It’s been a slow, steady climb for comedian Nick Swardson, particularly with Comedy Central. He debuted there on Premium Blend in 1998, followed it up with his own stand-up special in 2001 (and another in 2006), not to mention his recurring role as the roller-skating prostitute Terry on Reno 911! Along the way, Swardson met Adam Sandler and became a contributing writer to some of his Happy Madison projects. In many ways, Swardson’s new sketch-comedy series, Pretend Time With Nick Swardson, is the culmination of his previous work: It brings him back to Comedy Central, under the aegis of Happy Madison, and gleefully wallows in the raunchy silliness that has become his signature. (For instance, a sketch in episode one involved copious amounts of donkey semen.) Pretend Time also finally gave a home to Swardson’s Gay Robot character, around which he and co-creator Tom Gianas built an unsuccessful pilot in 2006. If Swardson should be anywhere right now, it seems Pretend Time is it. He’ll soon be a lot more places, with three films out next year, including Ruben Fleischer’s 30 Minutes Or Less with Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride, as well as the Sandler-penned Born To Be A Star. Before Pretend Time premièred, Swardson spoke with The A.V. Club about underestimating his workload, reassessing his stand-up career, and getting network notes about donkey semen.
The A.V. Club: Tom Gianas had worked on Human Giant. How do you think his experience with that shaped what your show became?
Nick Swardson: I don’t know. That’s a good question. The shows are pretty different creatively. But I think just technically, because he directed 95 percent of the episodes—his dad got sick at one point, and we had a guest director come in for a couple sketches—but I think it really helped him with the run-and-gun. I know Human Giant didn’t have a big budget, and so Tom was just running all over New York shooting that show with those guys. I think it got him in shape to be able to do everything, to do all these sketches himself, directing-wise. You know, it’s really intense. We would pick up ends of sketches and bits of stuff here and there. It was so fucking intense. It was crazy.
AVC: Was it always intended to be a sketch show? How did it evolve from when you first started talking about it?
NS: It basically started out when Tom called me up and said, “I have this idea for a show.” Tom and I have been friends for a long time. “I have an idea to do this sketch show. Would you want to do it?” I was like, “Well, it’s kind of been done ad nauseam at this point, so I don’t know what I would do.” But then he pitched me the concept of where they kind of flow into each other via these ubiquitous television screens, and that way there’s no pressure on ending the sketch, and its not the same format you’ve seen on Comedy Central with [Dave] Chappelle and Demetri [Martin] and [Carlos] Mencia, where there’s a crowd and you walk out. That intrigued me. There’s no pressure on ending the sketches, and we could call sketches back. There was a lot more at our disposal than I had seen before in other shows, so that’s what really intrigued me.
AVC: Sketch shows are so hard to do well because by their nature, it’s inevitable that they’re going to be hit-or-miss. What do you think is the key to doing one well?
NS: It’s really tricky, man. I did an episode of Human Giant, and luckily those guys all had each other to lean on. [Laughs.] With Chappelle and those other guys, they got to break sketches up by coming out and talking to the crowd and then throw it to a sketch, whereas with my situation it was just constant sketches, so we had to generate way more material—and it was all on my shoulders. [Laughs.] I didn’t really realize—because we didn’t get a pilot, we just got an order. We pitched this idea to Comedy Central—I mean, obviously they’ve known me forever, they knew Tom, they loved Human Giant, so they were like, “Yeah, shoot six episodes.” We were thrown right into the fire pretty quickly, and we realized pretty quickly too, “This is going to be a little harder than we thought.” [Laughs.] So in that respect it was kind of horrifying.
AVC: No pilot? Is that unusual?
NS: It’s kind of unusual, but Tom and I are obviously pretty established. Tom’s run his own sketch show, and I’ve been on the network. And I have enough experience just in acting that it’s not that unusual in that respect. We pitched them the concept and several sketches and ideas, and they were like, “Okay.” They were on board.
