Although Jimmy Pardo has been performing stand-up comedy since the late ’80s, this year has been a whirlwind of exposure for the Chicago native. Pardo was tapped as the warm-up act for The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien, and when that show was canned, TBS shot a stand-up special hosted by Andy Richter, featuring Pardo and the show’s writing staff. It highlighted Pardo’s work on his popular podcast Never Not Funny, which just wrapped its seventh season. Pardo and producer Matt Belknap started NNF before comedy podcasters were as prolific as they are today, and in that time, Pardo’s biting, off-the-cuff banter has become a staple among comedy fans. On Friday, November 26, Pardo will host the second-annual Pardcast-A-Thon—an all-night charity event to raise money for The Smile Train, a charity that provides surgery to children with cleft palates. In preparation for this marathon of Never Not Funny-ness, The A.V. Club chatted with Pardo about the podcast boon, his signature improvisational style, and his loyalty to Conan O’Brien.
The A.V. Club: You mentioned on Marc Maron’s podcast that your own podcast was the thing finally getting you some heat. Was that the intention behind it to begin with?
Jimmy Pardo: Truth be told, I just thought of it as something to do between television jobs. I wasn’t setting out to be this groundbreaker, or any of that stuff. I had been doing my own shows at the UCB theater [in Los Angeles], and the gentleman who’s now my producer, Matt Belknap, had asked if I wanted to do a podcast. I was familiar with podcasting because of Ricky Gervais, so I figured I’d give it a try. I’m lucky that people took a liking to it immediately and it became successful.
AVC: How did the format come about?
JP: Initially, he wanted to take the talk show I was doing at UCB and turn it into a podcast, so it would be me interviewing comedians. It was a talk show. Our first episode was kind of me doing an audio blog to begin with, like “Let me tell you what’s been going on this week, then I’ll bring a guest in.” And boy, that’s a snooze. Then it was me, my co-host Matt, and Mike Schmidt, and the three of us did the first 59 episodes together, with a guest every now and then. After those 59, Mike left the show, so I had a guest on every week. It became the best vehicle for what I do. I love being in the moment, I love to improvise, I actually like listening to people, talking about comedy and life, and talking off the top of my head. The idea of podcasting really linked itself to my skills, and here we are four years later.
AVC: What appealed to you about the talk-show format at your live show?
JP: Basically, I do enjoy being able to bounce things off other people; they say something and I’m able to say something back. I apologize, it sounds like I’m explaining a conversation to you. I grew up idolizing Johnny Carson; that’s the easy answer. I loved Carson, I love Letterman, I just thought my skills were that I’m good at listening, I’m good at interacting, let’s try a talk show.
AVC: Having worked comedy clubs in the ’90s, in the midst of the club boom, did you feel pressure to sit down and write jokes, or did you try and remain true to how you best work off-the-cuff as a comic?
JP: I almost feel like a broken record saying this, because I say this to every young comic who wants to hear me run my mouth in a green room: When I was an open mic-er, I was very free-form and improvisational. I took chances, and people always talked about it. “Oh hey, Pardo’s on, let’s go watch him.” And then I started getting paid, and to address what you just said, once that started happening—let’s go March of ’89 through maybe 1992—I was writing very average comedy, and I was performing very average comedy. But I felt like that’s what I had to do, because I was getting paid. For those three years, I was not true to myself. Then when it all clicked was when people said “You’re funnier offstage. You’re funnier to hang out with than to watch onstage.” I was always insulted by that. Then something clicked, and suddenly as an open mic-er, I would talk off the top of my head and improvise. It was so freeing. And I grew from there.
AVC: Has it been tough to stay true to that? It seems like writing is a big part of what the industry looks for.
JP: Truth be told, as far as the industry goes, I heard for years, “Wow, he was the funniest guy in the showcase, but what can we base the sitcom around?” Nobody’s buying a talk show. The format is there, and you just plug people into it. Whether someone’s replacing Johnny Carson, or David Letterman, or Conan, or eventually Carson Daly, one would assume. I’m not slamming Carson Daly, I’m just saying one day he might move on, or he’ll wanna be there forever, like he should. So there was a lot of time where I was like, “What am I going to do?” I did a one-man show in 2001 to address that problem, and I got a little heat from it—we sold it to Comedy Central, then there was a regime change, and of course whenever that happens, every other project is thrown out the window. It wasn’t hard to stay true to myself, but for better or worse, maybe it slowed things down.
AVC: On the Andrew Daly episode of Never Not Funny, you spend a great deal of time hilariously trashing the movie Yogi Bear. Is there ever fear of burning bridges in the business?
JP: I need to watch myself more than I do. I get in there—I grew up idolizing these two guys from Chicago, Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, and the idea that they said whatever was on their mind. I was always more drawn toward Garry, because I found him more sarcastic than Steve, but I loved them both. I always liked that they were unafraid to talk about their real emotions. When I started the podcast, I learned it’s really easy when you’re sitting in a studio, and no one’s around, to forget that people are going to be listening to this. I’m maybe guilty of saying the wrong thing, but I’ll stand behind it, and that I’m being honest in the name of comedy. I’m not using that as a cop-out, but people are tuning in to hear my thoughts and hear me be funny. It’s not funny to err on the side of safety because maybe I want to be cast in a movie someday.
