Robot Johnson, the Q.C.'s most renowned sketch comedy troupe, is anything but mechanical. Its show, which head honcho Sean Keenan describes as "Saturday Night Live in Charlotte," isn't controlled, but rather developed through a crafty cast of opinionated humorists.
Taking a break from his job working with stage props on the set of Army Wives in Charleston, S.C., Keenan reminisced on how Robot Johnson crafted its slogan "Good humor by bad people."
"Originally when we started ... there were a lot of guys in the group ... they were guys that if you met them, you wouldn't necessary like them," says Keenan. "The show itself was funny and some of those guys ended up leaving, but the slogan stuck."
Keenan, originally from Hartford, Conn., moved to Charlotte in 1994. Immediately following his arrival, he became active in The Perch Theatre's sketch team. After a 10-year stint (from 1994-2004) with The Perch, it dispersed.
Four years ago, still itching to make folks laugh, Keenan launched Robot Johnson. The moniker comes from a former nickname Keenan earned through his work in the movie/commercial biz.
Robot Johnson is currently comprised of 15 members, seven of which are old-timers who participated in the troupe's first performance at Spirit Square. Out of the 15, there are two separate crews; this means when one crew is running a show, the other is rehearsing. "We're about to go from a monthly show to a weekly show. Basically, there will be a new show every two weeks," says Keenan, disclosing that he just shook hands (though a contract has yet to be signed) with the owners of The Mill at Boudreaux's. The owners recently purchased the new space (the former spot of Real Eyes Bookstore, which moved next door) in NoDa, where — if all goes according to plan — Robot Johnson will soon dominate. The troupe also plans to continue performing quarterly shows at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre and elsewhere around town for special shows.
Performing two New Year's Eve shows at Duke Energy Theatre, Robot Johnson let its biggest claim to fame — Talking Baby — pop back out of the womb. The character, a baby doll known for using vulgar language to critically review films, was "born" at The Perch during a late-night rehearsal. Later, Talking Baby appeared on Fox News Edge with Mark Mathis and from there it peaked interest from Comedy Central and MTV.
"MTV was just offering a whole lot more money, so I went with MTV. There was a series of commercials and they started talking about turning it into a TV show. It did OK, but like everything else, if things aren't killing, it goes away," says Keenan.
From his own past experience in the field of comedy, Keenan admits that it's hard making a living as a comedian. "If comedy can match the money that I make working the other side of the camera, then I'll do that full time again."
Despite this downside, Keenan and the rest of the team remain dedicated to their craft and even have plans to expand regionally. "We've been doing shows in Greenville and planning for Atlanta, Knoxville and places like that, to start building up our name.
"It's been hard, because the thinking we've found is like, 'Well, how good can they be? They're from Charlotte.' The word of mouth has really picked up on us, but originally coming out of the gate, it was hard," Keenan explains. "We've had to prove that the shows are good. And the only way to do that is by putting on a good show — and that's what we do."