Cultural Zero: The Ballad of Johnny D
When my first original band played its first show, I didn’t want to show my face in the Fox Valley for weeks after. We played a friends’ backyard with a number of other punk bands, and we were completely inept. It was a perfect storm of embarrassment: my parents showed up to watch my dumb 19-year-old ass play uneven beats, dorkily waving at me the whole time. The cute girl whom I met at a campsite that summer and then coincidentally was at the show pointedly avoided me the rest of the day—hell, she may have left early to avoid talking to me. For months after, kids in the Appleton punk scene took delight in telling our singer Chris and me how much we thoroughly sucked.
I credit this early experience, as well as much of my high school career of being taunted by the cool kids, for instilling in me a sense of “fuck you.” Fuck you, I don’t care what you think, I’m going to do whatever I want and I hope it pisses you off to boot. It’s this attitude that has been at the root of my band (of which Chris, aka Yale Delay, is a proud member) for years, and has given us the freedom to do what we want and get us into a number of scrappy adventures. Because oh, you don’t like our band? Well fuck you, because we’re awesome and we believe in ourselves and don’t care what you think.
This is what I thought of Thursday night when I witnessed a man who tried to do something creative, but failed so spectacularly that he somehow perversely succeeded in becoming some sort of local indie wrestling insta-legend. For the wrestling nerds out there, this is the story of the open-mic comedy equivalent of the Shockmaster or Gobbledy-Gooker. This…is the Ballad of Johnny D.
It starts on Tuesday, when my friend Liz texted me to ask, “any interest in seeing an indie wrestler do stand-up comedy on Thursday in ‘Stallis?”
Um, who the hell do you think I am, Liz? YES OF COURSE I HAVE INTEREST. Turns out that local indie sensation (and recent WWE developmental wrestler) Colt Cabana has been doing a “Total Extreme Comedy” tour with former WWE champ and current TNA wrestling star Mick “Cactus Jack/Mankind/Dude Love” Foley (you can read all about it here, along with some choice Mickie James “butt pix,” apparently), and for some reason he was doing a set at Mug Shotz on 68th in Westallica. Immediately and obviously, my reaction was “holy Cultural Zero column, Batman!”
So I went to Mug Shotz last night thinking I was going to write a wacky little column about people who wear different creative hats, like pro wrestler stand-up comics, or drummer/writer/roller derby announcers (seriously, some people are a jack of all trades and master of none. Wtf). What I got instead was an epic tale of an epic failure.
To open the evening, Colt invited some ComedySportz improv pals from Chicago up to Westallica for the night. The second comic of the night, though, was a local boy by the name of Johnny D, a goateed, black-haired, typical West Allis blue-collar bro. Probably loves Drowning Pool and Disturbed. You know. After a warm introduction from our host Colt, Johnny promptly lit a match, set a fuse, and bombed. Hard. One of his sample jokes: “Don’t you hate banks? [had he stopped there the joke would have been Dr.-Pepper-at-the-Yuk-Yuks-in-Toronto-level awesome, but no:] The bank called me the other day to tell me I didn’t have any money. They said, ‘you have insufficient funds,’ I’m like, ‘I know that. My funds are GROSSLY insufficient.’”
THAT was the punchline.
From there he went into a joke that started with him having $-10 in his account. I immediately thought of an episode of the criminally underrated (and oh so canceled) HBO sitcom Lucky Louie starring Louis CK, in which Louie tells his wife that because they have $-10, “we have to raise ten dollars to be broke.” And sure enough, Johnny D said that very same line not 30 seconds later. So, I guess, points to Johnny D for having the good taste to have seen Lucky Louie.
Still, this was painful. Entire sentences were met with dead silence, to be followed with “come on, you motherfuckers, you’re supposed to laugh!” The bulk of his material was a string of expletives that George Carlin would have criticized for being a waste of quality swears. At one point, he seemed gleeful that an audience member heckled him because it allowed him to launch into a prepared retort that involved three uses of the c-word. Finally, mercifully, he was cut short by Colt Cabana rushing the stage and yelling “JOHNNY D, EVERYBODY!” which drew bigger laughs than anything in his set.
Here’s where shit got real.
