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REMEMBERING CHUCK BERRY!
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It’s only been about three years now since we first featured Johnny Cardinale in a story about his teaming up and performing with Melanie Reno, a fellow friend and comic. Its hard to believe that only that short time ago, Melanie and Johnny relied on each other to fill a one-hour college show slot simply because they didn’t have enough material to go it alone.
Oh how times have changed. Johnny Cardinale is now a successful and well-known campus comic in his own right and we are excited to bring you this feature story dedicated solely to Johnny and his comedy.
First thing’s first, just because you might see pictures of Johnny on stage, don’t think he’s pegged. Unlike some comic musicians who produce the bulk of their shows with music and parodies, Johnny comes from a real stand-up background. He’s more like a musical comic than a comic musician. So, roughly half of his college show can be expected to be pure unadulterated stand-up. The other half consists of Johnny’s own unique hybrid blend of music and comedy. He came up originally in clubs, but for our purposes, Johnny will be referencing his college show unless otherwise specified. “I mix music with the comedy and while there are other people out there who do that, I think my take is a little bit different from most comics who use music.”
These differences emerge in a couple of different forms. Firstly, Johnny was a singer before being a comic. And perhaps the finest distinction between Johnny and many others of his ilk is the fact that he stays away from comic parodies and extended musical interludes. “Even though it seems like I am making fun of a lot of bands and singers, I’m actually not,” he says laughing. “I’m poking fun at the music industry but when I am doing impressions of singers in my show, I am really trying to nail the spot on.”
Here Johnny’s background as a trained singer serves its purpose. “I try to sound just like the artists and not even in a funny way; I just really like to see how well I can do it and its fun for the audience. I take the singing portion very seriously when I’m performing, actually.”
Johnny describes an evolution of his comedy in the last few years that sounds as much like a coming-of-age-story as someone describing the development of his or her talents. However one thing is clear, he has struck upon one of the resounding basic tenets of every star we’ve ever known; be comfortable in your own skin. “I guess I have kind of become myself. I am now pretty close on stage to the person I am off stage, but it has taken me some time to do, that I must say. It is not a natural process, although the hope is that the end-result looks very natural.”
Johnny says performing at college gigs has given him a unique perspective on connecting with his audiences. “I have noticed (especially at colleges) that a little bit of crowd work and talking to them goes a long way. They all seem to enjoy being talked to and they generally have fun things to say, so it is a lot of fun for the whole show. I have done a lot of college orientation shows where you essentially have rooms full of people who don’t know each other. There is no built in camaraderie and maybe some of them feel a little bit intimidated to laugh out loud. I mean, come on, you don’t want everybody staring at you for laughing when you shouldn’t, right?” he says laughing. “Everybody wants to looks cool. So, bringing the crowd into the show is fun and it is kind of a nice icebreaker at the same time. It makes the show more complete and I find when I do that during the show, students are a lot more willing to come up and talk after the show as well.”
Which is another thing Johnny really enjoys. “They feel like they know you as a person a little bit more when you talk with them during the show, not just at them. It’s really nice when people come up and talk to you after a show because when they don’t, it kind of leaves you wondering why. It’s like ‘Wow, I thought we had a great time tonight but it must not have been too incredible if everyone just packs up and leaves the minute the show’s over.”
But, Johnny is enough of a professional in his field to know that the gesture isn’t always personal. “You never know; these students are so busy they could have classes or a job to get to or friends to hang out with. A lot of things are more important to them than chatting with some comic after a show, so I understand. Maybe they’re busy, maybe they are nervous, maybe they just don’t know they can come and say hello. Or, maybe they just didn’t feel that close to me and I need to connect with the audience more the next time.”
Anyone can think back to any of their favorite comics and more than likely one trait is common in all of them; audiences feel like they know and like the actual person, not just the jokes they are telling. “I think I’ve personally heard as far back as Johnny Carson being asked ‘What is the number one thing that makes a great comic?’ and he says the audience has to like the person. There are a lot of great joke tellers who never go on to greatness because they don’t make that connection. I just feel like if students want to come up and hang out with me after a show, talking music, talking comedy or whatever, I feel like I really did my job that night.”
So, what makes an audience fall in love with a performer? If it were as easy as it is laid out above, everyone would do it, wouldn’t they? Many performers have found out there is a fine line between giving the audience what they want by being yourself and giving the audience what they want by being what you think they want. “For me, I am not setting out thinking ‘okay, what do they want?’ If I can just be free with myself that night, easygoing up there and have fun with the crowd, my mission is accomplished, because that is exactly how I am off stage as well.”
