I may have spoken with Michael Palascak during the busiest week of his life. True, he’s been on the go since his comedy career began in 2004. Back then, he was a graduate of Second City and had been invited to join the well regarded improv group Mission IMPROVable. He had to decline because he had just won a Comedy Central stand-up competition in Chicago and as a result, was signed to tour college campuses around the country.
From there, his warm, engaging stage presence and inventive, impeccable joke writing earned him headlining gigs around the country, appearances on just about every late night comedy TV show, a Comedy Central Half Hour and a spot on NBC’s Last Comic Standing where he finished as a top five finalist.
But last week may have topped everything. Michael just became a new dad. When he called from his home in Los Angeles, he and his girlfriend Sam were maintaining a hectic pace caring for a newborn, welcoming family members, and preparing for the holidays. He was also a week away from returning to Chicago where he’ll headline at Zanies from December 27 through New Year’s Eve.
Despite around-the-clock demands, Michael sounded just like he does on stage; cheerful, thoughtful and relaxed, and distinguished by his ability to deliver lighthearted observations and profound truths, all unerringly on point.
When I thanked him for speaking with me with so much going on, he had his own comedic perspective. “My older brother has three kids. He was saying it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but so far it’s been really fun. Sam’s parents were here for a week and they helped out a lot. My parents are coming in tomorrow. It’s kind of like a big party where the guest of honor sleeps a lot.”
We went on to talk about his career, the insight that changed his joke writing, his late night TV experiences, new parenthood and what’s ahead in 2019.
Teme: How did you get started in comedy?
Michael: When I was in college, my parents moved to Orland Park from a small town in Indiana. When I came home, I didn’t know anybody to hang out with during the summer. I had always wanted to do stand-up, so I found a book on stand-up. The back of the book listed places to perform. One of them was fifteen minutes from my parents. So I read the book, called the place and did a set. I’d always loved writing and acting, and comedy seemed like a good fusion of the two.
Teme: When did you know you have what it takes?
Michael: There’s always that question because stand-up, the entertainment business, and life in general can be based on luck. There’s always that sense of “is this going to work out?” or “what does the future hold?” I played a lot of sports in high school. You just could because it was a small town. It’s not like I was really good or anything and we were very bad. So I think I got used to the idea of rejection, and stand-up involves a lot of rejection. I felt like it just sort of made sense.
Teme: I read that the movie The Secret was an influence on your career. Which principles resonated with you?
Michael: The biggest principles were visualizing what you want and being grateful for all you have. I watched The Secret and then I started visualizing being on The Tonight Show.
Teme: And it came true!
Michael: Yeah, it was crazy. I visualized this back when Jay Leno was hosting. I would also visualize winning an Emmy, and Steve Carell and Tina Fey would be giving me the Emmy. That didn’t happen, but when I did The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Steve Carell was a guest and Jane Lynch was the other guest.
THE LATE NIGHT TV EXPERIENCE!
Teme: What is that moment like when The Tonight Show contacts you?
Michael: You always think it’s going to be some big moment. I made a tape and they’d liked it. Then I’d gone out to L.A. and they liked my set, but they’d said, “This might take a long time.” So I was living in Chicago and one day I was visiting my manager’s office. He was on the phone when I walked in and he said to me “How is July 8th?” I was like, “For what?” He said, “You’re going to do The Tonight Show.” I said, “Oh … okay.” It was like a normal business transaction. It was really funny how it’s like every day for them and it was the biggest thing in the world for me.
Teme: What are you thinking about right before you get on stage?
Michael: For The Tonight Show, I was just trying to enjoy it. The crowds are so great. I had never experienced something like that before. It felt like a whole new place. In general, going on stage I just try to be in the moment and focus on being myself. One of my friends and someone I look up to is [comedian] Chad Daniels. I used to have a lot of questions like that, like what do you think about before you go on stage? So I asked him. He said he just tries to be as close to himself as possible. I try to do that, too. At least if you’re doing that, if your jokes are working or not working, the audience is still going to connect to you as a human being. I try to remember that: just try to talk and perform as me.
Teme: What is a day like when you know you’re going to appear on late night in a few hours?
Michael: It’s really fun. Sometimes my parents will come. I usually sleep in however late I need to because they don’t tape until three or four in the afternoon. You usually don’t have to be there until about three. So I’ll wake up, eat some breakfast and head over there. I bring my clothes with me.