AVC: Was there anything you wanted to avoid when you were doing this show?
NS: Yeah, I just wanted to make it my voice. I wanted it to be really fun and silly. I didn’t want to be too cerebral or too over people’s heads. I didn’t want to be like “Heeeey,” just doing sketches that were really inside, just to make me and some of the comedy community laugh. I wanted it to just be really fun and accessible. I didn’t want to be highfalutin. I didn’t want it to be like, “If you don’t get this sketch, you’re stupid.” I didn’t want it to be like that. I just wanted it to be really fun and goofy.
AVC: It seems like after you’ve been in comedy after a certain point, it can be hard to decipher the line between what’s funny and what’s just weird, because that aggressive weirdness is what makes them laugh at this point.
NS: Yeah, it’s a form and a whole thing that makes it very easy to be self-indulgent. There were sketches that I wrote where Tom had to be like, “Yeah, I get why you think this is funny, but this is really weird.” I’d have to take a step back and I’m like, “Yeah. It’s just ridiculous.” Like I’m obsessed with the name Gary—I just think it’s super-funny, for some reason the name Gary makes me laugh—so I wrote a sketch just called, “The Garys.” It’s just five guys named Gary, and they just hang out and they’re always asking each other questions and starting with like, “GARY! What do you think of this?” I mean it was just so stupid and I loved it, and Tom was like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “Yeah, nobody would think this is funny.”
AVC: You like to talk about how filthy the show is. Was there anything that got held back by standards and practices?
NS: I feel bad because I feel like I’m not doing it justice. When I’m saying that it’s filthy, I’m not trying to sell it out. I mean, I think it’s filthy, but there’s a method to the madness of it. I would never do anything gratuitous. I’m not a fan of just shock value or being gross just to be gross. That’s not what the show is. If there is a gross moment, like semen flying against a window, it’s for a sexual harassment meeting at a donkey show. There’s a context to it. It’s not just like, “Hey look, this is semen!”
They let me fly with it, but we had to pull back. There was constantly, I mean—[Standards And Practices] calls and notes were never-ending. It was like a joke at one point where it was just a whole list of like, “How much blood is there?” “Are we going to show the dildo?” “Where does the semen land? It can’t land in the guy’s mouth.” [Laughs.] It was kind of embarrassing. We would take a step back and be like, “We’re adults, right?”
AVC: Looking at the credits for the first two episodes, there are a lot of writers with some pretty notable names like Jon Glaser, Horatio Sanz, and Brian Posehn. How was the writing done on the show?
NS: The writing was pretty tricky, because none of those people were staffed. Me and Tom and this guy T. Sean Shannon were the main writers, and then Horatio did the most after that. We would bring people in for a day or two days. I think some people did maybe a week. But it was pretty scattered. People would come in and brainstorm for a day, they would pitch the sketches at lunch, and the ones that we liked, we were like, “Go and write those.” It was pretty all over the place. One thing that I would really want if this show runs again is to have a staff, just because it was really difficult.
AVC: That seems like a lot of work to put on your shoulders to be both the star and writing it. No wonder Chappelle freaked out.
NS: It was a ton—It was so much more than I ever fathomed. I didn’t really realize what that was all gonna entail.
AVC: How did you shoot it? Were you doing a couple weeks on and a couple weeks off?
NS: Yeah, we would do three weeks and take a hiatus. But the hiatus was all writing and prepping; there was really never any downtime. It was always go, go, go. Our initial order was six, but they loved the first episode, so they gave us two more. We had to generate all this material, and then we came short in the edit, so it turned into seven episodes. It was really, really tricky generating that much material. There was no downtime. Like I said there were no bumpers, no talking to the crowd—it was just sketch, sketch, sketch.
AVC: I never noticed this until I had the Chappelle’s Show DVDs, but those episodes were only like 17 minutes long. So 17 minutes altogether with credits, titles, and Chappelle coming out and talking with the crowd—so really they were like 14 to 15 minutes long.
