Why you should care

Because Jake Johannsen is the funniest comedian you never got to know.

“I’ll just start talking and maybe accidentally I’ll get to the point,” says Jake Johannsen in the opening bit of his 1991 HBO stand-up special This’ll Take About An Hour. It’s a lie, that statement, the same lie implied throughout the performance itself — that Johannsen’s many digressions and odd twists of logic are the organic product of his jittery, fluid train of thought, and not the impeccably crafted set of one of the most singular stand-ups of the ’90s.

With his shaggy but groomed hair and natty but baggy clothes, he looks like any number of ’90s stand-up comics making the rounds at the time. But the lanky, wide-eyed young Johannsen is an original, using his stage persona as comic performance art. With a Woody Allen anxiousness, he opens stating his belief that “aliens live and work among us,” a comic conceit that recurs throughout the hour, an undercurrent of unease that ties all the stories to one path meandering through Johannsen’s head.

His restive mind teases out the story in hilarious starts, punctuated by some of the most on-target “fucks” you’ve ever heard.

His act is peppered with the sort of Seinfeldian observational jokes (about airline snacks and airports, bad customer service, locking your keys in your car, toasters) that were already becoming cliché, but Johannsen’s jittery energy imbues each bit with that alien vibe, as if all the absurdities in his life are the product of some outside force he can only guess at — and obsess over. In a phone company bit, Johannsen muses on the operator’s question, “What sort of trouble are you having with your phone?”

“I didn’t know how many kinds of trouble there are. I was having the kind of trouble where you pick it up … and no sound comes out. I mean, it still had mass. And was retaining its original color. So in both of those areas I was completely satisfied with my service.”

Johannsen’s absurdist takes on the everyday recall Steven Wright, while his quicksilver stream-of-consciousness digressions loop back on themselves like Emo Philips’ routines; but Johannsen’s style is less monochromatic than either of those contemporaries. His concluding anecdote about a failed relationship is his most personal, but even there, his restive mind teases out the story in hilarious starts, punctuated by some of the most on-target “fucks” you’ve ever heard. If some of the references are a little dated (I imagine young viewers would wonder why the hell someone from a phone company would be at your house), Johannsen’s odd energy still strikes sparks.

Named as one of TV Guide’s “100 Greatest Moments On TV” for that year (it was No. 36), This’ll Take About An Hour seemed poised to take Johannsen to the next level — only it didn’t quite happen. Still a successful, working comedian (and Letterman favorite, having appeared on Dave’s shows more than 40 times), Johannsen never achieved superstardom, or even mainstream recognition, really. This’ll Take About An Hour was never released on any format (it lives, possibly due to HBO’s apathy, in its entirety on YouTube). While director Alan Rudolph took a shine to him, casting him in small parts in several films, Johannsen’s movie and TV career never materialized. A longtime, reliably funny headliner, still possessed of a restless originality, he nonetheless rarely garners the praise accorded other top comedians. But nothing can take away from This’ll Take About An Hour, one of the most hilarious and original forgotten HBO comedy specials.

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