Comedian Tommy Johnagin has been doing standup for over 9 years. In any other business, he’d be considered a veteran; but in comedy, he’s still a rookie. Johnagin’s been getting some big breaks though, namely stints on David Letterman and a second place finish on this past season of Last Comic Standing. We got the chance to talk to him about all these things, his new comedy album Stand Up Comedy 2 and his penchant for jokes about babies.
What was the experience like for you on Last Comic Standing?
It was all positive, obviously right up into the losing part but I really enjoyed it. I think a lot of people that didn’t know about me before, that show kind of allowed me to build fans. I’ve been doing stand-up for 10 years now so it’s kind of; I like the opportunity to introduce more people to it.
It seemed like this season was a lot different. They didn’t have any challenges like the other seasons. Do you think that would have helped maybe?
I think it helped. That was the big reason I did it. I wouldn’t have done it if they were still doing the challenges; to me it’s not what I got in to do. They concentrated on finding guys that have been doing stand-up for quite a few years as opposed to just kind of characters that would do well in these challenges. I think the people that watched the show this year; probably more people were fans of stand-up as opposed to just reality shows.
Are you allowed to do it again? I know many people go back.
You can’t do it again after you make the final 10. You can do it again if you make the semis, which I did in ’07. But when you make the final 10 you’re not allowed to be on it again.
What initially got you into comedy?
I would say watching David Letterman as a kid. That’s the person I looked up to and just enjoyed the way he did his comedy as kind of the dry, sarcastic guy he is. And that’s what I wanted to do as a kid.
So a major career goal is to be a talk show host?
That’s the reason I got into it, yeah, that’s kind of the long-term goal. It’s something I think about every day but I don’t really talk about every day. That’s definitely the end game for me. At this point, I think that’s the end game, before I wanted to sell out shows doing stand-up. Kind of like Seinfeld before he had Seinfeld; he was a theater act doing stand-up. Either from being on TV more or just from touring a lot, I’d like to sell every ticket to every show I do.
How many times have you been on Letterman, three or four?
Yeah, I just did the fourth one in April.
What was the experience like being on that show?
You know, it’s still, you don’t get used to it. It’s very surreal. No matter how much TV you do, you can’t get comfortable doing TV…at least for me. Nothing prepares you for Letterman sitting 10 feet away from you.
I listened to your new album Stand-up Comedy 2 last night. I love how you talk about recording the album inside the album.
I appreciate it. To me I like the show to be real, at least in the moment of that night to the people listening to it know they’re hearing a recording but the people that were there at the live show. I wanted them to know what they were being a part of it whether it’s joking or mentioning them. I think that’s what I wanted. I wanted a true live show and if I were recording a true live show, I would mention it.
Did it seem like it was just any other live show other than that part?
No, it was initially the hard part. In the past, I tried capturing the live show and not feeling the pressure of the CD. On this one I was concentrated on the audience in the room that night and I wanted to give them the best show possible. And if they got the best show possible but it wasn’t good enough for a CD, I just wouldn’t have done a CD that night. It just worked out that I liked the show on the recording and I was able to release it.
And it was just the CD, right? There’s no DVD.
Yeah, it’s just the CD. We just did the CD.
Was there any reason why you didn’t want to do a video element as well?
I liked comedy albums and CDs. I talked about doing a DVD, like a special with some overlap from that and a CD. But I felt a CD should be recorded in a comedy club and a special or DVD should be recorded in a theater. I didn’t want to record an album in a theater. I wanted get that comedy club album out and whether I do an hour special next year or two years from now, I have a comedy club album recorded.
How’s the album doing? I just saw it was #7 on the comedy album charts right now.
Yeah, it peaked at six and it’s probably still in the top 10 right now. I don’t get any numbers but the response is good. I’ve had a couple good reviews and positive feedback from the people at Comedy Central. So I think people are liking it and it seems like its selling. I mean, I’m not gonna sell them all this week, it’s gonna be out there forever so I would like to sell a good amount every week.
I think what makes you different from everybody else is you can say creepy jokes and still never come off creepy. What’s the secret to that?
I don’t know. I’m glad I have it though because you’re not the first that’s said that. Honestly, it may be my Midwest roots. I feel when you come from New York, LA, or something maybe you can’t do it? I don’t know. Maybe everybody can do it but I just use it more than they do. It’s hard to explain I guess, but it definitely does work and I’m aware of it.