NS: Yeah, and the thing about his show too was that he had really long sketches. They got on my case about how they were too long. I would have a sketch that was like, three minutes, and they’re like, “This is too long.” Tom did research and was like, “Well wait, Chappelle did a sketch that was like, six and a half minutes.” Like the Rick James sketch or one of those sketches was literally six and a half minutes. It was the whole thing. It was really hard. They were really set on this viral, ADD sketch show where it’s like if we can get each one to be a burst of a minute and a half, two minutes, people can send these virally.
Think of that: If you’re doing a minute and two-minute sketches in a half-hour, you have to write like, 10 to 15 sketches an episode. I almost had a nervous breakdown. [Laughs.] I understood where they were coming from and what they wanted, but the execution was a little harder than what we planned on. It makes things a lot harder, but honestly in all my experience with shows and networks, they were really phenomenal just in terms of creatively letting us do what we wanted, and casting and stuff like that.
AVC: Sketches seem like a natural fit for Gay Robot.
NS: That was one thing that was really exciting. Tom had directed the original Gay Robot pilot, I don’t know if you knew that. We were always trying to find a home for him. We thought it was dead in the water. I think it was the network that actually pitched that, but yeah, we jumped on it. Because the concept isn’t—you know, it’s a gay robot. You don’t have to go into, “Well what’s the real backstory?” “It’s a robot that’s gay. Just go with it.” So, yeah, it was really conducive to the sketch world. It was great. We had a blast doing that. If that works there is the possibility that we could spin it off.
AVC: You had a pretty famous designer for the robot, right?
NS: Stan Winston built that robot—that’s the guy who built the Terminator. The guy in the robot is this guy Doug Jones, who’s hugely famous. He was in Hellboy, he was in Pan’s Labyrinth, and he played Pan. He is a really big movement guy and a behind-the-scenes actor where he does all these great characters, and is really good with movement. Literally, he’s contorted and drilled into that suit. I would fucking blow my head off if I had to do that, and he did it constantly. It was crazy. It’s the most claustrophobic thing I’ve ever seen.
AVC: You said in another interview that Gay Robot had gotten you in trouble. How so?
NS: I had gotten into a fight with a waiter. This waiter chewed me out one time. I was at a bar, and he said that I had set the gay community back 20 years. [Laughs.] He was so offended and got really fucking mad at me, and I got really mad because I just snapped. I was like, “What the fuck are you talking about? Gay Robot is completely positive.” Especially on this show. There’s an original sketch we did on Adam Sandler’s album when Gay Robot is just super horny, but he’s one of the guys. Gay Robot is always accepted. We never go out and make fun of him or anything. It’s always a very accepted thing, and people love him. There’s nothing but love towards him.
It was kind of baffling. This is my favorite part: He said that the robot was so stereotyped about Gay Robot just wanting to have sex and all this stuff. I’m like, “Well, people want to have sex. Guys want to get laid.” And then, this is 100-percent true, I talked him down, and then the fucking guy asked me for my phone number and asked me out! I swear, swear to God. I was like, “WHAT?!” After this whole fucking bullshit, yelling fucking crap, and then he fucking wanted to bang me. I swear to God, too. I’m not just saying that for story purposes. Literally, I was like, “You’re fucking kidding me!”
AVC: You seem to be cooling on doing stand-up these days. Is that accurate?
NS: I’m at a really weird point at my stand-up where the sketch show took so much time and creativity. I mean, literally, I did not go onstage for over a year, which is completely unprecedented. I’ve done stand-up for 15 years, and for an entire year I did not touch a microphone or go onstage. The show just completely consumed me and also just changed the way I wrote. I was completely in sketch mode where everything was like, “How’s this a sketch? How’s this a sketch?” I’m kind of getting back into it, trying to see where I’m at and if my writing gets back into the groove. I want to do a whole new hour, and I just have to wait until that comes together. Either it will or it won’t, so I’m feeling that out.
