Funny Guy Juston McKinney Leaves ‘Em Laughing
The trouble with interviewing a bunch of stand-up comedians about a fellow funny guy is this: You never know when anyone is being serious.
The trouble with interviewing a bunch of stand-up comedians about a fellow funny guy is this: You never know when anyone is being serious. Take Dave Rattigan, talking about his good pal, Juston McKinney.
“Juston doesn’t know this, but I’m the biological father of his second child,” quips Rattigan, who runs a comedy open-mic night at The Winner’s Circle in Salisbury, Massachusetts, where McKinney is a frequent accomplice.
Likewise, Atkinson’s Steve Bjork, a Boston headliner who has known McKinney since the mid-1990s, weighs in: “I assume you are aware that he’s created a web page devoted to, and advocating for, abuse against shrubbery and low-lying vegetation. I don’t condone it.”
Or Mike McDonald, asking: “You know why it’s Juston with an ‘o’? His father didn’t know how to spell.”
In the next breath, McDonald adds: “Juston McKinney is the finest stand-up comedian in New England.”
Likewise, Rattigan says McKinney “is a great guy. Most comedians are very nice, and some are professionally nice. He’s the former.”
Those last two statements? You can take those to the bank. The 51-year-old McKinney, a native of Portsmouth and current Newmarket resident, is as popular with his fellow comedians as he is with audiences throughout the Northeast. He’s almost ubiquitous on the Granite State comedy circuit — check out his spots for the New Hampshire Lottery — as well as social media and streaming services. His Facebook page — Juston McKinney Comedy — is approaching 100,000 followers, and you can check out his stand-up specials, such as “Parentally Challenged” and “On Mid-Life Support” on Amazon Prime. His latest stand-up special, “On The Bright Side,” was just filmed at the Capitol Center for the Arts in late March.
“I was going to shoot this special right before Covid started, so now I’ve got new material that I want to work in and also have some other stuff that I want to get down on this special,” he says. “Because once I’ve done a special, I move on from it. It’s a never-ending process of adding material and pushing other material out.”
Which means McKinney’s audiences are constantly treated to new routines.
“The thing that stands out the most about Juston is his work ethic. The man is always writing,” says Carolyn Riley, a New York City-based comedian from Newmarket, and a University of New Hampshire alum. “Even now, as a New York comic, I still don’t think I’ve met anyone who works harder. A lot of people talk about how hard they’re working. Juston will talk about how he isn’t working hard enough, while index cards full of jokes he just wrote are spilling out of his pockets,” she says.
Home life during McKinney’s childhood wasn’t pretty, and he doesn’t sugarcoat any of it. He talks freely about losing his mother, who collapsed from a brain aneurysm while she was volunteering at McKinney’s elementary school when he was only 6.
“When she was being loaded into the ambulance, I think she was worried about us kids,” he says. “That keeps me going. And it’s taking care of my family, obviously. That’s part of my drive.”
His father struggled with alcoholism. The family moved across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth to Kittery, Maine, where his mother’s sister, his aunt, and her two children joined McKinney’s father and three siblings.
“At one point my grandfather lived with us, and we lived in a three-bedroom, one-bath place. My dad ended up becoming a homeless alcoholic,” says McKinney.
“I’m talking about my dad going to the bank, throwing a brick through the bank window in his underwear in broad daylight. This crazy drunk guy stuff,” he says. “Because of the way I grew up, we used humor all the time to deal with things. Me, my brothers, my cousins, we would use humor to deal with our situation. That’s where it came from. That’s what made me find the funny.”
And the name? McKinney said he often closes his shows with a joke about the oddball spelling of Juston, if only to help people look up his performances online.
“I came into this world as a typo,” he says. “I finally asked my dad, ‘Why did you spell my name with an ‘o,’ and he said, ‘You were born just on time. Get it? That’s funny, just on time.’ And I said, are you kidding me?” says McKinney, getting animated. “First of all, it could have been ‘just in’ time, and it would’ve been the same dumb joke. You got the joke wrong. Justin doesn’t have an ‘o.’ Alcoholic does.”
The fact that McKinney can tell that joke at all speaks to the relationship he now has with his father.
“He’s been sober now for 15 years, and my dad is my biggest fan. I’m super proud of my dad,” he says. “He’s got a whole wall with my cut-outs. If you didn’t know he was my dad, you’d think he was obsessed. He spent time living in the pay toilet in a parking garage in Portsmouth. That’s where he was sleeping. We thought he was going to die in the streets. So the fact that he got sober has been an amazing story.”
But those rough days were formative. Humor was a salve.
“I remember always being able to say funny things that would make the teachers laugh, so I wouldn’t get in trouble. I wasn’t that class clown who is stomping on the milk cartons so it sprays everywhere. I wasn’t that guy,” says McKinney.
