Nothing makes those of us at SpeechGeek geek out more than seeing former forensicators find success in the “real world.” After all, what could be more fun than pointing to a television screen, magazine page, or news site and being able to say, “I saw them at a tournament!” or “I competed with that person!” Speech is a wonderful community and it’s great to celebrate the competitors, alumni, and coaches who go on to do cool and amazing things.
That’s why we were happier than getting straight ones in finals when we learned that Dan Johnson, an H.I. finalist at the 2006 NFL National Tournament, was cast in MTV’s new scripted comedy, Underemployed. In an exclusive interview with SpeechGeek, the Chicago actor talks “Trash,” pursuing acting, and some tips for competitors who want to make performing their profession.
SPEECHGEEK: Thanks for joining us! Let’s start off with your forensics origin story. How did you get involved in speech?
DAN JOHNSON: I was introduced to speech in 8th grade via a visit from the speech team where I would later go to high school, Harry S. Truman High School in Independence, Missouri. There was a small assembly where my two best friends and I sat in awe of all these individuals who got to perform in front of people, and be all these different characters. I was definitely drawn to the individual event side of speech. After the assembly my friends and I looked at one another and basically swore an oath to join the high school speech team.
Later on in the year there was an activity fair held at Truman High where I met the speech coach, Kimberly Lenger. I immediately fell in love with her, and what I failed to picked up on was that she was immediately over me. She told me, years later, one of the first questions she asked herself was, “Who does this obnoxious kid with the ‘fro think he is?” Luckily I used my charm to win her over in the years following.
SG: It’s good to know that first impressions aren’t always lasting ones. Once you joined the team, what events did you compete in?
DJ: While at Truman, I dabbled in Duo, Storytelling, had a mighty brief stint in D.I., but mostly lived in the land of Humorous Interp. After Lenger (the name I will never not call my high school coach) showed us a DVD of one of the final rounds of H.I., I was hooked. I made it my goal to be in the final round of H.I. at some point in my high school career. H.I. became my main squeeze. This was the event that made it less weird for me to showcase my “schizophrenic” tendencies.
Amazingly, after almost four years of honing, I made it to the final round in H.I. at the 2006 NFL tournament held in Dallas, TX. My piece was called “Trash” by and Australian man named Andy Griffiths. It was about a kid whose parents were crazy about their son, aptly named “Andy,” taking out the trash. A cute story where Andy goes on a quest after waking up late, missing the trash man, somehow winding up INSIDE the trash truck, and finally being spit out in front of his boyhood crush, “Lisa.”
SG: Ouch, poor Andy. What was it like performing in the final round of H.I. at the NFL National Tournament?
DJ: After the postings for finals came out, Lenger and I went to a Mexican fast food chain where I ate, I think, two bites of my food. I was nervous. I had gotten out of my suit to relax before I had to go to the sound check at the stage where I would be performing. I hadn’t thought to put my suit back on, mostly because there were still 3 or so painstaking hours of waiting before I would have to take the stage in the ballroom of some big hotel in downtown Dallas. So, when I showed up in my plaid shorts, white polo, and flip flops, everyone looked at me like I was DEFINITLEY in the wrong place. The man conducting the sound check session asked where the sixth competitor was, and when I raised my hand, he gave me a look as if to say, “…well, good luck, pal…”
I didn’t mind much, especially after I saw the reassuring look Lenger gave me. I don’t remember a darn thing about the round itself, aside from the moment when I turned to the side, while performing, and saw myself on the big screen that was next to the stage. It was a “WOAH” moment. I ended up getting fourth place in the round and couldn’t be happier about it.
SG: That sounded like an amazing way to end your senior year. What happened after you graduated from high school?
DJ: I went on to compete for two years at Western Kentucky University on the collegiate level. I found some of my best friends at WKU and I also learned a TON there. Not only more technique but also the intangible stuff that will stay with me for the rest of my life - the number one thing being a strong work ethic. The amount of travel and practice helped me realize that I’m working not only for myself, but also for the team, and ultimately for the sport of speech and debate as a whole. Everyone who participates in this amazing art form is keeping it alive and thriving. After my second year at WKU, I decided to transfer to The Theatre School at DePaul University. I came to the conclusion that I needed to focus more on the craft of acting for the stage and for the camera.
The work ethic that I developed while at Truman and WKU also helps me in my professional life today. Every time I get a script or a side to memorize and breakdown, all the ideas, techniques, and exercises that were instilled in me over the years goes into that work.
SG: Which brings us to today. What can you tell us about the MTV comedy Underemployed and your character on the show?
DJ: The show is written and produced by Craig Wright. It’s about five recent college graduates who are working low/no-paying jobs and maneuvering life in that circumstance. My character, “Jamel,” is a recurring character that gets involved with one of the main characters over the course of the season. “Jamel” is a drummer in a band and a computer game designer. Although the show is called a comedy, it also deals with some drama and some of it includes some adult situations like sex. But, it’s done in a tasteful way – nothing too raunchy at all! The show is 12 episodes total and airs every Tuesday at 9pm central on MTV.
SG: What tips would you give to forensicators who want to pursue a career in television, film, or theater?
DJ: Some things that forensicators who want to act should do in order to start: JUST DO IT. Research classes that seem interesting, read plays (which most of you are already doing a lot of), write, and get a group of friends together and just play. Being in the speech realm is a great place to be because you’re already surrounded by a bunch of artists. Just be brave enough to get together and do something new. The biggest revelation I came to while at The Theatre School was that good actors are fearless ones. Speech begins to breed the fearlessness through the nature of the sport: you get up in front of a room of people, by yourself, and you speak – which according to… well, the world… is the world’s most terrifying thing. And not only are you speaking, you’re speaking about things that are new, things that are controversial, but above all else – you’re speaking about things that you believe in.
SG: Finally, what is the best advice you’ve ever received that you’d like to pas along to our readers?
DJ: Greatest piece of advice anyone has ever given me EVER, whether it was before I entered a round, went into an audition, or stepped on stage was, “Have fun.” It’s simple, but it’s the best way to walk into any situation and succeed.
SG: Thank you so much for chatting with us, Dan! Best of luck!
You can catch Dan on MTV’s Underemployed airing Tuesdays at 10/9 p.m. CST. Full episodes of the show are also available online. As Dan pointed out, Underemployed tackles situations for young adults, so some language and content may not be appropriate for all viewers.
Photo by Anna Ruch Photography