Johnny Millwater may look like a goof, but he's serious about one thing: comedy. One of the city's rising stars of stand-up, Millwater has been bubbling with big jokes in the funny business for 14 years -- and his current act proves those years were well spent. He took the time to speak with Creative Loafing about his life as a local comedian, touring and his hopes for the comedy scene here in Charlotte.
Creative Loafing: So where are you from originally?
Johnny Millwater: I grew up in Tampa, Fla. I lived there for about 18 years, and then I moved to Orlando for about six or seven ... We -- myself and my wife -- lived in the car and traveled from gig to gig for two years and moved to Charlotte in, I believe it was, 2003 or 2004.
How long have you worked as a comedian?
Since I was 17 years old. This is my 14th year. It's the only career I ever wanted. I was one of those lucky guys who knew, even as a kid, what I wanted to do.
How did you know?
I started doing magic when I was 11 and did that until I was about 17, but even the magic was funny. I guess I knew when I was 14. My sister also did stand-up, and I saw one of her shows. They snuck me into the back, and I sat up at the balcony and watched her do a competition. It was just unlike anything I'd ever seen, and that's when I knew that's what I wanted to be.
You've opened for popular acts in the world of comedy, like Dustin Diamond and Ralphie May. When did all that start?
Actually, just in the last year. I've never really toured with anybody until Ralphie May started taking me with him this year. It's incredible. It's not the same glory as headlining, but last weekend [May] took me to Richmond and we had six shows with about 600 people each. So, I got to make 15,000 people laugh or more than that at the max.
So, does Ralphie May just call you up and ask you to open for him?
His wife is also a comedian. She's a woman named Lahna Turner. She usually opens for him, but she recently had their second baby. So whenever she's not available, he calls me with usually about a week's notice. If I'm available, I'll go out for the whole week usually.
Do you tour a lot?
Oh, non-stop. I have 230,000 miles on my car, and we just bought that one in 2005. I think there's around 230,000 on the other one, too. We have two Saturns, and they've been driven everywhere. I love to travel. One of my favorite things is the chance to see what other parts of the country look like and the different people. It gives you a really good feel for America. It's really quite a privilege. I'm a touring headliner, technically, for about seven years now, which means usually I'm the main guy at the show. But, [I] usually draw crowds of 50-100 people, just because they've never heard of me.
How do you come up with your material, as well as new ideas for your act?
Being a comedian, believe it or not, is a full-time job. It's 24 hours, seven days a week. I've got a notebook in my pocket, and I've got a pen in my shirt -- and every time I see something funny or I think of something funny or I get something in my head, I just write it down. But, it's just observing all day, every day. A couple times a week, I sit down and I write new jokes. And from the new jokes come the open mics where people aren't necessarily paying to see comedy, they are paying to do comedy -- and that's a great place to try out new material and iron it out. It's like a rock tumbler. They used to put a diamond in this big old tube like a dryer, and then they put hundreds of little rocks in there and they turn it over and over and over and over again to polish it. It's the friction that causes it to polish. And it's the open mics and the road that take it from a kind-of-funny idea to a fully functional comedy dip. It's actually surprisingly complex.
What are your hopes for the comedy scene here in Charlotte?
I think one of our guys in the next year or so is going to break out huge. Somebody is going to break apart where the community actually cares about it. Once that happens, then they can start coming to shows. I mean, the army is there; we've got comedians. It's a really talented city, but we still haven't drawn the audience that any of these people deserve. And I think over the next year or so, all of the shows are going to be full, people are going to start caring about it again. People are going to realize that things are going on and come out and be a part of it. In this economy, people need laughing more than anything in the world. Everybody's got their own style of comedy. It really is an art form ... I would love for stand-up comedy to be perceived as an art form, at least here in Charlotte, by people that don't do it. The only way for that to happen is to come out to the shows and have some fun.