Funnyman Johnson Wrote Jokes for Jay Leno
He Had a Long and Varied Career in Hollywood
by Paulie Hunt
In Hollywood he was known as Randy Johnson. To his friends he was “RJ”. The kid from Minnesota came west to Hollywood where he jumped into the fray as an actor, documentary filmmaker, producer, director, joke writer, and graphic novel writer, among many other accomplishments. In a town where only the hardy survive, Johnson did well, and when one area slowed he re-invented himself and charged into another. I knew RJ for close to 20 years and observed his struggles and achievements.
It’s been said a thousand times by folks who know, that Hollywood is a merciless town, where only those with an inner toughness and the self-discipline to never give up will be able to survive. And that’s only a “maybe”. Most of the young folks who come here only stay a short time, then go back home and find an easier way to make a living. But Johnson was tough. Focused. When he hit a wall he picked himself up and tried again. He went over the wall, or around it. It wasn’t an easy life. The highs of success also begat the lows of depression and for a while alcoholism. But his story should be an inspiration to those who follow. Never give up. Learn new things. Get your foot in the door and then when the time comes, kick it open. Don’t wait for someone to “discover” you. RJ would tell you to “discover yourself.”
He wore many hats in his career, many that he glued together himself. He worked in the local theaters, often for free. He originally wanted to be an actor, and did work in television on shows like General Hospital, TV Movies “The Detective” and “Hard Time”. During acting lulls, he used his skills as a writer for soap opera magazines, where he made a lot of friends and got some inside peeks at the television industry. He did any kind of work he could get at first. Once he even worked at a grimy joint in the hot San Fernando Valley that sold used refrigerators. His job was to clean up the new arrivals, often caked with grease, to get them ready to sell. He told me that working at that place for six months was one of the worst experiences of his life, scrubbing used refrigerators for 8 hours a day, but the side benefit was that there was no job in “Hollywood” that was worse than that. “I knew that if I could survive that, then there was nothing in Hollywood that would beat me. Anything would be better than that. I got a job as a security guard at one of the studios, and compared to the refrigerators, it was paradise,” he said.
Johnson eventually landed a job at a local television station, KTLA where he Produced two local documentaries, “Breaking Ground”, and “Amnesty: The Dream Fulfilled.” This would serve him well later, when he created two award winning documentary films. The first one was “Look Who’s Laughing”, which spotlighted some disabled comedians striving for success. He managed to get a grant from CPB, hard back then (1993) but now almost impossible for an individual. He also managed to get financial help from Dustin Hoffman and the (Bob) Dole Foundation. He hit the road with a camera crew, filming at comedy clubs, seeking out the few disabled comedians and filmed their routines. He mixed in some heart-warming interviews, and the finished product became not only a success, but an inspiration to disabled folks. Stars comedy greats Kathy Buckley, Brett Leake, Chris Fonseca, Alex Valdez, J.D. England, and Geri Jewell.
His next documentary was “The Joke’s on Thee” a film about humor in religion. Once again he hit the trail to the comedy clubs. He sought out stand-up comics who were finding humor in their religious beliefs. The DVD became a classic hit, and was played many times on public broadcasting stations around the country. Click below to see a short preview on youtube.
His success with humor and comedy was highlighted in other television shows like Second City Presents, which he Produced and was hosted by writer Bill Zehme. This new series of TV interviews offers an intimate and humorous look at comedians such as Martin Short, Tracey Ullman, Jim Belushi, Molly Shannon, Joan Rivers and John Lovitz.
RJ also one time at a Hollywood type meeting with some other producers, sketched out on a napkin an idea for a TV show, that was later called “It’s Black Entertainment”. It was aired on Showtime, to rave reviews.
