Tommy Johnagin on Breaking Out as a Comic from Somewhere Other Than NY, LA, or Chicago

There’s no definitive path to a successful career in standup comedy. Just ask Tommy Johnagin.

Though he now lives in LA, Johnagin built a career in his mid-20s headlining clubs across the country, appearing on Letterman multiple times, and starring in his own Half Hour special on Comedy Central while based in St. Louis.

That kind of exposure doesn’t happen often to comics based in non-coastal cities, but Johnagin was able to pull it off through a relentless work ethic, clever jokes, and a clear idea of career goals.

Now, Johnagin’s back with a new The Half Hour on Comedy Central. Ahead of the Friday premiere, we talked about starting out in a smaller market, Last Comic Standing, and his ideas for fixing the pilot system.

You’re from Benton, Illinois. Did you start doing comedy there?

I started outside of St. Louis in a place called Belleville, Illiniois at Comedy Etc.. It was in a Ramada Inn above a TGIFridays. When I was 18, it was like an hour and a half drive so I would drive back and forth for open mics and stuff.

How long where you there? Where was your next move to? St. Louis?

I did the hour and half drive, maybe a year and a half of that, and then I moved to Chicago for less than a year. And then from Chicago I started touring full time as a feature act or an opening act or whatever, making a living but not a great living so I moved back to Southern Illinois for a year, and then I moved to St. Louis. Over the course of that, living in Southern Illinois and St. Louis, I was on the road a lot and I was able to get into Montreal, get my first TV credit, get my first Half Hour, all that stuff I did while I was living in Illinois or St. Louis.

It’s pretty rare for someone to be based in the midwest and get the sort of exposure and TV appearances that you got. The conventional wisdom is you’ve got to move to either New York or LA, and you were able to work around that system. Are there advantages to staying in a smaller scene and getting good there and getting noticed that way?

I think it has the obvious disadvantages of there’s no opportunity to just go out one night and have a great set and then someone who works in television sees it. That doesn’t happen. But I liked it because I was able to get better not in the city and do longer sets instead of doing the city spots of like five to 12 minutes. When I was 20 years old, I was doing 30 minutes every night all over the country. I feel like it helped me grow. My style adapted to that, and I was always writing new stuff, and my goal was to be on Letterman, to have a half-hour special. I was always focused on those so it didn’t matter where I lived. In my mind, I thought, ‘I’m gonna get those, and once I get enough of those and I’m able to move to a city and feel like I’m not a beginner and a good comedian, that’s when I’ll do it.’

I’ve only been in LA for three years now. I had a handful of Lettermans and other Comedy Central stuff, small TV credits and Montreal when I moved out here. Plus I was headlining every club I worked at; I started headlining clubs in 2008. So when I moved to LA, it wasn’t like starting from scratch. People were nice enough to give me spots, the clubs I wanted worked with me. Some guys will stay in the Midwest for two or three years and then move to LA and you have to start from scratch. That’s definitely an approach, and that’s definitely one way to do it. Those people, they come out here for two or three years, they may get a TV credit and then they have a day job. I have friends that moved out here years earlier than I did and the town is more familiar with them. People know who they are. Three years ago, even though I was set on the standup side, I had to introduce myself to the networks and things like that. There’s a disadvantage to kind of being a stranger, but it helps being able to move in and make a splash to make people think I’m good at comedy.

Obviously you’re a great comic, you don’t get where you are without a lot of talent, but how did you go from this guy doing open mics around central Illinois and a couple short years later you’re headlining? 

I went to all these clubs in the Midwest and as I was featuring, I got Live at Gotham and then Letterman came along and I got the Half Hour special, the first one, in 2008. So it’s one of those things where, the clubs, my agent called them like, “We think Tommy should headline.” And most of the people they’re calling had seen me at the club once a year or twice a year for the last few years and now I had the credits to kind of back it up. And they’re like, “Yeah, we think he’s good enough to bump him up.” Some of these clubs, if you’re in LA and you get a TV credit and they’ve never seen or heard of you and then your agent calls and says he wants to headline your club they’re a little skeptical because they’ve been burned. These clubs have been burned by a guy who has a good TV credit or even on TV show, but then can’t do the hour or 50 minutes you do closing a club.

All these people, they’d seen me, they knew that I had the time, they knew I had the chops. I think sometimes working the road a lot has a little bit of a negative connotation, like a lot of people that do the road pander, I don’t know. I’ve just had to do it my way, and my way was going back to these clubs, making sure I always had new material and making sure I felt like it was what I thought was good and I’m not doing anything that I think is bad or pandering. I guess the short answer though, is I think the TV credit came along and it was a real good thing like, “Okay, now we have something to put on the poster. We know he has the time, let’s give him a chance.” And I didn’t go in there and shit the bed.

