With two new records and his first book—Punching Nazis—Keith Lowell Jensen keeps the comedy coming.
It’s September 14, 2016. Local comedian Keith Lowell Jensen is perched on the modest Luna’s Café stage. Several comedians are lingering around the venue, including Johnny Taylor Jr., Cory Barringer, Jaclyn Weiand and Becky Lynn, who opened the show. The sold-out crowd waits in anticipation for Jensen’s first-ever performance of Not For Rehire, a collection of stories about his long string of shitty, menial jobs.
Jensen opens the set by asking audience members to raise their hands in the air and wave their fingers to “start the magic.” It feels like we’re in kindergarten, but it’s effective in loosening up the crowd.
Although he’s a seasoned storyteller-comic, this is a new realm for Jensen: a full hour of themed stories with a narrative arc and some serious and emotional moments that don’t stray from the most important component: comedy. It’s an advanced level of performance for a comedian of any stature. And the stories are killing.
He does some KFC material where he recounts his antics with a co-worker and unlikely ally named Tony—a metalhead—as they take turns breading and deep-frying their fingers. One day Jensen ups the ante by sticking his entire breaded hand in the deep-fryer, using it to scare kids and earning Tony’s undying respect.
It’s rough, but it’s clearly an amazing hour of stand-up. And I’m amazed at the speed at which it came together. Not seven months earlier, I was at the taping of Jensen’s previous special, Bad Comedy for Bad People, itself a solid hour of thoughtful, mostly storytelling comedy.
Jensen works at a fast pace and has plans to continue to release an album a year. He’s hoping to build a fan base much the way indie rock bands do, rather than take the standard approach in comedy of moving to Los Angeles and getting some TV credits under his belt.
In 2016, Jensen says, his label, Stand Up! Records, stalled the release of Bad Comedy For Bad People. That in effect delayed the taping of Not For Rehire, and put his plans on hold.
Amid the frustration, two unexpected things happened: Comedy label 800 Pound Gorilla made a deal with him for a “greatest hits” record, and, even more surprising, he stumbled into a book deal. And now, here we are in the spring of 2018, and it’s all coming out. Bad Comedy For Bad People was released on March 30, Greatest Bits gets released in May (clips have been playing on SiriusXM’s Laugh USA for a few months—he was, “Featured Comic” in February), and his book Punching Nazis: And Other Good Ideas gets released on May 1.
As for Not For Rehire, Jensen will be performing that at Upstairs at The B on May 12, and it’ll probably be the next special to get taped. This sudden mad release schedule is preferable to Jensen.
“I want to constantly be putting things out,” he says. “The Beatles made an average of two albums a year. Woody Allen made a movie every year. I can do this. I’m not as polished as some of the comedians that I like. It’s like comparing punk rock to something that’s really polished and well-rehearsed. I like both, but I know what I am, and my stuff’s a little more rough. And I put out a lot of it. I’m Thee Headcoats of comedy (referring to the great British garage-punk band).”
This onslaught of material finds Jensen at an important moment in his career. At 46, he’s been doing comedy for more than 15 years, and has been the local “it” comic for much of that time, with obvious potential to go big. He’s already developed a cult audience in various U.S. cities, traveled to China to do comedy and had various other accomplishments. (He cites being on George Lopez’s late night show Lopez Tonight, impersonating Chris Rock for Chris Rock, as a personal favorite.)
He’s also encouraged several local comics who have gone on to big things, including Kiry Shabazz (who made a recent appearance on The Tonight Show), JR de Guzman, and the aforementioned Johnny Taylor Jr., who currently lives in LA and is working on a TV show called Sick Joke with visual artist Anousha Hutton.
“Keith was really the first person in the scene that gave me a shot,” says Taylor, who started doing comedy in Sacramento about seven years ago. “Keith is such a gifted storyteller. His latest special with Stand Up! Records is his best hour to date in my opinion. With the book and the greatest hits album, it could create Keith-mania! I’m excited for him to be recognized for what an amazing comic he is.”
It’s the summer of 2017, and Jensen can’t believe he’s holding a signed contract and an advance from Skyhorse Publishing—that he’s being paid to write an actual book that people will be able to buy. It also terrifies him, and he spits out the first draft in three months in a state of panic.
“I can’t stop writing because I have to prove to myself that I can do it,” Jensen recalls. “I need that advance. I’m broke. I’m like, ’Holy shit they’re going to ask for this back.’”
After submitting the draft and waiting a few days for the editor to get back to him to tell him what she thought of it—she loved it—he nearly fell apart with relief and immense emotion.
“When I hung up, I went and bought a burrito and sat down and cried,” Jensen says.
Before Punching Nazis, Jensen had written a few books of first-person stories, but they were limited to small self-publishing runs and a couple of rejection letters. He first had dreams of being a writer in the fourth grade. Many years later, he wrote a book-version of Not For Rehire, which is much different than his stage performance, before he taped his first special To The Moon in 2009.