He then moved into joke writing for Jay Leno and the Tonight Show. This was a particularly hard gig. RJ worked as a freelancer, he was never on Leno’s staff, although he would have jumped at the chance. (He would have also loved the high pay). Johnson was very disciplined about his writing. He would get up every morning about 7 am and start listening to the news. He would scour the internet for the wacky, oddball stories that he could latch on to. He would then write until about 1 pm, then fax the jokes that he had to Leno. It was brutal. He would send in 50 to 100 per day, often getting zero. If he got 4 or 5 jokes in a week it was a very good week.
Jay Leno spared no expense promoting the Tonight Show. Photo by Paulie Hunt
Leno did not pay big to freelancers for jokes. It was usually $75. After all, he had a big staff of writers who were being paid huge salaries to come up with funny stuff. Squeezing anything into the Tonight Show was tough, the competition fierce. RJ said that Leno got about a thousand jokes a day from freelancers. So you had to be better than the army of freelancers and also better than the high paid pros on Leno’s staff. There were weeks when RJ did not get even one joke. “I worked all week for free, Paulie,” he said. Sometimes the dark cloud would continue for two or three weeks. About the third week RJ would be questioning everything. He would show me a stack of papers with hundreds of jokes. “Are any of these funny? Am I losing it?” he’d quip. Of course they were funny, many of them were screamers. Why Leno didn’t buy some of them, nobody could tell. The third week of no sales would also bring on the paranoia. He would call the show, ask if he were on the “S” list for some reason. The voice on the other end of the phone would always calm him down. “Nothing’s wrong, just keep sending stuff in.” And sure enough, the jokes would start selling again. His hard work would pay off and at the end of the year Leno would send him a great Christmas bonus check, based on his production and I think a little on his seniority. RJ was always very grateful for the bonus check. Leno is a great guy, and did not forget his freelancers, especially the ones that stuck it out and produced good stuff.
I remember once RJ and I were working together on something, and I made one of my off the cuff comments about some news event. RJ thought that was funny, in fact, the only funny thing I had said in months. “I’ll send it to Leno, and if it sells, we’ll split it.” It sold and we splurged the next Saturday night on tacos at Baja Fresh. So there’s my claim to fame as a professional joke writer, a half of a joke sold to the Tonight Show. Hey, at my age I take what I can get. A half is better than notta.
The moral of the story is that you can’t give up. Keep on slugging. RJ had sold an incredible 1,730 jokes up until October 2013 when he had a stroke and landed in the hospital.
During the time he was writing jokes, he also worked on other projects. He was a co-author with Greg Simay and Mike White on a graphic novel called “Red Eden”. This is a science-fiction story about Native Americans who used technology to get into space and settle on Mars where they built their new Paradise. Enter a group of rogues from a dying planet Earth who try to take over the paradise on Mars for themselves. A young “Martian” woman rallies her people to fight to the finish against the onslaught from Earth. This graphic novel was published on amazon Kindle and is now available. It was to be the last project that Johnson worked on, published about a year before his death, when he was incapacitated in a recovery home. I was a hired gun on the project and RJ and I worked intensely on editing and dialogue for over a year.
RJ had worked with Mike White long ago, back in the 1980s, when they both worked as crew for a fashion show producer. Mike and RJ had also written a play that was produced and staged at a dinner theater in the Valley. His other co-author was Greg Simay, who helped to finance “The Jokes on Thee”. Simay was also the publisher of Red Eden.
RJ donated a lot of his time to various Hollywood projects. He called this putting some “sweat equity” into things that are important to the industry he worked in. One of his projects around 1984 was as a volunteer to hike up behind the old Pilgrimage Theater and repair the huge Cross that had been vandalized and blown over in a windstorm. The cross was actually a memorial for Christine Stevenson who helped to build the Hollywood Bowl and did build the old Pilgrimage Theater to put on a play that she wrote.
