Pete Johansson on Ha!ifax ComedyFest, studying cognitive science and AI and why comedy makes us smarter
Pete Johansson's standup comedy is intelligent, observational and often autobiographical storytelling — crafted in a way that will make you think, laugh and maybe even cry a little. His ability to amplify critical societal issues and create dialogue through comedy, without defusing the significance of it, is a work of art in itself.
In addition to standup, Johansson is a writer, actor and podcaster (The Atomic Brain Podcast with Pete Johansson) with a number of notable televised and radio appearances — from his Netflix special, You Might Also Enjoy Pete Johansson, and Just for Laughs to two episodes of CBC's The Debaters, one of which was nominated for a CSA.
He's released a comedy album, The Adventures of Passive Agressive Suicide Boy, and you can find his Winnipeg Comedy Festival performance here on CBC Gem or watch him in the latest season of Ha!ifax ComedyFest, available here on CBC Gem as well.
"I think the Winnipeg stuff is a little edgy and I think Halifax was quite lighthearted, playful, just silly or a little sillier," says Johansson.
Inspired by comedic greats
Johansson's standup journey began early on but his comedic inspiration then versus who inspired him over the bulk of his comedy career, he says, are two different things.
The first person that inspired him to do comedy was Sam Kinison. He adds: "I grew up in a very religious household and I'd never heard somebody speak about religion the way he had. I didn't agree with a lot of the other things he said, but that resonated with me as a person. And so I looked into standup as sort of an art for expressing my frustrations."
But the comedian that absolutely changed him, he continues, was Richard Pryor.
What he did was, he humanized and transformed an entire life that I think most people never knew or understood or could picture.- Pete Johansson
"[Pryor] grew up in a brothel and he was able to talk about these things. He talked about stuff that nobody talked about in the '70s and '80s. Stuff that middle class white people wouldn't know or understand.
I'm always amazed, like imagine being the most painful things in your life and then just sort of creating this sort of polyp that the whole world can laugh with you and heal through. … I love Richard Pryor — Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle as well. I absolutely love Dave Chappelle, I think he's the closest thing to Richard Pryor."
Though he might not agree with everything comedians that he is inspired by say, Johansson says he respects the art of dialogue, adding: "It's comedy, it's not dogma, you know, you don't have to agree with everything everybody says."
From a 'ridiculous turning point' to a 'narrative of existence'
Over the years, Johansson's creative process has evolved from just writing jokes to writing about things that he wants to talk about. He's developed an ability to tell a touching personal story yet weave in jokes while at the same time keeping the two separate to ultimately create a cathartic experience.
The comedian says he likes to add a range of emotions in his acts and be a little more empathetic while still being funny, explaining: "I do like to put in moments of contemplation in my comedy where people sort of maybe readdress something that they hold very tightly as a belief and open up their perspective."
Johansson's creative process starts by laughing really hard with someone in a shared experience at something a little bit crazy — "and the question, 'what if?' or 'can you believe we made it through that?'
So I'll start writing backwards from that to what leads to it. I think about how we got there, how others got there, how society got there. And if you kind of look at and focus on the ridiculous turning points, I find there's generally some pretty good comedy in that. It's funny, but it also has to relate."
There's a story built into everything. Everything has a narrative of existence.- Pete Johansson
"And sometimes I'm wrong and that's learning, too."
Johansson says he just hopes that comedy can be healing, positive and good, "and still edgy and still talk about dark and trying things."
Comedy through cognitive science and AI
In the last few years, Johansson has taken a step back from performing comedy full-time to study cognitive science and artificial intelligence at the University of Toronto.
Johansson says he's interested in one of the two types of human problem solving and explains: "One's analytical and one's called insight problems. Insight problem solving is where our general intelligence sort of derived from the functional system behind it. It's called the 'aha' moment — that moment where we're not exactly sure where we go 'Ahh.' You have that 'Oh, I get it' that we can't dictate how we're solving an ill-defined problem, but we make a connection."
"And that's what comedy does. Comedy is a procedural tool that teaches us to be smarter and a lot of people don't realize that."
When we address more serious issues with comedy, we're broadening our ability to cope and to understand and to have the tools to adapt to bigger difficulties in our life, through laughing at them.- Pete Johansson
His goal is to understand how humans think, function and adapt and what comedy means to it so he can take some of the higher concepts about the future that people are scared of and nervous about and bridge them in a comedic way, "to help people not be afraid of some of the useful tools that we're learning about consciousness itself and the idea of the mind."
"I'd like to maybe get people to laugh away a little bit of that fear that's sort of paralyzing us as a society."
'Crescendo-ing an audience'
That mindset has taken Johansson's standup evolution to an interesting place where he now doesn't get nervous before his performances but says he's "a 'nervous after a show' kind of person. And then after I'm done, I'm like, 'Oh my God, what did I just do? Was that ok?'"
The size of the audience doesn't seem to phase Johansson either.
"The bigger the show, the funner it is for me. I have a really fun time with big audiences. There's things you can do."
"I love the pausing in big theaters," says Johansson, who used to fill the pauses with words as fast as he could when he was younger. But now, he adds: "I like to dry out the space before a punchline and make the audience just kind of hang on it before I give it. Because it's just a good, sweet, credible power to sort of drink that in.
With bigger audiences that can be just magical. You can crescendo an audience in ways that you just build and build and build the pacing. And I love a big audience, I think it's just fun.
That would be my dream gig, probably five or 6,000 people. A show of 5,000 would be perfect. Bigger than that, then you have waves and it takes awhile for the jumps to get to the back."
According to Johansson, his Ha!ifax ComedyFest performances were taped in smaller clubs, and those require a different style of comedic approach.
"You don't own people's attention in those places; you have to earn it. So I'm very reactive and play off of the audience, which I enjoy doing because it sort of challenges your quickness and the organic evolution of funny moments."
"The whole show had a lot of great comics on it. So, you know, watch everybody!"