Mark Normand

Mark Normand Details How a Joke Goes From Page to Stage

For years, joke construction has been a closely guarded secret among stand-ups. As an audience member, there’s no way of us knowing how long a comedian has been tinkering with a joke unless they tell us. There’s an illusion to the whole ordeal.

Mark Normand is looking to demystify that illusion. In a new short documentary for PunchUp Live, we get to see Normand work on a joke from the first time he tried it out to having it on its feet at Carnegie Hall. If you’re a comedy fan who enjoys really going deep into the inside baseball world of things, this is for you.

We recently spoke with Normand about the new special, further deconstructing something that was already deconstructed to begin with. We talk about concepts, joke structures, and how to make things perfect for an audience.

I love how far things are broken down in the special. Do you get the impression that audiences are generally unaware of just how painstaking this process is for one joke?

Oh 100%. It’s so much to do about word choice and trial and error. “Hey I thought this would work. Let me say this line, maybe that’ll trigger something.” It’s not pretty.

Is there pressure or fear associated with showing yourself bombing and having to live through that again?

Well a little bit. We’re shooting another one right now. It’s so much bombing. And people are like “What the hell. I thought this guy had a Netflix special. This isn’t great.” I think the bombing part is what people need to say. So let’s show them the nitty gritty, I say.

Is it hard for you to watch yourself bomb?

Oh. Of course. Bombing is work. But then watching yourself back, just brings up all these feelings. Killing’s bad, too, by the way. Just watching yourself sucks. So watching yourself bomb is really heartbreaking.

So I can’t imagine what it’s like having to edit a special, like your full Netflix hour.

Oh yeah. It’s a nightmare. I have a friend, he did an hour special. It was so painful for him to watch, he told the editor “Just edit it. I can’t even look at it.” And then he looked at it later and he was like “Oh shit. I should’ve watched it.” So you have to do it, but it is painful.

What was it about this specific joke that made you want to chronicle it?

Well funny you ask that, because I don’t love that joke. But it was just a timing thing. We needed a joke that wasn’t ready, because that’s when I could get the camera man and everything. So I said “I’m working on a dumb joke about banging animals,” and they said “Great. Let’s do it!” It’s like I don’t even love the joke. But it had to be in a certain time frame, so we had to do it.

We did a pilot before this one about a year ago, and that joke I loved and it was my closer in my Netflix half hour. And it went viral online, too. That one was a better choice. But again, the timing. That one also really struggled in the beginning.

Onstage, you say at one point “There’s nothing there.” Is that the actual narrative of what’s going on in your head in that moment? Or are you trying to save face?

It’s all genuine. It’s real humiliation and real fear that you’re seeing on my face. You can’t even fathom the fight or flight that’s going on in your head during it. Your brain’s going a million miles a minute in a bad way.

Is there a moment when you do consider giving up the joke throughout that process?

Every single time, yeah. Every fiber in your being is telling you “Abort abort.” It’s kind of like being up against the ropes in a boxing match. And it’s like “Alright, I just wanna crumble into a little ball and wait til the round’s over.” But you can’t do it. You’ve just gotta stand up there and keep figuring it out.

Tell me about the doorman part. How much pressure is there when doing a joke in front of just one guy?

Oh sure. And that guy was obviously a cynical, real bitter doorman. That guy was so good. He was good. But at that point you’re so desperate to figure out where to go with the jokes, I was like “Let me just see if I can get anything out of this guy.” And obviously I didn’t. But the desperation kicks in. And I think it’s easier to tell one person because you can preface it with “Hey, I’m working on this. Do you have any ideas? Is this anything?” Whereas a crowd is expecting to laugh at a show. They’re paying customers.

What is the experience of playing Carnegie Hall as a whole?

It‘s pretty wild. I will say it’s not even the best room in the city. I’ve opened for Schumer there. It’s so iconic, it’s cooler just for the history of it than the actual sound and room quality as a venue. It’s one of those rooms you’ve heard of your whole life. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” It’s a great feeling in there. Built before speakers so it’s like a rounded out room. The history in there, it’s pretty crazy.

Jimmy Carr did my podcast, and he goes “I’m doing Carnegie Hall tonight if you wanna come by.” And I said “If I wanna come by? Are you kidding?” So I had to go. I’m not lost on the fact that that’s an iconic room and it’s a special place. 

It’s incredible even if it’s not the best venue for comedy.

Exactly. You go to these new places that are a lot uglier and a lot less special, but they have state of the art sound and acoustics and all that. Which Carnegie Hall does not. But it’s still an honor to do it. It’s kinda like banging Madonna now. It’s old and not the best. You’d rather bang some young supermodel. But you gotta do it.

What made you wanna partner with PunchUp Live for this?

Well I’ve become pretty friendly with the founder, this guy Danny Frenkel. He’s always like “What do you got? What are you working on?” He’s really this go-getter, ambitious guy. And he’s good because he sees the potential in things, whereas a Netflix employee might be like “I don’t know about this.” They’re more business minded. Where he’s a little more open minded to the arts and ideas and new things. And he said “Wait, this is great. Don’t just give this away. You should at least try to break even on that. And you have a pretty good reach and make people pay for it.”

That was his idea. And with Danny, the whole point is to build your profile. So whenever you do the road, you can email people directly. And we’re in the black. Now we’re making money!

Where are things at with your newest hour?

I’m cooking. It’s tough because I have short jokes. That beastiality joke, that took months to fix and get going, and it’s about 34 seconds. All this work I’m putting into it is I guess stupid and kind of counterproductive. But it’s almost like collecting pennies to try and save up money. Each joke is like a penny and you’ve got a jar of pennies, you may have something worthwhile there. But it takes forever. So I’d say I’m about 35 minutes into a new hour.

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