Like the garish roller-skating male prostitute he played on the series “Reno 911!” comedian Nick Swardson has a way of swooping into a scene and taking it over. The results aren’t always pretty (or subtle), but they’re certainly memorable, thanks to the goofy sincerity Swardson brings to his crass material.
The 37-year-old comedian launched his Hollywood career as “Insane Bowie Fan” in the Oscar-winning “Almost Famous.” Now part of the Happy Madison Productions squad, Swardson more frequently appears in Adam Sandler projects such as “That’s My Boy” and “Grown Ups 2,” also starring as the titular character in “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star,” which he co-wrote with Sandler.
Swardson is back honing the standup career he began as a just-graduated 18-year-old, when he dominated the open mic scene at clubs in his native Minneapolis. Within a few years, he became one of the youngest performers to earn his own Comedy Central special. His latest outing — the 41-date Taste It Tour — brings him to the Midland on Tuesday.
Calling from a tour stop in Chicago, Swardson spoke to The Star about the live comedy scene, his favorite roles and the critical backlash against pal Sandler.
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Q: What’s the most misunderstood thing about being a standup comedian?
A: That we’re always hilarious in real life. A lot of comics are a lot more introverted socially than you would think, me included. If I’m not out drinking and haven’t had a couple cocktails, and you catch me, I can be standoff-ish.
Like I did a show last night in Madison (Wis.). I went out to eat with a couple people. I had a sweatshirt on and my hat pulled down. People came up to me hammered: “Let me give you a hug! I just want to hug you!” I’m like, “No, no, no. Please don’t do that.” I don’t like to be tackled.
There is a dose of insanity to most of the characters you play. Does crazy equal funny?
It’s not so much crazy as it is eccentric. All the characters I’ve done — even though they’re always “out there” — they’re kind of grounded.
Even Terry from “Reno 911!” is kind of real. It’s not just like he’s a cartoon. Terry is Terry. You can see the real side of him. That’s the key to it. It’s not just wacky for wacky’s sake.
Even Hector from “Blades of Glory” and characters like that have a rhyme and reason to them. It’s not just, “Hey, look at me. I’m insane!”
I actually pitched Comedy Central a spinoff of Terry called “Terry P.I.,” where I played a private investigator, and they didn’t want to do it. I was like, “Really?” I feel like people would watch that.
Do you still think of yourself as a Midwesterner?
I definitely do. I’ve almost spent as much time in California now as I did in the Midwest. I’m a little torn. But I’m always a Midwest kid at heart. My Midwest accent is totally gone, though. I definitely feel the influence of Southern California all over me.
I’m almost afraid to ask this, but did anything inspire naming it the Taste It Tour?
That was just a thing my buddy and I used to say. I’m trying to think how it started. Like if we saw a chick at a bar, we’d say, “Dude, check it out. Taste it.” Anything we’d want to check out — a beer or something — “taste it.” It’s all in how you say it.
What do you do to prepare yourself before going onstage?
I’m really weird before I go onstage. Everybody avoids me. I go into another zone and just walk around, almost like a lost child.
It’s really intense doing standup for an hour and a half, especially my show. It’s not like I’m just standing there telling jokes into a microphone. When you see my show, I’m covered in sweat, running around acting things out, doing all these characters. It’s a performance. It takes a lot to get into that head space.
What’s a joke from a past routine that you waited the longest to retire?
I always try to do a new act any time I go on tour. On this tour, I have one of the first routines I ever did 16 years ago. It’s a really physical bit about “Wheel of Fortune.”
But my cat diarrhea joke I always had trouble retiring: “I have a cat. He got sick and had diarrhea, and I had to take him to the vet. The vet’s like, ‘What have you been feeding him?’ I’m like, ‘Diarrhea.’”
I told that at an Ivy League college once. A kid in the front row said, “Oh, that’s sooooo stupid.” And I snapped on him: “I know it’s stupid. That’s why it’s funny!”
It’s been a rough few months for famous standup comedians. Did you ever work with Robin Williams or Joan Rivers?
I was supposed to do Joan’s show but never did, which I’m really bummed out about.
I met Robin a couple times. He was really sweet but very introverted. Very polite and nice, but you could tell he was really a quiet person in real life. I never got a chance to work with him. I admired both of them immensely.
Chris Rock did a funny bit at the Oscars about how easy voice acting was for animation. Do you feel the same?
Yeah, it’s insanely easy. I’ve done animated shows. I’ve done animated movies. I’ve got a new movie coming out called “Hell & Back” with Danny McBride and Mila Kunis.
It’s the best gig ever. You can show up looking like crap, not showered, hung over. You can be garbage. Then you just go in the booth and rock it out. There’s no crew waiting for you, just a couple sound guys and a director. It’s so fun.
What do you remember about shooting “Almost Famous”?
That was one of the most intensely exciting experiences of my life. I was such a fan of Cameron Crowe; I idealized him. And I had just moved out to L.A. I didn’t know anybody.
I was really nervous and did a bunch of auditions and didn’t get anything. I auditioned for one of the band members, but I was too young. But Cameron Crowe was like, “You’re really, really funny. I don’t know how, but I want to put you in this movie.”
Then my agent called me up and said I had a day on the movie. I showed up and Cameron told me I was going to be a Bowie fan, and he walked me through it.
I’ll never forget that, how he created a part just for me. It built up my confidence. It validated why I was in Hollywood.
What role do people ask you about the most?
“Grandma’s Boy” is usually the main thing where people are like, “Oh my God, I love this.” Then probably Terry from “Reno 911!” For the younger kids it’s the Sandler stuff like “Just Go With It.” Kids are always like, “Do the sheep guy!”
Why are Adam Sandler’s movies often so critically reviled?
He found a loophole in the system with critics. He would get so slammed, but his movies would do so well. For so many years, critics would slam them and how he made them. It never affected him. I think they lashed out against that.
I never really understood the criticism of comedy. It’s such a subjective medium. Some people make you laugh; others don’t. You can’t really judge it. Adam Sandler is a huge comedy star for a reason. People think he’s funny. I think he’s funny.
What is your least favorite type of comedy?
That’s tricky. In any genre there’s comedy that can transcend it. I don’t usually like hipster comedy where it’s condescending. Where they’re trying to be like, “Well, if you don’t get this, good luck.”
But I’m a supporter of anything that is funny and original. I love comedy, and if I see a young comedian I think is really funny, I’ll bring him on the road with me or give him a writing job. The more you grow good comedic minds, the better comedy is in general.
Nick Swardson brings his standup tour to the Midland, 1228 Main St., at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $39.50. See midlandkc.com.