Writing has always been important to Jensen. In his younger years, he wrote for punk zine Flipside in high school and contributed to SN&R from 2001-2007; when he interviewed other artists in these pages, he tended to insert himself in the stories quite a bit. He tells me a story with glee about interviewing a band and opening the resulting article by describing the stench of the cat litter box in the basement of the house where they rehearsed, a detail that annoyed the band.
Punching Nazis is a different kind of a book, and he’s a little uncomfortable with it. About half of it is first-person stories, mostly about his experiences in the late ’80s and early ’90s Sacramento punk and underground art scene, where he dealt first-hand with white supremacists. That part, he’s happy with. The other half contains interviews and persuasive essays.
“I didn’t want to write this book at all,” Jensen says, immediately acknowledging that, “that’s probably a horrible thing to say to promote it.”
“I’m a high school dropout and a heterosexual white cisgender male trying to write about social justice,” he says. “I’m not sure that I’m qualified to do that. I’m just waiting for some really cool social justice hero of mine to fucking slam it and tell me what a moron I am.”
The book deal started out, oddly enough, with a fight on Facebook, something Jensen gets flack for, but feels vindicated about. It began following Trump’s inauguration, when out-and-proud white supremacist Richard Spencer got punched in the face while he was giving an on-camera interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The video clip of this punch went viral, sparking heated debates among liberals as to whether it is OK to punch white supremacists like Spencer, who is credited with coining the term “alt-right.” Jensen argued vehemently in favor of Nazi-punching.
“I’ve lost several friends over it,” he says. “I’m sorry, but they’re all white guys. Anyone who’s actually faced any kind of racist or bigoted violence is sort of OK with not letting these alt-right guys play the game of being civilized while they build strength. I’m not telling anybody they should personally punch a Nazi, but they should shut the fuck up criticizing Antifa and other people that are punching Nazis.”
One of his friends, Carrie Poppy, host of skeptic-themed investigative podcast Oh No Ross and Carrie and the Disneyland-oddity podcast Hidden Mickeys, made a comment to Jensen about how he and everyone talking about punching Nazis had never met a Nazi. Jensen replied that—not-so-fast, he’d met quite a few. He’d even seen a guy a few days earlier at a science fiction convention with an exposed Nazi tattoo. No one seemed to notice or care. This guy took pictures with Captain America, who, as Jensen says with much disappointment, was not punching him. (“Not seeing white racism is a feature of white privilege.”)
Poppy was intrigued.
“I felt like most people talking about it, myself included, were kind of talking out of our asses,” she says. “We didn’t know what we’d do if we were confronted with that situation. Here was this person that said, ’I’ve been there.’”
At the time, she was being offered a book deal by Skyhorse, but was too busy with other projects, so she suggested her friend Jensen, who, she said, was working on a book about punching Nazis. The publishers were interested, but Jensen wasn’t sure he was. In fact, he wasn’t actually working on a book about punching Nazis; he was just ranting about it on Facebook. The publishers were interested. But Jensen wasn’t sure he was.
“At first he was like, ’I really want to write this book about Christmas.’ I was like, ’Keith, don’t write a book about Christmas, whatever you do,’” Poppy says. “It just seemed like he had this really specific, unique thing he could do.”
Jensen decided to give it a shot and wrote a proposal.
His book is a unique portal into America’s white supremacy problem, specifically the country’s short-term memory, and it’s done with a lot of humor. When Spencer first broke into the mainstream consciousness sieg heiling to a group of alt-righters and praising Donald Trump, many well-intended liberals were shocked. Even moreso later, when Jason Kessler rallied hundreds of white supremacists from around the country to Charlottesville, who showed up, unashamed, with nothing covering their faces and ready to march in the Unite the Right rally.
This is a problem that has existed long before Trump took office and Spencer showed up in the mainstream media. The punk scene, oddly, has been a place where Nazis regularly reared their ugly skinheads, despite getting overt push-back from people in that scene. It served as a not-so-gentle reminder of how alive and thriving these toxic ideas actually are and have always been in the history of this country.
“That’s where fairly-privileged white dudes knew something that other people have been privileged not to,” Jensen says.
One interview in the book reveals a story in early ’90s when several East Bay punk bands, including Green Day, played a Sacramento show that was overrun by skinheads. It turned into a big fight, and the members of Green Day were chased around the streets. Soon after, their Slappy 7-inch EP came out, with a booklet that included the phrase “Green Day won’t play Sacto.” The band refused to play here until their Dookie record came out years later.
Many of Jensen’s stories cover a different, but all too familiar topic of American racism: learning that seemingly nice white people might in fact be white supremacists. Jensen writes about meeting an older man in a hotel lobby. They laughed and talked about movies and hit it off. As Jensen was leaving, the old man shocked him by saying something incredibly racist, oh so casually.
Jensen writes: “This is where I discovered how invisible racism and racists can be to white people. They’re not always sporting white-power tattoos. Sometimes they don’t even have goatees, or hipster Hitler haircuts. Sometimes they’re the sweet old dude who discusses movies with you.”
OUT IN THE WORLD, AND BACK TO sAC
Not For Rehire concludes with the first job Jensen ever loved: Working for Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation (and Spike and Mike’s Twisted Festival of Animation). Not For Rehire ends up being a bit of an homage to Spike and Mike co-founder Mike Gribble, who was the first person to put Jensen in front of a crowd with a microphone—to introduce the show, and tell jokes.