How would you describe you if no one ever heard of you before?
I think “dry” and “sarcastic” would come up, and then I just tell jokes or stories or whatever of stuff that happened to me and I feel like that’s pretty relatable to other people. I tend to steer away from cursing but I will still talk about adult subjects.
I noticed that you seem to have many opinions about babies.
I don’t even know how that happened. It’s funny, when I was listening to it and then we started titling tracks, I was like, “there’s a chunk of babies in there for some weird reason. That’s not normal.” Laughs
Another bit that stood out was that you just like to drink enough to dance now and not worry about getting laid anymore. That line just stood out as well.
When I did that bit, my friend was standing next to a guy who goes, “oh, I don’t even get that.” My buddy said, “there’s nothing to get, it’s true.” I think as I’ve gotten older, there are things you can’t do in your daytime life and there are things you can only do with the aid of alcohol. I think dancing is the only one. For some reason I love it, but I will not do it without some help. I didn’t even think it would be relatable to people but I think it does come off that way.
I’m sure you are asked this a lot, but is it hard when people just want you to be funny all the time?
Yeah, you know what? That happens but it doesn’t happen to anyone that I spend any amount of time with. I think it’s one of those things, if you’ve ever been in line at the DMV or Wal-Mart or something, and you ask a question. And the employees answer in a way you can tell 50 people have asked them the same question that day, and they give you attitude. You’re just like, “well that’s the first time I’ve asked.” I don’t even know those other people. And I think I really try to be aware of that when people ask me or try to do things that I’ve heard a million times. You know, I try to just answer them because that’s the first time they’ve ever asked me. So there’s no reason to be rude about it. I just try to cut it short if I can.
Are you out on tour right now?
Yeah, I’m always touring. I just moved to LA so usually I would do almost every week on the road just at a club somewhere, or a theater, or a college. Now I probably average about two weeks a month, two weekends, two weeks a month on the road.
What are you planning next? Are there any big things that you can talk about right now?
There’s a few things I can’t talk about yet just because they’re in the beginning phases. I think the next step is to figure out the time to record an hour special. That seems like the next good goal to have. Then hopefully get on TV as much as possible.
I have to ask, what was it like working with Natasha Leggero on Last Comic Standing?
She was super nice. It’s funny that people ask. She was really, really, nice like no joke. On camera I think she was being told things by producers in her headset or whatever. But it did appear like she and I had tension. But all the judges were incredibly nice, especially her. She would get up and find me, and talk to me afterward and always tell me “you were very funny” and “nice job.” So I think maybe she kinda got put into a character on judges table that made her seem not nice.
Did the addition of the cameras change any of your comedy at all?
No, I just wanted to do what I do and then… cause if you change anything then you risk not being able to recreate it. I’m just like, “I’ll do what I do” and if people like it then that’s good and I’ll want them to come see it live.
Do you have any other comedy idols besides David Letterman?
Brian Regan, Chris Rock, and I think Richard Pryor is probably the best. Obviously, there’s no Chris Rock or Richard Pryor in my act but I still think those are the best. And Jake Johannsen. There are people like Nick Griffin and Robert Hawkins; I just love to be in the room when they do stand-up.
How does being from the Midwest help your comedy?
To me, being in the Midwest, helped initially because I was so close to many comedy clubs. Comedy clubs you could work and make a living at; that’s how I started. I grew up and lived near probably 30 comedy clubs within driving distance. I started touring full time when I was 20, right before I turned 21. And I’d do 50, 51, 48 weeks a year, 50 weeks a year and I did that for three years without ever getting on a plane.
A couple years back, comedians like Patton Oswalt seemed against the comedy club idea and started touring music clubs because there was no two-drink minimum. Do you have thoughts on that?
I love comedy clubs. I’ll do comedy clubs until I bump up into theaters on my own. A comedy club is a place designed for and laid out for comedy. Some of them are too big and have the two-drink minimum, but places have to stay open. I have no problem with people trying to have a business plan. A rock club, a lot of time it’s just a concrete floor with some chairs spread out. I’ve seen fun shows there, but for the comedian lifestyle I just like comedy clubs.