Years before Conan and The Tonight Show, Madison Square Garden and an hourlong special on Comedy Central, Mark Normand performed at a handful of open mics in New Orleans with a small cadre of stand-up comics, driving to Baton Rouge and Lafayette for a few minutes of stage time.
"We'd drink, it was a community, a group of us who'd push each other and got all excited about new jokes, and it was scary and fun and new," Normand says from his home in New York. "Back then it was like being a — what's something that's really rare? Like a Mormon. It was like six of us."
Normand returns to New Orleans to headline One Eyed Jacks Aug. 15.
His first hourlong special, Amy Schumer Presents: Mark Normand: Don't Be Yourself, premiered earlier this year. Normand has toured and opened for Schumer for several years after she caught him at Comix in 2010.
"She saw my act, and I bombed, but one joke worked and she clinged on to that," he says. "She gave me a gig — it was a date in Atlanta. I was too scared. I didn't know if I could do 30 minutes, I didn't know who this girl is, I didn't want to hang out with her, who the hell is she? So I turned it down. I lied and said my parents were coming into town. I was talking to her on the phone and she was like, 'OK?' I remember her being like, 'What are you, an idiot?'"
Two weeks later, she called him back for a show at Hofstra University. They rode the train from the city and hit it off. "I later learned she said the reason she used me was she liked my stuff, I was low maintenance and I never tried to sleep with her," he says. "All the big three."
After a year performing standup around New Orleans, Normand moved to New York in 2007 with only a few hundred bucks, followed by a harrowing series of events he rattles off in one breath — mugged three times, apartment got bedbugs, landlord died of complications from AIDS, all within Normand's first few months in town. After begging his old film school for a job, they hired him as a custodian.
"It was brutal," he says. "I was so desperate. My whole career was put together with gum and tape. ... The city tries to chew you up and spit you out, and if I was a sane, normal human being I would've listened to it but I had nowhere else to go."
Normand has appeared in the comic slot on several late-night TV shows and on Louis CK's Horace and Pete and Schumer's Comedy Central sketch series Inside Amy Schumer, among many gigs around the world, including institutions like Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater. He's also active on social media (@marknorm on Twitter, @marknormand on Instagram) and hosts a long-running podcast Tuesdays With Stories with comedian Joe List. But he still works material at open mics and intimate bar shows, including spots around New Orleans.
"One day you're in Madison Square [Garden], Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater," he says. "The next day you've got that new joke to try out and it bombs in front of six people at a bar with the Rangers game on."
Onstage, Normand carefully builds up to taboo or collar-pulling topics, revealing his relatably awkward, sometimes-charming and admittedly gross behavior on the way there.
"I'm really trying to tell jokes about these horrible things and make light of them," he says. "That's my favorite kind of joke. At one point they are a new joke that's not ready, so when it's not funny yet you just look like an asshole holding a microphone. You have to go through that suffering and pain of people hating you and hope to God you find the funny in it. ... It's a long journey to get there, but if you get there, it's worth it."