He traveled with Spike and Mike in 1994 and on and off again for the next decade. It was through this experience that he was inspired to make creative, amazing things happen when he returned to Sacramento.
He started the Tuesday Night Grindhouse cult movie series at the Colonial Theatre in 1999, which was moved to the Crest Theatre, re-branded and co-created with Christy Savage and Darin Wood as Trash Film Orgy in 2001. Jensen hosted the events, which included sketch comedy, scantily clad women, crazy antics and, of course, B-movies galore.
“We were driving motorcycles through the theater,” Jensen recalls of the festival’s early days. “We had Mexican wrestling. We had guns go off—they were blanks, but we still got the SWAT team called on us one night. After the move to the Crest, the rules were a little stricter.
He left Trash Film Orgy in 2003; Savage and Wood continued on without him, and Jensen would make occasional guest appearances. Before leaving, he and some of the Trash Film Orgy cast pursued an idea of his and started the sketch group I Can’t Believe It’s Not Comedy. Somewhere in that time, he also started doing stand-up.
His first-ever paying gig, after only doing four or five open-mics, was at Laughs Unlimited. He told a single 10-minute story, but it didn’t go well. (“I bombed my dick off.”) So he shied away from storytelling comedy for a while, leaning toward absurd characters instead, including Francois Fly, a house fly who told fly-related jokes.
He jumped head-first into stand-up after a weekend of shows at the Geary, opening up for cult absurdist comic Brent Weinbach in 2003. It was there that Jensen first started talking on stage about atheism, giving what he felt was an honest expression of his viewpoint and sharing true snippets about himself.
“That was the night stand-up beat out sketch,” Jensen says. “I did material that was super near and dear to my heart, which is something I always found easier to do in sketch than in stand-up. I really love stand-up, but I love a lot of things. It was the one giving me the immediate reward.”
The deeper he got into comedy, the more he worked to make Sacramento a comedy town. Weinbach credits Jensen with building the [scene] here.
“If I wanted to do a show in Sacramento, he was the guy I would turn to,” Weinbach says, “because I knew he was really trying to cultivate a cool comedy scene there. I knew if he was involved with putting on a show in Sacramento, it was going to be a good show. He was definitely a man of the town.”
Jensen and Weinbach stayed friends. Weinbach gave Jensen a shoutout last year during a game on the TV show @midnight with Chris Hardwick. A while back, Weinbach even tried building a bit around an announcer introducing “Keith Lowell Jensen” several times in variously increasing bizarre and exaggerated ways. (“His name has a ring to it.”)
On his first special, To The Moon, Jensen retold the 10-minute joke that he bombed on years earlier, and nailed it—the story was also called “To The Moon.” His second record, Cats Made of Rabbits, nearly got picked up by Comedy Central Records, but they took too long making up their mind, so he decided to release it himself in 2011.
“I’ve got a Jonas Brothers reference in here, Jensen explains. “I kind of have to put it out. It’s expiring.”
Bad Comedy for Bad People, his fifth record, is another step toward storytelling. “I always loved the old man with stories to tell,” Jensen explains. “I think it’s a good idea for a comedian in his 40s to do a longer produced piece that has a common theme and a plot arc to the whole thing,” Jensen says. “Even in my 20s, I didn’t know if I’d ever have kids, but I wanted to be the uncle with good stories. I guess that’s sort of the uncle I am on stage now.”
The second half of the Not For Rehire show at Luna’s is rockier than the first, but it’s riveting, even with its flaws. I watch as Jensen struggles through delivering emotional material about his time with Spike and Mike’s Mike Gribble. Jensen cries at one point, recounting Gribble’s death, but it’s the pep talk that Gribble gives him a little before that scene that is its most potent.
He confronts Jensen about the way he’s half-assing everything in his life. He has him look around at the magic that he is creating—they are traveling around the world showing weird cartoons to eager fans—and invites him to either join his magic full-on or go create his own—but whatever he chose to do, to give it his all, and embrace life 100 percent. This had a profound effect, Jensen says, and fueled his work ethic, focus and drive in all aspects of his life.
There’s a part of Jensen that feels disappointed at the level his comedy career is at all these years later, but he’s also proud at what he’s created while determinedly not leaving Sacramento for LA, and not living 365 days a year on the road, either, so he could be home with his family. As driven as he is, he never wanted comedy to dominate every aspect of his life, and he’s stubbornly stuck to that creed.
“I could space them out,” he jokes of everything happening right now. “No. Fuck that. Let’s just throw them all out there. I want to put as much out there as I can before Trump blows the world up or I die. Both of which are coming.”
What he’s really excited about is more than everything coming out right now, it’s that everything appears lined up for him to have the support so that he can finally be releasing new material on a consistent, annual basis.
He tells me that he has his next four projects already mapped out, and like Not For Rehire, they are all themed-storytelling concepts. As he tells me about each one in detail, he realizes that, in fact, he has his next five ideas already worked out. But first, he needs to tape Not For Rehire.