by Steve Peterson
Jay Johnson made his Broadway debut at the Helen Hayes Theatre starring in the show he both wrote and performed, “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only” which garnered him the 2007 Tony Award for Best Theatrical Event. Four months prior to the Broadway opening, the show played the Colony Theatre in Burbank and won the Los Angeles Ovation Award for Best Solo Show. The previous season, the show had been produced Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company where it earned rave reviews and a coveted Lucille Lortel Award. Jay Johnson is a writer, comic, ventriloquist, poet, magician, and puppeteer. He has written and performed in TV specials for NBC, CBS, and HBO, and has hundreds of appearances on variety specials and talk shows including “The Tonight Show” (with Johnny Carson and with Jay Leno) and “The David Letterman Show.” He has been featured in more than 30 national commercials. Jay’s acting credits include appearances on “CSI”, “That 70’s Show”, “Dave’s World”, “Night Court” and others too numerous to mention. Jay Johnson is best remembered for his role as the schizophrenic ventriloquist Chuck and Bob’ on the ABC classic TV comedy “Soap”.
When did you first get interested in performing ?
I started doing voices and operating puppets as early as five years old. They tell me I was playing with a disconnected telephone when they heard what they thought was a voice coming from the receiver. It was me exercising a natural talent for ventriloquism that no one knew I had… especially me.
What drew you to ventriloquism?
I grew up with a mild form of dyslexia so I became interested in things that did not involve math, writing or spacial directions. Ventriloquism seemed to fit that bill.
Did you have a mentor or mentors along the way encouraging you in the performance art of ventriloquism, as an actor or comic?
Several people were there to guide me along my journey. Having nothing to do with my career or ventriloquism, my third grade teacher Mrs Gordon was the first to identify my learning challenges. Most significant in my career was the man who carved my first professional ventriloquist puppet; a man by the name of Arthur Sieving.
The “unlikely” solo show, “The Two and Only,” which you wrote and performed, garnered you the Los Angeles Ovation Award for Best Solo Show in 2006 and the 2007 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. How did the show come about? Where were you when heard your show had been nominated for a Tony? How did you feel about winning the award and what did it mean to you?
I think being a solo show was our greatest obstacle on the way to Broadway. The subject matter of “ventriloquism” seems to be unlikely to some, particularly to those who say they want to see something different in the theater. Even though the cast consisted of one human being and 11 different “wooden American actors” it still had to jump through the same investor/producer/theater hoops.
I was actually in New York for the ceremony giving the original Bob puppet to the Smithsonian Institution when the Tony nominations were announced. It was an interesting morning. Things changed for the show and for me from that second on. It was a satisfying feeling to be recognized and ultimately win a Tony for the show that even now some consider “unlikely” even today.
Tell us a bit about the new show you are performing as a benefit fundraiser for the Group Rep. (if you are connected to the Group Rep in any way, please add a sentence or two about that before talking about the new solo show).
I have been a friend of Stan Mazin since the days of the Carol Burnett show when he and my wife danced together. Stan has been involved with the Group Rep for a long time so it was natural that I would know about this theater company and want to support it. Stan is the one who asked me to do this special event, and I was delighted. Excess Baggage is just what is seems to be. The show is composed of some of the things that didn’t make it into “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only”, and some of my favorite moments that did.
Do you have a future project that you’re working on?
I will always be planning my next stage experience. Although some producers have suggested doing “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only – On ICE” I don’t really like to play arenas.
Is there anything you wish to add?
I was not weird as a child. I did not use ventriloquism to trick my playmates. I had plenty of friends. Ventriloquist puppets are NOT creepy. And ventriloquism is not schizophrenia. And YES I did see all those “Twilight Zone” episodes which would dispute everything I have said about ventriloquism.
The Group Rep presents Tony Award-winning Jay Johnson in a new one-man show, “Excess Baggage,” a special One Night Only fundraiser for the Group Rep. Best known for playing the schizophrenic role of Chuck and Bob on the groundbreaking TV comedy “Soap,” Jay Johnson is one of the world’s most famous living ventriloquists. The event is co-produced by Jeannine Jackson and Stan Mazin. "Excess Baggage" will take place Saturday, August 19 at 8:00 pm. Tickets are $50 and are tax deductible. Buy tickets www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990. Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.