“Nothing ruins Christmas like dropping a newborn on his head. “Oh, sorry about that. He was cross-eyed when you gave him to me.”
– From Dan Swartwout, 100% Certified HPA
Dan Swartwout is a bit of an anathema in the world of comedy local television lawyers…in the world. He went to law school rather accidentally. He graduated, passed the bar, became a full-fledged “esquire”-after-his-name-if-he-wanted-to-use-it lawyer. Dan got a job at a law firm, where lawyers work and make money for their work, and then he stopped being a lawyer so he could drive 12 hours to some shithole in North Dakota and tell jokes to townies for a few beers and an amount of money best described as a “pittance.”
Then he did that some more.
That was 2002. Now, just over a decade later, Dan is married, lives happily in Powell with his wife and daughter, and works as full-time stand-up comedian, including a gig with the Ohio Lottery’s game show, Cash Explosion. This year saw Swartwout release a comedy album (a small sample of which you will see sprinkled throughout this interview), Dan Swartwout: 100% HPA Certified, which debuted in the iTunes Comedy Top 40 and is currently in rotation on Sirius and XM Radio. Additionally, he had a viral Youtube.com video, “Beat the Wolverines,” which was featured on regular television as well.
How long did you practice law before you turned to full-time comedy?
I did my first open mic in April of ’97, and I started law school in August of that year. I started really pursuing stand-up while I was in law school, and took the bar in 2000, passed it and worked at the law firm after I passed the bar until May of 2002 and then left the law firm. My last day there was May 14, and May 15 I was in Millersville, Georgia, doing a show for $75. So it was a real rapid, rapid change.
Did you know it was coming?
Yes, I did. I mean, I had talked about it for up to a year before, saying that I was going to make the transition from practicing law at a big firm to pursuing – (starts laughing) – uh, stand-up on a more aggressive basis. You know I look back and, I’m glad I did it, but it’s pretty hard to believe that I DID do it. A lot of people looked at me like I was nuts. They were like, “Are you kidding?” And there have been times, particularly in those first few years, where I really questioned what I had done. I had a pretty good thing set up, and some of those early gigs I did…
Did you not enjoy practicing law?
No, I liked it! I liked where I worked, I loved the people I worked with. I still have great relationships with lots of them. I think a lot of it stems from…I’d gotten as good at comedy as I could doing it as a part-time or side thing, and if I really wanted to see how good I could become, I had to make a go of this. The money was never that big a deal.
It is for some people, of course.
Growing up, my family was really that upper-middle-class, idyllic family – and then we went from that to having absolutely nothing. So the money never seemed like that big a deal to me, because I never thought there was any permanence to it. I saw my dad downsized when he was like 55. So he had this great career as a business executive and he’s thrown out and, as a 55-year-old guy, it’s hard to find another job like that. So it’s always seemed to me that, no matter where you’re at, anything could happen…so you think, if I stay here, I’m going to have this career, but you’re not assured that. Anything can happen. So do what you have a passion for.
It sounds like you preempted the possible.
I’m gonna get out of here before you guys get rid of me!
So how were those early shows? Did it feel like you made the right call?
I drove 1,200 miles to Dickinson North Dakota, the start of a run, where I had like four one-nighters in a row in North Dakota and Minnesota. I drove probably 2,800 miles that week, and had four nights of shows – and they were not good shows by any means. I mean, that show in Dickinson, North Dakota was in a hotel lounge, I’m right next to a blackjack table, two to three feet away from me. I did a show one time on St. Patrick’s weekend, and they’d been playing music and people had been dancing all day, and it was a bar…(giggles) basically, people had been dancing and drinking all day for St Patrick’s day and they cut the music and handed the mic to me and people were SO MAD. And I had to do comedy for 35 minutes…just a few seconds in, I heard someone yell, “F*** You, You Suck!” and I thought, I’ve only got 34 minutes to go, this should be good…that’s how I think I got to be pretty good at what I do, traveling like that, doing shows and having that stage time.
“I had a guy come in and buy three things: beer, condoms, and a pregnancy test. And it came out to $17, and he only had $15, so he put back the condoms…”
Dan elaborated on some of the early parts of his career transition into comedy, from grueling tours across the country to his role as host of the comedy Open Mic at the now-infamous Northberg Tavern, a bar and performance space in the basement of the Donato’s Pizza on The Ohio State University’s campus. (In fact, this interview was conducted in that Donato’s.)
Dan Swartwout wasn’t the only of the Northberg regulars to cut his teeth in that cramped basement. Current (614) Magazine editor-in-chief Travis Hoewischer, also a part-time stand-up comedian, learned the ropes there; others include Funny Bone regular Bill Arrundale, Bob Cook, and (614) contributor Mark J. Lucas. While Swartwout hosted the night for years, the time came when he finally found it necessary to cede its administration to escape the weirdness.
I actually ran it from summer of 2001 to April of 2003. It stayed open for about six months after I left. I just had had enough of running the room…dealing with 20, 25 comedians wanting stage time…
“If I had a time machine, I wouldn’t go back to the Western Days or see the dinosaurs or the signing of the Declaration of Independence or anything like that…I would go back to the Best Buy in October of 1999. That way I could stop myself from buying that Lou Bega CD with Mambo #5.”
Moving on up through the ranks, Dan is now not only a professional traveling stand-up comedian (“…although I do like to stay at home more now,” he said. “I’ve got a house and a daughter and sometimes I like NOT traveling…”), he also works with Cash Explosion, which is a great chance for him to hone the hilarious crowd work skills that he’s known for as a stand-up.
I started working on it in 2006; they tried for one year a different show in the place of Cash Explosion. They were getting a feel for that and auditioning people for a warm-up guy. Most TV shows have a comic that goes out and warms up the crowd. From what I recall, they were doing casting calls to various agencies here in central Ohio and then someone got the idea, what about actually getting a comedian? And so they called up the Funny Bone (where Swartwout was working regularly at the time) and the Funny Bone said, “Dan’s a guy that could do this.”
And so this has been my eighth year, and I’ve been doing it since Cash Explosion came back, and the show before that, as well. I get the audience warmed up before the tapings, during the stop-downs, prize giveaways, games, things of that nature. It’s been a great gig; it’s just been awesome. A lot of people don’t even realize that we tape it here in Columbus. It’s a free show, anyone’s welcome. From seeing people win to the interactions with the audience, I’ve just really enjoyed the experience. I’ve established a real rapport with the audience.
It’s easy enough to see that the life you’ve laid out for yourself took some gutsy choices. Do you think it’s easier now to make a run, head-down against social norms and conventions?
I think it probably is, because you see more people doing something. It’s going to be up to the individual. Certain people are going to value certain things more than other people. Some people are going to really value stability; some people are going to value excitement. Some people are going to value family; some are going to value freedom. I’m not sure society has changed, I just think people, what they value, is going to define what they do more than society.
I’m sure that back in the day there were tons of people doing their own thing, but maybe you didn’t hear about them because we didn’t have so much media, so many news cycles, so much TV, and all that. But now you’re more apt to see them. I think people are always going to follow the path they value.
You can catch Swartwout on the Columbus Funny Bone stage January 9-12 and again on January 30-31. For more visit, www.swarty.com.