AVC: What inspired the shift to the pay format you guys use now?
JP: We had two or three years of free shows, then it got to a point where I felt—podcasting had not really taken off. But I still felt like if I kept doing it [the way I was], then I’d be that cable-access guy. Like, “I’m not in show business—I’m doing a radio show out of my living room.” I said to Matt one day, “Nobody is charging. Let’s charge a reasonable amount of money. The worst thing that happens is nobody wants to pay for it, and that gives us the incentive to quit doing this anyway.” We also did it at the exact right time. We started charging right before I had the competition of Marc Maron and Comedy Death-Ray, all these other ones. Our paid subscribers have continued to grow. Knock on wood, I think I’m doing something right.
AVC: What do you attribute to this comedy-podcast boon we’re currently enjoying?
JP: It’s a matter of having these guys who—I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but maybe are frustrated that they’re not on television, and this gives them an outlet to express their views more than when they’re onstage as stand-ups. And they’re easy to do. They’re free to do. It doesn’t take anything more than software on your computer.
AVC: Why did Mike Schmidt end up leaving?
JP: Mike and I are friends now, and we were for a lot of years. We were just growing in different directions. It was time. I don’t think Mike was able to express himself the way he wanted to on my show, and I wasn’t able to express myself the way I wanted to. We were coming at it from two different angles. You hear about all these bands where a singer or guitarist leaves, and you’re like, “What do you mean? You guys are successful! Why are you breaking up?” Not having experienced it first-hand, you can have all the success in the world, but if you’re not happy doing it, change has to happen.
AVC: When people do something you like, you have an unspoken desire for them to love whom they’re doing it with. Whatever your favorite TV show is, you secretly want all the actors to be best friends.
JP: You’re exactly right. Then you hear something like—I’ll make something up—“Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis hated each other.” It’s like, “Wow, really?” We got a big backlash when Mike left the show. People loved the chemistry between Mike and I. We were putting out a great show, but behind the scenes, there was tension. I maintain he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever met in my life; it was just hard to work together.
AVC: How has the podcast affected your live comedy?
JP: It has made a world of difference. Even though I was always improvisational onstage—at least since ’93—this podcast has really allowed me to get loose. I now have people in the audience who are podcast fans who are there to see Jimmy Pardo. Knowing there’s that core of people there, who will be with me through all the silliness, allows me to have the freedom to just go off.
AVC: Are there fans in the audience when you’re doing sets before Conan tapings?
JP: There’s a sprinkling. Honestly, any recognition makes your life easier.
AVC: As someone who’s worked alongside both incarnations of the show, what do you notice as differences between the NBC show and the new TBS one?
JP: I do think there’s a difference. The show is looser. He’s already taking more chances, and there are more chances down the line that he will take. I don’t have any inside information; that’s just my thinking. Conan is now 46 years old, and I think for him to be doing the show he did when he was 30, at 12:30 at night, he’s not that guy anymore. You are going to get a blend of the old Late Night and what he was doing on The Tonight Show. And that’s exactly where he should be. Again, that’s my point of view from watching it.
AVC: Has your experience opening the show been different?
JP: It’s been a completely different thing. Ever since Team Coco started, all those people becoming part of this “cause” were in the audience. Every show has been full of those people. They are primed and ready to go. They are there and psyched. It’s completely different from trying to get tourists ready to go.
AVC: How did you originally get this gig?
JP: I was hired the day before the first test show. I was in a movie theater when I got a message from my agent asking me if I wanted to take a meeting to do warm-up for The Tonight Show. I had a conflict in my head. I had a dream that Conan O’Brien was coming to L.A.—I’d never met Conan, but we had similar sensibilities as far as I was concerned, just from watching him on television, the same sort of sarcastic edge while being very silly, above everything else. I had this dream that he moved to L.A. and I got a job on there. But I hadn’t moved to L.A. to be a warm-up act. I’m doing a fake talk show in a theater, I want my own talk show. I got that call, and I was really torn. I took the meeting, and met with Mike Sweeney, Jeff Ross, Conan, and within seconds, I was like, “You are a fool not to take this job.” These guys are funny, treating me with respect—and the way this happened, to give you more info, I had done shows with Andy Richter at UCB, and he’d been on the podcast. When I went into this meeting, Mike Sweeney said, “Just to let you know, when we were talking about who we wanted to warm up, Andy Richter said you were the only guy for the job. We looked at something of yours on the Internet, we watched one minute of it, and knew you were our guy. This job is yours if you want it.” So I gave it a try, and I went from “Let’s give it a try” in my head to “God, I hope they don’t fire me. This is the greatest job in the world.”
AVC: On the podcast, you talk a lot about calling strangers out for doing something idiotic. Is that how you normally are, or do you amp it up for the sake of the podcast?
JP: It always backfires on me. I’m always the stooge in those stories. More often than not, I don’t call people out on it, and I end up exploding, and everybody thinks I’m just nuts. In reality, it’s just me and my bitterness and anger. I explode, and then I’m embarrassed. It’s more a case where I don’t know how to politely say “Excuse me, but I was next.”