Another was to pitch in to work on repairs at the old Masquers Club in Hollywood, which had been a watering hole for the top actors, producers and directors. Located at 1765 Sycamore Ave., just above Hollywood Blvd., the old elegant Club had fallen on hard times. The worst issue was parking. Although the Masquers was flush with money in the 1930s, they failed to secure a parking lot at the time. This was because all the members would arrive in their own limos, so who needs parking? By 1980s parking was certainly a problem. At that time crime in Hollywood was on the rise, and parking down near Hollywood Blvd and walking the block to the Masquers was like running a mugging marathon. The muggers would fight each other over the “prey”. It was hard to attract new members.
In the mid 1980s RJ joined the Masquers and spent a great deal of time trying to fix up the place, painting, cleaning, everything, including putting on new shows and trying to induce new members. The Club lingered for a while, but the building finally had to be sold. The site is now an apartment building. The Masquers moved downtown Los Angeles for a while into the old building owned by Milt Larson called the Variety Arts center. The famous bar was moved into the third floor, along with all the memorabilia. When Larson closed the Variety Arts center, the stuff was moved into a warehouse for storage, and only the CIA knows for sure where that is.
RJ was active in local Studio City and community events, the area where he lived and managed a 23 unit apartment building,, which we called Radford Gardens. He was a frequent letter writer to the Daily News and had scores of letters published. He was able to get so many letters in the newspapers because he had mastered the art of being succinct. Writing for the Tonight Show meant that the jokes were short and sweet, one or two lines. He was big on twitter, where you only have 140 characters to get your point across. He used these techniques to get letters into the local newspapers and television shows. If you are an aspiring writer of the short quip, or a political activist, practice by sending out short tweets. Train yourself to boil down the main idea that you want to get across and make it as short as possible. RJ was big on Hemingway, and studied Hemingway’s methods of crunching down the words to the absolute minimum, while still being entertaining, of course.
Back in 2008, when WhatUpHollywood first started, RJ contributed our first video. This was a warning to tourists, “Hollywood Tourists Beware”. Click below to watch this.
That schtick didn’t get either one of us a free meal at Patys Restaurant in Toluca Lake, but RJ’s small snapshot photo of himself was hanging on the wall upside down beside all the glamorous photos of Hollywood Celebrities for several years.
RJ loved to sneak off to Malibu and walk on the beach. Had he made the kind of money that some writers achieve, I know where he would have been living. I went with RJ many times to grab a lunch at McDonalds, then walk down the beach. We could shed some stress from the grind of the writing projects we were working on. I happened to have my little flip camera the last time we went up to Malibu, and filmed RJ waving goodbye. Neither of us knew that would be his last walk on the beach.
When RJ’s apartment was dismantled I jotted down the basic information on the certificates of achievements that were hanging on the wall of his office. Included were the following:
—1994 “Look Who’s Laughing”. Berkeley Video Festival, Best of Festival, Comedy
—1995 Gold Award – Excellence in the Category of Independent Production from CPB for “Look Who’s Laughing.”
—2001 Best of Festival Award, Comedy, Berkeley Video and Film Festival, for “The Jokes on Thee”
—1994 – 42nd Annual Columbus International Film and Video Festival, Bronze Plaque for “Look Who’s Laughing.”
—2000 – Silver World Medal for “It’s Black Entertainment” (RJ was Producer on this)
—1995 Bronze Apple Award, National Educational Media Network, “Look Who’s Laughing”.
—15th Media Access Awards, “Look Who’s Laughing”, Governor’s Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons.
Working with RJ on various projects could be challenging. Many times I thought that maybe it would be easier to take that job cleaning up old refrigerators. But things smoothed out, and we did a lot of good work on Red Eden. Knowing RJ was a great learning experience. He always wanted to achieve the best that he was capable of. Perfection was a goal that never could be grasped, but it was his obsession to try to reach it. He made quite a mark in Hollywood, that kid from Minneapolis, and we are all better for the experience.
Randy Johnson is missed by his friends and his loving brother Mark Johnson and family. God rest his merry soul.