Juston McKinney Contributed photo

Every so often I get the opportunity to chat with a comedian, which is always fun. Such is the case with a conversation I had recently with one Juston McKinney, who will be appearing at The ELM in Waterville on Sept. 11. I reached him at his home in Newmarket, New Hampshire, and after the initial greetings the comedian stated …

McKinney: Well, thanks for wanting to talk to me. You’re with a newspaper?

Q: The Morning Sentinel out of Waterville and the Kennebec Journal out of Augusta.
McKinney: Got it. I’m aware of both of those publications — in fact, I believe I’m a digital subscriber because sometimes I’ll click on an article up there … I just renewed my subscription recently, actually.

Q: And I understand that there’s a Maine connection in your history, correct?
McKinney: Yes, there sure is. In fact, there’s a Waterville connection, because that’s where I went to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy back in 1990.

Q: What made you turn to comedy?
McKinney: It was just something I’d always wanted to try but didn’t know how to do it, and when I was out there patrolling York County, Maine — I ended up doing rural patrol for the York County Sheriff’s Office. I was just observing everything, writing jokes about my time as a cop in Maine. That’s what led to my very first Tonight Show set with Jay Leno, it was all about being a cop in Maine.

Q: That was probably before “North Woods Law” was out, too, probably.
McKinney: (Chuckle) Sure was, that was in 2002, yeah, and I have since gone on to do three Tonight Shows, by the way. I’ve done two with Jay Leno and I did it with Conan O’Brien when he took over the Tonight Show in 2010, just to give you a little bit of my television background. And then currently I’ve got Amazon Prime specials and I’ve done Comedy Central specials, I’ve had my own one-hour special, I had a half-hour special, so I’ve been able to make a career out of this.

Q: You’ve done movies as well?
McKinney: I’ve had some small parts, yeah, just a few lines in a couple of Kevin James’ movies: “Here Comes the Boom” and “The Zookeeper.” I did an episode of “The King of Queens” where I played an EMT, can you believe that? And you know, it’s funny but I’ve never played a cop on TV, which is kind of humorous.

Q: Now that things are opening up a bit more, what are you going to do now?
McKinney: Well, I’m very excited to get back out there. I’d done my share of social-distance, limited-capacity shows where everyone in the audience had to wear a mask. I just did one, which is very difficult because when I’m doing jokes, especially ones about my wife, I can’t tell if the women are laughing or if they’re really upset with me because all I can see are their eyes staring at me. I can’t even see if they’re smiling, so I’m looking forward to getting out of that. I’m excited to get back to somewhat normal. I’m starting to tour and I’m going to be filming a new special in the fall — I’ve got two specials currently that are available on Amazon Prime and I’m going to be filming a third one this fall, actually it’ll be in October shortly after the ELM show. In fact, that’s actually what I’m getting ready for at that show in Waterville: I’m going to be working on my material that will be on my new special.

Q: Oh, cool! Just out of curiosity, does some of your humor draw on what we went through? I mean, we might as well laugh than cry.
McKinney: Oh, it does! In fact, back at the end of December of 2020 I did a whole show called “Good Riddance, 2020” which was all about COVID, it was an hour-and-a-half show. It was at the Portsmouth Music Hall; I did five shows and then I actually put it out online as a digital for sale so people could actually buy it. So this special will have a little bit of it but seeing it’ll be coming out this year, I almost have to talk about it a little bit.

Q: True, it still is timely, that’s for sure. Now when I’m interviewing musicians, the topic of songwriting songs will come up from time to time; is creating comedy similar in a way?
McKinney: I think it is. I think creative people, whether it be music or comedy, are observing life through their lens and then they’re trying to spin that and make whatever it is they’re trying to make.

Q: And you?
McKinney: I’m watching what people are doing, you know, and I’m always getting ideas just off everyday stuff. The biggest thrill for me is doing it that first time not knowing if a crowd is going to react or not. It’s almost like a little game I play with myself where it’s like, “Alright, I’ve got 10 jokes I’m going to try,  I think these five are good but I don’t know about these five!” That’s part of the fun that keeps it fresh for me.

Q: Well, back to performing live during the pandemic …
McKinney: There’s no substitute for a live audience. All of the years of new shows I did at the Portsmouth Music Hall — that is a 900-seat theater — the last one I did there recently we could only have 188 in there because they had to be spread out because of COVID, so it was a challenging time.

Q: Is there anything, Juston, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article about your show at The ELM?
McKinney: Just that I love coming back to Maine, I really believe I was raised by Maine and New Hampshire. I was born in Portsmouth and then, after fifth grade, I moved to Kittery, the southern tip of Maine. I went to college at Southern Maine Community College and spent seven years as a rural patrol deputy in York County, so I consider Maine as one of my home states. I just really love the energy and love coming back there,  it really is an amazing place. I look forward to getting up there in Waterville again.

Lucky Clark has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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