Do you remember what we were all like before the pandemic hit? Stand-up Mark Normand sure does, and is happy to remind us.
“It’s night and day, he says about the change in attitude he’s seeing from audience coming out of the house for the first time in a while. “I think we all took comedy for granted, and no fault to anybody. It was like: ‘Where the hell is my cell phone?’ and then... you throw it against the wall when the porn doesn’t load. But if you lose your phone for the week, and then you get it back, you’re all like ‘I can send an email! I got GPS! All my music and all the videos – its incredible!’
"Comedy was the same way. And, not only did we take comedy away and now people realize how fun it is, but the world went mad! We had the insurrections, and all the Trump stuff, we had BLM and all the riots, and the pandemic. So when do you need a laugh more? When you got all these kooky stuff going on, this serious crazy stuff going on... of course we want to take a stab at some laughter with this stuff, because it is so heavy. And what does comedy do but break the ice and cut the tension? So we needed some tension breaking.”
Normand is becoming a go-to tension breaker, with a busy calendar full of dates at strange places all across the country: including five show at Houston Improv, July 22-24.
While his first two specials were released under the Comedy Central banner, his latest hour Out to Lunch took a different path: dropping for free on YouTube in May 2020, right at the outset of the quarantine period. “Great time to drop a special, by the way.” Normand deadpans. “People needed content, they were stuck at home, the whole country was my prisoner.”
But, the comic insists, it wasn’t always the intention. “It was all a failure! I tried to get it on Netflix, they didn’t care. I tried HBO, then I got really desperate and said maybe we could try Comedy Central Digital. And they said no! So, I already shot it, and I just put it on YouTube as a last stitch effort kind of failure lap, and it hit. Now I’m glad it is on YouTube.”
With nearly 7 million views on the special over the past year, it looks like the gamble may have been worth it. But now Normand is deep in the process of refining his newest material. “So right now I think I have a shaky, Michael J Fox hour, we’ll call it,” he quips off-the-cuff. “I knew that hour was coming out on YouTube, so I started quietly building more material for once that thing aired. I’ve probably got a killer 30, which has really worked out, because now Netflix has approached me and they want to do a half hour thing! So I have a hot 30 that’s ready to go, thank God. You’ve always got to be building that new material, so yeah I have that new half hour coming to Netflix, and I’ve got about 20 minutes of B-C stuff.”
While some may try to sprinkle the sure-fire jokes over the hour, Normand intends to wow from the start. “I have such low self esteem that I assume I have to earn the trust of these people in Toledo [for example]. So I come out swinging with 30 minutes of killer, and once I have their trust and they’re on my side and I’ve got a little inertia going, then I throw out the new shaky kind of half-baked stuff. And we go from there.”
Now a headliner in his own right, Normand recalls fondly a previous time where he could see comedy being appreciated in a manner similar to the present moment: when he toured the world as the opening act for the biggest name in comedy at that exact moment: Amy Schumer.
In 2016, Schumer had just become the first female comic to sell out Madison Square Garden, and soon embarked on a European leg of a world tour that landed her in some very illustrious theaters. “I’ve open for many of these great comics, but she was probably the most fun,” the 37-year-old confides. “She lives life! She likes the nice restaurants, she likes the finer things: a private jet, and then these beautiful ornate theaters in Amsterdam or Copenhagen or whatever the hell on the road. On the European tour, we’re in Ireland or Dublin or wherever, and that was so fun. I again, I come from humble beginnings and I don’t feel like I deserve anything nice. So the only way that’s ever gonna happen is if she’s gonna foot the bill.
“Comedy is inherently humble because it’s jokes about horrible things,” Normand says with authority. “So when you do it in in these theaters, it really works because A. Comedy for the first time ever is treated with some respect and some dignity, because we’re usually chicken fingers, brick walls and drunks heckling us in papers rooms with bad Mai Tais, but in a theater the place is quiet and they paid a hard price, a big ticket item – the lights are off, there’s a chandelier and a curtain and it really works because hey, look at Hamiliton! Imagine Hamilton in a Funny Bone in Des Moines, you know? It wouldn’t work. But it works on Broadway in these old beautiful theaters. So you put comedy in there and people go: ‘Hey, this is pretty good.’”
Normand continues to pull back the curtain, and reveal some lesser known comedy secrets. While talking about the shifting landscape of late night comedy, he jokingly reveals that the short five minute jokes sets may not change careers like they once did. “Those were hell,” Normand says. “I really had to hammer those in like a samurai sword because five minutes - like I’m a headliner, so that’s kinda, you’re just getting warmed up in that five minutes, then you do your hour. So to just come out swinging, and have enough jokes kill and have a big closer at the end all packed into just five minutes, that’s an art form all to itself. It was a challenge, and a tightrope walk, and you flub one thing and it's all like dominos, it all goes to hell.”
“So yeah, those were tough and challenging, and they did nothing! They help you in no way! I did 8 Conans, and nobody saw one of ‘em. Nobody gave me a gig off it. But they’re for the comic, they’re showbiz. It’s TV, you get to fly out to LA, and put it a suit on, and you got 30 Rock, so it's all for you. It’s a little treat to kill in front of a studio audience, with make up, and maybe get a little gift bag and to maybe have a Jimmy Fallon pat you on the back. So they’re nice little ego boosts, or just a fun time in this jungle you’re going through that we call comedy.”
But if late night cameos soon fade from memory, certain moments seem eternal. Normand recalls a “making it” moment that he cherishes to this day: getting spotlights from his hero.
“Here’s the bottom line, I was in Buffalo bombing in like a six person show room - nobody came out. You do two shows on a Friday, and I come into the greenroom after the first show, pouring sweat, I bombed, I ate my lunch out there. And my phone is going off like a pinball machine. Seinfeld is talking about you! Look at these links! And I’m like what the hell? So I look at this clip, at its just Seinfeld at a Mets game randomly doing some color commentary from the box, and one of the guys asks Jerry: ‘Who is the new up-and-coming? Who do you like? Who is the next hot guy?’ So he rolls his eyes - he just wants to talk about baseball - but he said: ‘I like this guy Mark Normand, he’s got something, he’s fun.’ And that was on a Mets game broadcast that nobody sees!
"So, thank God, I cut that thing up and put it on Twitter, I put it on Facebook, I put it on Instagram, I put it on Twitter, and I sent it to my parents – and that’s the only thing they’ve ever cared about. It’s mind-boggling. I mean, I’m a huge fan, I grew up watching him, my parents love him,, I know every bit, I’ve seen the show 800 times, I own all the DVDs, I can quote the whole show, I know all the seasons, I love Larry David. So just the idea that life can be long enough that I go from sitting there watching him on Must See TV back in 1996, and then have all these events occur and you are bombing in Buffalo, and you get a text and he’s talking about you. The whole thing is bananas, and I love the fact that you can never take that video away from me. It will always exist, no matter what.”
Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 22, 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. on Friday, July 23, and 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 24 at Improv Comedy Club Houston, 7620 Katy Freeway, Suite 455. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit improvhouston.com. $80-180