COMEDIAN MARK NORMAND might have just delved into stand up comedy six or so years ago but he already shows signs of a long-lasting career. Normand, now known for his likable act and delivery, started out in New Orleans, where he claims there was practically no scene. Which led him to head on up to New York City sometime after graduating from film school, where he quickly found himself obsessed with comedy the scene.
Just last month, Normand made his late night debut on “CONAN,” and performed a ballsy move towards the end that made his appearance a memorable one to the audience, himself and Conan alike.
Normand recently spoke with TSJ about New York’s Comedy Cellar, his obsession with Jews and our mutual fascination with all things Larry David.
The Smoking Jacket: What made you come to New York to do stand up?
Mark Normand: Well, I went to film school here in like ’05 and ’06. I just fell in love with the city. I noticed there were open mics but didn’t have the balls to do any. So I graduated, moved home to New Orleans and had this overwhelming sadness coming over me like, What am I doing? I should be back there. This is not right. So I started doing open mics in New Orleans. My friend eventually said he was moving to New York. I was like, I’m going with you!
TSJ: So then was comedy always in your mind?
MN: I’ve always been a funny guy — I was always the class clown. I know some comics shy away from saying that but I have no shame in it. I was the class clown. But I think I’ve always liked stand up and saw it as a kid but thought I’d never do it. It was like being a pro basketball player. It was just a thing some people do, you know? But then after doing open mics you realize you feel a connection and then I thought, Fuck it, just do it.
TSJ: What was the first act like? Did you model it after anybody?
MN: It was very Seinfeldian. Very isn’t this weird? Or what’s the deal? But I also started out very blue because it’s easy to get laughs. Terrible sex jokes and whatnot.
TSJ: And how would you describe what you do now? It’s not alternative.
MN: No, I do every kind of room. I do the Comedy Cellar. I do the UCB. I do bars and clubs. I’m all over the place. I want to be one of those “funny for everybody” guys like Louie or Burr. My act has changed so much. I do get called racist and misogynistic a lot though, even homophobic. I think it’s just because I say the word gay. But people don’t listen. It drives me nuts.
But a couple of nights ago at Gotham this lesbian came up to be and said, “You’re like an advocate for everyone. You talk about how it’s dumb to be homophobic and women should have this and racism is dumb.” I never thought about that, yet I get called terrible things all the time.
TSJ: That’s odd. I don’t know why one would have that assumption.
MN: People are idiots. [laughs] That “CONAN” set where my one joke goes, I’m black, I have people come up saying “Fuck you! You’re not black!” It’s satire people. It’s irony, you idiots. [laughs]
TSJ: That “CONAN” appearance was your late night debut, right?
MN: Yes! Oh, boy. I’m a big fan of that thing Johnny Carson had, that this is me, world, moment. Like Roseanne or Seinfeld or Louis Anderson, the first big appearance on there. I wanted it to be like that. That’s why I did the tie dab.
TSJ: I was going to mention that. That was a bold move.
MN: He hated it. [laughs] He did not like it. I’m glad I did it because I got more response from that than the actual jokes. It was just me thinking I had to stand out in someway. I had three ideas: I was going to flip the microphone and catch it, I was going to jump into his arms, or I was going to do the tie dab. I went with the tie dab.
We sat down at the couch afterwards and he said, “Amazing set. Great job! We’d love to have you back!” I was so excited. Then he goes, “…but don’t do the tie thing again.” [laughs]
MARK NORMAND ON “CONAN”
TSJ: I’m surprised he didn’t like it.
MN: Well, I don’t think he thought it was a dumb idea. I think he was more like, Take it easy and don’t overstep. He wasn’t rude at all.
TSJ: Regardless, it was a great set.
MN: Oh, thanks man. Everything worked. I was so lucky. They didn’t want me to do crowd work but I still did it. I just wanted to stand out, because those sets can become somewhat monotonous. I watched like 1,000 of them before I did it. I knew I had to do something. Crowd work breaks it up and wakes the audience up.
TSJ: So are there any rooms where your set doesn’t work in?