“I just remember my dad watching the ‘Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson,” he says. “I remember seeing the monologue, and having similar thoughts about the way jokes were done. That was how my mind worked.”
But first came McKinney’s short-lived career as a deputy sheriff. Spurred by his family’s distrust of law enforcement, he looked into becoming a police officer. In high school, a guidance counselor suggested an overnight ride-along with a Kittery officer. That policeman — Dan Toulouse — had a significant impact on a teenage McKinney.
“He was a professional. He was just everything that job was supposed to be. He was out there to protect, driving around when everyone else is sleeping. If someone had an emergency, he was going to be the one who would help someone, to save the day,” he says. “The moment I got out of the car that night, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
At 19, McKinney was a deputy sheriff on “rural patrol,” covering 14 communities and more than 500 square miles.
“There were only two of us, two cops for 14 towns,” he says. “I was defunded before that was ever a thing. My cruiser had 250,000 miles on it. I once had a prisoner and needed him to chip in for gas.”
Logging long shifts and long miles gave McKinney plenty of time to work on his comic material. At 23, he worked up the nerve to attend an open mic night at Stitches near Fenway Park in Boston.
“You get to do three minutes,” he says. “But I didn’t tell anyone, in case I bombed. And if I bombed, to be honest, I might not have gone back. But it went surprisingly well.”
So well that McKinney returned, months later, with “about 30 or 40” friends and family in tow. And he flopped.
“I wonder how much that then motivated me,” he says now. “I wasn’t going out like that. I’m not going to be 50 years old, with people saying, “Hey, remember when you thought you can be a comedian?’ I’d be the butt of all the jokes. So that probably lit a fire under me.”
By the time McKinney was 27, he worked his last shift as a deputy sheriff.
McKinney bills himself as an “observational” comedian, with his life experiences consistently providing a rich comic vein to mine. When he was young, those moments often surrounded the usual topics, from dating to police work to, of course, his family.
Today, McKinney is a married father of two sons. He and his wife, Jennifer, have been together for 27 years, and married since 2004. His two sons, Jack and Josh, are now 14 and 12. The three of them provide reams of nonstop material for someone with a keen comic ear.
“With my kids, I’ll watch what they do, and what they say,” says McKinney. “I’ll be wrestling with my youngest and say, ‘Who’s the best dad in the world?’ And he’ll say, ‘Not you.’ So I’ll say, ‘Why would you say that?’ And he says, ‘Because my parents told me not to lie.’”
Jennifer doesn’t escape unscathed. She works in human resources. “She’s HR. I wish she was H-VAC,” says McKinney. He calls HR “the absolute worst job for a comedian to be married to, because every joke I bounced off her, she says, ‘Ah, I don’t know if you should do that one. I don’t think you can say that. I wouldn’t go there, that’s a hot-button issue.’” Then, after a pause, “And she can’t even fix the furnace.”
Plus, he adds, “I have all kinds of jokes about how she’s working remote, from home. It’s not normal,” he says. “She’s home, I’m home. Even Tom Brady only made it 40 days before he went back to the Bucs.”
Over the years, McKinney has drawn inspiration from a variety of artists, ranging from the manic Sam Kinison to the wide-eyed, self-effacing Rodney Dangerfield, as well as George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Jerry Seinfeld.
“I love the nuance of that [‘Seinfeld’] show, the observational humor,” he says. “In fact, Larry David’s show, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ I had to stop watching after the first season because it was so good I didn’t want any of it to seep into my mind. When I retire I’m gonna binge watch that show.”
That comment reveals a fascinating aspect of McKinney’s creative process — he no longer watches other stand-up comedians’ specials and hasn’t for decades. Essentially, he tries to avoid watching others to avoid picking up anything unintentionally.
“For my writing, it just works best. If I’m not watching stand-up, I can’t accidentally be influenced by someone else’s material,” he says. “To know that when I’m writing a joke that I didn’t hear it from somewhere is just very freeing for my process.”
While the majority of McKinney’s live material is written beforehand, the ability to ad lib is also critical, says the comedian.
“I do a joke where I say, ‘I hit the lottery with my wife. Anybody else hit the lottery with their wife?’ and a lot of guys clap,” says McKinney. “So I go, well, it wasn’t one of the largest jackpots in history. It wasn’t like $2 billion. Maybe it wasn’t all the numbers and the Powerball. Actually, maybe it was more like a raffle ticket. I hit the raffle.
“Then this one guy goes ‘Woo hoo!’ So I say, ‘You hit the raffle too? How long have you been married?’” he says. “He says, ‘We’re divorced now.’ So I say, ‘That’s the 50-50 raffle.’ That was my ad lib. Now I can use that as a joke. Sometimes the crowd will give you stuff.”
