It’s a bit of a double-edged sword to be called a pioneer of a format most people know best from shows like “How Did This Get Made?” and “Getting Doug with High.” On the one hand, the comedy “podcast boom” has encouraged every wannabe-comic with GarageBand to put their rambling thoughts online. But when your podcast wins awards, lands you a job on Conan, and inspires a twelve-hour charitable marathon with your name in the title, you might want to give the medium a second look. Arguably the first notable comic to start his own podcast, Never Not Funny, today’s guest has undoubtedly earned his stripes. From his start as a record store manager in whom Bob Odenkirk saw budding talent, to cutting his teeth at Chicago venues like The Roxy in the late ’80s, Jimmy Pardo has a lot of advice—and still some self-doubt—about how to make it “big” in comedy (hint: don’t put your open mics on YouTube).
How did your upbringing affect your sense of humor?
I grew up in the South Side of Chicago and then eventually in the south suburbs. As most of Chicago is, my childhood was pretty sports-oriented. I wasn’t really good at sports even though I tried. And yet I tried to fit in with that group of people, and failed to do so. So, I then had to, in order to have friends or to be “accepted” by the cool kids, make people laugh. I just did it to not get my ass kicked by the jocks that didn’t like me being funny. I would try to confuse them using words, and I never got beat up. I would mock the jocks to get a laugh, and the girls would laugh, and then the girls would like me, and then that would make the jocks look stupid, and then they’d want to beat me up, and then I would talk my way out of it. It was a fight or flight thing to use my humor.
I did also grow up in a house where my mom, my step-dad, and my father were all into Steve Martin before anybody I knew was into him. I would stay up and watch SNL when that started in ’75. And then my mom woke me up one night and introduced me to SCTV. We stayed up on Saturday nights until like, 2 AM, so we could watch SNL and SCTV. My mom would let me stay up and watch the monologue for Johnny Carson, and if there was a comedian on, I could stay up to watch the comedian. So comedy was present in my life, and my family had fine senses of humor.
Because you had such early exposure to heavy-hitters in comedy like SCTV and Steve Martin, did you have any specific comedians whose styles you borrowed when you first started performing?
I’m sure I was a complete Richard Lewis rip-off. If I remember, my mom came to see me once when I performed in Merrillville and she said, “Boy, you’re very Richard Lewis-y tonight.” I didn’t realize at the time that it was a bad thing. I had a lot of Richard Lewis in me, a lot of Paul Reiser. I started in the late-80s, so we were all trying to be Paul Reiser and Jerry Seinfeld and these technicians. Robert Klein was an influence, and then growing up watching the Tonight Show, Don Rickles and Groucho certainly play a part in everything.
How did you first start doing stand-up comedy? The ’80s were such a hot moment in stand up, I imagine it was a bit difficult to make your own way.
That was a time where comedy was everywhere, and everyone was trying their hand at stand up. But for me, that just so happened to be when I turned 21 or 22, that’s when I was able to get into comedy clubs and do it. So I happened to start right in the middle of the comedy boom. The fun story is that I was managing a record store in Naperville, and Bob Odenkirk, who of course is now widely successful, would frequent the store. He would come in every Saturday morning because his parents lived in Naperville, and he and I would just chit-chat. I didn’t really know Bob Odenkirk, he was just some guy who came into my store. We would talk music and we would make each other laugh. He actually said to me, “Wow, you’re really funny, you should do comedy.” And I had gone to acting school and done plays, so he said, “My buddy does a show right down the street here on Saturday nights, you should come and watch it.” So I started doing it. I went to a couple of open mics; my first open mic was in October of ’88. Then I ended up getting a job with MCA Records, so I kind of stopped for a little while, because I had to go to concerts and go to stores and do my job as a record exec. But it wasn’t filling the void of wanting to do stand up, and my boss finally gave me an ultimatum: “Do you want to keep working here at MCA, or do you want to pursue this dream of stand up?” So I went home, I talked with my parents about it because I was still a kid in my early 20s, and I decided, “You know what? I’m going to leave this six-figure job to basically live out of my car and make $150 a week.” So that’s what I did.
How did you develop your own voice as a comedian?
