Jimmy Pardo, the official warm up guy for Conan O'Brien, may be the funniest man averse to jokes. He doesn't write them; he rarely tells them. And that translates as hilarious to audiences.
Call him the crowd whisperer.
Instead of using crafted material to liven up the crowd before Conan tapings, Pardo simply shows up and riffs, loosely, with the audience — that's his thing. His stand-up routine at clubs is just as unstructured, akin to "one-man improv," he says, and is drawing comparisons to Don Rickles and Robin Williams. And he regularly hosts live, "interactive comedy shows" at the Upright Citizens Brigade — things like game show spoofs, luring audience members onstage to play. Two such shows are coming up Wednesday and May 29.
It was in front of a different audience, however, where Pardo really found his free-form voice: hosting his long-running podcast, "Never Not Funny," which goes into its ninth season on June 8.
"Hosting is what I'm good at — my ability to interview and interact with real people," Pardo says. Of his stand-up and live shows, he adds: "The audience is just there to give me ideas; I try to find a germ of a nugget to expand on, and just go off on it."
Podcasting is de rigueur for comics these days. It's an immediate, inexpensive and pliable format; and it's a way for comics to brand their sense of humor while building a national online following. Earwolf is a popular podcast network with nine comedy shows, and while not exclusively comedy, SModcastle theater, built by Kevin Smith, is a veritable podcasting empire. But Pardo was an early adopter: "Never Not Funny" went live in April 2006, before the current stampede, and along with Ricky Gervais' show is one of the oldest professional comic podcasts.
Comedian Marc Maron, who hosts and produces the twice-weekly podcast "WTF With Marc Maron," says Pardo was an inspiration. "He made it seem possible," says Maron. "Comedians aren't the most motivated people. Jimmy made us know that it was doable, and fun, and a viable new medium to be funny with."
"Never Not Funny," which Pardo hosts with the show's producer Matt Belknap, is a straight talk radio show featuring one comic guest at a time for roughly 90 minutes each week. It's inspired by radio duo Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, which Pardo listened to growing up in Chicago, as well as the late-night TV talk shows of his youth such as "The Tonight Show." The humor is "stupid and silly and dumb" and "raucous-but-smart" at once, Pardo says. Regular guests include Chris Hardwick (who also does "Nerdist Podcast"), Scott Aukerman ("Comedy Bang Bang" podcast), Paul F. Tompkins ("The Pod F. Tompkast") and Paul Gilmartin ("The Mental Illness Happy Hour" podcast). O'Brien, Sarah Silverman, Jon Hamm and Kevin Pollak also have appeared on the show.
Pardo isn't exactly tech-savvy. He doesn't have a Twitter account and calls himself "the last guy on MySpace." Still, "Never Not Funny" has had more than 4.5 million downloads and, since 2008, listeners are paying money for it. The first 20 minutes are free on iTunes, among other places; but the whole show is available only to paid subscribers. "Never Not Funny" lost a chunk of listeners when it switched to paid subscriptions, but enough stuck around to make the change sustainable — something Pardo chalks up to timing.
"We did it in the right window. If I was doing this for free, and tomorrow I said, 'Let's go to a paid format,' I think it'd be a failure," Pardo says, equating the current glut of comic podcasts to the comedy boom of the 1980s.
Also seeded early on was Pardo's relationship with the Upright Citizens Brigade. During his open mike days in Chicago, Pardo cut his teeth performing with, among other people, Matt Walsh and Matt Besser — two of the four founding members of Upright Citizens Brigade. When UCB came to Los Angeles in 2005, they invited Pardo to do a regular show. Pardo created "Running Your Trap," a 60-minute talk show that tipped its hat to Pardo's hero Johnny Carson; it ran for two years and eventually evolved into a game show similar to "To Tell the Truth" or "Liars Club" but with comedians.
Pardo also developed an interactive staged show called "The Writers' Room," offering an insider — if somewhat manic — peek into the joke writing process. The show, which will play next week at the Comedy Central Stage at the Hudson, pairs three stand-up comics with three comedy writers who create a monologue for Pardo. Next week's show will see comedy writers Jimmy Dore, Joe Wagner and Jarrett Grode onstage scribbling live-time reactions to three stand-up sets from comics Laurie Kilmartin, Moshe Kasher and Pete Holmes. Pardo will then perform the writers' reactions to the stand-up. "It's sort of like a roast," Pardo says.
"What I love about Jimmy is that he lives by his wits," O'Brien writes via email. "His mind is so quick and facile that he gets the audience laughing; but they're listening as well. By the time I get [there], Jimmy has already brought them up to speed on the rhythm and sensibility of what we're about."
It's the perfect gig for a man whose best joke might just come from the audience.
Pardo hosts "The Writers' Room" at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Comedy Central Stage at the Hudson, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. Free. (323) 960-5519. Pardo also hosts the game show "Running Your Trap" at 9:30 p.m. May 29 at the Upright Citizens Brigade, 5919 Franklin Blvd., Hollywood. $5 at the door. ucbtheatre.com.