When your last name rhymes with slang for a rather intimate body part, you had better be quick with a comeback.
Johnny Beehner (pronounced “Beaner”) first learned that lesson on the playground. By developing his skills to defuse and amuse, he unknowingly began preparing for a career in stand-up comedy.
“I did get teased (about my name) in my early years, but I really amp it up when I tell that joke,” he said. “I make it sound like everybody was circling around me, but I never really got bullied over it. Still, even in grade school, I always liked that I could make people laugh. I really enjoyed that.”
Beehner, a self-described “clean, corporate comedian,” will bring his stage show to the Janesville Performing Arts Center as part of its “Comedy on Main” series at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31. Tickets are $14.
At a time when many comics work “blue,” meaning they swear regularly during their act, Beehner prefers getting laughs with his wit. That’s not to say he thinks using bad language is lazy, and he admits to sometimes using a well-placed curse word for emphasis.
Predominantly, however, he believes he gets a more pure response by making the audience think rather than simply react.
“I wouldn’t say clean comedy is better than not-clean comedy, or that it’s automatically smarter,” he said. “I would say it’s more challenging to come up with because I think it’s easier to get a laugh with profanity. When I do clubs that are not ‘clean clubs,’ sometimes I use a little profanity, but my material—as far as topics—isn’t blue.”
Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Beehner has strong ties to Wisconsin. Along with a little-used information technology degree earned at Marquette University, the 40-year-old also married a Milwaukee native. Now he and his family call Madison home.
The bulk of Beehner’s comedy is based on his experience as a father and husband—something he says his wife supports.
“I talk about my wife a lot and the kids a little bit. She gets a kick out of it,” he said. “It’s mainly about me being the butt of the joke. Sometimes, something will happen and she’ll say, ‘You have to put that in your act.’”
Following his baptism by fire on the playground, Beehner began honing his stage presence through speech and theater classes in high school. In college, he served as leader of Marquette’s improvisational comedy troupe.
It was then he earned his first battle scars.
“I put on a ton of my own shows and filled the theater at Marquette, and I would kill because people knew me and already were on my side,” he said. “Then I started doing comedy in clubs around Milwaukee where people didn’t know me, and that was a brutal awakening.
“The first time I hosted at Comedy Cafe, I did 10 minutes,” he said. “After the show, the owner pulled me aside and said, ‘For the rest of the week, just do announcements. We have a reputation of killing here, and you’re just not there yet.’”
Admitting he had no desire to pursue a “bank job,” Beehner persisted. He sought additional improv training at Chicago’s prestigious Second City and L.A.’s Upright Citizens Brigade. He spent summers living with his brother, an actor in New York City, and tried his hand at working clubs there.
His grit has resulted in an impressive resume. He has appeared on the AXS television series “Gotham Comedy Live” and been featured several times on the nationally-syndicated “Bob and Tom” radio show. He won first place in the 2014 season of Comcast’s “Trial by Laughter” and was third in the “Laughing Skull Comedy Festival” in Atlanta the same year. As an opening act, he has performed with such comedy heavyweights as Jim Gaffigan, Robert Klein and Darrel Hammond.
In 2015, Beehner reached a personal milestone as one of the last comedians ever to appear on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
“That was a career highlight,” he said. “I got very lucky. I didn’t have representation or an agent. I just submitted and had comics that had done the show before vouch for me.”
Despite his success, Beehner has no illusions about his level of fame. He understands he is not a household name.
But he’s working on it.
“Right now, I headline all over ... which is nice. But a lot of the crowds that come to see me are just going out because they want to see comedy that night,” he said. “I’d like to get to the next level, where they are going specifically because my name is on the marquee.”