On The Couch with Mark Normand

Arielle Gordon

Mark Normand was born and raised in New Orleans, LA before moving to New York to pursue a career as a comedian. He’s appeared on Conan, Inside Amy Schumer, Last Comic Standing, among others, and in 2013 was named “Best Comedian” by the Village Voice.

Mark Normand

The patient is disarmingly casual in his demeanor. We scheduled this appointment, at a West Village McDonalds, through his personal social media account, and just as planned, we discuss his various problems over an empty table on the second floor of a bustling Mickey D’s. He speaks quickly, as if he is constantly trying to simultaneously think out loud and entertain me, his sole audience member. The subject’s speech is rife with colloquialisms and conversations-within-conversations; I sense a struggle to succinctly express the anxieties floating around his mind, or perhaps an inherent need to laugh through them, as so many comedians before him have. Nevertheless, he seems jovial with an air of ease about him, and he seems comfortable in his own skin. Is this all a farce, or a true sign that the patient has internalized his newfound success in comedy? It is hard to say for certain, but I can say that my time with Mark Normand felt more like lunch with a long lost friend than serious psychoanalysis.

You started stand up in New Orleans and moved to New York. How has that move affected your career and your mental health?

When I started stand up, I always saw stand up as something people did, like it was an astronaut, like, “Oh, I could never do that.” And then some guy I worked with was like, “You should do stand up, I’m doing it tonight.” And I went with him and I didn’t have the guts, and then I got really drunk the next week and did it. I talked about a yeast infection.

Do you think that moving to New York has been stressful? How did you adjust to the comedy scene here?

Brutal. New Orleans, I was kind of a big fish, big swingin’ dick. And then I got to New York, and I had my ten minutes that I thought was gold, and I bombed every time, and I just had to rewrite it. I got mugged three times, lived in Crown Heights. My landlord died of AIDS, so I can’t complain.

What do your parents think of your comedy? Are there any jokes that they’re not especially happy with? Have they talked to you about it?

They never talked to me about it. I think that would just be too awkward, and I think they know like, “You’re the creative one, you do what you do, even if we don’t like a joke.” Although, when I was in film school, I made a movie at the end of it, and my mom hated the movie, so that was awkward. But I think the comedy they’re fine with.

We don’t really get along well… well, we get along, but there’s a wall up. We’re like coworkers. I think you find a voice when you feel weird doing your comedy in front of your parents; that means that’s the real you. That’s the thing, I can’t be real in front of them.

I think you find a voice when you feel weird doing your comedy in front of your parents.

Have you ever thought about doing a hometown show?

I’ve done a few, yeah. Love the hometown show. There are still comics in New Orleans who I love and are funny. People go to Austin and Chicago. You need New York to get good, I think. To get great.

Do you think anything from your childhood foretold that you’d become a comedian?

Being the youngest, you’re like an icebreaker. My parents and my brother are all super, wicked smart, like crazy smart, well-read; my brother skipped his senior year of high school to go right to college. And so funny was my way of getting in there, like, “I can do something too that you guys can’t!” And then, I grew up in a black neighborhood, where you had to stand out or be entertaining, or they’ll ignore you. A lot of people won’t tell you, whatever group you’re in, if you’re the majority, you can still shit on any other group. People are like, “Oh, white privilege.” Well if you’re the minority, is it a privilege?

So have you ever bombed on stage?

Oh yeah, a million times. I have six shows tonight, I’ll probably bomb one of them.

How does bombing make you feel?

Ah, it’s the worst. Kills the ego, but it also makes you want to try harder. It’s a good recharger; you know when your computer’s fucked up, and you reboot it, and it’s back? Bombing kind of reboots you; “Alright, I’ve got to work more, I’ve got to fix this joke.” If you’re killing it every night, you just get lazy, you become autopilot. Bombing is kind of like a slap in the face, like, “Wake up!”

So you had a very successful run at the Creek and the Cave for a lot of years.

Well, I wouldn’t say successful. Not a lot of success.

Ok then, largely acclaimed run. How was it coming up with a lot of contemporaries at the same time? Was it a competitive nature, or more friendly and helpful?

It was definitely friendlier. When I moved here, I had a big fear of clubs, because there was money involved, and I didn’t want to let anybody down who paid money to get in there. So I went to the alt scene, and it was just a looser scene. It was not a competition, it was just, everybody’s drinking and hanging out, like, “I like that joke,” and there were so many funny people, like Sean Patton was there, Jesse Popp, amazing comics, Matt McCarthy, they were all older than me, I was definitely the younger guy.

Are you still close with any of them now?

Well, they all live in LA. I’m still close with Patton, just saw him last night. I think he lives here now. When I did Conan, Popp was a writer there, and we hung out. So yeah, those were all great guys, but the clubs were just too intimidating, but you have to break into them eventually, or else you’ll just be playing to the back of the room.

You were on Last Comic Standing. How did you deal with the pressure of being on TV? What was that like?

