comedy albums, it’s really hard to say what the track is without giving the punchline away. And then it’s also lame, when it’s just like “Supermarkets.” And then it’s a story that might take place in a supermarket, but you have to be vague so you don’t tip the joke. So I just thought that was a great way around that.

Yeah. No matter how great a joke is, the track listing can make it sound dumb.

Yeah, right. Even like George Carlin or whatever, a track listing might be “Airplanes.” And it’s like, our knee jerk reaction in comedy, when you hear about airplanes, is like, “Oh, here’s another lame airplane joke.” But my guess is, George Carlin’s wasn’t. So that was my way of getting around that nonsense.

So it’s been eight years since your last album, Pompous Clown. Why the gap? And why do one now? 

God, because what I do – and one would argue this is a reason why I should have an album every year, but I’m gonna argue against it, and I don’t even have a strong argument – because I don’t turn over material all that often, but I do a different show almost every night. Again, I kind of describe what I do as a magic trick, and so I don’t like to release a lot of my standup. I like the live experience to be unique for people. But I just kind of felt it was time. There’s some stories on this CD that I’m probably gonna stop doing soon, that are related to my son or my family that are a little time-sensitive, so if there’s ever a time to put one out, now’s the time. But for the most part, I don’t really have a lot of clips on YouTube or anything of my standup. I don’t like that stuff being out there. I want people to be surprised when they come and see me or you know, or not be surprised, or be disappointed. I don’t know what their reactions are. But I don’t want them to have heard it before, is my point.

And there are some people who really want to believe that everything happening on stage is spur of the moment. I can see why you wouldn’t want them to see the wires.

And I’m not – and I mean this as a compliment – I’m not a technician like Jerry Seinfeld or Louis C.K. Those guys know how to write and craft the perfect joke, and that’s not really what I do, so if I was to just start releasing stuff all the time, it would just go, “Oh, what a coincidence. He also wanted somebody to punch somebody in the face at the show I was at, too.” You know what I mean? So yeah, that’s why.

Did you record a few shows and then pick the one you liked the most? It seems like, the way your shows work, you wouldn’t be able to record tow and then splice them together [as most comedy albums are]. If had to be one show that worked from start to finish.

I happened to be in Cincinatti, where they’re set up to just record. You don’t have to do anything – Elise, I’ve been around so long where I had to hire the recording crews to come in and record CDs back in the day, and it was a big deal. Then all the pressure’s on, of, “Here we go. We better get the record.” Whereas now, Go Bananas in Cincinatti is setup to record every show, so you just go up and you do your show the way you always would, so I had them record all four shows. The goal was, from those four shows, we will slice together a best-of. This worked better this show, this worked better that show. But after listening to them, it was like, you know what? That one show captures it perfectly. We don’t have to do any of that nonsense. So long story short, yes, it is one show.

There are so many callbacks and so much audience interaction, it seems like it would have been difficult to mix different shows. You remember everyone’s name that you talk to and refer back to it, and that wouldn’t clip together.

Yeah. If all of sudden, you hear, “Ain’t that right, Johnny?” And then everybody’s like, “Who the hell’s Johnny? He was talking to Dan two seconds ago.” So yeah. Luckily we caught it, that particular show clicked. And it’s actually, oddly enough, as improvised as it is, it’s also the most structured set I had done in a really long time. It really lent itself to a CD release more than just me riffing for the entire hour. So it was really the perfect combination of structure and improvisation.

You talk on the record about not touring as much as you used to. Is it difficult to put together that much material if you’re not on the road as much?

Again, because I’m not really a joke writer, per se, I don’t get to collect all these bits and then go on the road with them. So I kind of just go up and riff when I’m there. And by the way, as lame as this sounds, that’s what my fans want anyway. They want to see me go off about Styx or Journey for five or ten minutes, and make callbacks to horrible references and stuff like that. So really, to not work as much as I do is actually a little more freeing. To be able to go on stage and just go, “You know what, here we go. We’re gonna start and we’re gonna find the funny.” And knock on wood, I always do.

I came to know you first through Never Not Funny, and it’s not always a smooth transition from hearing someone on a podcast to seeing their standup. And I was surprised by how much your standup reminded me of the podcast, in a good way. It felt very familiar, though obviously more structured. 

First of all, thank you so much for saying that. I’ll tell you something, I will give 100 hundred percent of the credit to doing the podcast. If you look at my standup special from Comedy Central from 2002, and listen to the CD I just released, you would almost think they’re two different people. It’s still Jimmy Pardo and it’s still me doing my nonsense, but it’s a lot more conversational. I’m not chasing the laugh like I was back then. And I owe that all to the podcast, and being able to sit in there and trust that what I’m saying is funny and that people listening are going to enjoy it. And I kind of bring that to the stage now. And having a fanbase helps with that, I’m not gonna lie. I mean, you go 2002, I didn’t really have a fanbase. You’re just kind of going up on stage, hoping that this group of strangers appreciates what you do. And now, people are coming out to see me so I do have that freedom and that trust of the audience to be able to do that.

People who are just finding you now, so many years into the podcast – I wonder how they react to you?

