One of the comedians who helped me at the beginning was a fellow Chicagoan named Jimmy Pardo. Here he is in a really funny piece from Conan, where he also works as the warm up comic for every episode they shoot.
We see each other from time to time at shows and chat briefly, but I don’t know Jim well. My impression of him is that he is a private family man who likes to keep work separate from his social life. But one phone call he made on my behalf changed my life. Jimmy recommended me to the booker who gave me my first gigs (seven weeks!) outside the Chicago area, allowing me to start making an amount of money from comedy that you could actually notice. Thanks to Mr. Pardo, I could cut the days in which I wore an apron and brought lukewarm pot pies and Pepsi to mullet heads, German tourists, and kids down to two a week. That’s a life change that fosters serious gratitude.
A couple years later I got to work with Jimmy at a comedy club in a mall in San Antonio, where they clearly were emphasizing the “selling chicken fingers” side of the comedy business.
I was glad to see a friendly face, as I was down and out. I had spent literally my last dollar in the world getting to Texas and the only flight I could afford got in a day early. I got to the condo the club provided for the comedians (which, like every comedy condo, looked like a cross between the abortion clinic in “The Cider House Rules” and the white void where Neo met Morpheus) with no way to eat until the employee meal of chicken fingers I would get the next night. After 20 hours, I got so hungry I ate the only thing I could find, a lone egg of unknown history that was in the fridge when I got there. Also, every fifteen minutes, everyday, starting at ten a.m, an animatronic cowboy at the family restaurant downstairs would yell, “WELCOME TO THE BUCKHORN!”
That week, Jimmy gave me two of the biggest laughs I had ever experienced, and an important lesson in comedy.
Jimmy is a big music fan, having worked in the record industry before becoming a comedian. We were talking with the club manager, a genial fellow still bravely holding on to his long rocker hair despite a punishing assault by Male Pattern Baldness, about English metal heroes Iron Maiden. We were on the subject of their 1985 album, “Live After Death,” when we had to start the show. Here’s a taste:
Then, without telling us he was going to do this, between each bit in his set, Pardo, with no context, explanation to the audience or even mention of the band at all, would shout one of the inane things singer Bruce Dickinson yelled between songs on that album. He’d do a regular joke, then bellow “Scream for me, Long Beach! The Flight of Icarus!” to the stares of the crowd and the howls of me and the club manager, then another regular joke like nothing happened. And he was funny enough that not only did he have a good set, but as the audience left, not one person asked why he had been screaming ludicrous things in an English accent for an hour.
Jimmy has the quickest wit I have ever seen. He will often improvise his entire forty five minute headlining set from scratch. I once asked him before such a set how much material he had in his act. “I have twenty minutes and I hope to get to none of it,” he joked, but to see no written material at all in a Pardo set is not uncommon.
And it’s “real” crowd work too. While it is not widely discussed, (or widely cared about by anyone) a lot of what passes for “audience interaction” in standup is a fraud. A comic will have twenty five stock lines he wrote in the grunge era, and then he’ll get to work “assigning” them to whatever unsuspecting audience member fits the type he wrote the joke for.
Audiences fall for it constantly. “Oh my God!,” a bachelorette will exclaim, “he called my friend Holly and her older boyfriend Hugh Hefner!” Not knowing that if she stayed for the second show she could watch him say it again to the next age mismatched couple that picked the wrong night to go to the Funny Bone. And because they buy it when the fake crowd worker does it, people like Jimmy, who genuinely are making it up as they go along, don’t get the proper credit for being actually as amazing as people think they are.
When Jimmy told an English couple at Zanies in Chicago that they should “buckle their hats and get the fuck back on the Mayflower,” he didn’t have that on a Notepad file under “Comebacks: Europeans.” He’s really that fast.
I have never seen synapses fire more quickly than in a conversation that week in San Antonio. The club manager was telling us how he had, in his words, “fucked everyone in the Seventies. Hell, I fucked the drummer from Molly Hatchett’s wife!”
Jimmy, .0001 seconds later: “That’s flirtin’ with disaster.”
Molly Hatchet, “Flirtin’ With Disaster,” Epic Records, 1979
It was like watching a comedy cyborg. If there was a World Record for quickest insanely obscure reference, he set it that day.
That week I had a bit that wasn’t working. I had read in the news how the Spanish team in the Special Olympics had been stripped of their gold medal when it was revealed that three of the eleven members were not, in fact, mentally challenged. Even though I was attacking the scumminess of the three people who would do this, and wasn’t impugning handicapped people in the slightest, the Texas shopping mall crowd heard “Special Olympics” and shut down on me. No laughs. They just didn’t get it. Two different women attempted to lecture me after the show, and wouldn’t listen as I patiently explained who the target of the bit was. First show Friday I gave up. I didn’t do the joke. I was down to eating a mystery egg three days before. Having bad sets didn’t seem like something I could afford.
Pardo was livid. “What the fuck are you doing dropping the Special Olympics bit?”
“It didn’t work. They haven’t laughed once. You heard them. Two women got in my face,” I explained.
“Fuck them! Bunch of morons in a mall. That shit’s funny and you know it, and I want to see you do that goddamn bit every night!” It was the first time I had entertained the notion that the audience’s laughs were not always the be all end all of whether a joke was funny. And that even if only two tables enjoyed it, it was important to have those tables get the full set I wanted to do, to experience my chosen point of view, then make everyone in the room happy at all times. That the chance of two people loving my comedy was more important than the certainty of eighty people kind of liking it.
I had been doing survival comedy in hotel bars in the Midwest, and had picked up a dubious value system, trying to battle crowds full of free ticket drunks, where anything that put you at odds with anyone in the crowd was a dangerous misstep that could lead to bombing. And all I could think about was making sure the room would have me back.
But hadn’t I just seen Jimmy yell “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner!” to incredulous Texas chicken finger eaters? Did the fact that only two people out of the eighty five in the room laughed at all make it not funny? Did it make it not worth doing? It was the most I had laughed in a comedy club in years. I’m writing about it now, ten years later, and if Pardo thought the way I did, it never would have happened.
“I bombed for years working out my stage character. Bombed bombed. Where they hated me. But I knew I was on to something if I could just keep going,” he told me. And this bombing occured in the very Best Western bars full of drunk Packer fans that had scared me safe. After all, Jimmy’s recommendation is what got me in to those bars in the first place. “You have to stay true to what you think is funny, not what you think they want to hear. That’s how you end up a hack. Do what you believe in and eventually the right people will find you.”
I did the Special Olympics joke the rest of the week. It bombed every night. And while I would love to write that I changed my act right then and there and embarked on a new path of integrity, I had many more years of shameful pandering to the crowd before Jimmy’s advice finally sunk in.
But it was that week in Texas where I first entertained the notion that part of being a professional comedian is to trust that what you think is funny, your taste and comedic vision, is worth something. And to stick with that, even when the people in front of you don’t enjoy it. Because if you don’t, how will it ever develop? Thanks, Jimmy.