Johnny doesn’t set out deliberately to try and suck students in just for the novelty of it, the process is much more organic. “I don’t have a bunch of stock note card questions like ‘What’s your major?’ or “Where are you from?’ I try to just do some talking and if there is someone interesting in the crowd they’ll kind of crop up. Those people are fun, but I don’t set up a huge portion of my show to be crowd-interactive. Once I develop a rapport with the audience, I’ll go back and forth with them a little bit in between my jokes throughout the course of the entire show. It makes every show different and all of them really fun.”
One memorable experience he had was with a pseudo-tough guy in the audience, but all in good fun. “There was a girl in the audience and just messing around with her I asked if she was single and she says yes. There was this guy sitting next to her who obviously didn’t know her from Eve and I said to him ‘Hey, why dontcha help her out buddy?’ He just goes “I’ll see what I can do?’
Now, I had just been making fun of my big Italian family, so I said to him [in an authentic-sounding Brooklyn Italian accent] “I’ll see what I can do? What, are you in the mafia? You sound like my uncle Vitto now, get outta here…
“It was funny because I was just kind of riffing until his friends come up to me after the show and were like ‘Dude, you totally nailed him! That’s exactly how he is!” Johnny remembers laughingly. “He even came up after the show too and was cracking up, so it was great.”
Johnny loves to talk about his big Italian family. It would be hard not to, because they sure seem to give him a lot of material. Heck, even from birth, Johnny skirted with the forces of stereotypic hilarity. “My dad wanted to name me Dominick. Can you imagine? Think about it, Dom Cardinale? That’s got to be Italian for like ‘stool pigeon.’ Come on, I would have been the only kid in fifth grade in a double-breasted suit.”
And don’t forget the red carnation. Unlike the mafia, Johnny stays away from the popular rackets, merch sales. “At some point I probably will and I don’t know why, but I have always been kind of awkward about selling stuff after shows. Some comics have no problem doing it and it can be a wise thing to do, but it seems kind of weird for me to be like ‘Good night everybody… now let’s make a deal!’ I don’t know, it like I have to mentally cross-over; right now I want to say goodnight and leave the stage and have the audience remember me as that person, the guy on stage. Not the guy standing next to the table going ‘Buy my stuff.’”
Johnny’s career started a long time ago when as a child people began making comments on his knack for mimicry. “From the Beatles to The Eagles I could nail them and people used to comment on it. It was nothing more than a fun thing to do for a long time.”
Not only did Johnny not have aspirations for a career in show business, but he was also on track for a straight-laced career in the corporate world. “I was an accounting major in college; I just wanted to get a decent job and get out in the real world.” A chance occurrence would lead him down an entirely different path. “When I was a junior, I just happened to see a comedian on television and it hooked me.”
Despite this seemingly surprise passion, his talents run a little deeper. “I think I come from a funny family and at functions, you better be ready to give and take, you know what I mean?” he says laughing. “Everybody busts your chops because it’s a big wise-ass Italian family so I grew up learning to think on my feet.”
Cut back to college and Johnny’s broadcast comedic experience. “I saw a comedian on this TV show and I don’t remember who he was, but I remember thinking that he was not that funny at all. It was some late night show and I had never even thought about comedy before then. I would sing for myself because I enjoyed it but I wasn’t in a band or anything. After I saw this show, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for like two weeks and finally I said ‘You know what, I have got to give this a shot.’”
Johnny called up a friend that was going to UCLA at the time who happened to be moving into Los Angeles, a locale Johnny rarely visited despite living only about two hours from the metropolis. “He just happened to be moving out at the time I called and just happened to have a room in his apartment available too. It was like all of these things were happening for a reason; it was like I was supposed to move out there. So, I told my dad I was dropping out of college (and I was a really good student too who was taking school really seriously) and he was totally shocked. He told me I had to do what I had to do, so I dropped everything, moved to L.A. and started waiting tables.”
It wasn’t too long after Johnny had been taking improv and sketch classes (genres Johnny thought he would be more likely to occupy than stand-up) that he landed in coffeehouse dates playing songs solo. “Literally about a year and a half after I started doing those coffeehouses I was on tour opening for Pauley Shore, which I couldn’t even believe. I settled in and got my act going, stopped hiding behind the guitar and started using it to augment my comedy and really got into a comfort zone. It has now come to a complete act and it’s a lot of fun and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
BOOK IT! For more information on bringing Johnny Cardinale to feature at your campus’ next comedy night, contact The College Agency at (952) 897-1001.