As an open mic comic, I started at a place called The Roxy, and we would go there every Thursday and Sunday. As an open mic’er, I would take a lot of chances comedically, and sometimes I would get laughs, and sometimes not. Then I started getting paid, and I started taking it way too seriously. I worked really hard to be an average white guy talking. I was just average at best in terms of being a “professional” comedian. Then it clicked: Everybody kept telling me that I was much funnier off stage. And I didn’t know what they meant, because I was making a living, I was getting laughs, but eventually I realized what they meant at the end of ’92, after doing it for a living for three years. So I threw away my act and started improvising on stage like I would do as an open mic comic, trying to find my voice. That’s what it really came to be.
I went through my angry comic phase, and my “I’m-smarter-than-the-audience” phase, and so it took a few years to become “me” on stage. And 27 years later, I’m 100% me on stage. And I’m confident enough to know that if it’s not going great, so what? And if it’s going great, so what? They don’t really go poorly anymore because I have a fan base now. I think younger comics, maybe even more so now because of social media, think that they’ve figured it out. Maybe we were that naive too, I don’t know. I think there’s this sense that if you put a video on YouTube and your friends tell you it’s funny, you think you don’t have to keep working. I don’t think any of that’s true—it’s a business where you have to work your ass off and find who you really are. If you don’t find who you really are and you’re just doing comedy for laughs, then you’re an asshole.
If you don’t find who you really are and you’re just doing comedy for laughs, then you’re an asshole.
Your podcast,Never Not Funny, has won multiple awards, and you’ve parlayed your podcast into a charitable marathon, the Pardcast-A-Thon. When you first started the show, why did you choose the podcast format?
Although I wasn’t the first to have a podcast in the format of Never Not Funny, I do think I was a pioneer in podcasting—as Todd Glass put it in his book, I was the first guy you had ever heard of doing one. I did it mainly because Matt Belknap, who has been my co-host for ten years, was a fan of mine. He went to my shows at the UCB [Theatre], where I was doing live game shows or talk shows. He’s like, “Why don’t we turn the talk show into a podcast?” I had known about podcasting because of Ricky Gervais, and I would listen to his. Matt was doing one that was a very dry, inside the mind of a comic interview, and after I did that show, he said, “I’d rather produce a podcast for you than host my own.” At the time, I was between TV jobs. I wasn’t doing anything, and I agreed. I had a feeling that this would be something that happens that breaks big, and let’s start doing it. And that was really it.
Over the years, we built up a really loyal fanbase. But I really thought podcasting was never going to take off. I felt like whenever I asked anybody to do my show, I was asking them to do a cable access show, like “Oh, what do you mean, podcast?” And then the comedy podcast boom exploded, so we were left behind, and then we had to play catchup, so we joined Earwolf, a great network. I also always thought I’d be good at doing radio. I grew up listening to Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, two of the greatest radio guys, and then I had years of going around the country and being on with great people like Bob [Kevoian] and Tom [Griswold]. And you hear a lot of bad radio too, and you’re thinking, “Jesus, I could do this better than them.” So this was kind of a way to use that muscle of being “Jimmy Pardo in the moment,” which is what I do on stage as a stand up, but doing it conversationally in this radio format, done as a podcast.
How has comedy affected your mental health?
For me, it’s both good and bad. My very funny friend Matt Weinhold once said, “Comedians are basically the island of misfit toys.” For the most part, we’re the people who didn’t fit in. What I found, going to The Roxy in Chicago, I was finally able to find people that were like-minded. We all have different comedy styles, but we all have one kind of goal. There still are cliques in comedy, show business in general can be a lot like high school, but at any rate: in comedy, I first started to find my people. I felt accepted. And then because I fit in so comfortably, I started hanging out at the clubs and staying after the shows and getting drunk, and I became a drunken asshole for years. I will now be sober 17 years in July, and who knows if that would have happened without being a comedian, but I know that drinking for free certainly added to my drinking problems. And I think it slowed me down comedically too, where I was thinking I was a genius and in reality I was this drunken guy rambling at the mouth. But I’m still full of rage—I grew up short and not fitting in and having people make fun of me—and I still have that rage, and so instead of going out and plowing my car into a group of people, I go on stage and yell at people. It’s good for my mental well-being because I’m able to get these thoughts out either on the podcast or on stage as a stand up. It gives me a place to vent comedically as opposed to venting to some guy at work.