Improviser, sketch comedian and performer Dru Johnston ’07 recently took home the 10th annual Andy Kaufman Award. Given in the spirit of the legendary performer, the award recognizes “promising cutting-edge artists with fresh and unconventional material.” The Issaquah/Sammamish, Washington, native, who frequently appears at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City, emailed thoughts on dark humor, full-time comedy and dead cats to Whitman College while listening to the new Taylor Swift album.
Q: On Oct. 12, you won the 10th annual Andy Kaufman Award with a sketch featuring a character named “Dr. Turkey.” [Fans of Kaufman should definitely watch this video.]
Q: You beat out six other semi-finalists for the Andy Kaufman Award, given annually in memory of the performance legend to an artist on the bleeding edge of comedy. The semi-finalists all performed at UCB East that night; what were the best moments from the show?
A: That was a very fun night. All of the contestants were spectacular and really brought their “A games.” [Comedian] TJ Miller also came and performed a 20-minute set at the end of the night and that really blew my mind. He was so effortlessly funny and honest and weird at the same time, and it was just such an honor to share the stage with him. A few of the previous winners also came back and did sets. But the most memorable thing for me was that I didn't realize there would be opening performances so I put on my turkey costume very early, and then for an hour sat backstage with a beak and gobble on, feathers popping out of my suit sleeves and holding a bible. People kept walking past me not knowing what to do with me.
Q: You said in another interview you didn’t expect to win; who did you think was going to win?
A: I honestly could have seen it go to any of the performers that night. It's an interesting comedy competition because it's not entirely dependent on who the funniest is, since there's a lot of emphasis on originality and commitment to be more in line with Andy. At times I worried I wasn't weird enough, then I remembered I was playing a character called Dr. Turkey.
Q: What projects are you working on right now?
I'm currently in production on two new web series that I'm writing and acting in. "Last Two People On Earth" [is a show] I'm creating with my digital team Brinkman, which is comprised of members from the UCB community. It is set to be released in two parts: three episodes in November, three in January. I'm also currently working on a new series with Above Average Productions, Broadway Video's online wing, with a few of my friends from UCB. I'm also working on The Chris Gethard Show and working on a few new scripts.
Q: How did you get involved with The Chris Gethard Show? How would you explain this show to someone who’s never seen it?
A: The Chris Gethard Show is the public access show that I work on. I serve as an executive producer and co-head writer along with my friend Noah Forman. It's weird. That's the best way to describe it. It's a live, interactive call-in show that talks about anything. And I mean anything. We've seriously and openly discussed depression and mental [illness], and then the next week we're building a burrito on Chris' belly. Anything and everything. It's a comedy show that we call the weirdest, and often saddest, show in New York.
Q: What does your schedule look like in an average week?
A: It varies week to week. Every Saturday at 10.30 p.m. I perform with my improv team Grandma's Ashes at the UCB Theatre in Chelsea, and every Wednesday at 11 p.m. is the Chris Gethard Show, but outside of that it depends. On some weeks, I might have upwards of 10 shows, where there's three shows in one night and I have to sprint from theater to theater, and then other weeks I might have none. But those weeks are usually full of rehearsals, teaching, production meetings or writing. Those weeks are often more hectic than the performance weeks. Performing is almost like blowing off steam, and the prep is where the real work is.
Q: How would you describe your comedic sensibility to someone who’s never seen you perform?
A: My humor tends to be smart subject matter approached in the dumbest way possible. I love taking science, math, history, all the liberal arts stuff that I learned at Whitman, and finding what the petty human take on it is. I'd say the sketch that's the most inline with what I find funny is called Schrödinger's Cat, based on the paradox of the same name. The paradox is obviously way more complicated than this, involving radiation, quantum uncertainty principles and other things I did not learn about when I was getting my theater degree, but whenever you hear about Schrödinger's Cat it's always boiled down to the idea that if you put a cat inside of a box the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead, because there's no way to know for sure. And I said that's silly. If a cat is dead it's going to smell bad. Maybe you can't be sure if it's alive or dead but if flies are hovering around it you can make an educated guess. So in my sketch, Schrödinger puts a cat inside of a box for a few weeks, it clearly dies, and then he keeps telling people he has no idea what's going on. It's the one I submitted originally for the Andy Kaufman Awards, and the one that got me through to the finals. I like dark humor, and I especially love that gray area where genius and idiocy meet up.
Q: From 2009-2010, during your The Year of the Blog project, you started a new blog every day for a year – 365 new sites filled with such tidbits as reviews of pudding and beer, Snickers ad parodies and analyses of Train lyrics. Why did you do that?
