Nearly 20 years ago, on a well-lit stage in a popular San Francisco comedy club, Jake Johannsen experienced the sweet pain of bombing. He stammered his way through five minutes of material that he cannot recall, shaking and stuttering until he found the nearest exit. Discouraged? A little. Scared? Out of his mind. "I really thought I was going to have a breakdown," Johannsen remembers.
Hundreds of appearances later, on everything from the Late Show with David Letterman to his own HBO special, the threat of a breakdown no longer haunts Johannsen. For 18 years now, he has had his audiences close to tears. His bizarre but realistic accounts of everyday life, or even politics, seem to agree with most folks, and that's what counts with him. He focuses on real-life material because he wants to entertain real-life people. And he does it all without compromising his standards, which says a lot when you've got the stars of Hollywood forever in your sights.
The star-making machinery of Southern California has welcomed Johannsen a few times for TV pilots that ultimately didn't make it "for whatever reason," and for cameo appearances in movies, including Alan Rudolph's Breakfast of Champions. When he left Iowa State in his fourth year, he had a crazy notion that he would go to San Francisco, get discovered and immediately star in his own sitcom. It didn't happen exactly like that.
With a few shows under his belt, Johannsen found an agent, and in 1986, after four years of waiting tables by day and performing by night, he won the San Francisco International Stand-up Comedy Competition. Sinbad handed him his award that night; after that, Johannsen found himself on stage, not in front of the camera. It was something he had not anticipated, but after that first night of terror, he became pretty sharp at stand-up. Although he hasn't hit the sitcom jackpot yet, he's not dwelling on it. "I like stand-up. A sitcom would be nice, but I like my job," Johannsen says. "That's the best thing about this business: You can't get fired. If you're willing to take the punishment, you can stay in show business as long as you want."
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