Nick Swardson: The Maturation of a Class Clown
If only all encounters with haters produced such warm results. This past summer, subversive comedian-actor Nick Swardson had a tense run-in with a waiter shortly after a preview clip appeared online for his new Comedy Central sketch show, Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time. The bit featured Swardson’s creation Gay Robot greeting actor Ryan Phillippe with a series of (none-too-subtle) sexual innuendos. Swardson’s waiter, who just happened to be gay, took offense. “Everybody in the sketch is pro Gay Robot; nobody is against him,” says Swardson. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, but you make him want to get laid all the time.’ I said, ‘You want to get laid all the fucking time.’ And then the guy ended up asking me for my number — no joke.”
All’s well that ends well. Yet Swardson, 34, shouldn’t always expect such pleasant outcomes. Pretend Time, which began its seven-episode first season in early October, isn’t for uptight types. In the pilot alone, there’s Wheelchair Cat, a real-life felon strapped to a seat who communicates with the same keypad device used by Stephen Hawking. There’s also Garry Gaga, the fictional, New Jersey–working, sequins-and-makeup-wearing cop brother of Lady Gaga. It’s that brand of strange comedy that has earned Swardson a loyal pack of fans, amassed over the course of a 14-year stand-up career and roles in four hit films starring Adam Sandler. “I’m the first to admit that my sense of humor is pretty out there,” says Swardson. “I’m just happy that tons of people seem to get it.”
Swardson hails from St. Paul, Minnesota. Short in stature as a youth, he used comedy as a defense mechanism. The results weren’t always desired. “I always felt like if you could make people laugh, then you have a superpower,” he says. “But I didn’t know how to use it. I’d tease people to get laughs, but they’d always end up crying. So I was basically using my powers for evil.” His abilities were harnessed for positive means once he joined the improv group ComedySportz while in high school. Bitten by the laugh bug during those improv sessions, Swardson decided to pursue a comedic career, jumping on tons of local stages to hone a stand-up act. With a series of physical routines, such as “vampire on a roller coaster” or “dog getting stepped on,” his chops matured.
Forgoing college, Swardson went full steam into comedy. In 1997, he won the HBO-sponsored Aspen Comedy Festival, which led to hiring a manager and, on the advice of said manager, moving to New York City later that year. There, Swardson hit his stride inside Luna Lounge, a venue that promoted “alternative comedy,” a style much looser than traditional stand-up. “You could do whatever, and there was no way you were gonna get heckled,” he says. “There was no fear of someone from Long Island yelling, ‘This fuckin’ sucks!’ It was cool, because you could try weirder shit and experiment a little more. It helped me develop more.”
By the time he scored his own Comedy Central Presents stand-up special in 2006, Swardson’s wild style had taken shape. One of the special’s biggest fans was Adam Sandler, who called Swardson to arrange a face-to-face meeting. Impressed with the young funnyman, Sandler asked Swardson to help rewrite a project called Grandma’s Boy that was idling under the superstar’s Happy Madison production company. Released in January 2006, Grandma’s Boy, a vulgar and virtually plotless romp about a video game–testing stoner (co-starring Swardson himself), bombed in theaters but has since earned a passionate following on DVD. “I’ve heard that guys use it with chicks a lot,” says Swardson. “If girls hate it, guys are like, ‘Yeah, I can’t talk to this chick, man.’”
The film might rack even more DVD sales thanks to the equally bizarre Pretend Time. The show is the brainchild of executive producer Tom Gianis, who handpicked Swardson to anchor a program with interwoven sketches minus stand-up; prior to Pretend Time, Gianis had worked with the likes of comedic hot-boys Jack Black and Aziz Ansari on similar shows (for HBO’s Tenacious D and MTV’s The Human Giant, respectively).
“When I started out [with world-famous comedy group] Second City, I directed Chris Farley, and Steve Carell and Amy Sedaris, and in my mind I always felt Nick could be as great at sketch as they were,” says Gianis. “Nick has the playfulness and reckless abandonment of Farley, the improvisational skills of Carell and the range of characters of Sedaris.”
Pretend Time will lead into what should be Swardson’s biggest year to date. In 2011, he’ll hold significant weight in three major films. First, in February, he’ll play third wheel to Sandler and Jennifer Aniston in the romantic comedy Just Go With It. Then, in April, his first leading-man performance will come in Born to Be a Star, a “Napoleon Dynamite meets Boogie Nights” story about a goofy Iowa kid who becomes a porn star despite having “the smallest dick in the world.” And lastly, he’ll have a potential summer blockbuster to promote: 30 Minutes or Less, an action-comedy due in August, in which he and Danny McBride (HBO’s Eastbound & Down) play kidnappers who strap a bomb to the chest of Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and force him to rob a bank.
With a mentor-friend such as Adam Sandler, it’d make sense for Swardson to transition into big-time cinema. The on-the-rise talent himself, however, doesn’t plan on sticking to just movies any time soon. “If it’s the right thing and it’s cool, and I can put a stamp on it creatively, then I’ll do it,” says Swardson. “I didn’t think I would ever do a sketch show. I’m down for whatever, bro. I just want to do funny shit for people who get my sensibility, and maybe even win over a few haters at the same time.”
(This article originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of ANTENNA.)