BWW Interview: Phil Johnson on Comedy from Stage to The Fringe and Beyond
Presented as a special event for the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture, award-winning writer-comedian Phil Johnson (www.philjohnson.net) appears in JEWISH JOKE, a one-man show about an irascible Jewish comedy screenwriter for MGM who confronts the Communist Black List in 1950's Hollywood and is forced to make the biggest decision of his life.
In this new comedy by Johnson and award-winning writer Marni Freedman, directed by David Ellenstein, Johnson arms himself with stories about the great era of Jewish humor, and shows how one small man faces one of the biggest challenges in mid-20th century American history. The performance takes place on Oct. 19, 7:30 pm, at the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla (http://www.sdcjc.org/pas/index.aspx).
A veteran of Broadway shows such as Les Miserables and the New York Fringe Festival, Johnson dishes about the origins of his very original one-man comedy.
EM: Where were you born?
PJ: I'm an alien. [Laughs] I was born in Chicago. I was there most of my life until I moved here 18 years ago, and I have loved it ever since. I love Chicago and I loved New York when I was there but I love it here. There's just something - outside is just such a part of your life here. There's a spiritual quality to that.
EM: What first attracted you to the stage?
PJ: Oh my, we're going back. I sang most of my high school life, and I always did theatrical activities in school. I was on something called speech team, which was a big thing for me because I had a great teacher. It kind of instilled a competitive aspect to performing for me - I kept a lot of that for much of my life. But the biggest thing was that I had a fantastic teacher with great facility. I was very lucky in Chicago. Plus Chicago had a time of theater so I was able to see a lot all the time and there were a lot of opportunities. I actually ran a nightclub in Chicago before I left to go on the road with Miss Saigon, which was my first big show.
EM: It's amazing what a difference one incredible teacher can make in our lives.
PJ: It really is.
EM: Saigon was your first big show, but it seems like you also were attracted to comedy. Is that your greatest passion right now as a performer?
PJ: Comedy was the basis of my whole performing career and interests - lot of my life from when I was quite young. I should have been Jewish. My gods of comedy later, people like Henny Youngman, Don Rickles. Jewish comedy was such a part of my life. I realized the thing that always attracted me, always got me, was a wonderful Jewish pragmatic sense of humor. I didn't really know what it was until I became more of a professional performer. So this play (Jewish Joke) actually came out of my real love for the Jewish sense of humor, that got me through some really tough times in my life. That's why this play was written. I wanted to portray a certain character that I felt was a big part of Jewish comedy, that irascible Sunshine Boys find of guy. My uncle-in-law, who died several years ago, was totally the embodiment of that guy. I used to love sitting there listening to him tell me ridiculous things, and his funny points of view. I grew to love that. I don't know why but a funny, difficult person has always appealed to me. I was understudy for The Grinch at the Globe, and I realized, "This is my story, isn't it?" In Christmas Carol the guy who gets a second chance. That, mixed with the Jewish sense of humor, is a big part of my artistic logic.
EM: So your character Bernie Lutz is a kindred spirit for you?
PJ: I think that's going to be me in about five minutes. He's irascible and cranky, a survivor, a scuttling, tap dancing crab who's made everything happen for himself without being attached to any specific ideal. He comes up against something where he's got to make a choice, a decision. He's never actually subscribed to anything particularly meaningful before in his life, so he uses his sense of humor and pragmatism to make a decision that works for him.
EM: What are your degrees of separation from the McCarthy era, the Black List in Hollywood?
PJ: As someone who's always been artistic and creative, loves expression, and has expanded from a comedian into an actor and writer, now I'm doing some directing as well. Anything that reeks of censorship will definitely grab my attention. At the beginning I was looking for some test to put this man through that he would be forced to come up against himself. Ultimately it's the story of a guy who steps into his own character finding his own soul - can I use that word? I cringe saying it.
PJ: At the beginning there were a bunch of different ideas. First of all, the time - I wanted it to be about the 1950s, and the Black List was the right conflict, the right moment for this guy to be up against. I needed an artistic guy who made decisions glibly and would be shut down. The Black List was it. So it began with Character.
EM: How do you make that connection to 60 years ago being relevant today?
PJ: I've always been an enormous Jewish supporter and a big believer in the state of Israel. I myself forced now to think about those issues. I feel a little bit like Bernie in that I have to deal with difficult ideas about my beliefs in Judaism and Israel. There's nothing more important than your own freedom of religious expression. There are places when we cannot say certain things anymore, put certain ideas out there anymore, for fear of repercussions. That brings it back for me. I feel the Jewish culture is one that has often come up against very difficult situations. I have a big soft spot in my heart for the underdog. I'm always fighting for the underdog, that's my feeling.