AVC: You’ve said that you didn’t want to repeat yourself and do another hour about getting wasted. Is your stand-up mind wandering in different places these days?
NS: Um, no. I’ve got a lot of stories in some new areas. I’ll always talk about drinking because it’s such a part of my life. [Laughs.] But I’m somebody that doesn’t want to repeat myself. I don’t want to do the same jokes, and I don’t want to have people pay to see me do the same act. I could easily tour right now and do my special that runs on Comedy Central, but I don’t feel like that’s fair to my fans and fair to people, especially in this economic time to be like, “Oh really, I just paid to see something that I can fucking watch on TV.” So I’m just feeling it out. I love doing stand-up, so hopefully I can find an hour that’s worth telling. But if not, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
AVC: What’s the most challenging for you at this point: acting, writing, or stand-up?
NS: They’re all kind of different. I’m really having fun doing a lot of acting. I was fortunate enough that I’ve got three movies coming out next year. It’s been really fun because the roles have been bigger, and it’s been more really getting into characters. It’s not just popping into a movie and going [crazy sound] and then disappearing. It’s been fun trying new stuff. But writing stand-up is still a challenge. Right now it’s kind of my biggest challenge, trying to get a new act off the ground. It’s really hard.
AVC: An hour’s a long time.
NS: An hour’s a long time—I know that, but I forgot it. I remember the other day—and I’ve fucking done stand-up for 15 years and I’m still this fucking stupid—I did a show, I wrote a bunch of new material, and I came off stage and was like, “Holy shit! What was that, like, 35 minutes?” They were like, “That was like 12.” I was like, “No! It was longer than that.” They were like, “No, we timed it.” I was like fuck. I was so embarrassed. I was just like, “Oh, all right. I’m glad I can gauge my concept of stage time after 15 years of doing this.” So embarrassing.
AVC: You mentioned talking about drinking in your stand-up. One of your recent interviews referenced a stint in rehab when you were younger.
NS: Yeah, it was court-ordered. [Laughs.]
AVC: How does that jibe with your material?
NS: It was kind of a goof. It wasn’t a goof, but I got busted for pot in high school. I was smoking pot in the school. [Laughs.] I don’t know if you know, but that’s heavily frowned upon. Actually I really credit that in terms of saving me, because I was partying so fucking hard in high school that when that happened I hit a wall and I kind of cleaned up, and that’s when I turned to acting because my grades were bad. I turned to acting to get an easy grade and ended up really loving doing acting and then did it full-time and joined a bunch of theater groups and joined improv groups. That’s how I got into acting, so I really credit it for saving me. I’m very pro telling kids, “Don’t smoke pot at a young age. Don’t start doing drugs at a young age.” I’m not going to say, “Don’t do drugs,” because then I’d be a fucking hypocrite. But at that age, when you’re really young and you’re trying to develop and find yourself, it’s not a good idea. People don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into.
AVC: You spend enough time around people who started at a young age, and it can be pretty grim.
NS: I know, and it’s like everyone told me that and I never listened. I was always like, “Whatever.” And they’re like, “No!” My favorite is when people argue that pot’s not a gateway drug. [Laughs.] It’s totally a fucking gateway drug! [Laughs.] I started smoking pot and then was like, “Oh yeah, I want to get higher.” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s how it works.” People are just like, “No way man! The system man, keeping us down.” It’s like no—nobody just goes, “I’ll just start doing heroin. Let’s skip all the middlemen. Let’s go straight to H.”
AVC: It definitely depends on your personality, but if you have an addictive personality, it’s like, “Let’s keep upping the ante.”
NS: Yeah, everyone I knew did. But again, it’s mainly to younger kids. It’s like, I’ll tell my nieces and nephews, “Just get high when you’re fucking older and you have money and you can afford it. Why do drugs when you have to steal money from your parents? It’s just so trashy.”