At the Addison Improv in late January, Josh Johnson, a slender 22-year-old Fort Worth comedian, dropped an unusual piece of information at the beginning of his set, before the crowd could form any superficial impressions. “I just went through my first divorce,” he started, pausing for just the right length. “I say ‘first’ because I’m optimistic.”
In an instant, he seemed to have the audience intrigued. He didn’t linger on the subject –– most of his routines are extended riffs on pop culture, high and low. (At another show, he deconstructed the philosophy of religion, in a particularly inspired bit about the 1994 remake of the 1951 film Angels in the Outfield.) And when he did talk about relationship woes, he made fun of himself, just as he would on other subjects.
One of his fans is Todd Camp, executive director of QLive!, the performance arts wing of Q Cinema, one of the longest-running LGBT film festivals in the Southwest. “There’s a whole subset of comics who talk about their own insecurities and problems, and that’s something I’ve always found fascinating in [Johnson] –– and fun to watch,” Camp said.
Johnson frequently performs at the popular open-mics held by QLive!, originally at Fort Worth’s Percussions Lounge and now in Dallas at Cherries Club. “When [Johnson] went through a lot of personal problems, he’d bring those emotions to the stage, and it’s amazing to see,” Camp said.
The experience isn’t one that Johnson exploits tactlessly on stage, but he does see a unique opportunity for material. “Usually the comics who talk about marriages breaking up are 40-year-old men,” Johnson said in an interview at Avoca Coffee on Fort Worth’s Near South Side. Hearing Johnson, a self-described “meek black kid,” talk of divorce certainly is surprising.
However, an undeniable part of his appeal is what he calls “the beauty of the unexpected.” He said his name always felt generic to him, but he now sees it as a boon –– and not just because “Josh Johnson” is easy to remember. “People hear it, assume I’m white, and expect a certain kind of comedy,” he said. “They see I’m black and expect another kind of comedy.”
But you won’t hear Johnson use the white-people-are-like-this, black-people-are-like-this shtick. “Then they hear my voice and think I’m going somewhere else,” he said. “When they see I’m a kid, they don’t expect me to tell jokes about capital gains tax.”
Other than his Texas drawl, Johnson’s background can explain all of this –– and his ease in playing for different demographics. A military brat, he was born in Japan, where he spent the first four years of his life on an Air Force base. From there, his family moved to Liverpool, staying until he was 11. (“Liverpool is the Fort Worth of England,” he claimed. The home of The Beatles like Fort Worth? “We have The Toadies!” he quipped in mock defense.) His family then briefly decamped to Austin and ultimately wound up in Fort Worth, where he finished middle and high school.
In fact, due largely to the different kinds of exposure he received from his Air Force-psychologist mother and truck-driver father, he feels his parents have a lot to do with his career choice and the nature of his art. Johnson said his mother always had tons of books around. He read a lot of them when he was a kid. “They taught me about the self and people,” he said.
He enrolled in the Army after high school but suffered several minor heart attacks during basic training, which he read as signs that the job wasn’t for him. He completed training but was given an honorable discharge for medical reasons. “The desert or comedy –– which one’s worse?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
After coming home, Johnson didn’t immediately transition into comedy –– he studied at the American Broadcasting School in Arlington and hawked computers at Best Buy –– but the seed had been planted when he was 15, when he spent a summer accompanying his father on his cross-country trucking route. Stuck in St. Paul, Minn., for two days while waiting on rig repairs, Johnson noticed a flier at a taco stand that read simply, “NEED ENTERTAINERS –– $$.” Young Josh wanted the money. He called. Yes, they still needed entertainers. He got the second slot. The gig? A conference of the Minnesota Dental Association.
When he showed up the next night and saw nearly 900 dentists in the audience, Johnson became frantic. “I wanna take back this lie,” he said he chanted to himself. “I had a half-hour set and had written maybe six minutes of material, thinking it was long enough –– my handwriting was big.”
Running purely on “adrenaline and dick jokes,” he said, he pulled it off. The crowd responded. He caught the bug and had just earned himself a great comedian origin story.
Though he had succeeded, Johnson felt he didn’t want to “touch that lie again” –– at least not for a while. He gave it another shot in September 2010, after he was dragged by a co-worker to an open-mic. Cushioned by a little money he’d saved from the Army, he was able to quit his retail job and devote himself full time to comedy. On good weeks, he performs up to six nights, honing his craft at North Texas’ array of nontraditional venues and catching spots on weekend shows at comedy clubs. He’s performed at Embargo’s poetry slam, Spiral Diner in Fort Worth, even libraries. He’s also had the opportunity to open for big-timers John Witherspoon and Hannibal Buress at the Addison Improv. This week, he’ll perform at the Dallas Comedy House’s annual sketch, improv, and stand-up festival.
At this point, Johnson is committed. “I’ve missed parents’ birthdays, sisters’, my own,” he said half-sheepishly, half-proudly. “Last year I missed two weddings and a funeral –– for [doing] stand-up.”
The experience in St. Paul still feels like something of a legend, even to Johnson. He is managing to support himself from stand-up gigs, though most performances yield only modest prize money and drinks, a far cry from the $2,800 that the dental association paid him for that half hour. But that unlikely night gave him direction.
“Whenever I look back,” Johnson said, “that was the only thing that ever felt right.”
Wed w/Veronica Elizabeth, Tom Devenport, Chris Darden, and more at the Dallas Comedy Festival, 2645 Commerce St, Dallas. $15-20. 214-741-4448.