Nick Swardson knows how to steal a scene. The comedian would roller skate (literally) into a shot of Comedy Central’s cop comedy Reno 911! as gay gigolo Terry Bernadino, deliver a few lispy lines and roll off, leaving viewers giggling hysterically in his wake. Born in Minnesota, Swardson cut his teeth in comedy clubs and eventually landed his own Comedy Central Presents special, became buddies with Adam Sandler, joined the Happy Madison production team, writing, producing and appearing in films like Grandma’s Boy and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, accumulating a long list of scene-stealing walk-ons. Swardson eventually got the spotlight to himself in Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, which he wrote and produced, but he’s back behind the microphone this weekend as part of the South Beach Comedy Festival. The Miami Herald chats with Swardson about making movies, telling jokes and the lessons he’s learned from Adam Sandler.
What is a Nick Swardson comedy show like?
It’s pretty laid back, it’s a good time. It’s fun. It’s just me, I feel like my audience is kind of like my friends. I love my fans. It’s kind of like a hangout session, we talk about drinking, partying. Nothing crazy. Not too political.
Do you feel like you’ve been typecast as a gay roller skating prostitute thanks to Reno 911?
[Laughs] There was a time when I was getting offered a lot of gay roles. Casting directors and directors were like "You do it so well, it’s so funny." There were a handful of opportunities that I had to turn down. I loved Terry but I didn’t want to only do that so I did get typecast for a minute there.
Your character was redeemed in the film version of Reno 911: Miami, when Terry flies the whole sheriff’s department back to Reno on a private jet. Turns out Terry came from money.
I loved that they came up with that angle.
What was it like shooting in Miami?
We shot on the strip in Miami and it’s tricky; when you shoot in cities like New York, Miami, New Orleans, you gotta focus and the hours are really intense and when you are in a major nightlife city it can be really hard to focus. You have to go to your room and not talk to anybody. When there’s heavy nightlife, you have the usual distractions.
Do you get down to Miami often?
I’ve only been there twice. I haven’t spent a lot of time there at all.
Are you practicing your Spanish?
Yeah, for sure.
When you moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles and New York doing stand-up, how did you have to adapt your comedy to new audiences?
Well the thing that I did when I started doing comedy, I would watch the comedians in Minnesota and they made a lot of local jokes that would only work in Minnesota. So I thought the fastest way for me to succeed and get on TV was to write jokes that were universal, that I could tell in Miami, that I could tell in New York and Los Angeles. Things that just were broad. I wasn’t talking about specific stores in Minnesota. That’s one reason why I was able to move up really fast, because HBO saw me and my jokes were very universal. They weren’t super provincial. I could write local jokes, but I wouldn’t focus all my energy on it.
Who are your stand-up heroes?
My biggest influence was Saturday Night Live. I lived and died by SNL. Coincidentally Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, Chris Farley, all those guys I loved. They were my favorite. In terms of right now, I don’t really watch comedy because I’ve been in it for 20 years. It’s just like work to me. Certain people do inspire me. I love Bill Burr. Daniel Tosh. I think those guys are great comics.
What’s the worst you ever bombed?
It was like at 2 in the morning in Greenwich Village in New York. I did not want to go on. They made me go on and it was a rough crowd. I knew it right away that it wasn’t going to work. Also, I started out really clean, like I made sure that I wasn’t super dirty but when I got to New York, I knew that was going to be a problem. If you work clean, you were going to go on really early around 8-8:30 p.m. But once you get on past midnight, the crowd gets drunker. I was booed off the stage. That shook me up. I didn’t go on stage for a couple weeks.
You have worked with Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production team. Talk to me about working with Adam Sandler.
It’s really great. Adam is such a good dude. He’s exactly how you’d think he would be. He’s a really nice person. He’s super funny but he’s very professional. When we’re shooting movies we goof around a bit but for the most part he’s very professional. He has a very strong work ethic. He’s very grounded for somebody who’s that famous and that wealthy, he’s really down to earth. He just wears sweatpants and plays basketball with his friends. He’s just an average dude.
What has he taught you about the biz?
He’s taught me a lot, every aspect of filmmaking from editing to writing. He’s just opened up a lot of those worlds. I was always pretty grounded. I’m from Minnesota and I have good parents, a Midwestern background so I was always low-key so that’s what kind of attracted both of us, we got along right away.
You also co-wrote and produced several films, are there any more movies in the pipeline?
I’m developing a handful of things right now. We’re trying to figure out which project to focus on. I’ve got a TV pilot we’re working on to see if it gets pick up. I’ve closed a deal on a new special that will hopefully tape at the end of the year.
How hard is it to get a movie made?
It depends on who’s involved. With Malibu’s Most Wanted, that was the first thing I wrote and we were developing it with independent producers and it was making some traction. It was initially rated R, then Jamie Kennedy got his show [The Jamie Kennedy Experiment] on the WB and Warner Brothers wanted to do the movie with him so they picked that script up. With Sandler, he can get movies made. If he’s starring in them, he can get them made. A movie like Bucky Larson was a little trickier because it was my first starring role and it was kind of a weird concept. But we made it cheap. For the most part, it’s not easy to get a movie made.
For most comedians, no matter what they do, be it TV, movies, whatever, they always come back to stand-up. What is it about stand-up that brings everybody back?
There’s nothing like it. It’s such a rush. It’s so intense. If you write a movie, you’ve gotta get it made, you’ve gotta get distributors, you’ve gotta get producers, there’s so many variables. With TV, you’ve gotta write it, you’ve gotta pitch it. Right now, I could write a joke and two hours later when the comedy club opens I could go on stage and cast that joke out right away. It’s immediate, an immediate reaction. There’s nothing like that.