It’s a little celebration because it’s taking five minutes of work that I’ve done and putting it in front of millions of people. I do the taping and then go out to eat with people if they came. I never go out and work afterwards. If the show is airing that night, I try to watch it.
Teme: What happens when you arrive at the studio?
Michael: You show up about an hour early. They’ll take you out to the stage and walk you through where you’re going to stand and where you’re going to enter. Then you get to go back to your dressing room and just hang out there until show time. Since you’re on last, they’re doing hair and makeup for you while the show’s going on. This is like their everyday thing, but for me it’s like I’m going on in twenty minutes and I’m still not dressed!
So they do the guests first and then they do you and then I go back and sit in my dressing room for five, ten minutes by myself or maybe a family member or friend will be there. Then they come and get you. Usually there are people whose job in that moment is to open the curtain. So those guys are usually pretty nice. Joke with them a little bit. They say your name and you go out and everyone applauds really loud. Then do the show. I always try to take my time and really let the jokes land because the audience is ready to listen. Then do it. Then say goodnight. Hopefully, the host comes over and says hi. That’s really fun. Then it’s over.
Teme: Wow. That sounds like such a great experience. After your appearance on The Late Show, did you talk with Stephen Colbert?
Michael: I was looking forward to meeting him because one of my favorite writing teachers in Chicago was Mary Scruggs, and she went to college with him. They lived together for a bit during the summer. I was looking forward to talking to him about people that he started out with that I was influenced by. But they only taped the comedians that day and he wasn’t there. I look forward to the opportunity to go on when he’s there because it’ll be really fun to meet him.
TALKING ABOUT MARRIAGE EQUALITY
Teme: On your album, That One Thing and on your recent Colbert appearance, you have hilarious and powerful material about religion and marriage equality. I hadn’t heard you criticizing religion before. How did you decide to address the topic?
Michael: I hadn’t really touched on anything either political or religious. I’m Catholic, and when I write my jokes or think about what I’m going to talk about, it’s usually whatever is funny is what I say. That happened to be an opinion and it turned out to be really funny for my set. I would also like to say that I have a cause and I do want change, but I think the most important thing about that joke is that it worked. I think part of the reason that it worked is that it is important for people to hear. It just sort of came out organically.
HOW DO YOU FIND ALL THE FUNNY?
Teme: You have an amazing ability to find every funny thing in any given topic. Like I love your bit about the hotel check-in on That One Thing. What is your writing process and how do you find everything that’s funny?
Michael: I saw a documentary on Comedy Central about The Improv. I remember Jerry Seinfeld saying that the reason there aren’t more successful comedians is because people just don’t sit and do it. They just don’t put the time in. They get distracted by other things.
After seeing that, I took a lot of jokes that were working, but I wanted to see if there was more there. For each joke, I’d sit and I’d re-write for an hour. Then I’d go back and read it. Then I would try out all the different ways that joke can go.
At every show I do, I try out a couple of new parts of a joke or just one part or just try to tighten it up and constantly work on it. The one thing I realized more and more is that when you start out as a comedian, you just want to get one laugh. Now I realize that there’s no set way to get a laugh and no designed number of laughs. It all can change based on the words you say. I just try to find the best way to say the words to make the most laughs.
Teme: You read my mind about my next question! You tell jokes with a real economy of words so that there are actually true belly laughs every few seconds. It feels like you never have unnecessary words, just the ones that make the comedy. What is the key to writing like that?
Michael: I listen to my sets a lot. I listen to when the audience laughs a lot. When they do, I try to make sure to say the [words] when they laugh a lot. When they don’t laugh, I either don’t say that word or I try to fix that part to make them laugh a lot there. I either want everything to build up to a big laugh or to not be there. I think it’s just about cutting and adding things to keep building it.
Any average joke usually can get better. Sometimes producers help out with that part, too. The producer for Conan was really good about seeing a joke and being like “This is what it should say here.”
THE HEART OF COMEDY
Teme: What does your comedy say about you?
Michael: I’m still trying to figure that out. When people come to the show, I want to make them laugh and feel good. The joke you mentioned earlier about religion really meant a lot to me. It’s the first time I feel maybe I inspired change or hopefully could someday allow for that. I think what I want my comedy to say about me is that I work hard at trying to make people laugh.
Teme: You have great material on your album Job Opening about why you sit in the back of the plane. How do you like to spend the time when you’re on a plane?