A lot of comics will talk about how terrible they were when they first started out. Sometimes I think they’re just being humble and a lot of them were born naturally funny. Were you bad when you first started and if so what helped you turn the corner? Or if you were a natural, what did you figure out early on that helped you connect with audiences?

I’m sure I was really bad. I know at the beginning when I was getting work as a feature in that first year, I started that at 20 years old, so I didn’t really have a bunch of life behind me. I think at the beginning I was more clean than I was funny. I was the clean guy that does the job. I got laughs, I had jokes that were original, I was getting work. It was unintentional. I was kind of a clean person so the act was clean. Before that, before I went on the road, a big turning point was a conversation I had with Mike Birbiglia when I worked with him. He was just starting to headline clubs on the road and I was just starting to open, and we had a conversation about writing, and how the best way to be original is to write from your life. If it’s all true and it really happened to you, it’s more likely that it’s going to be original but still relatable. That really turned a corner for me as far as the writing goes. I try to write a lot and all true stories that come from real life. I always kind of pinpoint that moment when I talked to Birbiglia.

I definitely had bad shows and I definitely ate it, but even starting out I always had punchlines and jokes. That kind of evolved into the jokes became longer stories. But in the beginning I had a lot of quick-hitting jokes, so my style was very dry and sarcastic. I was thinking, ‘If you don’t laugh at something I say, then there’s a chance you don’t even know I tried to make you laugh.’ It just seemed like there was no joke. If you get the joke, you’re like, ‘Oh that was really funny.’ But if you don’t, you’re like, ‘I don’t know why people laughed. I don’t think he tried.’ Because I don’t really have “ba-dum-tums” or a big crescendo. I think that kept me from having a lot of really awful times. I’ve had my share of bad shows and bad full weeks. Richmond, Virginia in 2008 was one of the first clubs I headlined, and I ate it every show for 45 to 50 minutes, Wednesday through Sunday, two shows on the weekend. I ate it hard every show to the point where they obviously didn’t like me, but by the end of the show people were confused. And I mean that seriously. People were like, “What is happening? What is this guy?” They didn’t see any comedy in what I was doing. They didn’t like it at all, so they’re like, “They just let this guy get up there?” It was really disheartening at the time.

Tell me about your experience with Last Comic Standing. It sometimes gets a bad rap, yet I don’t see many people turning it down if they get invited to do it. [Editor’s note: Johnagin was the 2010 runner-up on Last Comic Standing.]

I completely agree that comedy shouldn’t be a competition, and they shouldn’t have casting involved with comedy, but other than that I have nothing but positive things to say. The season I did it, all you did was you did your standup. There was no house, there were no challenges. They had a lot of great comedians on it. Sure, they didn’t catch them all, they didn’t have the super dirty guys because it’s network TV and there’s a lot of great comedians who are too dirty for network. There’s a casting aspect so they didn’t have it perfect, but I think the semifinals were about 30-some people and most of them were really good standup comedians. And they just did standup, there were no tricks. It was just comedy.

I don’t know how many people, maybe 4-5 million were watching it, and a lot of them had never been to a live comedy show. So they’re watching standup comedy on TV, they’re not watching some crazy house drama, they’re just watching standup comedians do standup comedy. And they’re going, “Oh I like that one. I don’t like that one.” I think it brought people to comedy clubs. It definitely made fans for me. People still come out to the shows, and it’s been four years ago, but people still come out because they saw me on that. It exposed me to new audiences. I get all the negatives about it, but I’m glad the show exists because I think it brings people to comedy clubs, and I think it opens people’s eyes to standup a little more.

It’s not perfect by any means, and if you look at the list, it’s like, Kathleen Madigan did it. I mean, who is better than Kathleen Madigan? That’s crazy. When you think of the people who did it, especially at the beginning and up to my season  and I don’t know who’s doing the new one  it’s true they definitely had some shitty comics on there, people that I thought, “I don’t like that. Personally, that’s not my style.” But then they also have people like Kathleen and a bunch of other great comedians, people I was friends with: Roy Wood Jr., Myq Kaplan from my season, Mike DeStefano. Having Mike D on there who is someone you would think wouldn’t be able to do a network show. And then he did it, and he didn’t lose who he was. That was the great part. You never thought, ‘Oh they’ve taken the edge of Mike D.’ You’re watching it and you’re still thinking, ‘What’s this guy going to say next? How funny is he, and it’s on NBC.’ I think there’s a lot of good people can do. I think the good probably outweighs the bad.

