Your average joke: Tommy Johnagin’s Midwestern comedic edge

The stand-up comedian began performing as a teenager in Illinois and went pro by age 21.

Jared Hemming

Though stand-up comedian Tommy Johnagin’s career took off by the time he was 21, he didn’t escape the dreaded day job drudge.

And of course, he worked those experiences into his act.

“I had a joke about working at Applebee’s which was true,” Johnagin said. “On my two-year anniversary, they gave me a two-year pin. They give you a two-year pin so everybody knows your life’s gone nowhere for the past 24 months.”

The comedian, whose career has included three stand-up albums and several appearances on David Letterman’s show, is bringing his hard-earned stand-up pedigree to Acme Comedy Co. in Minneapolis this Thursday through Saturday.

While some comedians struggle for years at open-mic nights before reaching professional-level success, Johnagin began touring on weekends at the same time he started performing comedy, which was shortly after he graduated high school.

“When I was 18, I was just a couple months into stand-up,” Johnagin said. “My goal at that moment was, ‘I need to book every week on the road, and go full time at this.’”

After dropping out of college at 20, Johnagin moved from his hometown of Benton, Ill., to Chicago, where he booked shows on the road in comedy clubs almost every weekend of the year as a feature act.

“I’m goal-oriented, and I think it helps,” Johnagin said of his initial success on the road. “That was the first goal. It wasn’t, ’I’m going to be a full-time feature act, but could I make rent?’ Feature acts don’t make a million dollars.”

Johnagin said his taste for the touring lifestyle was instilled in him early on by his father — the person whom Johnagin also credits for giving him his sense of humor.

“My dad was a truck driver, and we would travel the country,” Johnagin said. “Without that, I don’t know if I would have been as open to, at 18 years old, go, ’I want to tour for a living. I want to be in hotels for a living.’”

Johnagin used sly over-the-phone techniques to book shows for himself at comedy clubs — slots that usually wouldn’t go to younger comedians.

“I would say, ‘Who books the club?’ And then they would tell me a name,” Johnagin said. “I would call back the next week and just ask for that person like I knew them. I would just say, ‘Hey, I’m doing a show in your area, I have Friday night off, do you mind if I come and do a showcase?’”

Johnagin — a white male of average height, brown hair and glasses — attributes his stand-up success in part to his generic look.

“Generally, I consider myself pretty forgettable as a person,” Johnagin said. “There’s nothing super distinct about [me]. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, and I feel like, no matter how successful I get, whether I have a TV show on and it gets 15 million viewers a week, I’ll still fit in better in Benton, Illinois, than I [would] in Los Angeles.”

In a comedy world dominated by game-changing comedians like Louis C.K. and Bill Burr, Johnagin said his mild-mannered stand-up approach is a little less revolutionary.

“If I’m not trying new stuff that may go into the act or if I’m not trying to tighten material, then I feel like I’m taking away from stand-up,” Johnagin said. “I like stand-up so much. I don’t think I’m going to change it; I’m not Richard Pryor. But I just don’t want to hurt it.”

Johnagin’s respect for comedy shapes his perspective of the art. For him, he’d rather simply enjoy comedy performances than lionize their importance.

“It’s selfless, and it’s selfish,” Johnagin said of performing comedy. “Being funny isn’t only about making people laugh, it’s about how you feel when you make people laugh. It’s like, when I eat ice cream, I feel good when that happens; I’m not doing it for the ice cream.”

 

What: Tommy Johnagin

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Acme Comedy Company, 708 N. First St., Minneapolis

Cost: $15-18

Age: 18