by Ryan Meehan
In June of 1987, John Basinger was working as a nurse and heading into a predictable middle age existence. Perhaps it was a mid-life crisis that caused him to take the name Honest John and start running around Los Angeles telling jokes. “I just went anywhere I could get on stage,” he recalls, “clubs, coffeehouses, bars, restaurants, anywhere I could get up. After a while I was like a fanatic, I just couldn’t do it enough. I knew that this is what I was meant to do.” Then one Thursday night, a comedian named Gerald McQuirter invited him to an open mic at the Comedy Act Theater, one of the foremost black venues in the country. “Actually, he dragged me along with him, just called me up and said, ‘Saddle up, John, we’re going,’ and I got up and slammed.” Soon, Honest John became a fixture on the black circuit in the Los Angeles area. “People would come up to me on the street and ask where I was going to perform next. It blew my mind.” Triumphant appearances on BET’s Comicview, HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, and Showtime at the Apollo introduced him to fans all across the country, leading to appearances at clubs and theaters nationwide and a two year run on the Def Comedy Jam tour. He has also done many military tours in places as far away as Korea, Okinawa, and Japan. He has guest starred on The Jamie Foxx Show, The Lyricist Lounge Show, and Showtime in Harlem. He can also be seen in films like The Wash, For da Love of Money, Foolish, and plenty of other other urban comedies. We are stoked to have Honest John today as our guest today in 10 questions.
RM: First off, how did you come to end up going by the name “Honest John”? Who gave you that designation in the first place; and can that be a difficult moniker to live up to at certain times where being honest about something can actually be a bad thing?
HJ: Nobody gave me the name Honest John, I took it, because the comedians I admire the most, Pryor, Carlin, Bill Hicks and others had a lot of truth in their comedy. As far as living up to the name, well it’s a stage name so I only have to be honest then. In my real life I try my best, but total honesty is not always a good idea in the real world.
RM: How did you go about making the transition from folk singer to comedian? On a scale of one to ten how would you have rated your folk songwriting abilities in your prime and why?
HJ: I was always funny on stage, so all I did was stop singing. But seriously, stand up was a craft I had to learn, just like everyone else, I was a pretty good singer and songwriter, as a matter of fact, I wrote and performed the theme song for “White Boyz in The Hood” which aired on Showtime.
RM: For those individuals who have not had the chance to experience a show at the World Famous Comedy Store, how would you best describe the environment that surrounds that venue? How much of that aura can solely be attributed to the fact that performers tend to elevate their game because of the history associated with that location?
HJ: I don’t really get that many spots at The Comedy Store. The Laugh Factory gives me a lot more bookings. But I believe that you always give your best effort no matter where you are.
RM: Why is it that you think your brand of comedy seems to be such a hit with predominantly African-American audiences? Was that ever your initial intention when you first began developing your act; and when you are in the middle of constructing a new bit do you ever find yourself pondering how a black audience might respond to a certain set of jokes?
HJ: No, I didn’t plan on being an urban comic, but once I was introduced to it I just loved it. As for the reason why it works for me, I can’t say for sure, when magic comes into your life you just go with it. You don’t try to analyze it.
RM: Ageism is defined as “the stereotyping and discriminating against individuals on the basis of their age” and can be either casual or systematic in nature. Given that the business of entertainment tends to participate in this practice as much if not more than other industries, how have you managed to remain relevant and successful for two decades at your age? Do you think dealing with that issue is more a matter of approach more than an the actual difference in age itself; and are you the type of performer that actually feeds off the challenge of winning the audience over as “the old guy”?
HJ: You stay relevant by staying involved, by being open to new stuff, and by not settling into a routine. That’s how it works for everyone, not just old geezers like me.
RM: How does an individual such as yourself breathe life back into a show that is losing momentum before you hit the stage? Do you view that as a pass/fail scenario as far as steering that ship in the right direction, or do you think that there is a certain amount of grey area there that you have to aim for and just hope for better results?
HJ: It’s a real challenge, sometimes you succeed sometimes you don’t. You have to acknowledge where the audience is at. You can’t pretend it’s not happening, but you can’t act like you’re intimidated or that you’ve given up. Just deal with it honestly and do your best. I do well more often than not, but nobody bats 1000.
RM: What’s the most bizarre thing that’s happened to you on stage in all of your years doing stand-up? How did you react to that situation; and if it happened to you tonight do you think you’d respond in the same manner?
HJ: One time the guy who booked me didn’t tell me it was a clean show until I was already on stage and had already done a little blue humor. Another time I was sick and almost passed out. After that show a rumor went around that I had died. I almost got to go to my own funeral. I swear it’s true, just ask around…
RM: Are there any topics which you choose to avoid discussing on stage and/or writing about in general? If so, is your decision to not explore those areas of everyday life based on fear of alienating a fraction of potential audiences, or lack of overall comfort in examining those subjects in a public forum?
HJ: I don’t do rape jokes. This is not the best time for them. I’m not saying that nobody should. But it better be a damn good joke, and the laugh can’t come at the expense of the victim.
RM: If your answer to this question can’t be “equal parts both”, would you classify what you do for a living as more of an art or a science? Why do you think that classification rings true with not only your stand-up act, but your writing process as well?
HJ: It’s an art, but it’s also a craft. And you have to understand the rules, even when you break them. The trouble with show business is that it feels like a party. If you get caught up in that, it will bring you down. You have to show up on time, prepared and ready to work. And you can never mail it in. Even when you’re doing a bit you’ve been doing for years you have to be focused and involved. You can’t be satisfied either, you have to strive to get better.
RM: What is the biggest difference between working on a television show and working on the set of a major motion picture? What would you say are the best examples of advantages and drawbacks with regards to each medium?
HJ: I’m sure there are a lot of people who know more about that than I do. When I’m acting I focus on the other actors, in order to react to them in a genuine manner but also to learn from them.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
HJ: I’ve been doing some acting on Russell Simmons’ All Def Digital channel. I’m very excited about that, especially since he’s starting up All Def Films. And my management is starting up Laff Mobb Films, so the future looks very exciting.
John on IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0424176/
Honest John on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/honest.john.79
Honest John on Twitter: https://twitter.com/realhonestjohn
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