Stand-up is a deceptive art. With nothing but a comic, a microphone, and maybe a stool on stage it is very easy to assume not much work goes into it. This is because audiences are conditioned to expect production value in their entertainment from a very early age. Be it the sets and costumes of their first school play, the flash of CGI animation in movies, or even the size of bands, audiences associate complexity with quality. So when one lone goofball sets foot on stage and speaks directly to the viewer, it is understandable to forget that it is still a performance. A common misconception is that it is simply someone talking off the top of their head. And while it might be true that certain comics can perform that way, there is much that goes into even only five minutes of stand-up that, as a viewer, can be easy to forget. Yet truly great craftsmen make the complex seem effortless.
Johnny Taylor is just such a craftsman. With his calm demeanor and infectious smile, one would never guess that this local Sacramento-based comedian has only been doing stand-up for five years. “I’m really still a baby,” Taylor confessed. “But as far as five years goes, I’ve accomplished some cool shit in [that time], so I really can’t complain.” This is true, he has accomplished a lot. Given the amount of work that goes into stand-up, this time frame becomes even more impressive. With stand-up, long nights are spent waiting to go on stage for five minutes and, depending on how often that material has been performed and perfected, those long nights can end very badly. Yet this is the work that must be done if one wants to craft good comedy. If that were not enough, there are factors that can make this task even more grueling. Sometimes a city does not offer much in the way of venues to perform, so spaces in other cities must be sought out.
When Taylor was starting out, he would do just that. He would get off early from his then-job in county government and drive with other comedians to San Francisco to perform at, hopefully, multiple open mics in one night. This is a drastic departure from the stereotype that comedians are lazy, a stereotype that Taylor refutes. As a comedian, “You can’t be lazy. I mean, you can maybe lie around all day…but if you’re worth anything you’re working your ass off.” When he and his colleagues would go to San Francisco, they would try to do four to five sets a night. And if any of those open mics had fifty-plus people on the list, as was often the case, sometimes that goal was not possible. Sometimes they would make the journey to the city and only get up on stage twice, sometimes once. “I hated those nights. But that’s the kind of shit you do when you wanna get better quicker. That first year I probably did four hundred sets. I was going up every night.”
It seems to have served him well. In just five years, Taylor has gone from an amateur open mic comic to featuring for established comedian Kyle Kinane recently at Harlow’s downtown. Additionally he serves as the co-host of a podcast, It’s Funny Because with another Sacramento comedian, Keith Lowell Jensen. Taylor owes much to Jensen, a claim he fully admits to without hesitation. Jensen used to run a comedy showcase on Wednesdays at Luna’s Café in downtown Sac, a place for local comedians to work out their material. One night Taylor walked in, watched a set, and spoke to Jensen afterwards. The pair hit it off, and when Taylor came back the next week he approached Jensen again and “What could I do to get a set here?” Jensen, generously, told Taylor to come back the following week, whereby he put him on stage. The pair has worked together closely ever since, and have had big names from the comedy world on their podcast, from Sara Benincasa to Greg Proops, as well as Sacramento talent. They are even going on a joint tour this spring and summer.
Another misconception about comedy, apart from it being easy, is that it is all fun and games. The smiles and laughs from the audience member are a convincing fog that covers up pain, the source for any art that can really speak to someone. Jerry Seinfeld once said, “An actor is someone who wants to be anyone but themselves. A comedian is someone who wants to be themselves completely.” On the episode with Greg Proops, Taylor and Jensen were engaged in a discussion of what kind of comedians they wanted to be. Did they want to be abstract, aggressive, subversive, what adjective would they choose as their avatar and work towards? When questioned, Taylor had only one word for an answer: honest.
Taylor has had many lives, all of them serving as rich fodder for his comedy. He has been married twice, worked as a paper pusher for county government, and even taught boxing as an instructor for an MMA gym. In addition to these experiences, he also draws on personal embarrassments and tragedies (some more dire than others) to serve as a canvas on which to work. Rather than seeing sharing his most intimate and vulnerable details as terrifying, as most people would, Taylor sees it as a way to relate to people. “More than anything it’s a way to laugh at the things that hurt, but I go home and it still hurts. But sharing it as a mechanism for people to relate to it, that’s really the reward.”
Taylor’s success is a perfect argument against the inferiority complex so rampant in Sacramento, at least regarding its art scenes. Speaking on the Sacramento comedy community, he said, “I think the comedy scene is the most underrated comedy scene in the country. There are some fucking incredible stand-up comedians here in Sac.” He was humble enough to not include his name in a list, but anyone paying attention would know he belongs there.
Taylor can be seeing performing regularly at the Ooley Theater in Sacramento on Wednesdays at 8 pm, found at 28th and T, as well as the multitude of comedy clubs peppering the landscape. His new album, tentatively titled “Bummin’ With the Devil,” is set to ideally come out this fall. You can find his album, “Tangled Up in Plaid” out now on iTunes.
Also be sure to check out Johnny on his website or on Twitter under @hipsterocracy.
Words Evan Nyarady
Johnny will be hosting TUBE.s upcoming show titled The Circus: Freaks, Geeks and Things You Can’t Unsee. Come hang out with us as Johnny leads you through a night of comedy, variety and music on May 15th, at The Blue Lamp (1400 Alhambra Blvd)in Sacramento CA. Show starts at 8 PM.