During the next comic, Johnny D wouldn’t stop loudly, drunkenly bitching about how he got yanked early. “Oh, I’m the shitty comic tonight, huh?” (Answer: yes.) So the next guy in line, a delightful, “I-listen-to-Animal-Collective-unironically” disheveled hipster nerd type, opened his set by saying, “I’m going to mix things up a bit and do some slam poetry. I call this ‘Angry Comic.’”
“…Fucking shit. Banks. I have negative ten dollars. Tell me MY funds are insufficient? SHIT. FUCK.”
The crowd is dying, laughing harder than they have all night. And just as the gag begins to lose steam, the greatest unintended punchline in Milwaukee metro history happens: Johnny D lets out a defiant, booming “FUCK YOU!” that quite literally sends me out of my chair, a quivering mess of abdominal strain and short breath. I haven’t seen that many people doubled over since the last episode of Ow! My Balls. Johnny D doesn’t realize it, but in his refusal to take his roasting silently, he has discovered a sense of timing that many struggling young comics never realize.
During the intermission before Colt’s set, Johnny D is the talk of the room. Slowly, a picture is painted of our goateed trainwreck’s origins:
-He apparently answered a Craigslist ad placed by the bar looking for a comedian to fill the last slot. Yes—he was found on Craigslist of all places.
-It is rumored that the old woman who was trying to defend him to a few of the bar patrons was his mother, who came out to support her son and left sometime after he started interrupting the other comics’ sets. This adds a thin, honey-glazed, Barbara Walters soft-focus veneer of sad to the proceedings that actually made me question whether or not I should write this, for fear that Johnny D would awake in the a.m., google his own name and promptly shoot himself in the head. (Johnny, if you’re out there, please do not shoot yourself in the head.)
After Colt’s set, which redefines the term “niche marketing” (you a wrestling fan? You’ll find Colt’s material hilarious. Have no idea who Batista or Chris Jericho are? Over your head, sorry), shit begins to go seriously downhill for the illustrious Johnny D. Once again he grabs the mic and starts yelling at everyone, and the sound guy is too amused to cut him off. So the other comics decide to have fun with him:
Johnny, for some reason, produces a set of loose papers with his notes for the night. He had written his entire set, word for word, before he arrived (that’s right, he actually sat down and WROTE the “grossly insufficient” joke). The other comics begin to pass his notes around, doing dramatic readings of them while Johnny D sits up front and takes his dressing-down like the runt in third grade who lets the cool kids play jokes on him because then they’ll let him hang around.
Fig.3: a dramatic reading of Johnny D’s “I Lived in a Trailer” bit
It was all at once painful, awkward, excruciating, hilarious, mesmerizing and transcendent. No one wanted to leave while this guy refused to walk away from the microphones.
He realized that, for better or worse, this was his moment and dammit, he was going to have that moment. Milan Kundera once wrote an entire book about how true immortality is achieved in the memories of others. I guarantee you Johnny D has never read Kundera, but somehow, last night, he became immortal in the minds of everyone who witnessed his descent into shame. “I will remember this for the rest of my life,” I overheard one of the comics say.
But still, I kept thinking back to that first punk show I played when I was 19, and how strongly I believed in what my band was doing, even back then, when we were awful enough to empower an entire scene to talk shit right to our faces. And I remembered how Yale and I collectively flipped them all the bird and kept our noses to the grindstone, and how it got us to where we are today (which is, ya know, not famous or anything, but we did once get an email from a dude in Greece calling us “the most important noise-rock band of our time,” so that was pretty cool).
And I felt a kinship with poor, wasted, not-quite-good-natured, amazing Johnny D, because I was in his shoes once upon a time. And when one of the other comics finally acknowledged Johnny’s titanium balls by saying “I have never seen a man fail so thoroughly and just keep taking this kind of abuse,” I shared in his begrudging, surreal respect for this guy and his uncanny aura of fuck you all. Who knows—maybe he’ll actually learn from this and develop into an amazing comic whose mom won’t have to slink away in shame while her son slides down an alcoholic abyss in front of a bar full of strangers. Maybe this was what will turn him into the next Louis CK.
I mean, I really doubt it, but wouldn’t it be cool?