Making us laugh comes naturally for homegrown talent
Every time city native Jeremy “JJ” Johnson hits the field at BB&T Ballpark, he is one step closer to achieving his dream of becoming a household name.
As the entertainment co-host for the Winston-Salem Dash, Johnson is charged with keeping thousands of fans entertained between innings. He has garnered a loyal fan base, including a host of youngsters who have come to expect his comedic antics at games.
Johnson, who is in his third season with the team, says landing the Dash gig is among his proudest accomplishments to date.
“I get to perform in front of people in my hometown, and kids around here, they look up to me,” commented Johnson, who works part-time as a teacher in the after-school program at Clemmons Elementary School. “I was in Target once, and this little girl pointed at me and yelled out, ‘Dash!’ … It’s a good feeling when they look up to you and you can actually give them some kind of advice or mentor them a little bit.”
Acting is his first love, but the Mount Tabor High School alumnus said he enjoys all kinds of performing, so much so that he once traversed the nation in pursuit of his passion.
In spring 2001, Johnson, then a student at Appalachian State University, packed his bags and headed for Los Angeles, where he says he spent the better part of a year “couch hopping” and working as an extra on a variety of films and hit television shows, from “ER” and “NYPD Blue,” to “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.” Johnson, who served in the Navy for two years prior to enrolling in college, said he had just $60 to his name when he boarded the LA-bound bus.
“My mom thought I was supposed to go out there for a week, but I ended up staying seven months,” he related. “There were times when I was out there and I didn’t have anywhere to go at night … (but) I did background work out there and met a lot of cool contacts.”
In addition to the film and television work, Johnson spent a great deal of time at famed The Comedy Store in Hollywood, where he rubbed shoulders with comic greats like Eddie Griffin, Andrew Dice Clay and Damon Wayans. Being in the presence of so many industry professionals helped him hone his craft, Johnson said.
“Just by watching them and seeing a high level of standup, I think it did something to me as far as my presence, my energy onstage,” said Johnson, who lists the late Richard Pryor among his favorite comedians. “One night, I got a standing ovation in the Comedy Store, and that right there was like, ‘Oh, I should be doing this.’”
He returned home to the Twin City with a new vigor to continue to develop his skills. He worked on several UNC School of the Arts films and served as a host for Christmas parties at The Enrichment Center, which serves individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. In 2009, Johnson met Sarah Barnhardt, a former Dash co-host and comedienne, and the two quickly became friends. Together, they formed The Comedy Potluck improv show, a compilation of local comedic acts that took to the stage at the Community Arts Cafe on Fourth Street twice a month. The two also performed with the improvisation troupe Nekkid Feet. Barnhardt, who moved to Chicago earlier this year to take courses at the The Second City comedy training center, said her friend’s comic genius is unique.
“He’s just got such an infectious energy, and he’s just got that funny personality. Just being around him, you’ll laugh a lot,” commented the Salem College alumna. “I think it is his personality that sets him apart. He’s approachable – you just like to watch him. He’s got a great face and great physicality.”
Johnson’s persona has earned him the unofficial nickname of “the black Jim Carrey.” Like the famous actor/comedian, Johnson has the ability to be funny without even trying. It was that talent that helped him land the Dash gig.
“I have a really easy time making kids laugh, and I think that’s kind of like my big test because kids are really honest,” said the 37-year-old. “It’s all about not being afraid to take off your cover and just let loose. It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
Johnson recently signed with Carolina Talent, a Charlotte-based talent agency. He dreams of gracing the silver screen in major motion pictures and even owning his own comedy club someday. Thanks in part to the support of the local community, Johnson believes he is on his way.
“I am by no means rolling in the dough or anything, but I feel like I’m getting somewhere,” he said. “…I’m going to go where it takes me.”