How this comedian's America's Got Talent empty theatre audition became a success

“It's a lot more difficult to look good in front of 4 people instead of 2,000,” says Canadian comedian John Hastings.

“It's a lot more difficult to look good in front of 4 people instead of 2,000,” says comedian John Hastings.

When Ottawa-born comedian John Hastings submitted his tape to America's Got Talent (AGT) in 2019, he didn't know he'd be going through the audition process during the week that the COVID-19 lockdown began. 

"We didn't know how long the lockdown would be or what was going to happen; it sort of felt like a storm had just hit. I'm sitting down waiting to meet Howie Mendel, Sofia Vergara, and Simon Cowell, all while the governor of California is saying, "Stay home, go home, this is trouble!" 

He was the second-last performer to go on stage and performed to an almost empty theatre. He didn't even consider it was an issue until he got on stage and quietly freaked out, says Hastings.

"Before getting on the stage, in the end I'm just going, 'if it's really bad, it's really bad and I'll rebuild my career from there."

In his routine, Hastings joked about his age.

"I'm 34. I don't look like any age. I just look like I've been through stuff and 34 is a difficult age because it's not old but it's old enough that the world's changed," Hastings said.

"I'm old enough to remember there was a time when you saw a fella with a neck tattoo and then you thought, 'I'm about to see a dead body.' Now, you see a fella with a neck tattoo all you think is, 'this latte is going to be amazing."

Hastings revealed that what we don't see in the video is the time it took for him to compose himself, which was edited out. Despite these challenges, he received all three judges' approval and moved onto the next round. CBC Comedy asked Hastings about this experience and his comedy journey. 

How did it feel getting a standing ovation from the judges and then going home after the show in LA? 

I don't even remember it. I just was like, "oh, I get yeses, that's good!" and then immediately it was just like, "now, how the hell do I get home?" I was in Pasadena, so I was in the equivalent of Scarborough and trying to get to The Junction, and Ubers were crazy expensive because everyone's rushing home going, "this is it!". I ended up taking LA public transport at the beginning of a quarantined pandemic, which is a really cool show business moment to go from a very cool achievement to sitting next to an intravenous drug user eating chicken, which is exactly what happened. There was a full fight on the LA public transit on my way there, and I had a weird thought that, "should I tell them I'm going to audition for AGT?" and I was like, "What? That's not going to soothe them, you idiot." 

How did you find your original voice in standup?

There was a time when I was writing scripts and other things that never developed, and my agent at the time said, "Just concentrate on standup this year and it will be successful" and that was a big moment. 

There's pressure put on comedians to do standup as a way to get to other things, but I realized I just want to be a standup. 

With voice, you have to change. You don't want to be the same guy as you were at 20, or 30, or 40 as a comedian. It just comes off as disingenuous and doesn't work. There are comedians in both our heads right now, we're thinking of people that haven't adjusted with the times. You can see that with a lot of people screaming about political correctness. I think that comes from a place of insecurity where they just don't want to have to rewrite their act because some of their jokes have groups who don't deserve to be the punchline as the punchline. It doesn't come from a place of protection of free speech. Free speech isn't under attack. Calm down.  

After touring all over North America, UK, Europe,the Netherlands, the Middle East, Australia, which country has your favourite audiences? 

Canada overall is a country with a strong public education system, Canada is attentive and wants you to succeed. This isn't me blowing smoke up Canada's ass. There isn't much of a difference anywhere - I believe it matters how many people there are. 

Speaking from televised experience, it's a lot more difficult to look good in front of 4 people instead of 2,000. The odds are in your favour, more people of that 2,000 might find you funny. 

What's your next step? 

You will all have to tune in to find out what happens to me and all your favourite people that appeared on the show! The marching band, the guy who sang Billie Eilish, that other guy, the slam poet... all of them. 

John Hastings has upcoming shows at The Comedy Nest next weekend and has a Zoom show on Monday, July 27 which he says "continues to be weird."