Oh man, it sucks. Last Comic Standing is a different pressure than Conan or Comedy Central. Conan or Comedy Central’s great, like these people get it. Last Comic Standing you’re performing for people you’d never want to hang out with, like soccer moms and weird dads and dumb teenagers. So it’s people who like Paul Blart: Mall Cop; that’s who you’re performing for. That makes me nervous because 1. If you kill, you’re like, “Am I Paul Blart?” And then 2. If you bomb, you’re like, “Am I not good enough for America?” It’s kind of a Catch-22. Last Comic was more nerve-wracking. Also you’re getting critiqued by people you don’t respect—Keenan and Russel Peters. I mean, he’s a nice guy, but c’mon, the Asian voice? Get over it.

How do you take criticism to your comedy in general? Are you receptive or more stubborn?

From them or in general?

Is there a difference?

Oh yeah, of course. Like, Last Comic, you just go, “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” you shake your head, you go, “Sure, got it.” Because you’ve got a camera on you, what are you gonna do, go, “Ah, you’re a hack, blow me”? But from my peers, oh my god, I’ve gotten so many great notes and tags and what-not from my comedy friends. Some people will go up to you and go, “You should say this,” and you’re like “What? Why would I throw the N-word in, I’m talking about Google!”

Why would I throw the N-word in, I’m talking about Google!

You worked with Amy Schumer, who can be a bit blunt. How was it working with her?

She was so tough from the beginning, because I was such a new comic and she was on the rise to fame, and now we’re doing Carnegie Hall in November. She’s in the new Apatow movie, she’s a giant now. But I was still so new and so grateful that she was taking me on the road, I had never been to a comedy club outside of New York, and it was wild, and hotels, and all this stuff, it was crazy. She was incredibly generous, but I was always on eggshells. I just didn’t want to say the wrong thing, I didn’t want to lose that gig, she was so nice to me. So with her, it was always play it safe. But with all my other friends, I think it’s better to have comedian friends. I’ve kind of drifted away from my non-comic friends, we have nothing in common, and it’s a different lifestyle, and you’re a neurotic person [Writer’s note: I am]; you ever notice something and you tell your friend and he’s like, “What do you mean?” And you’re like, “How do you not know what I mean? That’s weird that you don’t know what I mean.” And he’s like, “You’re weird,” and I’m like, “You’re weird.” But then you talk to a comic and he’s like, “Oh yeah, I know exactly what you mean.”

You need that.

Would you say being around comics and being a comic has made you more anxious, or has it helped you deal with anxiety?

I think it’s helped me deal with it. I’m not the most anxious out of all the comics I hang out with, so I get to go, “Look at that guy, I gotta dial it back so I’m not him.”

Right, it keeps you in check.

Plus I try to keep one foot in the real world, or maybe a pinky, not a whole foot. I take boxing classes and I go to the gym, and I do this and that. You don’t want to be full comic, because you just kind of get into a bubble.

So when you’re writing, do you face inward and analyze your own thoughts, or do you base your comedy on observations you make on the world?

I do a little of both; I take an outside observation about police cars, for example, and then I have my own opinion on it. You gotta have your own opinion so then people get to know you. The more opinions you have, the more the audience can puzzle together what your brain is thinking. That’s a terrible sentence, but you know what I mean.

Is there any joke that’s particularly indicative of your comedic voice?

I’m all about analogy, that’s always how I’ve learned anything in life. So, that “gay-onion-ring-french-fry” joke is probably the most [indicative]. Mitch Hedberg is great at that too, he’s probably the comic you watch and you can see, “Oh, that’s how your brain works,” the most out of any other comic. Like, “Oh, I had some rice the other day because I was hungry for 2,000 of something.” Oh, wow, I get how you think now.” Then you feel like you know him and you like him more.

Do you do comedy because you want to project your personality onto other people? Do you want other people to get to know you?

Yeah, I think so. Again, with the folks, there wasn’t much. Chappelle said that on stage is the only time he’s completely himself, and I think that’s the goal.

So do you seek approval from the audience?

Oh yeah, I seek approval, and then it’s half approval and half “this could be interesting, I think you’d enjoy this.”

How has comedy affected your mental health?

It’s affected my mental health good and bad. Good because our brains are always going, so it’s nice to have some assignment, and it’s an assignment that you’re rewarded for. You really work hard, and people laugh out loud and they go, “Oh, that was a great joke!” And they pat you on the back and they put you on TV. So there’s that part, where it’s like, “Am I not having normal thoughts, because all I’m thinking about is this god damn joke about McDonald’s that won’t get out of my head?” And then, “Is this guy funnier than me?

Am I not that funny? Am I wasting my time? What is this career choice I’ve chosen?” So all that is damaging, but I think it’s 60/40, good.

What do you think you’ve learned about yourself from being a comedian?

I think I’ve learned mostly bad things. I’ve learned that I’m a bit of a workaholic. I have a big fear of failure. People have a fear of success, how odd is that? Isn’t that weird? I feel a big fear of failure, a big fear of not being funny. If someone says, “Hey, you’re not funny,” boy, it kills me. To me, being funny is so important, I don’t know why. Even when I was a kid, it was so important to me to be funny, I don’t know why. I also learned that I need a lot of reassurance, and I learned, sadly, that making people laugh has hurt a lot of relationships in my life. I’ve lost girlfriends and drifted from other friends, and family and cousins, and I’m like, “Eh, who cares, do comedy.”

Do you think it’s worth it?

I think it is right now. It might bite me in the ass later when I’m an old man and I’m all alone with my Emmys, or whatever I have.

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