Louis Johnson’s job has one requirement: make people laugh. For 30+ years, Johnson has made people laugh through standup comedy, climbing his way up the comedic ladder from the Denver Comedy Works to earning gigs on cruise lines and performing at the 2014 Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia.
Get that Funny Bone Goin’
Johnson grew up in Denver in Five Points and Park Hill. He got his start in comedy while participating in the Denver Summer Jobs Program, which taught kids how to find jobs, fill out applications and practice interviewing.
“The third year I was in that, right before my senior year of high school, they had a program where they took about 14 of us and put us in a performing troupe,” Johnson says. “We did shows at old folk’s homes, daycare centers, wherever they would have us. We wrote half the sketches. The other half we stole from Saturday Night Live.”
After graduating from George Washington High School, he worked at McDonald’s and Taco Bell while going to college. He recalled the night he was fired from Taco Bell.
“I had a attitude back then. I’m 18, three months shy of my 19th birthday, I graduated,” Johnson says. “I was that kind of guy when you come into the Taco Bell, I’d have my collar up and paper hat to the side. Women would walk in and I’d say, ‘Can I get your order and your phone number?’ And they’d be like, ‘Please, just get my tacos.’
One day Taco Bell had a different manager fill in and he didn’t take too kindly to Johnson’s attitude.
“He just told me, ‘You know, why don’t you just go home?’” Johnson continues. “‘But I gotta close. I’m supposed to close tonight.’ ‘We don’t need you here tonight. Just go.’ Came back the next day to find out I was fired.”
When Johnson left Taco Bell that night, he walked from Colfax to the Denver Comedy Works on Larimer Square. He ordered a drink and watched a guy performing on stage. He decided that he wanted to give comedy a try. He visited the Comedy Works the next day and met Vince Curran, the then-talent coordinator. He went on stage for the first time two weeks later. Many comedians who get up on stage for the first time crash and burn. Some never return to the stage, but Johnson had a different outcome.
“The problem with my first time on stage was that I did well. Doing well the first time, there was nothing to discourage me from chasing that high again,” Johnson says. “It was like a heroin addict–you tie off, let it ride and you’re always chasing that feeling again.”
A Fan of the Art
Johnson hung out at the Comedy Works two to three nights a week for over a year either watching or performing standup.
“A lot of guys today, to me, give out false advice. They say you got to do this every night possible. That’s how you’re gonna learn,” Johnson says. “I think you learn just as much from watching. If you got a good mix of the two, then you’ll be a great comic. Some guys never go in and just watch and see what it’s like to be a fan of the art.”
Johnson said he would go in and just watch comedians when they came through Denver. These comedians included Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Margaret Smith and Bill Hicks. “If you go through some of the old Bill Hicks albums, the ones that he recorded in Denver,” Johnson says. “You can hear myself and a bunch of older Denver comics in the back laughing.”
Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Paul Mooney, Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby and Red Foxx are only some of Johnson’s favorites for different reasons.
“Nobody bared their soul like Richard. Joan was just a beast at writing,” Johnson says.“Cosby–no one has been a better storyteller than him. There’s not one topic you can find as a comic–classic or regular–that Carlin has not covered. That’s how prolific he was.”
Writing & Preparing His Funny Business
Johnson says his material comes from life experience. Jokes pop into his head every day, but he can’t always write them down.
“One thing I’ve learned from the old guys is in the moment is fine, but your memory will fail. Doesn’t matter what age you are. You gotta put it down,” Johnson says. “You might not remember the nuance of it. You might not remember the verb, the speed of it, how it sounded at the time. Sometimes it’s not the words that are funny it’s just the way you said it.”
“When I was writing everything down, I’d write the joke and then I turn the page,” Johnson adds. “It didn’t matter if the joke was one line, two lines, three lines, I still got that whole page. What that does is it mentally forces you to wanna fill out that page.”
Johnson says Jerry Seinfeld’s Don’t Break the Chain is the best writing technique.