Michael: I used to watch movies or read, but now when I’m on the plane I try to write as much as I can. It’s like a little office because you can’t go anywhere and there’s no data on your phone, so I sit and think about my jokes and write.
FOOD ALLERGIES ON THE ROAD
Teme: I relate to your material about having an allergy to eggs. How do you manage food allergies on the road?
Michael: It’s amazing how many different sauces and stuff have egg in it. I try to know that there’s not egg or just say no. My aunt is good at handling allergies with things like diet. So I’ve had a lot of help. It’s gotten a lot better. I can eat cookies if I want to and not break out. I still don’t do straight-up omelettes.
Teme: I have a bunch of food allergies and find it really hard to go anywhere.
Michael: It’s nice that labels on food now say, “definitely contains eggs.” If it says “definitely contains,” I don’t eat it. “May contain” doesn’t usually bother me.
Teme: Yeah! I’m grateful for those labels.
Michael: My brother went to a chiropractor in Chicago who does nutrition, too. He came to one of my shows and I started seeing him, and he helped me with the allergy with diet and supplements. When I was little I had bigger reactions. Now it’s mostly uncomfortable though it could be a big reaction if I keep eating it. But it’s all getting a little better.
FATHERHOOD AND COMEDY
Teme: What is the most recent thing that you’ve observed that will make it into your material?
Michael: Having a baby! From the very beginning, finding out we were pregnant, and all that goes into being new parents in this day and age. We’ve been so lucky to have great healthcare and to have our parents helping out. It’s a new phase of life.
Teme: What is the funniest thing about being a new dad?
Michael: I’ve been up with my baby a lot at night because I’m used to that schedule. I’m around him a lot and I’ve noticed that I tend to take on his facial expressions and the way he communicates. When I’m tired, I’ll start to make a face that he makes when he’s really tired, and when I’m hungry I’m starting to absorb the way he communicates when he’s hungry.
Teme: How will being a new dad impact you as a comedian?
Michael: I’ve always talked about my life. My mom already threatened me to not make fun of him as a person, which I understand. She’s very protective of her grandson. I’ll definitely talk about the experience of being a father. Like if I’m giving the baby a bottle or just hanging out with him, it slows everything down. You start to move at the baby’s pace. I’m not running out to do shows all over town, but I am able to sit and experience life and I think it might open me up to different jokes I wouldn’t have thought before. My heart will be full, so that will be good news.
OLD YEAR AND NEW YEAR’S!
Teme: What will you most remember about 2018?
Michael: It will be becoming a dad and that roller coaster of all the different emotions. Most importantly, the support we got from my family and friends and from Sam’s family and friends. It’s amazing how much people have helped out and pitched in.
Teme: Was there any challenging part of 2018 that you won’t miss?
Michael: The most challenging part about a year as a comedian is when you have a month where, for some reason, you just didn’t have shows or somebody canceled a show. I think that’s the only thing, but that’s just part of entertainment.
Teme: What are you most looking forward to next year?
Michael: I created and wrote a show that got picked up by E! Sam and I shot the pilot, but then they didn’t order it, so now we’re going to pitch it to other networks. I’m looking forward to hopefully selling it and doing a TV show on Comedy Central or TruTV or a cable network like that. And of course, becoming a dad and seeing my son grow. That’s important.
Teme: What would you like to say about your upcoming shows at Zanies?
Michael: I’ll have forty-five minutes to an hour of all new material. I love coming to Zanies. It’s the first club that headlined me. They’ve always been supportive.
Teme: Absolutely anything else you would like to add?
Michael: I feel really lucky that I get to do this as a job and be a dad now. As a dad, I get to go out and not only work and get better at stand-up, but I also get to provide for another human, which is the ultimate goal, I think, to be able to provide for another person doing something you love to do.
Celebrate this holiday week and New Year’s Eve with Michael at Zanies:
Thursday, December 27: Zanies/Rosemont at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, December 28: Zanies/Rosemont at 8:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Saturday, December 29: Zanies/St. Charles at 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.
Sunday, December 30: Zanies/Chicago at 8:00 p.m.
Monday, New Year’s Eve: Zanies/Rosemont at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
More about Michael at http://www.michaelpalascak.com/
You can get Michael’s albums That One Thing (2017) and Job Opening (2014) at his live shows and on iTunes, Amazon, Rooftop Comedy, and Spotify.
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