Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: The comic art of Juston McKinney
The main stage lineup for Monday's 29th annual Business in the Arts Awards includes Opera North, Concord Chorale - and comedian Juston McKinney, a Portsmouth native who has spun comic gold from the peculiarities of the "Live Free or Die" state.
If it seems odd that a veteran of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour is sharing the bill with the brand of high-brow performers usually associated with business support for the arts, consider this: McKinney derives nearly half his income from corporate events, nonprofit fundraisers and other private parties.
"It's one more date I don't have to get on a plane and leave New England," said McKinney, who has ramped down his cross-country travel so he can spend more time at his Newmarket home with his wife and their two young children. "It works out good for me to showcase in front of these people."
McKinney has upcoming dates in Iowa, Missouri and Colorado, but he expects he'll only get on a plane for business four times this year, spending the rest of his work time driving around to gigs in New England in his black 2010 Honda Accord, on which he's logged 80,000 miles.
"The challenge is trying to have enough work in this area to be able to sustain myself here," said McKinney, who gave up his gig as a deputy sheriff in York County, Maine, in 1997 to perform comedy full time.
While McKinney leaves the regional jokes at home when he's performing outside New England, they might take up about a third of his set when he's playing to a local crowd. For sale at justonmckinney.com: "New Hampsha Live FREEZE Then Die" T-shirts.
"I think you write comedy from what you know. One of the bits I do about living on the border of Maine and New Hampshire was because I lived on the border of Maine and New Hampshire," said McKinney, 42. "When I was deputy sheriff on the Maine side, people from New Hampshire would cross into Maine and have no seat belt on, and they would have fireworks in the car. You're not allowed to do that here. They'd say, 'Oh, I'm from New Hampshire.'"
A state where the Second Amendment is sacred and a fundraiser with firearms for prizes is patriotic.
"I wrote this joke about gun control," McKinney said. "The police chiefs are giving a gun away every day in the month of May in New Hampshire. That's a touchy issue. ... While the country is trying to do gun control, New Hampshire is raffling them off like turkeys."
McKinney has lived in New York and Los Angeles and has snagged considerable time in the national spotlight, including roles in TV and movies. He's appeared in several Comedy Central shows including a half-hour Comedy Central Presents showcase and a one-hour special. In October, he performed a set at the Palace Theatre in Manchester that was recorded for a DVD he expects to release in June.
And, sure, he's done the coveted late-night spots on Leno and Conan O'Brien and performed in the aforementioned "Blue Collar Comedy Next Generation Tour" with Bill Engval.
But around here, you never know where McKinney might turn up next. He has performed for Harley Davidson bikers, lobster fishermen, real estate brokers and ob-gyn practitioners.
And they all expect him to customize his material and his approach to suit the event. Do they want it G, PG, PG-13? (The joke he used to open the ob-gyn gathering can't be printed here.)
Among McKinney's more challenging gigs: performing for a group of cancer survivors. The list of off-the-table subjects was practically the menu of standard fare for comedians. No jokes about weight, health, finances, smoking, divorce or complaints about spouses.
McKinney couldn't even resort to politics because it was election night, and that subject was played out, said Laurie Tyer, clinical nurse manager at the Lahey Center for Oncology and Hematology in Derry, who booked McKinney for the event.
Despite such limitations, he nailed it, she said.
"Everything was clean. It was humorous; he engaged the audience; he made everybody smile," Tyer said. "When you're going through the cancer process and the cancer journey, it's nice when you're treated to a special dinner, pampered a bit and made to laugh. It's just the icing on the cake."
Among the jokes McKinney told that evening was a tale about driving himself to the hospital in Exeter and having to suffer speed bumps to get to the emergency room, which is in the back of the hospital. McKinney compared it to a shopping mall. Would the emergency room be tucked in the center in a food court next to an Orange Julius?
"When I do corporate events or business events, I always keep that in mind. How can I make this more about them? How can I get them involved?" McKinney said.
And for his troubles, McKinney often gets asked back. A gig Saturday for the Rotary Club of North Conway will be his third appearance. So instead of walking out to a roomful of people he has to win over for the first time, he might run into some folks who have laughed at his jokes before.
It might be more prestigious and a bigger ego rub to perform at a headlining event, like his upcoming July 13 gig at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, but those corporate gigs keep his chops sharp.
"It's always a challenge," McKinney said." They are harder to do, but you get paid for it."
Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.