A: I love this question because it's exactly what people asked me while I was doing it. "Okay... so, why are you doing this?" The Year of the Blog was something I started sort of out of desperation. I was kind of hanging around NYC taking classes and working full-time and wasn't really pushing myself to create, then I had a horrible month where I bombed a number of auditions, was rejected by a number of theaters and festivals, and wasn't creating nearly as much comedy as I wanted to. Also I had a few bad dates; I'm sure that didn't help. So I created The Year of the Blog as a way to force myself to write, and force myself to create. Looking back, that was an insane thing to do, but I am so happy I did it. Within two months I was featured in theNY Post and BuzzFeed and by the end of the year everything that seemed so horrible made a complete 180. I started the project a month after I didn't get a callback at the UCB Theatre, and then literally the day after the project ended I performed in my first show there. It was a great reminder to never get lazy and to keep creating.
Q: Did you know that another Whitman alumnus recently joined the band Train as a drummer?
A: I did! Drew Shoals [’05] is a very good friend of mine. We were on the Testostertones together back at Whitman and have hung out in the city. I was also immediately jealous. I really love Train. I own all of their albums.
Q: Billy Joel himself posted a Facebook response to “Sketches From an Italian Restaurant,” the show you wrote and performed with fellow comedian Don Fanelli ostensibly devoted to the genius of Billy Joel. Thoughts on this?
A: I love Billy Joel. So does Don. We created that show because we used to tour together doing comedy shows at different colleges and we would blast “Piano Man” in the car and sing along. We wrote that show as a sort of love note. The fact that Billy Joel has heard my name and knows that I exist makes me so happy I can't even begin to describe it. Although I will point out that three hours after he posted it someone took the post down. We're not sure why this was. Maybe it was an intern who put it up and Billy took it down. Maybe it was the other way around. Either way, Billy Joel knows I exist. And that's all I've ever wanted.
Q: How did studying theater at Whitman prepare you for a future in improv and sketch comedy?
A: The funny thing about comedy, especially sketch and improv, is that you have to be a good actor to do it really well. You mug to the audience or sell the script out and the whole audience is going to turn on you. I constantly go back to acting exercises I had while I studied at Whitman. The only difference is instead of doing it for Twelfth Night I'm doing it for Fart Doctor.
Studying at Whitman was one of the most invaluable experiences of my life. It taught me to be a performer, it taught me subtlety and it taught me commitment. More importantly it helped me realize what I wanted from the theater. The best part of the theater program at Whitman is how expansive and immersive it is. Eight plays a year is unheard of in other colleges the size of Whitman (and even some that are bigger), and then the access they gave us to create our own theater in the form of late night shows or lunch boxes really meant the sky was the limit. It helped us find our voice, and gave us the reps to attack the theater scene outside of Walla Walla. It also gives you a wonderful network of professors and friends who believe in you and your work.
Q: What have been your favorite gigs/projects in the last few years, considering all the teams/troupes you’ve performed with since moving to NYC?
A: Oh man, there's a lot. The Billy Joel show was and is one of my favorite things I've ever worked on. I'm extremely proud of it. I remember that first show with my team Sandino at the UCB Theatre after working to get on a team for years. That holds a special place in my heart. Bellevue, my most recent sketch team, was really something special. And I love performing improv every Saturday with Grandma's Ashes. But probably the one that immediately pops out was the pilot we shot of The Chris Gethard Show for Comedy Central. It was a wonderful week where we really felt like the underdogs won. We were actually making a pilot for a network, and just sitting in the writer's room was really sobering. Then three days later the Seahawks won the Super Bowl.
Q: PACT is the first web series from UCB Digital Team Brinkman. What was producing this series like? What kinds of challenges does video present that live performance doesn’t?
A: Video is a completely different beast, but one that I'm extremely happy to get into. On stage you can get away with a lot. Especially at the UCB, where there is never a set, a lot of it is up to the imagination of the audience. That's not the case with video. Luckily I'm working with some fantastic filmmakers who really want to make something that looks better than just the run-of-the-mill stuff you see on YouTube. One of the things we wanted was really make sure it was more of a movie, and less of a webcam video. But that of course then required hours of hours of production. I can't really take much credit for the production, as I willingly admit I don't know what I'm doing, but I know my friends Chet and Jason spent hours and hours trying to find a funeral home that would let us shoot a comedy series. It was not easy.
Q: What’s next for you in comedy? Life?
A: To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. I'm working on a new live show and have a few other writing projects in the tank. But really it's incredibly hard to plan because I don't know what's coming tomorrow, let alone next week or next month or next year. Five years ago I was in the middle of making a brand new blog every day because I didn't know what I was doing with my life. So who knows what the next five will bring. The only thing I know for sure is that I'm going to keep writing and keep creating, and whatever happens after that is out of my control. Or at least out of sight. And I'll embrace it when it comes.
Also, I'm going to think about starting up a 401K. I had to put that down in case my dad reads this.