Recipe for Becoming Keith Lowell Jensen

July 19, 2021

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Keith Lowell Jensen

Interview by

Valerie Lopez

Article by

Sara Cline

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2021 Summer Vacation Series

Destination - Sacramento, California

The world is in the midst of a host of debuts, including the blinding sight of faces that haven’t seen true sunlight for many months, poking out of doors and taking the cautious first steps back into the great outside.
It’s only fitting that we debut something of our own for the podcast: the 2021 Summer Vacation Series. While we’re in no way on vacation, the theme speaks more to that most summer-y of concepts, traveling to new places near and far. Many of our guests are local to Austin, but during the pandemic we had the honor of “hosting” comics from around the world on our Isolation Comedy series, and the Vacation Series is our way of bringing them back for the full Comedy Wham interview treatment.

Let me level with you all: My job here—curating cool stories from comedians—is not terribly hard. Think about it: For one thing, comedians are professional storytellers. For another, strange and fantastical things happen to them often. (I don’t know if that’s by magic or just by virtue of interacting with drunk people on a nightly basis, but I digress). That’s a pretty foolproof recipe for cool stories. The only problem is, every so often, we get the privilege of talking to a seasoned comic like Keith Lowell Jensen—someone with so many interesting stories and fabulous credits, it becomes a struggle not to make the article sound like one long infomercial à la Billy Mays. (“But wait, there’s more!”)

Seriously though: Jensen has eight comedy albums, a successfully published book called Punching Nazis: And Other Good Ideas and another one on the way, and he has opened for the likes of Norm Macdonald, Robin Williams, and Doug Stanhope. Hearing those credits—as a comedian and writer myself—I had to fight the urge to start furiously taking notes. Turns out, the secret to success was starting out as a punk ska kid in California with four brothers, so I’ve already missed the boat on multiple counts.

For those of you still interested in the recipe for becoming Keith Lowell Jensen, follow these steps: Start a band, but don’t play any instruments with too much skill. Instead, rely on your talented guitarist friend to help you turn your lyrics and ideas into something truly musical. Promote the band until you’re gigging regularly. Then, watch helplessly as your friend leaves the band to be a dad. Whip eggs until light and fluffy. Wait, sorry, I’m getting my recipes mixed up.

Comedy was something where I could again be putting my words out there, be expressing myself in the way that I wanted to, and getting the attention that I wanted.
Keith Lowell Jensen

Jensen reflects on the experience of losing the band, “You know, it was a lot of work. And then to have it gone overnight, because of someone else … left me feeling a little bit powerless.” Fortunately, with the help of a local comedy writing class as his “training wheels,” Jensen found a surprisingly viable substitute in the form of being funny on stage. “Comedy was something where I could again be putting my words out there, be expressing myself in the way that I wanted to and getting the attention that I wanted,” he muses. He even formed the comedic equivalent of a band: a comedy troupe (with the added caveat that, this time, they would sail on if anyone jumped ship).

Surprisingly, Jensen was actually not “the funny one” growing up; he was the artsy one with the oil paints and the poetry. By the same token, he was also the only one allowed to have nudes on his wall, much to his brothers’ chagrin. “Because their nudes, you know, came out of Playboy, and my nudes were artistic,” Jensen says cheekily. “Mine were in black and white.” In the same vein, Jensen started out on the artsier, weirder side of comedy, influenced heavily by Andy Kaufman: “I was putting strainers on my head and performing my whole set as a fly, or doing a bit where I wouldn't come out on stage; I made the emcee bring the mic backstage to me because I had ‘stage fright.’”

Eventually, Jensen realized that his heart’s true loyalty lay with telling stories. From aspiring to be a graphic novelist, to wanting to make movies, to just gregariously swapping stories at parties, everything was coming up storytelling. And yet, the first time that Jensen bombed was when he got up and told a regular old story, instead of his Kaufman-esque bits. (Granted, the real reason it bombed was not the story itself, but rather that it was a completely new, untested joke.) “That scared me off of storytelling for a while,” he recollects. Of course, too stubborn to simply write the joke off as a dud, Jensen later worked out the story’s kinks and made it the closer of his first comedy album. In fact, turning failures into slow-burn, late-bloomer successes is one of his obsessions. “Sometimes I'll keep doing something I don't even like anymore for a really long time,” he admits. “Just because, like, I gotta win before I can quit.”

I thought I wasn't going to make it as a writer, just because the process was too painful.
Keith Lowell Jensen

That same persistence colors many of Jensen’s accomplishments. Take his most recent comedy album, for example; he originally wrote and pitched it to publishers as a book, but to no avail. “To spend months of my life writing something and then not get any feedback except a rejection letter. Wow, that hurts,” Jensen remarks of the experience. “And so, I thought I wasn't going to make it as a writer, just because the process was too painful.” But much like the story that first bombed, he refused to let the book die; instead, he brought it back to the drawing board, allowing it to metamorphose into his successful comedy album Not for Rehire.

As for publishing a book, another opportunity presented itself rather serendipitously—in the form of a neo-Nazi getting punched in the face on Inauguration Day. (Stay with me, here.) You see, Jensen became quite outspoken in favor of punching Nazis. Somehow or another, a friend put in a good word about his writing to Skyhorse Publishing and before he knew it, Skyhorse was asking him for a punching Nazis book. And the rest, as they say, was history.

“I didn't really have faith in myself that I could write the book,” Jensen says, “or that anyone would get my style. I'm so influenced by graphic novels and magazines … so, it was gonna be short and all over the place. And some of the stories weren't going to have real clear plot lines; they were just gonna be little slices of life.” But the book was a success. (Plus, as a comedian, Jensen is basically on a never-ending book tour, which always helps.)

With that book under his belt, Jensen now looks forward to the release of his newest book, What I Was Arrested For. He is especially fond of the project because it’s not one that anyone asked him to write; it’s what he wanted to write. “It's me telling stories, which is what I do,” he affirms simply.

That quote from Jensen might not sound so profound out of context, but given the journey (or recipe) surrounding it, with all the pivots, prior doubts, and setbacks metamorphosed, that quote sounds like the perfect end to this cool story; we can’t wait to hear the ones he tells next.

Want to know more about comedy in Sacramento, California?

Keith's recommendations for comics to check out from Sacramento include: Johnny Taylor, Ngaio Bealum, Becky Lynn, Parker Newman, Chazz Hawkins, Mike E. Winfield, Kiry Shabazz, and JR De Guzman

If you're in Sacramento, check out the comedy scene where comics generally work at one club in town, but often head to nearby San Francisco to earn greater fame while maintaining their home base in Sacramento.

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Keith can be seen and heard:

  • Podcasts Hosted - Keith Lowell Jensen Presents: The Keith Lowell Jensen Show with Keith Lowell Jensen
  • Comedy Albums/Specials - Keith Lowell Jensen: Bad Comedy for Bad People; Elf Orgy; Atheist Christmas; Not For Rehire (on Amazon Prime now)
  • Books - Punching Nazis: And Other Good Ideas; New book coming out in late 2021
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Keith Lowell Jensen