Andrew J Johnston Hits Rock Bottom

Former leader of punk band The Dangerfields turned stand-up comedian plays the Belfast Fringe Festival

How different is it performing alone on stage with just a microphone, having toured prodigiously for ten years with your old band the Dangerfields?

It was weird for the first few gigs, but I got used to it very quickly. The Dangerfields was essentially a solo project anyway. Well, I was certainly the only human involved. This suits me far better. I always hated having to organise tours around other people’s jobs, wives, court appearances or whatever.

I remember one of our guitarists even pulled out of a gig because he had burnt his hand on a Pot Noodle. It was a lie, of course – he just wanted to go to Shine and get smashed, instead of playing some toilet in Ballymoney. With comedy, there’s so much less messing about. You just hop in the car, drive to the gig, walk into the venue, take the mic and start.

Do you draw much inspiration from your days on the road for your stage show?

I have tried that, but the problem is that in sets of seven to ten minutes it’s hard to contextualise everything. You have to explain who the band was, who the members were, why we were playing some godforsaken squat in Eastern Europe… And comedy crowds aren’t always clued in to the DIY punk scene. The extent of their knowledge of local music may only be, say, Snow Patrol at the Odyssey.

And on top of that some of the old Dangerfields stories are just so ridiculous it sounds like I’m making it up. But I love a challenge, so I’m going to try again with the Fringe show. I have 45 minutes, so I’ll put in a few band anecdotes and mix it up with my usual filth and one-liners.

What can people expect from your Belfast Fringe Festival show?

Basically, all the gags and bits that have worked from my gigs so far, plus the Dangerfields stuff and some new stuff. I always try to put in a few new gags at every gig – topical stuff if possible. I hate seeing comics do the same set month after month – or in some cases, year after year.

I did a gig in London during the summer, it was two days after Amy Winehouse died, but out of 28 acts on the bill only myself and one other guy did any material about her. The rest of them were still going on about Michael Jackson or the credit crunch or whatever. There were even some gags about Maggie Thatcher. It was like An Audience with Bernard Manning’s Corpse.

How close to the 'real' Andrew Johnston to the Andrew J Johnston persona we see on stage?

It is me up there, so it’s as 'real' as anything else I do. It’s just another side to my personality – the side that can get away with saying things I can’t in a Jedward review for the paper. The only difference is the name. At the start I just used Andrew Johnston, until I found out there’s a gay Canadian comic called Andrew Johnston. So, I used AJ Johnston for a while – but then people kept telling me that there’s a black American comic called AJ Johnson.

I was a bit concerned people might start turning up at gigs expecting to hear jokes about gay sex or rap music – I don’t know anything about rap music. So, I’ve just stuck my middle initial in. Though no doubt now there’ll be a serial killing pervert called Andrew J Johnston who’ll emerge in the next few weeks. Which will make two of us.

The comedian Stewart Lee has described how he enjoys the challenge of 'losing a room' only to pull the audience around again. Do you see stand-up as a similar challenge?

I do see it as a challenge, but mainly to get out of the room without getting punched. Seriously though, I do enjoy the challenge of winning round an audience – but I enjoy it even if I don’t win them round again. The feeling of a set going completely off the rails – self-destructing on stage – is enjoyable in its own way.

Is there ever a point when you worry about the way an audience is reacting? It’s obviously more enjoyable for everyone if the audience is having a good time and laughing at the jokes, but I don’t go out of my way to ingratiate myself.

The only thing I really worry about is performing the material to the best of my ability. If I do that, then it’s really just down to how warped an audience is as to how much they get out of it. If it goes really badly, and they want to fight me – then so be it.

Can you give an example of how you’ve dealt with a difficult audience in your time as a stand-up?

I did a gig in Larne recently – yes, I should stop here, I know, it’s grim enough already… But I made some off-the-cuff remark about that poor fella who got killed by a shark in the Seychelles, and this fat, old, red-faced spide with a moustache, who was sitting right at the front, said, 'What a d**k' – meaning me.

I could have backed down and tried to win him round, but I stuck to my guns, and said, 'Yes, he was – for swimming out that far'. He just sat there and stewed. Apparently at the end of the night he was passed out asleep in the toilets, leaning against a urinal. So, who’s the d**k?

If you’re doing rough comedy, you have to stick to the script. I know this kind of material isn’t for everyone, but if you water it down you lose the people who do like this kind of stuff.

You’ve already managed to tour around quite a bit as a stand-up. Do you have any wretched tales from the road?

I did a gig in Derry recently, at Prehen House – actually, it was in a barn out the back of Prehen House. It was some sort of mad literary festival, and they had stuck all the comedians in what can only be described as a shit-filled bird barn. There were doves mating in the rafters, and a metal bath in the corner filled with feathers, shit and blood.

The stage was a couple of rickety wooden crates that nearly collapsed every time you moved around on them, and the PA speakers were covered in plastic sheets to protect against the bird shit. There is no way it would have passed health and safety laws, but the show must go on, so I did my full set and it was actually a lot of fun.

What is the next step for Andrew J Johnston? Jail, or more gigs?

A lot more gigs, then fame, fortune and doing the voiceovers on nature documentaries. Either that or complete obscurity forever.

Andrew J Johnston performs his Rock Bottom show at Auntie Annie's on October 22 as part of the Belfast Fringe Festival.