AN UNLIKELY STORY : The Real Yarn-Weaving Jake Johannsen Is a Bit Racier Than His Meek Image

Glenn Doggrell writes on comedy for The Times Orange County Edition

The message said Jake Johannsen was running late but would arrive shortly for lunch at a Venice Beach cafe he frequents.

No problem. The gray, overcast early afternoon lent itself to thumbing through a few of the myriad periodicals in L.A. newsstands.

The mild-mannered comedian and regular "Late Night With David Letterman" guest was probably working on material for his next HBO special and got stuck for a word. Or he was getting ready for his two-week stint at the Irvine Improv that runs through Oct. 17. Or maybe he was just caught in L.A. traffic.

Close.

He was picking up his motorcycle at the shop, and it wasn't ready. So rather than walk home, he waited.

Eh?

The man who once said he wants to lead the meek owns a motorcycle? Wearing a black leather jacket, a black helmet and blue jeans, Johannsen, 33, did not look like the soft-spoken, professorial comic you see on stage.

"I have a Honda Sabre," he said matter-of-factly, adding later that he also owns a Harley-Davidson and has biked to shows in San Francisco and San Diego. More realistically, though, he mainly cruises around town, to the beach or the hills.

"A friend of mine got me into it," he explained.

On stage, Johannsen, who is currently host of the "Two Drink Minimum" series on the Comedy Channel, would never be mistaken for a motorcycle enthusiast.

His humor is subtle (hold the profanity), and he tends more toward stories (albeit on the weird side) than quick jokes. He can easily spend five minutes on one subject, including his toaster, extraterrestrials among us, relationships, or car rides with his parents in which Johannsen and his sister would hold "SALT Talks" about "where the exact center of the back seat was."

Nowadays, the Iowa City native is on the road about two weeks a month, performing across the country at colleges, clubs and the occasional corporate convention. In the past few years, though, he has, as comedians are wont to do, branched into acting. Which is how he answers the "What did you do on your summer vacation" question.

He recently returned from six weeks in Montreal, where he was filming "Mrs. Parker & the Round Table," a movie about acerbic literary figure Dorothy Parker.

The comedian's publicist boasts about his co-starring role, but Johannsen is more realistic.

"I think ensemble player is more accurate," he said, with a slight laugh.

Earlier roles included a part in National Lampoon's "Loaded Weapon 1," but Johannsen never saw it.

"I am in it though. I have confirmation from friends. I was invited to a screening, but I was on the road and couldn't go and never got around to seeing it. But the video is coming out so I'm looking forward to that," he continued, again with the slight chuckle.

"I hope I can make the crossover to acting," he said, but quickly added he doesn't want to quit stand-up.

"I really like stand-up, performing live, the immediate feedback. It's a good type of self-expression."

The self-described raconteur of weird stories had a rather abrupt career switch into comedy. He was a junior working toward a chemical engineering degree at Iowa State University when it happened.

"It didn't seem very creative," he said. "We went to a gravel pit in the middle of nowhere. That didn't look like fun to me."

So he quit school and left Iowa for San Francisco.

When he strode into the Bay Area's vibrant comedy scene, which included Dana Carvey and Bobcat Goldthwait, in the winter of '82, Johannsen did not take the scene by storm.

"I didn't know what I was doing," he admitted. "I thought I'd go on stage, get a TV deal. I didn't know what stand-up was. I just signed up for all the open mikes.

"I was bad. I was so nervous. It wasn't a question of being funny but whether I was going to cry."

While playing the open mikes, he was a waiter for about four years; that paid for rent, food and movie tickets.

Then, in 1986, he won the 11th annual San Francisco Stand-Up Comedian Competition. That led to his move south and several appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman," "The Tonight Show" and an HBO special, the critically successful "This'll Take About an Hour," which aired in January, 1992.

He now has enough new material for another special and is already working on a third. Not bad for someone who doesn't consider himself a disciplined writer.

"I come up with an idea, put down a few thoughts and go on stage," he said. "It's usually something that happens to me or I saw. I try to stick to something personal."

After his Irvine gig, Johannsen is on the road again, this time to New York for his 18th "Letterman" appearance (his first since the show moved to CBS this summer and was renamed "The Late Show With David Letterman").

But for all his success, he doesn't have the usual fan worship and recognition, even at this restaurant, where he is a regular. Now and then, though, he's recognized in public. Or when he uses his credit card.

"They'll say, 'I thought you were you,' " Johannsen said, slightly bemused at the obvious.

*

Who

Jake Johannsen.

When

Thursday, Oct. 7, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 8, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 9, at 8 and 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 10, at 8 p.m.; Tuesday, Oct. 12, through Thursday, Oct. 14, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 15, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 16, at 8 and 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 17, at 8 p.m.

Where

The Irvine Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine.

Whereabouts

Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Jamboree Road exit and head south. Turn left onto Campus Drive. The Improv is in the Irvine Marketplace shopping center, across from the UC Irvine campus.

Wherewithal

$8 to $12.

Where to call

(714) 854-5455.

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