MN: I bomb every now and then. I did a show last week at a bar in Brooklyn [where I bombed]. It wasn’t my fault. There were these three black women in the front and I said, “Will you shut up? We’re not at the movies.” They just lost it, calling me racist. If I were racist I wouldn’t have said that. As Bill Burr says, “Real racism is quiet.” But they flipped and I got my ass kicked in that show. But for the most part, if people are listening and there’s a microphone I can do it.
TSJ: Is there a place you favor?
MN: Yeah, I like the Comedy Cellar the most.
TSJ: That seems to be everyone’s favorite.
MN: It’s a great club. It’s always full. The people are smart, they’re New Yorkers for the most part. But clubs are weird for me still because I started in the bars, so I love bars because I can try stuff and work things out. If you fail at the Comedy Cellar you’re getting paid and sucking at your job. So I love that but I love the bars because you feel like a real artist – as pretentious as that sounds. You can tinker and try things out. You feel like a little craftsman.
TSJ: I’d imagine that you need those places.
MN: You totally need them.
TSJ: So you don’t try any new material at the Cellar?
MN: I’ll try new material that I know is good. But if it’s one I really want to workshop I won’t do it. You see these guys doing these same acts for 18 years, that’s why. They’re stuck in these places where they can’t not do well and they can’t progress.
TSJ: I hadn’t thought about it like that.
MN: Yeah, but you get a guy like Louie who will go to the Cellar and be like, How about this? No? Okay, how about that? It’s like, no wonder you have so much material.
TSJ: He has to be a unique example right? Like him, Attell, Burr…
MN: Definitely, but guys like me have to try to find nooks and crannies. I’m still online at coffee shops being like, Is this funny? [laughs] Some guy’s like, Who are you?
TSJ: How do you get into the Cellar? I know a lot of people can’t crack it.
MN: It’s tough! It’s like getting into a country club except there’s a lot of minorities there. [laughs] But I open for Amy Schumer all the time; I’m her set opener. She’s kind of a big deal there. There’s a few people like that over there: Colin Quinn, Keith Robinson, Tom Papa, etc.
But Schumer, I’ve opened for her for about three years now. She always said she’d recommend me for the Cellar when I was ready. After I got a Comedy Central credit it got closer. Then one day we were driving back from Connecticut on a gig and she just said, “I think you’re ready.” Then I got a call that night asking if I’d like to audition.
TSJ: How often do you perform there?
MN: I probably do three a week. Some guys are like five or six, but I have three as a new guy.
TSJ: And it’s always a good crowd?
MN: Always packed. Always hot. On Saturday nights at 1AM it can get a little rowdy sometimes, but it’s fun. If someone tells you that you suck they’ll just get thrown out.
TSJ: How often do you perform on the road?
MN: I’m in a weird transition because I just got an email from Schumer with like thirty dates on it, so I’m going to go to those with her. I’m usually on the road like two weekends out of the month, but now because of “CONAN” and Comedy Central stuff I’m starting to headline so I get one of those a month. Now it’ll be two weekends with her, one on my own and then one here.
TSJ: That’s fantastic! I guess it’s to promote her new show?
MN: Yeah, which is going to be great!
TSJ: So where do you enjoy performing in the country?
MN: Well, because I’m not a name yet, I do a lot of “B” rooms. I did a place called Junior’s Last Laugh in Eerie, Pennsylvania, last week. That was hell, all clean clubs, all rednecks.
TSJ: All clean? Really?
MN: Yeah, which is tough because I don’t know what people consider clean. I did a gay joke and people were like, Whoa! We said clean. You know what gay guys do. And I’m like, Yeah, but I talk about my girlfriend and you know what we do? Everything is dirty if you think about it like that, you know? People are crazy. I think living in New York helps you see things the right way. Then you go other places and they’re still doing things the old way. It’s like, come on and get on board.
MARK NORMAND ON COMEDY CENTRAL
TSJ: You do a podcast with Matt Ruby. Can you tell me about it?
