Rib Ticklers : Denny Johnston Sticks With the Duke, but Now Finds Room for Zamfir

<i> Dennis McLellan is a staff writer for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

A few years ago comedian Denny Johnston stopped doing his classic impression of John Wayne selling Vegamatics--you remember those “it slices and dices” kitchen devices that used to be demonstrated on late-night TV commercials in the ‘70s.

Now Johnston does the Duke as a stand-up comedian. (“Here’s another little joke for ya. What’s the only advantage to having Alzheimer’s disease? You can hide your own Easter eggs.”)

But the 17-year comedy veteran isn’t one to make too many changes in his act: If a bit works, he reasons, why throw it out for something new?

Which is why Johnston, who is known for his silly, highly visual comedy, was looking forward to appearing at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach tonight through Sunday.


“I’m pretty excited,” he said by phone from San Francisco. “I’m going to be doing some new routines finally.”

Johnston has been watching more late-night commercials--"you know, those ‘not available in any record store’ offers, like the ones from the people who sold Slim Whitman albums"--and has come up with a takeoff on Zamfir, the pan flute player.

But instead of playing a pan flute like Zamfir, Johnston plays a rack of ribs.

“I’ll be playing Zamfir, Master of the Baby-Back Flute,” said Johnston, who baked a rack of ribs, set it in resin, then attached a guitar neck to it.


“I go into this rock and roll lead-guitar thing that’s crazy,” he said. “It’s the first time in 17 years I’ve really looked forward to doing a routine. I’m very excited about this. . . . The ribs are drying as we speak.”

Johnston, who was breaking in the new routine last week, acknowledged that he has “kind of a reputation for doing the same stuff . . . yet I have an act that pretty much works every time, thank God.”

Indeed, audiences still roar at Johnston’s impressions of Jack Nicholson as a kiddie show host and Jimmy Stewart singing the Beatles song, “Black Bird.” Then there’s Sgt. Savage, the effeminate Marine drill instructor from West Hollywood, who wears a pink Army helmet and mincingly whines to his troops, “Oh, it’s so hot today, we can’t exercise.”

Johnston, who spends most of his time writing screenplays, said he never really wanted to be a comedian.

He said he was working as a Los Angeles house painter/songwriter in the early ‘70s when he hocked his spray machine and on a whim, decided to try comedy.

“I worked out a routine and never tested it on anyone,” he recalled. “I just memorized it and tried it at the Troubadour back in ’72. And I got an encore my first time. I had to go back up and say I didn’t have any more, but thanks for asking me back.

“If I had bombed, I would never have tried it again.”

But while he has made his living as a comedian ever since, Johnston said he would rather be a filmmaker. He has written six unproduced scripts and is working on a script about a rodeo clown.


As Johnston sees it, he has been “stuck” doing comedy for 17 years.

“Yeah, I really have,” he said, “because it pays pretty good, and it’s pretty hard to just stop doing it--to come off the road and become a painter again.”

Indeed, painting houses can’t compare to getting laughs for a living.

And even Johnston, the reluctant comedian, can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of playing a rack of ribs on stage:

“I’m positive Zamfir is going to kill.

Who: Denny Johnston.

When: Thursday, Jan. 3, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Friday, Jan. 4, at 8, 10 and 11:45 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 5, at 8, 10 and 11:45 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 6, at 8:30 p.m. With Jackie Flynn.

Where: The Laff Stop, 2122 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach.


Whereabouts: From the Corona del Mar Freeway, take the Irvine Boulevard/Campus Drive exit and go south one block to Bristol Street.

Wherewithal: $7 to $10.

Where to call: (714) 852-8762.