Let’s talk about the new Half Hour. How did the taping go?

I had a great time. I loved the venue, I loved the setup. The crowd was hot. I left the show and thought, you know what, the crowd was with it. I felt like I was pretty close to the same guy just at a normal club headlining, so I feel like I got pretty close to the show I wanted, almost to just record that and put it on TV and see what people think about it.

Did you do all new stuff? 

It’s all new stuff. I just naturally rotate stuff out, and I like to think that, over the course of a year, I write about 40-ish new minutes. There’s like 10 or 15 minutes that stay. I don’t go, “You’re the oldest joke, you’re out.” It’s always just a natural what goes in and what comes out. But when something rotates out and I haven’t done it in a while, I don’t remember [it]. Because I like to have things to be pretty tight and punchy. You know I’d love to be like Dave Chapelle, who I think is the most natural at being a comedian that I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t need to have punchlines every couple seconds. It’s not super tight where it makes it seem like it’s been worked on and worked on. It seems like you may be hearing it for the first time, whereas my style, I like to tighten it to where there’s the least amount of words that are necessary for any joke. If I stop doing something, I just forget how it goes. So this is all stuff that I’m doing now, newish. I’m actually releasing an album the Tuesday after the special airs which will be all this stuff. Stand Up Comedy 3.

Yeah. I want to follow up on a what you said earlier about your show. You did the pilot thing already, a couple years ago?

Yes, two years ago I sold a show to NBC, and then last year I sold a show to USA, and neither one of those got picked up. I’ve only been out here for three years and I’ve had two close calls and then a couple other things that are small enough that seemed like they could be something but didn’t. I don’t know that part of it as well, but in my mind, it’s like anything - I’ll put the work in and I’ll try to just come up with something I think is great or good. It feels like it’s boiling over, and I get closer every year, every few months until I get closer to having my own thing.

W are some of your takeaways from that experience. Did you feel like you’ve learned how to write for television? 

Yeah, they paired me with a great writer, like a TV writer, and we created it together. It wasn’t like one of those where he watched my act then went off and wrote it. We were in a room, we wrote the show together, and he was really great and I was honest too. I said, “I’m going to have questions about the format, what happens when you push enter, what do you know,” you know what I mean? How should this look? He’s been doing it for 15, 17 years, but still a good enough guy that he realized that, ‘Oh, sometimes Tom is going to have a question.’ He pulled out the answer to any questions I had, and I feel like I kind of became a better writer. And then what I wanted to do, I did put some of my act into the show. If you watch the pilots of these show where they’re based on standup, in the pilot a lot of times, there’s just things directly from the act, whether it’s jokes or a story. So I did kind of work from my act, and put stuff in there, and it was really fun to see on paper a joke that I’d been telling that was two minutes long, turn into the B-story or the A-story of a pilot.

Are you working on a new one now?

I’m just now starting to meet with producers and trying to find a writer. That guy is super busy right now, he’s got a lot of great things happening, so he’s too busy to work with me again. I think some people after they did it twice, they would say, ‘All right, I can do this on my own, but I need someone who has done it for a living for a long time to supervise me, kind of be there for questions, and ideally when the show gets picked up, they’re the showrunner and the head writer.’

Sure. Sometimes I think there needs to be some sort of new approach because there’s a finite number of shows people have the time to watch, and there’s so many funny people out there, and it’s just getting harder and harder to find an audience. There’s gotta be another way to mass market your creative content. 

I think the advertisers are the reason. A lot of people are blaming the networks and the system itself. If advertisers catch up with technology, then you know, if you do a show on Fox, they have the ability to say, “Okay, this is on Fox, it’s also on Netflix.” And you can find it most places. But advertisers have no way to quantify the web hits yet. If something gets 30 million view on the internet, they don’t really know how to make money off of that, which means advertisers really don’t know how much money they should be giving to that.

I think the next thing should be less expensive pilots, because what they did - we had Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond and all these great shows in the ‘90s, they were throwing money at. They were just making more and more pilots and more and more comedy. But the way they’re doing it now, pilots are so expensive to make, they’re like making way less, so we’re sort of crossing our fingers. I think the next step should be less expensive pilots, or I don’t know anybody who does this, but I think you write a script, and then you do a live table read at a comedy club or a theater, small theater, where you cast the show, you read it in front of a live audience. That way you can see who laughs and who reacts to it too. The way we have it now, they don’t see it in front of an audience until they spent 5 million dollars to shoot it and they send it in front of a test audience who is concerned about the dial, who aren’t even thinking about living in the moment. I think you treat it like a live show, you bring it to the people, read it out loud, see if they laugh.