It’s almost two different questions, at least for me. People in comedy clubs that have never seen me before – God, anything I say is gonna make me sound like an arrogant a-hole, but you know from Never Not Funny, I’m not; I hate myself and I hate the world – but people come up, saying, “My God, you’re the funniest standup I’ve ever seen. That was the most amazing one hour I’ve ever seen. Yes, I didn’t understand why you went into a cajun character for 35 seconds, but you know, I loved it.” And so that’s gratifying. And I used to fight when people would say, “You’re the funniest comic I’ve ever seen,” because, I think they’re wrong. I think there’s funnier guys out there. My hero Richard Lewis is funnier than me. Louis or Seinfeld, Bill Burr is great. So when people would say that to me, I was like, “Well, okay. Thank you. You’ll sober up in the morning and realize you were wrong,” But now I’m kind of coming around to, you know what, what I do is unique and if somebody wants to say, “You’re the funniest comic I’ve ever seen,” I’m not gonna fight them on it. I’m not gonna take that joy away. It’s like, “Great, I’m glad that I am for you.” Because, you know, not everybody thinks Richard Lewis is the greatest and I do.

But now, somebody steps into the podcast for the first time, I think that’s gonna be a little more jarring  for them. I think they’re gonna kind of wonder like, “Really? We’re making fun of 9/11? Why is that happening?” But if you’ve been with us for the whole journey, you know it’s all part of this stupid show that we do.

And you do warmup for Conan, where you obviously do a lot of crowd work.

It’s all crowd work. I’ve got to hit the beats. I’ve got to hit the “turn off your cell phones, no photography, don’t yell out during the show.” I’ve got those three beats, and that’s really it. Other than that, I’m there to tell them who’s on the show and then just be funny and get them in a good mood. And luckily they’re there to see Conan so they’re jacked up and they’re excited to be there. And I’m just part of the show. And luckily, being a regular guest and then being in sketches and then most recently filling in for Andy Richter for a couple of shows – it’s almost like in calling back to the standup thing of trying to convince people that dont know you that you’re funny – now there’s a recognizability factor. I’m walking out on that stage, and they go, “Oh that’s the guy from the show.” So you get a little bit more of the benefit of the doubt right out of the box. But yeah, to answer your question, it’s all improvised. And yes, I say the same jokes if certain things come up. I’m sure the camera guys are sick of hearing my jokes, but it’s a different audience every night. But for the most part I improvise everything, because it’s always, who was first in line? Who’s on vacation? And you’re never gonna get the same answers.

Has doing warmup there influenced your improvising on the road?

I would flip-flop it. I would say that my road experience let me be great at the Conan job? Is that a good sentence? Yeah, I would flip-flop it. I would say my experience doing this for years on the road of working the crowd and improvising has made that job easier for me.

And Pardcast-a-Thon is coming up. Are you already planning? Do you know what your fundraising goal for this year will be? 

Well, the goal is always to top last year. But last year was $114,000, so I think that’s gonna be a hurdle that might be difficult to get over. But hopefully we can do it. We’re gonna go noon to midnight again. We went noon to 1am last year, if you’re on the west coast. As far as guests go, I think we’re about two weeks away from starting to think about that.

As funny as it sounds, most of my famous friends were available last year. They all came – Kevin Nealon, Conan, Bob Saget, Rich Sommer, Colin Hay from Men at Work. I always throw it out to the people I know, and just by chance last year, they all said, “Yeah, we can do it.” There were a only a couple that couldn’t, and I don’t want to say who those are on the off-chance I get ‘em this year. But I really only have two other famous friends, and so I pray to God they’re available, otherwise, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Because I try to get new people every year. So we’ll see. I’m hoping that we can reach out to some folks that I don’t know and get them involved this year.

That’d be great. And $114,000, that’s amazing.

It’s crazy, right? I mean, one person donated $55,000 or whatever it was. I don’t know who that person was, I don’t know how that happened, but at a certain hour, this anonymous donor said, “Whatever it is at midnight, I’ll double it.” And they doubled it, and we went from like $55,000 to $110,000 in one second. It was crazy. So, in reality, my fanbase raised close to 60, but I can’t ignore the fact that this guy gave 55 grand. And it’s better for our press release to say $114,000.

Do you remember what the goal the first year was? Each year, the number jumps up so much.

You know, I think the goal was to make like a thousand bucks or something. And then I think we made 13 grand the first year. I just remember being so overwhelmed by it, because we just thought, “Hey, let’s do this thing, and if we can raise some money, that would be really cool too.” And then to raise over 10 grand with this stupid little podcast. And remember, when did our first one, this podcast wave really hadn’t happened yet, the big comedy podcast boom. So podcasting was still unique – it’s still to this day, people don’t know. My dad says, “How are things on the iPad?” People don’t really know what it is. So to raise that much money initially was great, and then for it to keep jumping is phenomenal.

Sprezzatura is available on AST Records. The Pardcast-a-thon, which raises money for Smile Train, will take place on November 29.

Elise Czajkowski is an associate editor at Splitsider. 

Talking to Jimmy Pardo About ‘Sprezzatura’, ‘Never Not […]