Jake Johannsen: Confident comedy

comedian Jake Johannsen

By Joe Zimmerman

One of the most respected comedians in the comedy world, Jake Johannsen, maybe more than any other comic, knows exactly who he is and how to practice his art. In this interview, comedian Joe Zimmerman has a comic to comic chat with the man himself.

I had a chance to sit down with Jake Johannsen last week, comic to comic, at the fourth annual Laugh Your Asheville Off Comedy Festival in Asheville, NC at the beautiful Diana Wortham Theater.

There were over 45 young comics from around the country, and Jake was the festival anchor, closing out both shows on Saturday and receiving back to back standing ovations. It was great to see such a prolific veteran hanging around at the festival and enjoying the shows.

“This is top drawer” he said of the festival, “This theater is absolutely beautiful.” He also enjoyed the non-competitive format, saying “competitive stand-up comedy is kind of like competitive art.” His new hour long Showtime special I Love You, is now available on Netflix, and I highly recommend it.

Many comics struggle with keeping it clever and intelligent, because we often perform late at night and the audience is drinking. How have you been to do what you do, in these kind of environments?
I don’t have to work the really rough rooms, but even at a nice club you get a drunk crowd that can be rowdy. But the way I look at it, you’re being hired as a comedian; your job is not to entertain whoever shows up. Your job is to do your act in the most entertaining way you can.

Ultimately you have to make people laugh most of the time, but not every time, and not no matter how drunk they are. I feel like you just want to work on your show – your vision of a comedy show – and hopefully you succeed or fail based on that. But if you change your act to succeed in some room that’s a little rough, you can wind up having to work that room again, and then the more times you work that room then the more you change your act to make it succeed in that room, and then all at once they don’t want you on Letterman, because you’re sort of rowdy and dirty.

If you could go back in time to when you first started in comedy, what advice would you give yourself?
It’s tricky, because I feel pretty good about most of the decisions I’ve made. Even the ones that are sort of iffy – there’s no telling what would have happened, if I had done the other thing. Is that cryptic enough for you?

So you wouldn’t change anything?
Yeah, my advice to comics, you know… there are a lot of comics that kind of have this idea that they’re hip and they’re artists and they never want to sell out…and my thing is look, if it’s a job and it seems like fun and you can make some money, you should take that job if you think you would enjoy it and don’t really care so much if other people think you’re selling out. You go do that job, you have a good time, then you see what that leads to, and then you wind up where you wind up at the end…and that’s not so much that I regret turning anything down.

But I do see a lot of comics struggle with that idea, like ‘I don’t want to be the game show host’ for example, and then you look at Howie Mandel… He’s been an actor, a hugely successful comic, and now he’s hosting a game show. Greg Kinnear was hosting Talk Soup I believe, and then he winds up to being an academy award nominated actor, so I would say just do what you enjoy, and make the most of it.

Jake Johannsen – Chicken Donut

What is your method of writing? Do you go on stage and work it out, or sit down and write?
I kind of make little notes while I’m talking, and go on stage and work it out. If I can sit down and be disciplined about it, that always pays off, but that’s just a harder way for me to do it. Comedy is a good job for a kind of, talented lazy person. Not that I’m bragging…about being lazy.

What’s your theory on how much new material you should work in each year?
My theory is, as much as possible. It’s hard though, to turn over your whole hour once a year. I know Louis CK has sort of blown himself up by touring with a new hour every year, but I almost think for comedy clubs at least, that’s a little fast. You know, because I think it kind of takes two years before everyone has seen that material.

So if you’re turning over 30 or 50 percent a year, you’re going pretty fast. I mean, we’re all just doing our best, right? Just like it’s hard for major league athletes to retire, even though they can tell they’re not quite at their peak anymore, it’s hard to stop doing a joke that everyone still loves.

Many of the comics I meet who have been doing the road 25 plus years seem miserable. Where do you stand?
I feel like, early on, I made a realization that for me, if I was working more than two weekends a month, then I would start to get kind of angry and tired and frustrated…and so now in my career, every once in a while I’ll work three weeks in a month, but I find on average if I can keep it to about two weekends a month, I can stay sane…and if you do more than that, you’d probably get better material, but it kind of makes you crazy.

I realized when I was waiting tables a million years ago, that if I was working three or four shifts a week it was fine, and the people you’re waiting on could behave however they wanted, and it didn’t bother me, ‘Yeah okay, I’ll get you some more bread,’ and then if I was waiting five or six shifts, it’d be like, ‘I don’t like the way you just asked me for water.’ So I feel like you gotta pace yourself for being on the road, but I still like it – I think it’s fun to do shows. A lot of guys I know who were doing stand up years ago and quit, got back into it because they were like, “Hey, this is a fun job.”

If you were offered an LA writing job, where you could make a great living off the road, would you take it?
I don’t think I would now. It’d be hard – I guess I’d have to hear the offer, but the problem is now I know that if you take a year off the road, you can’t just go back out, because your act isn’t up to it, and you haven’t been at the clubs for a year, so now it’s been two years since your last visit, so now they don’t know if you’re going to sell any tickets. So you gotta take a pay cut and go back and prove yourself, so I feel like… well I’d rather stay out there, do my once a year at the clubs I really like, and the clubs that really like me, and try out a new club here and there every once in a while.

If you would pay to see one comic, who would it be?
My answer is always the same, and there are a lot of them – guys who I love, if I could see A. Whitney Brown again I would love to, if I could see Kevin Meaney he’s always great, Bobby Slayton, Kevin Pollack, Paula Poundstone – they’re always great. But the guy who I started with in San Francisco, who I would buy a ticket to see (besides Larry Miller – who wasn’t in San Francisco, but I would also pay to see Larry Miller)… I would pay money to see Dana Carvey, any chance I got, and advise anyone reading this to do the same.

When I was starting out, he was a headliner in the Bay area, before Saturday Night Live, and you would go to a comedy club for a week, and he would get a standing ovation encore, at least four out of the six shows, and most of the time, all six shows – like okay here, let’s bring him back out. When you see him live, he’s having such a good time, and you’re having such a good time, and it’s so silly – but the punches…explosively funny.

Jake Johannsen – Homeless Doctors

When did you feel like you had found your voice? Did it happen naturally?
I feel like it was kind of natural, but I think at the time – and I think now there’s a real emphasis on everyone trying to be unique, and sometimes people try to figure out what everyone else is doing, and think ‘what can I do that would be different from what everyone else is doing,’ and I think the big epiphany for me was to just be myself – just try and talk about the things that I thought were funny, in the way that I thought they were funny.

I mean, we’re all unique like snowflakes (laughs). You know what I mean? If you go up there and you just are who you are, the more you kind of let that out, and trust that, the better off you’ll be…and so that’s what happened to me. I just finally quit trying to be something unique, and just started trying to be more me, more honest, more this is what I think, this is how I’m talking to you.

For more info on Jake, check out jakethis.com. To download is album Live at Cobb’s Comedy Club, just click the image below. You can check out some of author Joe Zimmerman’s comedy at RooftopComedy.com.

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