Likewise, there are times when McKinney has to take chances. He has one somewhat racy joke about a road in Maine called Katie’s Crotch. Local officials were flustered that the street sign kept getting stolen, “probably by some immature guy, if I were to criminal profile, who probably has it in his man cave,” McKinney says.
“Instead of replacing the sign, I would change the street name to Kevin’s Crotch,” he says. “Not only will no one steal it, they won’t even want to say it. Can you imagine someone having an accident? Oh, where? I’d rather not say. I was rear-ended on Kevin’s Crotch.”
Then, while preparing for his year-end special last year, McKinney was invited to do a small-audience show at a senior center in Durham. Despite his initial hesitancy, he decided to tell the joke. “They’ve lived long enough, they can handle it.”
“And when I say, ‘rear-ended on Kevin’s Crotch,’ this 80-year-old woman shouts, ‘Been there, done that,’” says McKinney. “It was just the funniest thing. So that moment became part of the joke.”
On stage, the long, lanky McKinney is a ball of energy, prowling and working the crowd. He looks like a mix of Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) and Jeff Foxworthy (“Blue Collar Comedy Tour”). In fact, he was tapped for “Blue Collar Comedy, The Next Generation.” But working live, locally, is where he thrives.
“Along with Bob Marley, Juston McKinney is the best comedian in New Hampshire,” says Chuck Stergiou, former manager of The Rex in Manchester, with-out reservation. “The way he works the audience is just unbelievable.”
Perhaps the best way to capture McKinney’s relationship with his audience is to delve into how empty he felt when he didn’t have one. Like performers everywhere, McKinney’s live performances canceled following the Covid outbreak in March 2020.
“I felt a little lost and unfulfilled. We’re talking about the five months where everything shut down,” says McKinney. “It happened in March, and I was scheduled to be at the Capitol Center. There were over a thousand tickets sold at the time. It was about a month away, a sold-out show, and Covid hits,” he says.
“For five months, I couldn’t do anything. I felt a little depressed. I use stand-up a little bit like therapy. I know I have adult ADHD. I’ve got to get things out. If I’m not getting stuff out, I’m not in the best mood. So it was a crazy time.”
McKinney kept writing jokes and did more virtual work to keep busy — and stay sane. When venues began to reopen, with limited seating, he still had reservations.
“We were doing my year-in-review show — I called it ‘2020 Good Riddance’ — and it was at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, but we can only have 188 people. That was the max, 188 people spread out in a 900-seat room,” he says. “So, I tell the audience, you don’t understand. In a crowd of 900 people, you’re going to have about 188 people who aren’t great laughers. If you’re those 188 people, I’m screwed.”
A full house is where McKinney is a man in full.
“It’s energizing for sure,” he says of performing before a live audience. “It helps me when I get in front of the audience. I feed off that. It makes me be in the moment. It makes me be present. It makes me think on my feet. It’s all about the crowd.”
What makes New England audiences particularly challenging, McKinney admits, is that the political winds can shift quickly between venues.
“I feel like I can draw liberals on one side, and I can draw Republicans as well. I like to think I can draw a little bit of everybody,” he says. “I don’t push it too much one way or the other.”
McKinney points to a show in Plymouth, at the Flying Monkey, where he did a Thanksgiving-themed joke about turkeys.
“We got our Butterball turkey at Market Basket. They have a Biden Butterball. It costs 14 percent more and it identifies as a chicken. The joke kills, huge applause, hooting and hollering. It was clearly a Republican crowd,” he says.
“Then I did a show at a coastal town — Biddeford, Maine, or Portsmouth — and it doesn’t get the same reaction,” he says. “So I make a joke about that, saying ‘Wow, that’s a risky joke to tell here.’ And they laugh at that. So that’s a constant connection with the audience.”
The key, says McKinney, is being committed to creating new material. “I knew that if I wanted to stay here, with my kids, I would have to be able to do a lot of work locally, so I would have to turn over stuff. Year over year I’m always adding a lot of new material, and will mix in some older jokes. So you won’t see the same show twice.”
“If you go see a band, and they don’t play their greatest hits, they’re upset. They want their money back,” says McKinney. “If you’re comedian, and they’ve paid to see the same exact stuff twice, they want their money back. That’s the thing about being a stand-up.”
So McKinney continues to push himself, observing and performing. Yet he always finds time to give back to his comic community.
“In a conversation, Juston is never simply waiting for his turn to speak. He listens and cares,” says Bjork. “He’s got as much empathy as anyone I’ve ever met and will go out of his way to try and help. He’s very encouraging to newer comics, and is just a ton of fun to hang out with.”
Want proof? Remember Rattigan’s crack about being the biological father of McKinney’s youngest? His good friend, apprised of the joke, doesn’t miss a beat.
“That explains why he’s not the better looking one,” says McKinney with a smirk.
Ba da boom. And the McKinney beat goes on.