Nick at Night: Comedian Nick Swardson at Belly Up tonight | AspenTimes.com
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Nick at Night: Comedian Nick Swardson at Belly Up tonight

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Contributed photo

Nick Swardson recently spent two years on hiatus from doing stand-up comedy performances. Swardson, who is 36, had been doing stand-up for 17 years. He found himself overextended with other projects, especially “Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time,” a sketch-comedy show that ran on Comedy Central. Perhaps above all, he found himself exhausted of stand-up material.

“I was running out of things to say,” Swardson said from his home in southern California. “I need material. I don’t enjoy retreading the same crap. I needed to have something to say.”

A year ago, Swardson found himself contemplating his return to the stand-up stage, and worked up a short, 10-minute or so set. (It might have had a little to do with business concerns, rather than purely artistic ones. “I’d get offers, and my agent says, ‘Are you sure you don’t want this gig? It’s a lot of money,’” Swardson noted.) At last Labor Day’s Bumbershoot Festival, in Seattle, Janeane Garofalo cancelled her appearance and Swardson got asked to replace her. He accepted, but had private reservations. “I was ready for it to be a nightmare,” he said.

But the gig went far better than expected, and Swardson returned to doing stand-up regularly. (Again, business probably factored into this: “Pretend Time” ended its two-year run late in 2011.) Swardson does a pair of stand-up shows, at 7 and 9, tonight at Belly Up. And while Swardson can promise new material, he can also promise it won’t be a new Swardson.

“I tread on the same water. I didn’t reinvent myself,” he said. “It’s not hard political. It’s true to my fans. I’m not throwing them any curveballs.”

Which should probably come as a relief to Swardson fans. Swardson projects himself in his comedy as a guy with an unapologetic grip on extended adolescence — his bits tend to be about drinking, smoking pot, pornography and fast food — and his audience seems to want to avoid growing up with him. (Among the jokes from a 2011 show: “Everybody loves pot brownies. But I bring crystal meth cupcakes to a party and suddenly I’m the weirdo. It’s a double standard.”)

While he continues his Peter Pan, never-grow-up persona onstage, it might be a different Swardson that shows up on TV soon. Along with his resurgent stand-up career, Swardson is working on the pilot for a TV show, which he is writing, producing and starring in. “Game On” has some of the indications of a youth-oriented show; it features Swardson as a slacker who works for a video game maker, and the new owner of the company is, according to Swardson, “a Charlie Sheen-like guy, drug-addicted.”

Swardson describes the as “a workplace comedy, like ‘The Office.’” He also compares the tone to “Grandma’s Boy,” the 2006 film he co-wrote and appeared in, about a 30-something stoner forced to move in with his grandmother and her roommates.

But in “Game On,” Swardson’s character is thrust toward adulthood, not so much by age, but by success. The game he has created has been picked up by the company, and the character has to make some life adjustments.

“I have to start being more responsible, start taking charge of this video game I invented,” he said. Swardson more than hints that he relates to the character’s situation. “A lot of guys I know are in their 30s but act like they’re 21, live with roommates, party every night. And so many of my roles are so over-the-top. But this is more real, more me. And there can be a real arc for this character.”

Swardson can pinpoint more or less exactly when he began creating his naughty-boy character. His parents split up when he was 13, and Swardson turned rather instantly from a well-behaved, good student to something else.

“I became a total tornado. I was insane,” he said. “With my parents divorced, I had all this time. All my friends’ parents were divorced, and I had just started junior high.”

The tornado continued to pick up speed. In his sophomore year in high school, in St. Paul, Minn., Swardson got arrested for smoking pot and was ordered into rehab. His friends abandoned him and Swardson, feeling in a weird emotional place, decided to take a theater class. To his surprise, he was a natural. The teacher praised him, and when a professional improve group visited the school, Swardson auditioned and was accepted into the company.

“That took the place of all the drugs I did,” he said. After high school, lacking the grades and money to go to college, Swardson opted for the stage. His first stand-up appearance was a hit and by the age of 19, his career was rolling.

Among the places he appeared early on was Aspen, for the 1997 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, where a 20-year-old Swardson appeared on a program with other young stand-ups. Also on the program that year was a reunion of the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” and in attendance was one of Swardson’s heroes, also known for a case of arrested development: Adam Sandler. Swardson, though, was too fresh to do anything but gape.

“I was so young, kind of green, no idea what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was in way over my head, was just psyched to see celebrities. I didn’t have career options even. I was just trying to get autographs.”

Swardson worked his way into the comedy world, appearing several more times at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival and making key contacts in the industry. In the early ‘00s, some friends invited him to appear on their new Comedy Central show, “Reno 911!”

“That was a surprising gig. They pitched it to me as a cop show. ‘And we want you to play a criminal. Do whatever you want,’” he recalled. Swardson took them at their word and created a gay, roller-skating prostitute. The wildly over the top character, Tony Bernadino, was a hit, and Swardson did the show for seven seasons.

Another comedian who had his eye on Swardson was Sandler. Around 2000, Sandler was watching TV, saw Swardson, and asked if anyone knew who he was. It turned out the two shared a manager, and Sandler quickly got in touch, asking if Swardson would rewrite “Grandma’s Boy,” which Sandler was producing. The project kicked off a steady relationship. Swardson has appeared with Sandler in numerous films, including “Jack and Jill,” “Just Go With It” and “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” and Sandler produced 2006’s “Gay Robot,” a TV movie starring Swardson based on a skit from a Sandler album. Sandler also produced the 2011 flop “Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star,” which starred Swardson as a small-town man who wants to become a porn star, like his parents.

Along with “Game On,” Swardson is working on another FX series, “Chozen,” an animated show about a gangsta rapper released from prison.


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