MN: It’s something I’m really proud of but something we can’t seem to get a lot of traction on. It’s called “We’re All Friends Here.” It’s a monthly live show at The Creek and The Cave that we’ve done for four years straight. It’s the longest running show at The Creek I think. We get three comedians on who give us dirt on themselves. Then we ask for their friends’ emails, and we email the friends asking if they have any weird dirt that the comedians haven’t given us.
So they do five or so minutes of stand up at first, and then we go up and sit at a desk with all of that dirt and go, “So… you blew your best friend Jeff?”
TSJ: And they don’t know what you have?
MN: Other than what they’ve given us, they don’t know. They don’t know what their friends have given us.
TSJ: That’s embarrassing.
MN: It’s surprising how many people are like, Please let me do the show. It’s really great, all comedians.
TSJ: I wonder why you guys are so open to that. I feel I’d be terrified.
MN: I think that’s just the way comedians are. We’d rather get it out than hide it.
ON THE STREET WITH MARK NORMAND
TSJ: Do you find yourself being the same guy onstage that you are off-stage?
MN: Yeah, for the most part. It’s a little more polished onstage obviously, but yeah, I’m just me up there.
TSJ: You do a few things with Matt Ruby, right? The podcasts, some web series, etc.
MN: Yeah! He’s like my Larry David-type guy. He’s a little older, kind of a grump.
TSJ: He is like Larry then.
MN: [laughs] Yeah! Balding too. But all of these things are his idea. “We’re All Friends Here” was his idea. Our “Think Tank” web series was his idea. He’s my idea man. We have a show every Halloween called “Schtick-or-Treat” that’s taking the city by storm. They just started one in LA. We get like sixty comics to come up with two minutes of one doing Rodney, one doing Emo Phillips, one doing Chris Rock. They dress up and perform. Matt’s really good with coming up with these amazing ideas.
TSJ: I was on your website, and don’t know why, but find it hilarious that you have a section titled “Jews.”
MN: Oh yeah, thank you!
TSJ: Its just pictures of random famous Jews of comedy?
MN: Yep! I’m obsessed with Jews. I wish I was Jewish. People have asked why and the only thing I can put together is because I grew up in a black neighborhood and it was brutal. I think I was just “the white guy” there. I think if I were Jewish I’d have something. I’d have some sort of community. You get to be a minority and white. Are you Jewish?
TSJ: I’m not. My girlfriend is.
MN: Ah, lucky guy! I think also all of my heroes are Jewish: Larry David, Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, guys like that. I like that they have a thing.
TSJ: I definitely agree. Especially with Larry David. I’m such a fan.
MN: He’s my hero! I can’t wait for that movie. And with “Curb,” I’ve never seen something that’s hit my sense of humor so perfectly. I can watch “The Hangover” and see how it’s funny, but “Curb” is like rolling laughter. I love it. And the fact that he was on “SNL” for a few years and never got a sketch on and all these other things, I love it. Seinfeld luckily found him and put him out there. And then “Curb” is “Seinfeld” times ten.
TSJ: So is the goal for you a show? Like what Schumer has now?
MN: Yeah, I would like that. I could do it but I’m not a huge sketch guy. I’ve seen a couple episodes of her show; it’s going to be so great. But with me, if I could have my own show I think I’d do something like a Tosh-type thing. Not necessarily videos but I like that it’s just him. It’s him, his persona and then because you like that you go see him do stand up. So I’d like to do a show that fuels my stand up.
TSJ: You riff a lot with the crowd. That must make each show stand out.
MN: That’s the beauty of stand up. I realize, as I get better, that every show will naturally be different. I used to go up with this particular order of each joke. Now I just go onstage and see what happens. I’ll start with something and then just go. If it doesn’t work, I’ll pick up another. Seinfeld has a great analogy, you’ve got some jokes that are your heavy hitters, you’ve got your bunter, you’ve got your first baseman and so on.
TSJ: Then in the early days was it boring doing the jokes by a specific order?
MN: It wasn’t because it was hard. If it’s hard it can’t really be boring, you know? But it was definitely more structured. Now I’m like let’s have fun. And that’s great because you feel like you’re being funny instead of just saying funny things. I want to get good quick, and the only way to do that is to work it, work it, work it.