It’s a quiet November afternoon in a residential neighborhood tucked between high-traffic causeways in Waukesha.
Inside his two-story suburban homestead, Johnny Beehner holds his infant son in one arm while leading his daughter, who’s not much older than her new little brother, into the living room to watch a movie. Periodically, a mail carrier will weave through the well-kept lawns of nearby yards and send the household pooch, Batman, into the most fearsome fit of barking a 15- to 20-pound pug can muster, and threaten the sanctity of the all too rare father-son time in the process. In the kitchen, two large suitcases are propped up on their wheels. The luggage had spent the previous weekend in Tampa Bay. The coming weekend would find the baggage occupying a hotel somewhere in the vicinity of Dallas.
Today, though, the suitcases and their owner both sit stationary in the Waukesha home. Though it’s the middle of most of the world’s work week, it’s Beehner’s day off—at least in new father of two terms—from his occupation: traveling around North America to make strangers laugh.
The Milwaukee area comic and Marquette grad has been performing since his time doing sketches as part of “The Gentleman’s Hour” troupe and his stand-up origins during the salad days of the Safe House open mic in the late ’90s. Over the years, he’s opened for comedic mainstays like Jim Gaffigan, Marc Maron, Frank Caliendo, Ron White, Michael Ian Black, Natasha Leggero, Jim Breuer, Gilbert Gottfried, and many more. In 2014 alone, Beehner has spent close to every weekend on the road, appearing on stages spread everywhere from the Canadian province of Alberta to the gulf coast of Florida, and an array of comedy clubs in between. By year’s end, he says he’ll have driven more than 50,000 miles.
“I’m comfortable on the road,” Beehner says. “I mean, now it’s different because I have two new kids, so that makes it tough to be out on the road. But I’ve never really gotten sick of the travel.”
Comedy was just Beehner’s (primarily localized) hobby until he was laid off by his longtime employer, “a home loan place in Brookfield” in 2007. The timing coincided with an especially fruitful period on his comedy calendar, so instead of seeking employment elsewhere, he says he “was kind of pushed into” trying to make stand-up his full-time job by the timing of it all.
With stand-up no longer just a source of supplemental income, but his full-fledged career, Beehner (who has no management or representation) needed to start seeking shows more aggressively and continually come up with new material to increase his workload.
“I joke that I work an hour a night. Well, that’s not true. It might seem that way to the audience members, but I’m writing, emailing, following up, nagging, calling,” Beehner says. “If you don’t come up with funny stuff, you’re in big trouble. I don’t want to say it takes the fun away from it. I still make it a point to enjoy that I get to tell jokes for a living, but it definitely was a wake up call.”
Milwaukee Comedy founder and managing director Matt Kemple was first exposed to Beehner through his sketch work with the Gentleman’s Hour on the Marquette campus, but was also taken with Beehner’s abilities when he first saw him perform stand-up years later.
“I think the world of Johnny. He’s really funny and I feel he has a really unique voice as far as his jokes are concerned. He just has such a fun perspective on life,” Kemple says. “You kind of think you know where a joke is going, then nine times out of 10, he comes up with a punchline that’s so original.”
The vast majority of Beehner’s material is lifted directly from his life. Many of his bits center on identifiable topics like funny stories pulled from his spotty employment history, domesticated life with his wife and two kids, his hatred of his own cats, and even commonplace occurrences like being called for jury duty that are rendered funny through Beehner’s unique perspective. Though he doesn’t like to say it, Beehner admits his act is “accessible” and “safe” for the most part.
“When I was starting out, I was taught you learn to write clean. Then if you want to go dirty, you can. But you can’t go from dirty to clean,” Beehner says. It’s just too hard. I was very intentionally making sure I was clean. Now, I don’t know, I have some jokes where I’ll say something [explicit], but it’s not really sexual or vulgar.”
That accessible appeal isn’t lost on Greg Bach, an up-and-coming Milwaukee-based comedian who has performed with him a couple times (and will again in February), but considers himself to be more of a fan of Beehner than anything else.
“There’s something funny about listening to a grown man say poop instead of shit, and he does it without sounding immature. It seems like that’s just the language he uses on an everyday basis,” Bach says. “I admire him for that because he doesn’t need to shock to be funny.”
It’s that universally-appealing hilarity of identifiable and altogether clean(ish) bits that makes Beehner as funny to crowds in Tacoma, Washington and Minot, North Dakota as he is to audiences in Cleveland, Ohio and Calgary, Alberta. The glut of his material translates to people everywhere…as long as there’s an Olive Garden in the town (which he learned the hard way from a heckler in Alabama).
Though he’ll occasionally land a one-off show with the aforementioned notable comic commodities, Beehner’s career is in a strange place where he’s able to perform as a feature act or headliner at clubs throughout the country as a regularly working comedian, yet the vast majority of crowds are there “to see comedy” instead of him personally. Aside from expected comedian gripes about crummy hotels or particularly awful comedy condos with where his career is, though there’s one particularly big drawback to life on the club circuit: being away from his family.
“That’s the hardest thing about doing this, the time away. It was always hard with my wife, and now having two kids, it’s ridiculous,” Beehner says. He says he’s “trying to work smarter instead of harder” lately so he can continue to make a living and travel a bit less, including taking on corporate comedy gigs and upping his workload in the Midwest. Thursday through Saturday of this week, Beehner will appear at his hometown club, Milwaukee’s Comedy Cafe.
Even though he’s gone much of the year, Beehner’s work as a road comic isn’t going unnoticed here in Milwaukee.
“Whether he realizes it or not, he’s inspiring another generation of comics. They look at somebody like Johnny who’s had really amazing opportunities opening for people and featuring. I think a lot of people are aspiring for that and can see that it is attainable if you work hard and you keep at it,” Kemple says. “He’s one of those people who has been able to do it really well, really consistently, and for a really long time.”
Though he admits he would love more theater level gigs, a TV credit or the ever-elusive late show appearance, Beehner will gladly take the lumps of the road, the unpredictable crowds, having great sets occasionally offset by bombing the next night, and the trying time away from his growing family in that Waukesha home to make a living on stage doing what he loves—no matter where that stage may be.
“I just want to do stand-up,” Beehner says.
Johnny Beehner will perform in support of Eddie Brill at Milwaukee’s Comedy Cafe from Thursday, December 4 through Saturday, December 6.