By Pamela Jacobs
When I approached Mark Normand to ask him if he’d be interested in doing an interview—after watching his hilarious act at The Stand comedy club one night—his response was: “Me? My parents don’t even know I’m a comic.” It’s this type of humility (and of course, humor) that make him so fun to watch on stage and on television. But while he is humble, he’s also very talented—and is clearly a comedian to watch out for. He’s definitely headed to the top.
Conan O’Brien thought so; he’s had Normand on his show three times. Amy Schumer also thought so; Normand has been on her show on Comedy Central, Inside Amy Schumer, multiple times, and despite originally turning down her initial request to have him join her on the road, has repeatedly opened for her. Normand also won Caroline’s March Madness competition in 2013, beating out 63 other comedians, has been on countless “Best of” lists, and has performed on Last Comic Standing, Best Week Ever, and John Oliver’s New York Standup Show, to name a few. In addition to giving Normand a Half Hour episode, Comedy Central named him one of their “Comics to Watch” in 2012. Last year, he released his debut album, Still Got It. So while his humility is endearing—pride would not be out of line.
Recently, I met up with him at the Olive Tree Café, the classic NY comedian hangout above the Comedy Cellar, to talk to him about life in New York (the good and the not-so-good), the pressures of performing, and what it’s like to be an introvert in a world full of extroverts.
Pamela Jacobs: You came to New York from New Orleans; when you decided you wanted to be a comic, was New York a no-brainer?
Mark Normand: Yeah, the ceiling for comedy in New Orleans is about a foot-high, so you have to army crawl your way through it—it’s that low. New York was no question. I went to film school here a year before, and I just fell in love with the city then, so I came back. In New York you can get a lot of stage time [as a comic], and I needed and wanted that.
It was the worst transition ever. I moved here with $800, blew through that in about two days, got an apartment in Crown Heights, got mugged three times in a year, my landlord died of AIDS, and the first day I got into my apartment, there was a pigeon in it, just flying around. So it was pretty rough. I got a job as the file clerk at the film school filing papers all day. I still hate manila to this day.
PJ: Were there times that you thought ‘I’ve had enough, I can’t take New York anymore’?
MN: Never crossed my mind. It was always, ‘keep going, keep going.’
PJ: So what was the transition from hell in New York to success, television gigs, etc.?
MN: I was doing five, six open-mics a night, grinding it out, and then I did a show one night and got noticed by one Amy Schumer. I bombed, but she goes ‘hey, I liked that one joke you had, do you want to open for me at the Atlanta Punchline?’ And I was like ‘Oh my God, I’ve never been on the road or opened for somebody.’ She asked if I had about 30 minutes of material, and I said ‘sure’—meanwhile I had about eight, and the eight wasn’t good.
But I said yes to it, and then I started thinking about it and I was like ‘I don’t know this girl, do I have to hang out with her? I don’t have thirty minutes of comedy.’ I wussed out and called her and told her I couldn’t do it because my parents were coming to town. She was like ‘Seriously? This is a big opportunity.’ Two weeks later I saw her and she said she was doing Hofstra and asked if I wanted to open for her there, and thank God she asked me again. Now she’s the biggest comic on the planet, and I almost blew it because I was scared.
PJ: Yeah, thank God. You’d be watching Trainwreck right now shaking your fists and crying.
MN: I’d be your waiter right now. Yeah, we took the LIRR there and went to her childhood home. Her mom made us dinner, we did the gig, and took the train back and she gave me a bunch of dates after that.
PJ: Amy Schumer isn’t just the biggest comic—she’s like the biggest superstar on the planet right now. Is it wild watching her success now, having been along for the ride?
MN: It’s crazy. We did the Chicago Improv around 2010 and there were 12 people there, and now it’s lines around the block and people begging to come in. I watched the whole thing slowly tick up. There was the roast of Charlie Sheen, then the roast of Roseanne, then she got her own show, and then the movie [Trainwreck] and now she’s huge.
PJ: You’ve been on Inside Amy Schumer a few times. You’ve been on TV as yourself doing your act, but on Inside Amy Schumer, you were acting. Was that very different, or difficult?
MN: It was terrifying! Comics are notoriously bad actors, because we’re too nutty to be phony—in our heads we’re going ‘what are you doing, you idiot?’—so self-defeating. But she’s so cool, she’s throws everyone a bone, she’s put a million comics on the show—all the writers are comics. But yeah, that was hard for me.
PJ: So you don’t want to act?
MN: No—I would do it, but I’d have to be a Seinfeld or a Ray Romano, being myself. Imagine me crying on TV. That wouldn’t work. I did an audition once where my dad died in the script, and I was like ‘uh, dad, you’re dead.’ They were like ‘get out of here.’
