The best part about hiking with me is that I take cool pictures.
The worst part about hiking with me is that I think every plant is poisonous.
(Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Savage Henry Magazine)
Comedian and Actor Johnny Pemberton’s IMDb page tells, in incredible detail, that he is 5’ 9” and…wait for it…loves gardening. Ok, so maybe the IMDb bio leaves something to be desired. Fear not. We donned our ascots, poured a cup of the finest Earl Grey, and had a deliciously refined conversation with Sir Pemberton of Rochester.
Isaac Kozell: You’ve been in Los Angeles for about eight years but where do you hail from?
Johnny Pemberton: I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. “The ROCH!”
IK: Was heading to LA part of the dream?
JP: I was going to move to Chicago to study Improv at Second City. But I couldn’t get a job there. I had some friends who lived in LA. Somehow, I was able to get a job at Fox in the web department doing basically nothing. That was about six months after I graduated from college. I moved out here for the job. I was trying to do something creative but I needed a job where I could get health insurance. I just couldn’t do that thing where you’re like, “Oh, I’m just going to live on someone’s couch for six months while I figure out how this all works.” But it was such a weird thing. They didn’t ask me at all if could really do that sort of work. All they want, I think in these entrainment biz jobs, is someone who is easy to hire. Like a friend of a person who already works there who hasn’t stolen anything or killed anybody.
IK: Were you already doing comedy and acting back home?
JP: I was always fucking around, making fun of things and not taking anything seriously but as far as actually doing comedy, no. I didn’t think it was an option, a thing that a person could just do.
IK: How did you get your start? Did you get acting roles first or was it the other way around?
JP: It was definitely comedy first. I didn’t think about anything other than that. Initially, I didn’t want to be an actor because I felt like that was such a different thing, like doing comedy and then saying you’re an actor was something disgraceful. But you asked how I got started. I had this weird opportunity at Fox where they were making a web talk show, one of those things that got made but no one will ever see. It was made just to internally promote Fox shows. I was like, “I’ll do warm up for this paid audience! I’ve got jokes that I’ve been working on.” I hadn’t tried them out at all. I was just thinking that you could live inside of a vacuum of comedy and do fine, you know, because I’m so smart. So I did it and it was terrible, like the worst thing in the world. I didn’t know how to do comedy. I thought I knew. It was fucking hideously bad. The host used the entire show to make fun of how shitty I was. The show was better because of how bad I was.
IK: You’ve come a long way since then. How would you describe your on-stage persona?
JP: That’s one of the hardest things to answer. I do a lot of things that involve misdirection. Playing off of people’s expectations. I also like to do things that involve music. I like to talk about things that are ridiculous, starting with making fun of myself. I guess I like talking about things that are not your normal subjects. Animals are always funny.
IK: You mentioned misdirection. You’re a super youthful looking dude. Do you find that to be an asset?
JP: Absolutely. I use that all of the time. People have an expectation of me. At least I think they do. But you can only do some much material about that because people get to know you. It’s not so much about the youthful thing but more about innocence. A lot of people think that I look like an unassuming, non-threatening sort of person. Lately I’ve been talking about murdering people after the show. I like taking that as far as I possibly can. Like, “I’m just joking. But really, I could not be joking and you would have no idea.” I like to do anything that has an element of theatrics as opposed to just words.
IK: You’ve been in a rather respectable amount of films including, This Is 40, 21 Jump Street and The Watch. As an actor, do you ever get starstruck on set?
JP: Not really. I think you kind of learn after a while that being starstruck is the quickest way to be disappointed. The more you hold someone up to a certain level, the easier it is for them to disappoint you with even the slightest bit of dickishness. I just don’t expect anything from anyone and then I’m surprised when my expectations are exceeded. Like Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. Those guys are exceedingly famous. Really nice people. But working with them is almost boring. Cause they’re just who you would expect them to be as regular people.
IK: What’s the most fulfilling thing you’ve worked on so far?
JP: Man, I don’t know. Maybe In the Loop, which was a long time ago but it was so cool because Armando Iannucci is someone whose work I liked for so long. Getting a chance to do that was so fucking cool, even though it was a small part. A lot of movie things and TV things aren’t that fulfilling because of the nature of production. I feel like it’s more fulfilling to do standup. When I got to do Montreal (Just For Laughs), I had a great set that I was happy with. That was very fulfilling. I get a lot of enjoyment out of making stuff with my friends. This podcast I started in July, I find that to be more fulfilling than anything. No one is telling me what to do. I can do crazy stupid shit. I feel like the most fulfilling the stuff is often the stuff that people care the least about. The things that people notice the most and give the most compliments on are the things that I tend to feel like are inversely proportional in terms of what I put into it.
IK: Let’s talk about your podcast, Twisting the Wind.
JP: I wanted to do one for a long time. Duncan Trussell is one of my best friends and I love this podcast. He told me I should do one. I batted around ideas for a long time, looking for a theme. But I realized I didn’t really need a theme. It is always going to be secondary to what actually comes up.
IK: Music is a big part of your podcast and your comedy. Where did you get your taste in music?
JP: I never thought I was going to do comedy. I wanted to be a musician for a living. I played piano and cello for a while. Then, in 7th grade, I started playing the bass. My friend Steve started a band and we played Smells Like Teen Spirit at talent show and that was basically it. Later we got heavy into jazz. We would just drive around Rochester listening to Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell. We started a jazz trio. Me and my friends, we would just hang out, smoking weed and listening to music. Music was a way to feel connected to something bigger when you were living in a shitty town.
IK: So this is our “Fancy” issue. Your last name bodes well for this, you know.
JP: Do you know my middle name?
JP: It’s de Jarnette.
IK: Shut up.
JP: Yeah. It’s an old French name. I didn’t find this out until I was at the DMV in Los Angeles but I am John de Jarnette Pemberton III. How elitist does that sound?
Check out Johnny’s podcast, Twisting the Wind, listen for Johnny’s voice in upcoming episodes of Adventure Time and Bob’s Burgers and look for Johnny on the new TV comedy Family Tools, premiering on ABC in May.
Sex in the future is gonna be so hot you guys.
Just when I was about to give up on the internet, I stumbled across The Simpsons Archive, an unattractive yet comprehensive catalogue of all things Simpsons. Nestled deep within the archive is a page entitled, “Foods in The Simpsons,” which contains short descriptions of every instance an edible substance appeared in the show. Here are some that brought me extra joy:
Homer sticks his pencils in Marge’s good butter.
At Americatown, they sit at the Massachusetts table and gawk at the price of coleslaw (10,000 yen).
Mr. Burns can’t open his pickle jar.
Apu charges $12 for a quart of milk.
Chief Wiggum tells a truly tasteless joke about hot, buttered corn.
Homer gives a bad review to the slice of pizza he finds under the couch because it has a Hot Wheel on it.
Milhouse likes Vaseline on toast.
Marge tosses salad while Lisa dances around her peach tree.
Hey Pittsburgh, come up and see me sometime (preferably tonight).