Keith Lowell Jensen and Johnny Taylor Jr.: A duo for the ages
How the friendship between Keith Lowell Jensen and Johnny Taylor Jr. drives their comedy to the big leagues
Keith Lowell Jensen and Johnny Taylor Jr. sit outside Temple Coffee, acting and looking roughly the same as when they're doing their stand-up routines.
The wry and deadpan Taylor sips a latte while wearing a plaid shirt and thick-rimmed glasses. His beard is unwieldy, one side of his head shaved. Jensen, animated and verbose, pairs his vegan hot chocolate with an old-timey paperboy cap and goofy grin.
This contrast works brilliantly socially and professionally. No wonder they've performed together over 100 times.
“This is going to sound like delusions of grandeur, but I love thinking of famous duos to compare us to,” Jensen says. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin pop into his head first. Taylor is definitely Martin. Jensen is Lewis. No argument about it.
“Abbott and Costello,” Taylor says. Jensen is Costello. Taylor is Abbott.
“Felix and Oscar,” Jensen says. Jensen is Felix. Taylor is Oscar. Easy.
The two also perform together so much because they're close friends. They will end the year sharing a major achievement: co-headlining three shows at Punch Line Sacramento, a feat few local comics ever reach, particularly ones as DIY—and lacking in TV credits—as Jensen and Taylor.
On a drive to a gig in Turlock a week earlier, they tease each other, swap weird but hilarious stories and ruthlessly complain about Donald Trump. Jensen talks with childlike glee about a mobile game he's been devoting every spare second to called Pocket Mortys, which is based on Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty. Taylor quips: “Keith doesn’t like anything that isn’t a cartoon or has elves.”
It’s the kind of stuff normal friends do, but funnier.
“We bicker on the road, but we’re both joking the whole time, but it’s serious,” Jensen says. “I really am annoying the piss out of him, but it’s funny.”
Jensen booked this particular show and invited Taylor to join him. Both comics are big enough to headline the small, rural town, but they do it together because it’s a chance to hang out.
Taylor used to be Jensen’s go-to opener, but at this point they are neck-and-neck: two sophisticated, developed storytellers with distinct points of view. They regularly get the featured spots at A-list clubs all over the country, having performed alongside the likes of Robin Williams, Roseanne Barr, Louie Anderson, Doug Stanhope and Sacramento’s Brian Posehn. And both are sitting on professionally shot specials that will be released next year—and, depending on distribution, could launch the comics to national headliner status.
Taylor, a former combat sports enthusiast, gym owner and boxing instructor, jumped into comedy only six years ago. But he did so seriously and rapidly, performing about 300 sets in his first year.
“I sacrificed everything: my marriage, social life, relationships with friends and family,” he says.
He recorded his first special, Tangled Up In Plaid after two years, an unheard of length of time for a brand new comedian. With Jensen’s help, he got it released on Stand Up! Records.
“I remember hearing people mocking me for recording a CD,” Taylor says. “People told me, ’You’re not ready.’ It ended up being critically acclaimed. It didn’t get a bad review. It got me signed.”
His second, forthcoming special, Bummin’ With The Devil, is even better. He keeps his pace even-keeled, never rushes a punchline and tells true stories with absurd details. There’s one where he tries and fails to tell off an acquaintance who has the audacity to wear a Metallica St. Anger shirt (their worst album!), and another where Taylor gets a ride from a young, eager comedian who gets in two car accidents on the way to their gig.
Jensen’s upcoming special, Bad Comedy for Bad People, will be his fifth in about 15 years of doing comedy. As a kid he dabbled in skits, magic and ventriloquism, and he loved attention wherever he could find it. At first, he divided his time between stand-up and sketch comedy. In the last decade or so, he’s focused his efforts more exclusively on stand-up—and on building a national audience via YouTube and social media, in true DIY fashion.
His early bits were Andy Kaufman-esque. He tried to tell a single 10-minute story at his first-ever paid gig and bombed. He ended up retelling this story on his first album, 2009’s To The Moon, and killed. Each subsequent album has been a process of more fully embracing his voice as a storyteller.
“It’s sort of realizing who you are,” Jensen says.
He’s already hard at work on his sixth, yet-to-be-filmed special, Not For Rehire, which links together several work-related stories. (Spoiler: He’s gotten fired a lot.) It’s engaging, hilarious and, at the end, so emotional it might bring you to tears.
Their story together began the moment Taylor started comedy. Looking for an open-mic to try out, he Googled “Best Comedian in Sacramento” and came up with “Keith Lowell Jensen,” which led him to Luna’s Cafe & Juice Bar, where Jensen frequently hosted. Taylor approached Jensen about getting on one of his shows. Jensen, not knowing anything about Taylor, immediately said yes.
“He just seemed smart, well-spoken. You can just tell,” Jensen says.
The two clicked right away and pushed each other forward. Over the past several years, they’ve developed their confidence and voice, which, as outspoken, atheist liberals, they admit isn’t for everyone.
The audience in Turlock is one such crowd that gets uncomfortable with some of their content. Jensen makes a Trump joke, commenting on the president-elect’s KKK following. Crickets. Someone in the crowd shouts, “This is Turlock, you know.” Taylor tells a workplace story that has the audience in stitches until the end, when he talks about a co-worker who accidentally loaded up a white power website on her work computer. Silence.
On the drive home, they are a little disappointed, but not really. Their style and integrity is everything to them. They have no interest in toning down their material for an audience.
“The bottom line is, that kind of crowd wasn’t looking for me,” Taylor says. “They wanted someone else.”
A lot of comedians say you should be able to win any crowd. Jensen’s response?
“Yeah, if you want to be boring and have no individual personality,” he says
Ending the year here in their hometown, where they both first crawled onto a stage, nervous, not knowing what to expect, and now getting to be the sole draw in the town’s major comedy club—that’s something special.
“Keith’s a teammate, and he’s also a huge mentor to me. He believed in my comedy when no one knew to believe in it.” Taylor says. “It feels right to do it together. It feels like, ’Wow, we did this shit.’”