“Seinfeld has a thing where you have a calendar on the wall and you’re supposed to write every day,” Johnson explains. “Every day that you write, you put an X on that. What you’re trying to do is keep the chain going. You can’t break that chain.”
To prepare for shows, Johnson records every performance he does and studies it.
“A lot of guys don’t do this. But if you’re gonna record, you have to listen to that within 48 hours because if you don’t, it’s gonna be sitting there and it’s gonna pile up,” Johnson says. “You can get the nuance of how you said something. You can figure out what it was that made them laugh.”
Johnson adds that when he watches his videos, he has to take himself out of it and be objective.
“I have to actually sit back as if I’m an audience member and say, ‘What the hell are you saying? What kind of joke is that?’” Johnson says. “Or I’ll sit there like I’m an extra writer and go, ‘Ok that joke could use this line.’”
When it comes to performing jokes, Johnson says he does clean and dirty shows on cruise ships.
“I like both of them because you need to be able to work both muscles if you’re gonna be a working comic. A lot of us, we’re not superstars,” Johnson says. “But we’re working comics. You need to be able to handle just about any audience that comes at you.”
From Showtime to the Sea and In-Between
One of Johnson’s greatest accomplishments was earning the title of Showtime’s Funniest Person in America in 1986 at age 21.
“They picked one person for each state and out of those 50 people, narrow that down to 15 and out of those 15, narrow it down to 3,” Johnson says. “They put those three on the air. Each one of us had a 1-800 number so people could call and vote for the person they thought was the funniest. I won the year I was in it.”
Johnson won with his jokes and his hustle. After performing at Comedy Works, he’d run out with flyers with his 1-800 number that said, “Vote for Louis” and put them on every car in the Comedy Works’ parking lot. He did that every night after his shows for two weeks.
After winning, Johnson’s comedy tour schedule doubled. Through Comedy Works’ booking agent, Johnson got gigs in comedy clubs around the country.
Before performing for Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Celebrity and Norwegian cruises, Johnson had toured much of the country and done over 20 shows for troops overseas in the United Service Organizations program. Cruises are gigs comedians get after they’re on top, but Johnson says it’s a different story.
“Cruise ships are the new Vegas. Carnival took all their back-lounges and turned them into comedy clubs. Right now, Carnival is one of the biggest bookers of comedians in the world,” Johnson says. “I like cruise ships because I can say no to crappy gigs. I just got off a ship, Leno was on it. I’m pretty sure I’ll start seeing other people.”
Another incredible feat for Johnson was performing four shows at the 2014 Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia, one of the biggest comedy festivals in the world.
“The first time I went to Australia, I was working for two cruise ship companies and I was doing the clubs. So I would do a cruise ship one week and then I had a week off,” Johnson says. “So I could stay wherever I wanted. I stayed in Melbourne one week, stayed in Sydney for a week. It was in-between ships.”
Johnson’s manager worked out a deal for him to do guest spots in different Australian cities. Different clubs told Johnson to let them know when he was coming back. In 2014, through the power of Johnson tweeting that he arrived in Melbourne, one of the comedy clubs asked him for a big favor.
“One of the clubs sent me and my manager a note saying, ‘One of our headliners for the Melbourne Festival fell out. We were wondering if you like to have that spot?’ I’m like, ‘Hell yeah!’” Johnson says. “The Melbourne Comedy Festival is one of the top five festivals in the world. You got over 200 performers. The space we had was a 400-seat theater. I did four shows there and the show was sold out every night because people just know they were gonna get a good show.”
Johnson has performed for BET, Comedy Central and A&E. He will return to Australia in July and will perform at the South Comedy Works in Greenwood Village May 30. For tickets, visit: https://www.comedyworks.com/comedians/louis-johnson Johnson will also perform at the Denver Urban Spectrum’s Comedy Explosion on June 28 at South Comedy works. For tickets, visit: https://www.comedyworks.com/comedians/urban-spectrum-comedy-explosion
You can see more of Louis Johnson on his website: comedianlouisjohnson.com and on social media.
This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of the Denver Urban Spectrum.