Talking to Mark Normand About Standup, The Comedy Cellar, and Why Comics Are Terrible People
Mark Normand is a comedian whose name you’ll soon be hearing a lot more of. Normand was one of the New Faces at this year’s Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, where he filmed a Talk of the Fest TV spot, and earlier this year beat out 63 other comedians to become champion of the Carolines on Broadway Stand-up Comedy Tournament.
He’s frequently mentioned as one of New York’s top up-and-coming comedians, has done sets on both Conan and John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, and regularly opens for Amy Schumer. I recently had the chance to talk to Normand about moving to New York, performing at the Comedy Cellar, and why he can’t act.
Let’s start from the beginning, if you don’t mind. You started out in New Orleans, right?
Yes. I started in 2006.
Out of college?
No, I was in college. There’s no scene in New Orleans, so you can get up once a week, maybe, at a bar. I just kind of got into it, fell in love with it. I was rudderless. I was a drunk; I was an idiot. My parents are like, “What are you gonna do?” And I was like, “I’ll make movies!” which means nothing. And I started doing standup as kind of an outlet. I was super depressed. And yeah, I just took off and it was like, “All right, I like doing something! This is great!” One of my friends said, “I’m moving to New York,” and I said, “I’m going with you,” and that was it.
What was your plan? Just to dive right in to standup in New York? Did you want to pursue film?
Well, in 2005, I took a year off of college to go to film school in New York, at the New York Film Academy, and I hated it. I realized I don’t like film. You have to collaborate with the gaffer and all the actors and they’re all awful, and you gotta write this thing. I felt it was too much relying on people. I like to do my own thing. So I got out of film and found standup. I knew the city a little bit already and moved up and went headfirst. I moved into Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 800 bucks in my pocket, got mugged three times, my landlord died of AIDS within the first month.
This is all real?
All real. I lived in this Caribbean black neighborhood – there was a big highway; it was all Hasidic Jew and Caribbean black. I lived on the Caribbean side, so I’d be walking home some nights and Jews would pull up in a van and be like, “What the hell are you doing up here, do you need a ride?” And I’m like, “I’m not Jewish,” and they would just speed off. [Laughs.]
Did it take a while to work your way up in the New York scene?
Oh God, I mean, it’s hell. I flier-ed. I barked outside, “Come on in, free show!” I was that guy. If I barked for two hours, I got five minutes.
All bars. Clubs, you have to do a thing called face time, where you sit at the bar and milk a beer all night and go, “Hopefully, somebody drops out.” So I didn’t want to waste my night doing that, so just bars, bars, bars. Bars are a little looser. Clubs also intimidated me because there was money involved. I didn’t like that because I knew I was shitty, so I wanted to get good before I entered the clubs. I did everything. I started my own show at a bar, and that gives you a little clout, you meet everybody, and they want to do your show, and you start switching spots. But yeah, it is hell. I had a good 10 minutes that would kill in New Orleans – died in New York. Bombed, brutally! Hacky, terrible material. So you just have to start over, you have to shed that skin. It takes forever. It took about two years to even get my foot in the pool.
And were you going to the mics every night?
Every night, four or five a night. Maybe do an open mic and some guy goes, “Hey, I’ve got a show if you want to do ten.” And you gotta do well on that show, and maybe from that show, somebody sees you and you do another show, and it’s just climbing a ladder slowly while people are punching you in the taint.
[Laughs] Did you work when you were there?
Oh yeah, I had every job. I was a busboy, I moved furniture, I was an office assistant, I was a janitor. I have jokes about being a janitor.
Were you into performing growing up?
I did theater as a kid, but I’m the worst actor in history. I’m like Ray Romano and [Jerry] Seinfeld-bad. Like, combined. Yeah, I did theater. I just liked being up, and I was kind of the class clown. I’m embarrassed to say I was a class clown, but I was. I still remember a couple of zingers from childhood. I remember one time in third grade, we were learning about expressions, and the teacher goes, “Now, if you live in a glass house, you shouldn’t…” And I said, “Shower!” It killed, it killed! [Laughs.] And then another time, in ninth grade, the teacher took a note from this girl and the girl started crying, so he tried to make a joke about it, and he goes, “One leather ball gag, one whip, black boots…” And I went, “How’d you get my Christmas list?”
In high school, you were popular?
Yeah, just a big douche, friends with this guy, friends with that guy. That’s why these festivals work: no comic wants to talk to anybody for more than five minutes because that’s as much as we can be positive. After that, it just turns into the real us, and it’s horrifying. We’re terrible people. So you go, “Hey, guy who works at Warner Brothers! Yeah, this is me! Here’s a little jump and jive. I’m very likeable. Okay, I gotta go, I’m running out of positive juice.” And you go over here and you do it again. But if you talk to a comic for more than five minutes, you start to see the evil inside of him. We can pretend to be human for five minutes.
