The first sign that Nick Swardson may be cleaning up his act is when he suggests we meet for breakfast, a meal that stand-up comedians usually snooze through. The Twin Cities native arrived early two weeks ago to the restaurant in the North Loop’s Hewing Hotel, ordering green tea and scrambled eggs with extra spinach. He’s been on the wagon for three months. While he’s abstained for long periods before, this time it could be permanent.
“If there was a vodka hall of fame, my jersey would be in the rafters,” said Swardson, who is performing this weekend at Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing. “My fans were kind of worried about me. They were posting online that I should dial it down a little. Not that I live and die by their comments, but I would look at pictures of me trashed at bars. I thought it was kind of funny for a while. But I looked horrible.”
The 43-year-old comic won’t be completely abandoning his inner juvenile delinquent, at least not onstage. His fans at a recent pop-up show at Minneapolis’ Corner Bar roared as he treated them to sordid showbiz anecdotes, like how he befriended Peter Dinklage by strolling through a party with his private parts hanging out.
It’s the same kind of material that made him a local standout when he was just 20, convinced Adam Sandler to make him the youngest member of his Rat Pack, led to a Comedy Central series and snagged him scene-stealing moments in “Just Go With It” and “Grown Ups 2” — each of which raked in more than $200 million at the box office.
“He’s basically the George Carlin of toilet humor,” said Paul Lambert, best known as Meatsauce on KFAN’s “The Power Trip” morning show. “The words themselves may not be funny, but when Nick talks about a figure skater getting diarrhea so bad it looks like Cinnamon Toast Crunch over the ice, it’s brilliant.”
His humor isn’t for everyone.
He seems genuinely amused that he’s been nominated five times for a notorious Golden Raspberry Award, including one for co-writing 2011’s “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star,” a raunchy comedy about a Midwesterner who pursues a career in pornography. He insists that if he ever wins a Razzie, he’ll show up in person to accept. But he bristles at the notion that being silly isn’t hard work.
“It’s stupid. That’s the point. I’m in on the joke,” said Swardson, who sports numerous tattoos on his arms including ones that honor his passion for Lionel Richie’s music and his friendship with ’NSYNC’s Chris Kirkpatrick. “Paul Rudd came up to me at some function and said that he and his wife had watched ‘Bucky Larson’ five times. He said my commitment to that role was so good that you couldn’t help but root for the guy. He got it.”
At one point, he was averaging seven TV or film projects a year while still maintaining a steady presence on the road. During a stand-up performance two years ago at Mystic Lake Casino, he invited the sold-out crowd to join him after the set at the bar, where he then proceeded to buy shots for fans until last call.
David Spade, Swardson’s co-star in “The Benchwarmers,” told me in 2007 that he was concerned about his friend’s frantic pace.
“He’s got to be careful about biting off too much,” Spade said.
Swardson may have finally learned that lesson — the hard way. This past fall, he spent nearly three weeks in a Denver hospital for, among other things, pneumonia and alcohol poisoning.
“My body just shut down,” he said. “That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, you’re not a superhero.’ ”
Escaping Los Angeles to spend more time in Minnesota is helping Swardson slow down. He’s even looking at buying a condo in downtown Minneapolis. Corner Bar owner Bill Murray estimates that Swardson has popped into his West Bank establishment at least 40 times this year, often just to sit in the back with friends.
“It’s comfortable for him,” Murray said. “I think it’s way different for him elsewhere. A friend of mine saw him perform in Florida one New Year’s Eve. There were so many people mobbing him that he needed a bodyguard. But even then, I’m sure he was super-gracious. I see strangers start telling him their life stories and he’s always very, very patient. He listens to everyone.”
Home, sweet home
Minnesota is on Swardson’s mind even when he’s not back among us. In fact, he may be the state’s most famous cheerleader.
For his national TV appearances, he often wears one of his nearly 100 shirts or jerseys emblazoned with some Minnesota reference and favors purple shoes in honor of his beloved Vikings, whom he cheers on from the sidelines for several home games each season. He has the area code “612” tattooed on one wrist.
“If you made a Mount Rushmore of famous Minnesotans who weren’t athletes, he’d be on it,” Lambert said.
During his current sabbatical in Minneapolis, Swardson has been putting the finishing touches on a script for a potential series about ghost hunters haunted by their past. Plans for the return of “Reno 911!” have him thinking about reviving one of his most popular characters, Terry Bernadino, a gay prostitute who commutes from client to client on roller skates.
He also hopes to tackle more challenging acting roles, like the one he played in 2019’s “Buddy Games.” In that film, written and directed by North Dakota native Josh Duhamel, his character struggles with dark demons. Director Todd Phillips, who’s getting Oscar buzz for his take on “Joker,” told Duhamel that it was Swardson’s most impressive work to date.
“I was always interested in more dramatic things, but I was just swept up in doing other stuff. I never really had the window,” Swardson said. “Now I’m able to go, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this. But this I want to do.’ ”
Still, Swardson will never forget what got him invited to the party in the first place.
“I don’t want to all of a sudden put on a suit and talk politics,” he said. “Hey, I’m in my 40s and, hey, I just farted.”