EM: Obviously you wear many hats and you're multitalented. Is there anything that twists your top more - writing, acting, singing or directing - that you enjoy the most?
PJ: I love the expression "twist your top." I've been trying to use that all day today. I began writing as a way to get to different parts of myself. Writing coincided with me moving to California 18 years ago. I had started writing before that but there were certain things that I wasn't seeing in place that I wanted to get at, parts of myself, my character. That was why I began writing. Then I fell into comedy theater acting in Los Angeles for three years, so I did a lot of writing and learned a better sense of what worked as comedic writing. I've always loved the idea of expressing myself totally from the ground up - stories, performance - would that indicate control freak? Probably. That would indicate a definite problem. I should be hospitalized.
EM: [Laughs] I don't think so.
PJ: I would say I love performing the most. And I love performing my own material. That's very fulfilling for me because I'm someone who wouldn't have gotten out there, who would have their own voice, someone who wouldn't have had their say. I have recently gotten into directing because I have such a strong feeling about comedy. When I see comedy and it's not right [Laughs] I just want to go up on stage and say, "Could you just do that moment over for one second?" That may be a little controlling, too.
EM: Not that there's anything wrong with that. It sounds like acting and singing might be top of the list for you.
PJ: Actually, singing has kind of receded, though it was how I started and it was wonderful and I still sing. But my greatest joy I think now is acting great roles. What I wanted to do especially with this play after the original idea was a very serious character, because this turns quite serious for the better half of the play. And see how those two combined, how I could create a total well-rounded person, the most funny situation, the most funny beginning, that leads to the strength that I hope I've learned over the last - how old am I? I'm 20 years old right now, so over the last 20 years. Oh, that's a terrible line. [Laughs] I wouldn't want to be you, Erica.
EM: As performers we're all used to that. Nothing fazes me. But there is a fine line between comedy and seriousness. There is pain in comedy, and that pain is often what makes us identify with characters. Combining the two is very challenging. I put you up for that.
PJ: Thank you.
EM: Is there one show or role that you've done that you consider your favorite?
PJ: Oh, you do ask the hard questions! There are so many things that I've been lucky enough to do, but I would say my favorite is The Man Who Came to Dinner. It was a movie with Monty Woolley and Bette Davis, a very successful comedy from the early 40s, about a very difficult, demanding, successful New York theater critic along the lines of Alexander Woollcott - I'm always drawn to this person - he has the star status of Winchell - who comes to someone's house in Ohio, slips on some ice and is forced to stay there for a month and basically made their lives a living hell. At the end of this enormous parade of narcissism and demanding exactly what he wants at every given moment, he has to fix something because he's really hurt someone. So he makes things better for the Bette Davis character and as he goes out the door he slips on the ice [Laughs] and as the curtain's coming down they take him back in the house to recoup for whatever period of time. That's my favorite thing I've ever done because he was funny, outrageous, also in a wheelchair. What's funnier than doing a part in a wheelchair? That was one of the funniest things I've ever done, so enjoyable and meaningful to me. I loved that. The movie makes me laugh every time.
EM: Irony is a big part of comedy.
PJ: It is. A very big part of great comic writing.
EM: You just got back from doing the Fringe Festival in New York.
PJ: We had a wonderful experience. We took a show that I wrote with a writing partner of mine, Ruff Yeager, a play for Diversionary Theatre in San Diego, "She-rantulas from Outer Space in 3-D." A nice simple title. We did that to a very good response here for two years, and it was my idea to take it to the next level. We got it into the Fringe, got very nice stuff in the New York Times, we signed with a publisher, and it's about to come out this month.
EM: It sounds like so much fun. After growing up in Chicago, did you go to New York or did you go straight to the West Coast?
PJ: Miss Saigon was my first touring show From Chicago. After that I went to live in New York for a while and pretty quickly got into Les Miserables on the road. I came back to New York for a while, then I left and got into Sunset Boulevard. I was all over the map. There was a moment when I realized I had to do something else, because I was I was getting auditions for Cats. I realized I just couldn't do it. I wasn't one of those people who would do any job. I had to do something that was my own. So I moved to California. My first drive was to be in the television comedy, which didn't happen, but it made me be incredibly resourceful about finding different ways to perform.
EM: You were in L.A. at that point?
PJ: Between L.A. and San Diego. I had a house in San Diego and shared an apartment in Los Angeles.
EM: What's next after Jewish Joke?
PJ: I have some directing projects and several things next year, some really funny shows. I'm just about to finish writing a two-man Wuthering Heights that is going to be hilarious. Two character men - one would be me and one would be my very funny friend Omri Schein who's kind of a shorter Jewish comedian. He won the New York Musical Theatre Festival Award. We'll be playing Heathcliff and Cathy. I can't wait to get at it.
Photo credit: Carmen Ridenoure, Aaron Rumley