You call your job with “Conan” the “opening act” before the broadcasts begins, as opposed to the “warm-up act.” How is it different, since there’s obviously some warming up going on?
I’ve described it as the greatest day job in the world. Look, my paycheck says “warm-up.” That’s the job I was hired to do. I’m grateful that they didn’t want the guy who throws out T-shirts and fun-sized candies, and asks the audience if they know TV theme songs and gets them to sing along. They told me to hit a few beats for legal reasons — point out the fire exits, turn off the cell phones — but otherwise, they hired me because they like what I do and think I’m funny. I’ll go out for a minimum of 10 minutes, but it’s been as long as 22, because one night they had a technical problem. And believe me, they were over me that night: “We can to see Conan! Why is this man still talking?”
Sometimes I think the comics who warm up studio audiences are the unsung heroes of TV comedy.
I’m lucky that I don’t have to keep doing it during the commercial breaks. Other warm-ups, it’s almost like babysitting the audience, keeping them focused instead of actually entertaining them. And there’s a skill to that, especially the ones at a taping of a sitcom, who’ll be there for five hours. It’s not something I’d ever want to do, but it’s totally necessary.
Do you feel a difference between the vibe at “The Tonight Show,” a TV institution on a network, vs. “Conan,” an all-new show on cable?
I never met Conan or his staff before I got the job, two days before he went on the air with “The Tonight Show.” For the seven months when we were on, not counting that terrible final two weeks, I’d tell everyone that it was a joy and these were the greatest people I’d ever worked with. Now, away from all that, I can honestly say, “Oh, this is even better!” Since then, I’ve talked to Conan and read Bill Carter’s book about all the stuff going on behind the scenes, which I didn’t know about at the time, and can feel the difference. We’re wanted here (on TBS). Nobody’s watching and saying “We made a mistake.”
Usually your podcasts have no audience — what will the Punchline recording be like?
We’ve done about 10 live podcasts already, but mostly at theaters. This is the first time we’ve done a comedy club. I’ll do an hour or so with my co-host Matt Belknap and regular Pat Francis, and then bring out our guest, Ellis Paul, who’ll do a couple of songs. We shoot for about 90 minutes, but in Chicago, it was closer to two hours.
Do people come to your stand-up shows who know you from the podcast?
Absolutely. That’s the best part of doing it. There’s a roomful of people who come to see us, as opposed to whoever happens to be playing the club. There can be as little as 10 podcast fans in the room, and it makes all the difference in the world to a stand-up show. They get some of the references, and their infectious laughter gets other people laughing.
It’s like you’ve got plants in the crowd.
That’s a great way to put it. I wouldn’t put it that way, because it sounds negative, but it’s not wrong.
How does the podcast performance style differ from doing stand-up comedy live?
You can have Jon Hamm or Conan O’Brien in a room with no audience, just a microphone, so they might forget that there’s a million people about to listen. The conversation can become a lot more casual. It even effects me that way. I’ve had to apologize to friends: we’ll be talking and I’ll tell stories that I shouldn’t have, and they’ll call me later and say “Hey, man, I didn’t think you were going to bring that up.”
The first "Never Not Funny" podcast I listened to was the one when Conan was your guest, for a while I thought he was genuinely impatient with you, when he said things like, “You’ve got Mozart here, and you’re playing “Chopsticks” on an old piano!” But it became obvious he was just kidding around.
I can see how people might think that: “Why was Conan going at Jimmy so hard?” But it’s because we work together, we see each other every day. I’m happy to call him my friend, quote-unquote.
“Never Not Funny” has an energy that reminds me of morning radio, while most other podcasts sound more like public broadcasting round table chats. Did you want it to sound more energetic than other podcasts?
You’ve been talking to me for five minutes — that’s my level of energy in general. The podcasts I remember from five years ago sounded like the kind of shows you’d see on Cable Access. I wanted to make a professional sounding show. I came up with Chicago radio, before they had Morning Zoos, a little bit like what (Howard) Stern does, without the crazy characters. For a time I described it as morning radio without the bells or whistles or risqué humor.
Why are there so many comedy podcasts now?
It’s been like the comedy boom of the 1980s. It’s not unlike when Dane Cook was the first guy to use MySpace, and suddenly every comedian wanted to have 10,000 friends on MySpace. Podcasts are easy, they’re free, for the most part — I charge for mine. I think about the guys who did “Tonight Show” and strip clubs in the old days, and then comedy clubs came along. And they were like, “This is great. — Hey, where are all these new comedians coming from? There used to be five of us!”
Can you give me one of your favorite one-liners from your act?
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