PJ: You’ve done lots of TV, though, including Conan three times. Were you terrified when you first began doing your act on TV?
MN: Oh yeah. The thing is, you’re so scared, but every day you’re just dreaming of doing Conan or doing a special on Comedy Central, so when it comes, it’s terrifying but great. You know, as a guy you’re scared to have sex but you want it so bad, you do it. Also, as a comic, you realize how hard getting on TV is, that you’re not going to pass it up out of fear. When you’re at Conan behind the curtain waiting to go out, and they pull it open and say ‘you ready?’ you see the lights, the crowd—it’s crazy.
PJ: So doing big TV is like having sex with a really hot girl who you’ve wanted for a while, basically.
MN: Yes, yes it is. You better be able to get it up, joke wise. It’s all just one big judgement, a tight rope act. You don’t feel your feet, you’re floating the whole time. It’s five minutes of pure high.
PJ: Do you still have nights where you…I don’t want to use the word bomb, but…
MN: Of course, all the time! I have really bad anxiety and I’m an introvert, and as a comic sometimes you can’t find it up there and you lose it for a second. You’re just telling words to an audience but there’s no connection, and that’s when you bomb.
PJ: You’re an introvert? It seems hard to imagine being an introvert and getting up on stage and being so vulnerable.
MN: Think about it: I’m onstage, everything is scripted, and they can’t talk. Conversation is hard, there’s interaction. But on stage is easy. I’ve learned to blend into the world of extroverts—the world is not made for an introvert—but I’ve adapted.
PJ: Well for the average person, public speaking is their number one fear, over death.
MN: I think 90% of comics are introverts. It’s a lot of defense mechanism. Comedy is just preparing funny things, and that’s what we [introverts] have been doing our whole lives, preparing something to say to everyone we have to go meet. That’s all stand-up is, just professionally.
PJ: How much of your act do you take from your life?
MN: Oh, most of it. I have weird thoughts where I think of something strange, in the shower or something, and think it’s funny.
PJ: Do you ever feel like you’ve taken something too far, or you don’t want to cross the line?
MN: Nah, being offended is dumb; just because a joke involves horrifying things doesn’t mean you should be horrified. There are all these social norms and faux pas, but I feel that this exists, that exists, we should talk about it.
PJ: Do you feel like you have to change your jokes on the road, leaving New York?
MN: Definitely. I have a joke where I say ‘you ever forget your headphones at home and have to walk around without them? Boy, thoughts are no good. Turns out I love music, I hate my brain,’ and in other places, people don’t get it. That’s because they don’t walk, they drive everywhere. So I had to change it to ‘you ever had your stereo stolen?’ and it’s like ‘eh, it’s not the same. I’ve got to adjust according to where I am. It’s tough because if the joke works in NY, I want to keep it.
PJ: Are you getting recognized a lot now?
MN: Yeah, I get recognized, and my podcast is a big one, which is weird because it’s just audio, but I’m getting a lot of stuff on the street just from that. Pod—that’s the way to go. You can do one podcast and three Conans, and you’ll get more out of the podcast. Late night is now more about being an art form than the exposure; it’s not like a make-or-break-you anymore.
PJ: So doing late night is just something you really enjoy?
MN: I like it—I like the idea of it as a special thing. You have to get picked, get approved, and you have to nail it. There’s no net.
PJ: And what are some of the big future goals?
MN: I want to sell a show. I’m working on a show now about introverts—it’s called The Introvert’s Survival Guide, and each show is a different scenario, and how to deal with it. It’s a fun idea. Introverts have no spokesperson—I want to be that guy.
More from Mark
Check out Mark’s act at one of these upcoming shows (and learn more about him at marknormandcomedy.com):
Friday, October 9
7:30pm & 9:00pm
Stand Up NY
Stand Comedy Club
Broadway Comedy Club
Saturday, October 10
8:30pm & 10:30pm
Stand Comedy Club
The Warm Up @ Karma
Sunday, October 11
7:30pm & 9:30pm
Stand Comedy Club
Stand Up NY
Newport Comedy Fest
Monday, October 12
9:00pm & 10:00pm
Stand Comedy Club
Tuesday, October 13
Black Out Comedy @ Jeromes
Wednesday, October 14
New York Comedy Club
Looking to see more of Mark? Here are some of the places you’ll find him:
“I hang out in the village all the time,” Mark says. “I live here so I know all the great bars, restaurants, speakeasies. I’m here at Olive Tree Cafe a lot, and also Fat Black Pussy Cat—they give us free drinks.” He also named the “legendary comedy club, The Creek” in Long Island City a one of his favorite haunts. Why? “Every show is free, Louis CK shows up there, there’s pinball machines, and cheap tacos. It’s a special place.”