It’s often said when starting in comedy, you’re doing someone else’s act. What was your style when you first started?
I hate to say it, I was Seinfeld all the way.
“What’s the deal?”
Not really “what’s the deal,” but like, rhythm, and that weird voice thing. I’d have jokes like, “Adult books? Get the movie!” It was so bad that I remember one time I walked on stage in New York and one guy went [Seinfeld baseline], and it crushed me. It was like a stab in the heart, and after that I was like, “I have to change my ways!” It killed me.
How long did it take, then, to find the voice that you use now?
Phew, a while. It took a meltdown. I had a meltdown in New York at some open mic because I was bombing and bombing for like a year, and eventually I was like, “Fuck you, I can’t take this anymore!” It broke me. But it took that meltdown. And I was fighting against it in my head, like, “Just keep it together buddy, keep it together,” when something had to get out. Then I was finally myself, and that’s what did it.
What was the crowd’s reaction like when you had your meltdown? Were you just like, “Fuck you all?”
Yeah, yeah. I was like, “I’m fucking funny, I hate all of you.” And then they started laughing, like, “All right, this is the real you.” Because crowds don’t want the polish. They want a comic who’s the same guy on and off. That’s the best comics – like, Louis C.K., walking on the stage, doesn’t go, “All right, pick it up, here it comes.” He’s just the same. Even if you see a comic bombing, and he goes, “Well, this is awful,” that gets a laugh. Because that’s the first real thing he’s said.
I saw you at The Comedy Cellar recently. Tell me about the audition process.
The Cellar is obviously Mount Olympus, on a pedestal. Best club in America, some say. I’d been opening for Amy Schumer for three years, and kind of built of a relationship. People always said, “Why don’t you do the Cellar?” And I was like, “I’m not going to ask. If she wants to vouch for me, I’ll be ready.” And she never mentioned it, and one day we’re driving back from Connecticut at the Hartford Funny Bone, and she’s like, “You know what? You did great this weekend. I’m going to get you a Cellar audition tonight.” She’s huge there. She’s one of the staples: Colin Quinn, Keith Robinson, Jim Norton, and Schumer. And so I was like, “Oh my God, all right!” She called me later that day, and she’s like, “You have an audition tonight at midnight.” It was 6 PM. And I was like, “You couldn’t have called me at eleven? I gotta work on this for six hours?”
So I called in all these favors, I got four spots that night lined up to run my audition sets, five minutes, and I get there at midnight, and Estee [Adoran], the owner, a terrifying woman, was like, “Yeah, you’re Mark, you’re going on at two [AM] now.” So I was like, “Fuck.” It was a Saturday night, a big show, and that’s not good, actually, because they’re drunk, they’re rowdy, they’re scarier. So I’m just freaking out the whole time, terrified, and Schumer’s like, “Don’t worry, calm down, you’ll be fine.” Eventually, they say, “Okay, you’re going up after Jim Norton,” and I’m like, “Oh, fuck, I gotta go after this guy?” So he goes up, kills, and this hot girl walks by during his set, and he says “Whoa, what’s your name?” And she’s like, “I’m Susie.” And he’s like, “Susie? We’re going to fuck. You single?” And she’s like, “Yeah, I’m single, let’s fuck!” And it’s killing. I’m freaking out just watching this show. And eventually I go up, and I go, “It’s a little awkward… I was dating Susie until about a minute ago.”
And I was like, “Thank God,” and I did five minutes, and it went well. And Estee’s standing with the clipboard watching you. And I got off and she said, “Let’s go upstairs,” and I’m like, “All right,” and she just handed me a bunch of paperwork to fill out and got my phone number and that was it. That was August of last year. So it’s been about a year. And it’s just now getting more comfortable. Every time you go, it’s anxiety, stress. “Am I going to stay here? What if I bomb? Am I doing the same set too many times? Does the staff like me? Oh, shit, there’s Chris Rock, there’s Louie.”
From your observation, what makes a Cellar comic? What do you need?
