Published on January 19th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


In defence of comedian John Mayer

The long-running rumor that John Mayer would host a new variety show were confirmed by CBS last week, and immediately, venom spewed throughout the internet. He’s a sell-out, he’s a douchebag, he needs to stick to music, and so on. In short: “that’s enough, John Mayer”.

I disagree. Walk with me…

Mayer started doing unannounced standup appearances at the Comedy Cellar in 2006. When I first heard this, I probably thought the same thing as you: who the hell does he think he is? Just because he’s a big rock star, he feels entitled to just slide in there, bumping whoever is scheduled to go up, and screw around on stage just for the hell of it?

Sure, musicians can be funny (see Elvis Costello, Vance Gilbert, Henry Rollins), but I viewed Mayer the same way guys like C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger must view guys like John Travolta. This couldn’t be anything other than a vanity hobby. As someone who respects the hell out of comedy, I was unimpressed. But as a huge fan* of Mayer’s music, I reluctantly kept an open mind.

Reviews of his first sets were mixed. A few premises, when reported second/third-hand, seemed like they had potential. A 2-minute video of a Cellar set surfaced a few months later. Hmm. I don’t know what your first year’s sets were like, but this is not bad. Not bad at all.

But it would take more than that to sell me on the idea of “John Mayer, comedian”.

Mayer has maintained a few different blogs over the past few years. Older entries on his official site have vanished (I hate that), but I saved the one from Jan. ’07 that changed my opinion about this whole comedy pursuit of his:

I want to share with you only one fragment of the phase I’ve had in New York City in the last 15 days, but something too special to keep to myself.

Many of you know I’ve had a passion for the attempt of writing comedy for as long as I’ve been a musician. There’s something shared between the energy of live music and live comedy. This past fall I decided I was going to shut my eyes and go for it, and have been slipping onto the stage at theᅠComedy Cellarᅠwhenever I’ve had some time off in Manhattan. I think most people have a hard time getting their head around it, because there’s no career template for a singer/songwriter/comedy writer. Also because it’s a dumb idea. But I’ve been sticking with it in hopes that it takes me to a new level, creatively. (It has.)

Part of what you might not have taken into account is that every night I show up there are several professional comedians whom are booked to perform that night and draw packed audiences. It’s a situation that, on paper, has ‘awkward’ written all over it: the 6’3″ guy from the radio and televison sits down at the table with the comedians whom subsist creatively on the exact opposite of what tradition says the rock star does, and then this tall guy drawing all the attention to the corner of the bar waves his hand at them saying “pretend I’m not here”.

I have to tell you, not a single comic at the cellar has been anything less than kind to me. That’s encouraging enough on its own, except that most of them have been outright encouraging, offering me advice to make my sets (and my writing in general) better. I want to introduce these people to you in hopes that you’ll check them out someday. I want to thank them for their generosity. I’ve sat wide-eyed, taking advice from well known professional comics, when they’ll say “hold that thought” – leave the room – and then GO ON STAGE TO PERFORM THEIR SET. That’s when I realize they spent their pre-show time talking to ME about something I theoretically have no business sticking my nose in.

He went on to thank many of the Cellar regulars, and posted a few photos including this one of him with Sherrod Small, taken by Louis C.K.

I have to admit, that impressed the hell out of me. He knew his place, he knew this was unusual, he knew this wasn’t supposed to be easy. That’s more awareness than you get out of a lot of new comics.

Subsequently, someone asked him about bombing. “I’m not done bombing. I’m still clearing out a life’s worth of ‘is that funny?’ to which the answer is usually ‘at least not the way you said it, it’s not.’ “

I think it’s safe to say he gets it.

But is there any evidence he’s anything beyond “open mic funny”? Yep. Between his columns for Esquire, many of his other blog entries (the Grey’s Anatomy script is my fave), the utterly brilliant video on Funny or Die, and the equally funny John Mayer Has a TV Showpart 1 and part 2 – it’s obvious he has something to offer.

Nobody yet knows what the CBS show will look like when (if) it makes it to air. It could be just as big a piece of crap as Rosie Live, or the Nick & Jessica disaster. But John Mayer is a very funny man. He takes comedy seriously. He has a vast network of very funny friends to advise him and write for him if he needs them. He’s given me many reasons to believe this will turn out decent.

And if it sucks? Maybe we’ll finally get a new album out of the guy.

*Yes, I’m a card-carrying fan club member. Yes, you will see me in the first few rows of a concert with a camera. No, I’m not a 15 year old blonde. Nor am I the token 300 lb chick wearing a homemade t-shirt with “Your Body is a Wonderland” scrawled in black Sharpie. Rule of thumb: if you can write the word “Wonderland” across your torso in large enough lettering for John to see it from stage, you don’t have a shot at him.

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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    Third Beat editor Sharilyn Johnson presents the ultimate fan guide to The Colbert Report, available from all major booksellers including amazon.com