That’s a really good idea.

I’m going to fix this. I moved out to LA, I’m going to fix this. [Laughs.]

It sounds like it! I’m glad I asked that question. You have a daughter now. Can you talk about balancing life as a comic versus life as a dad?

My kid is, it’s very hack, but genuinely the best thing that’s ever happened - completely blown away by how much I love this baby and how happy it is and how terrifying at the same time. I’m in control, I could ruin her life. Because of me, she could have a real bad life and I’d feel like it’s my fault, which is a weird pressure. And I think the way it changes with comedy, it might not be the right way, but before my daughter, comedy and my career was always the most important thing to me. It was number one, and family, relationships - whatever you want to say - was number two. And then I had this baby, and she immediately becomes number one, and then it’s actually pretty interesting. For the first few months, not only was she the number one, she was the only thing. I wasn’t even able to write, I couldn’t go to my office and write because I didn’t want to be away from her. So I kind of didn’t create as much new material for a while because she was the only thing. And then the next evolution was, she’s number one, now comedy’s number two, even though it’s more important than it’s ever been. Because it’s not just some dream I had when I was eight years old to be a standup comedian and have my own show, now it’s providing food and clothes for my daughter, and the better I do, the more I get to be home. If I sell a TV show, before, it was like, ‘Oh great, my dream came true.’ But now if I get a TV show, I get to see my kid every day, I don’t tour as much, I make enough money that we can be comfortable to a point where we can move to a house with a yard, maybe a tennis court and a giant pool, maybe a Porsche. That kind of money.

I think it’s changed my whole life, which is generic. I still love comedy and it’s still fun, but it’s just not for fun anymore. If I have one of those nights on the road where I don’t try as much as I should, I don’t put enough new stuff on stage, I drink too much, then I go, “What kind of asshole am I? My kid is in Los Angeles, I’m in Des Moines, Iowa, and I’m not even working. What am I doing?” That makes me work harder, and I’ve always been a guy that works hard and has balls, and I think I step all that up.

That’s great. You mentioned writing - you have an office. Do you go there to actually sit down and write? Do you write on stage? What’s your process?

I do both. I rent an office in LA, and I’ll come here for a few hours a day. My process is I use the office - I freewrite, where I just write without trying to be funny. It’s almost like a version of a journal. I try and do that for minimum 30 minutes, try to get an hour a day of freewriting. That really gets the good stuff going. Because I do that so much, I have a notebook that’s full of freewriting stuff, and I go back and read through that and pull out any kind of story or line or premise that could be a joke. And then pace around, talk about it. My buddy, Joe Zimmerman, he’s doing a half-hour this year, he and I will sometimes call each other and bounce stuff back and forth from that process. Same with my buddy Andy Woodhull or Joe List. We’ll do that from time. And Greg Warren, he’s another guy, kind of a small group. We don’t do it regularly. And then listening to sets, I listen to a lot of the sets and I kind of get something. Before I put it on stage, I just need to know that there’s a laugh or two that I’m pretty sure is going to happen. And then I don’t write anything out verbatim, I just try and put it out on stage and all that work in the office goes to the stage and then I’m just kind of writing it up there and recording it. Sometimes something starts out as a line and it ends up as a story. Sometimes, something starts out as a long story and then I go, “Well, that’s not funny, that’s not funny, let’s pare it down,” and I’ll have a funny, short piece of whatever. It’s all true, so it’s easy to remember.

That’s an interesting process. 

I like the work aspect of it. The thing with writing, it’s never not work. I know a lot of guys, I think they’re just better, a lot of guys will just write on stage, but I’m like, I also do that. But in addition to writing on stage, I do this other stuff, and I think it’s the reason I can generate so much material. I think some guys can probably only write on stage to generate more material. So I’m just like, ‘You’re better than me, so I have to work harder than you.’

You said your album is coming out right after your Half Hour?

Yeah, it’s presale the same day, June 13th and I think it’s on iTunes and everything. The actual release date is June 17th.

Tommy Johnagin’s Half Hour special airs Friday at midnight on Comedy Central.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.

Tommy Johnagin on Breaking Out as a Comic from […]