December marked the return of Fort Worth comedian Josh Johnson, who recorded his stand-up sequel, Tabitha 2: Heterosexual Princess on Saturday, December 16th, at Main at South Side in front of an enthusiastic crowd. With raw honesty and respect for the absurdity of modern life, he guided his audience on a journey through places both near and far, through the looking glass of fame and mental health.
An extremely affable gentleman, Johnson explains how he approaches his performances. “I don’t write anything down, so that I can perform in the moment. I know where I want to start and end and where I need to be in the middle.” So, he brings the bones with him but by channeling each crowd’s energy, he breathes a new beast alive each time on stage. “I’d get super bored if I were just doing a script. You’d be able to tell I didn’t believe in it.”
Comedy is wrought with borderline personality attributes, inherent compulsion, and it often utilizes anxiety as contemporaneous fuel, all of which have been stumbling blocks for many young comics. Days and weeks of pacing and refinement, not to mention the previous failures for the performer, are translated into what the audience experiences in minutes, which hopefully paves the way to a solid bit.
It was as the funny guy at work that Josh Johnson first found himself on-stage performing comedy. “I was talking a lot of noise about how good I was, and my co-worker was like, ‘We’ll see.’ And I know 99% of the time that does not work out well at all.” He and his co-worker headed over to the Arlington Hyena’s for Open Mic Night to put his under-the-radar moniker on the list. “I had five minutes of material, but I zoomed through it in about three and a half, so I just closed out because it had gone so well.”
Smiling large, he nods slightly to underscore his words. “I knew immediately this was going to mess me up, but I knew I was here for it.” He quit his job two weeks later. “I’d never felt as intensely about anything before.” Keep in mind that he had already been married and in the Army at this point. A week later, he had his first paying gig; by the end of the year, he was hosting at The Improv.
His first album, Tabitha, was recorded in 2015 at Andy’s Bar in Denton. It was part of an incredibly fast start for Johnson; the comedy world was drawing him further away from his center, towards touring and television. He needed a break to value himself outside of comedy again. “I couldn’t ride that euphoria for long; I needed something to reset me. I had to go through the past year, the lows and everything to see life beyond being onstage.”
His personal journey back to anonymity, which acts as the spine of the new record, traces a course to the Pacific Northwest and into rural Oregon. “I wanted to go where nobody knew me, to reconnect with people away from comedy, which was all I’d done through most of my 20s.” After nearly a year off, he hit a couple of Open Mic Nights and knew it was something he would do again. But the anxieties that sidelined him required time and new strategies to overcome; often he would put his name on the list at a club but not go up because it was too overwhelming. “It really requires you to become this tight ball of energy. It usually takes me two or three hours to unwind enough after a show to sleep.” Johnson will run through the set in his head repeatedly like an athlete running game tape. “I’m always trying to figure out what I can do better, where I need to have more emphasis.”
The purpose of comedy is not fame; it is laughter, which is a physiological reaction that more than a few thinkers have concluded holds keys to everything from creativity to happiness and possibly even transcendence. It is something Josh Johnson takes seriously and towards which his perspective has shifted. “I’m taking things at my own pace now. I realize I’m on nobody’s schedule but my own. There simply is no standard operating procedure for this job.”
Josh recently moved down the street from his childhood bus stop, where he lives with feline companion, Neil Catrick Harris, who can fetch, roll over, and sit but, as Josh says, “unfortunately, he can’t do much sitting ‘because he resembles late-period Marlon Brando – I’m talking Island of Dr. Moreau.”
Whereas his first album was the accumulation of years workshopping bits in Austin and San Antonio, the new material has followed a more organic course. As opposed to whittling the show down into an hour, this return allows the comic to follow his mind more naturally. As he explains, “The people who enjoy listening to you are going to find you regardless of television. I want to do comedy for as many people as I can in as many places as I can. I want to keep writing and never give people the same thing twice.”
Conversation with Johnson illustrates his power to distill the funny elements that surround him as he did from an early age with his own family. “They all made me laugh in individual ways that I took into myself growing up around them, and that somehow manifest itself out on stage.” His mother’s love of New Wave music let him know he didn’t have to follow the crowd; his sociable father showed him how to talk to anybody, giving him the natural confidence he embodies on stage. “They’ve been supportive for no good reason, which allowed me to be as weird as I wanted to be.”
The oddities and random cultural references in his material allow the greater narrative to breathe. Whether expounding on his expansive knowledge of Rugrats or Spice Girls, or how Gilmore Girls shaped his rapid-fire speaking style, or even throwing in an off-the-cuff reference to Finnish goth band HIM, each new performance gives him opportunities to surprise and delight his audiences. “I don’t want it to feel rehearsed because this is the best way for me to deliver the material honestly, to get across the sincerity of what I’m saying. We can’t always be honest in our day-to-day lives because we have to wear our socially acceptable masks. But up on stage, you can pull that functional suit off.”
Tabitha 2: Heterosexual Princess will be released in early spring. please follow Panther City Comedy Collective for more information on that and news about Josh Johnson and other Forth Worth comedians.
An Austin native, Lyle Brooks relocated to Fort Worth in order to immerse himself in the burgeoning music scene and the city’s rich cultural history, which has allowed him to cover everything from Free Jazz to folk singers. He’s collaborated as a ghostwriter on projects focusing on Health Optimization, Roman Lawyers, and an assortment of intriguing subjects requiring his research.