That’s a good question. I think it’s kind of an aggressiveness, just a bit. Like, Nick Griffin, John Mulaney, they’re there, they’re not aggressive. There’s that need to murder, to kill. Like, Demetri Martin works there every now and then, and he doesn’t have that boom, y’know? Like, funny guy, great comic, but he doesn’t have that [loud noise]. You just have to have the joke-to-minute ratio that’s going to be pretty good. JPM, they call it. And it’s gotta be all jokes. You see a lot of LA comics with bravado and attitude and they say funny things, but they’re not killing. It’s gotta be a punchline. It’s gotta make me go “Oh!” involuntarily. I think that’s what it is. It’s gotta be a good turn, a good twist, it can’t just be a silly thing. It can’t just be like, “And I was doing this.” As funny as that is, it’s gotta make voluntary gut laughs. Dave Attell is a quintessential Cellar comedian because it’s all just jokes, jokes, jokes. Joe DeRosa — funny guy, not a Cellar comic because he’s too loose, y’know? They want it to be tight.
You mentioned Schumer. How did you get hooked up with her?
She was a young comic, she was just getting a little bit of traction. She was very nothing when I met her; she was doing colleges and a weird gig here and there, but I saw her a couple of times at a show, and she was like, “Oh, I like that bit, I like that bit,” and then she said, “I’m doing a college if you want to open for me,” and I said, “Sure!” I’d never done a college in my life, and we drove out and hit it off. She was like Obi-Wan. I was like, “Tell me everything!” And she appreciated how much I cared about it, and she was just like, “You know what? I’m going to send you more dates.” And she emailed me with, like, Cleveland Improv, Chicago Improv, Denver Comedy Works, and I was like, “I’ve never done a comedy club in my life!” And you’d go to these clubs and you’d sit in the green room, and it was crazy. I was like, “There’s free water? What the fuck is that? We have water?” And it blew my mind. It was weird going to a show where people paid to see comedy because I was just so used to going to a restaurant and being like, “Hey, listen to me, guys! I know it’s an ambush show and you didn’t plan on comedy!” It’s weird having people be like, “We’d like to see you!” Because I have done some gigs in a broom closet, where they put three people who don’t really want to see comedy but they’re trying to be nice so they show up.
You mentioned before that you’re a terrible actor, so, no acting bug? Do you audition for things?
I audition all the time. I’m the worst. People at the table will literally go, “Really? That was it? All right, you’re terrible, please leave.” But it sucks because I’ll go to an audition and I’m like, killing with the guys, and we’re having a good time, but once I get on that script, they’re like, “You are not talented, sir. Please leave.”
Have they given you any feedback? What’s the problem?
I just feel stupid acting. I just feel like I’m pretending to be somebody, and it’s not funny at all. You try to make it your own, and they’re like, “No, you’re just doing you. You’re not acting.” Could you imagine crying in a movie? It’s so stupid! I’d just feel like an idiot. With comedy, at least you can go up there and go, “This is weird! You guys are watching me for some reason!” And with acting, you can’t do that. You can’t break that wall, and that’s what kills me.
Do you still make videos? I know you and Matt Ruby used to make stuff.
I make stuff all the time. I just shot a sketch with my friend – I wrote it, I wasn’t in it – called “The N Word.” It’s where a guy comes in – he’s a CEO – and he’s like, “A lot of people have been saying ‘the N word’ around here. Who did it?” And it cuts to the workers, and they’re all black. It’s on YouTube, I think I put it on my wall. I’ll just have a funny idea, and I have a guy I know who has a camera, so we just shoot it and put it up. I’m pitching a pilot around right now for a travel show.
How’s that coming?
Comedy Central liked it, but they’re like, “We don’t know about reality right now.” But it’s a hell of sizzle [reel], I’m really proud of it. I showed it to my agent, and he’s like, “This could be something, but it’s a little edgy.”
Can you give any details?
Sure, sure. It’s a travel show about open mics. So it’s basically like Insomniac but with open mics. I don’t know if you’ve been to any, but they’re just like, heroin addicts, drunks, crazy people. I’m like, “How is this not on TV? This is comedy gold!” I just go up, and I introduce the neighborhood, I introduce the mic, we meet the owner, we just film the mic. It’s always in a weird area, like Coney Island or Bed-Stuy or Staten Island.
Are you constantly submitting to the different late night shows?
All the time, all the time. I’d love to do Fallon, I’d love to do Letterman. I grew up watching Seinfeld and Letterman and Brian Regan and all those guys, so I love those tight Letterman sets. I love Ted Alexandro, Nick Griffin, I love that shit. I’d love to be one of those guys.
After you got Conan, doesn’t it become easier? Or they don’t care?
You gotta be that guy. Have you seen the latest batch of guys who get Letterman? It’s a weird bunch. It’s very broad, it’s very easy, it’s very not risky. I think with some of my stuff, they’re like, “Hey, you mentioned Jews!” So, I gotta tweak it and figure out a way to slide under their offensive radar.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.