It seems counterintuitive to say comedians take their art and craft very seriously, but they do. The best continually study the best, and any who achieve a measure of success work hard doing so.
Sacramento’s Keith Lowell Jensen fits the mold, not just developing his own act but creating opportunities for himself and others. On Wednesday Jensen hosts “Session: A Jazz and Comedy Jam” at the Punchline, featuring himself with comics Lance Woods, Johnny Taylor, Alfonso Portela and Matt Lieb performing with a live jazz ensemble behind them.
Jensen did a version of the show in San Francisco a couple of months ago, and it worked well enough he thought he would try it here.
“There were a couple of those really magical moments that we were looking for,” Jensen said recently over coffee in midtown.
“The band picked up a mellower vibe coming off the comedian, and they brought it down, and as the comedian got more excited, they brought it up. At one point just before I was about to say a punchline, they stopped cold. I said the punchline, and they crashed back in on the end of it, and it was amazing,” Jensen said.
Jensen has been developing his own wry understated brand of comic musings for nearly 20 years. His onstage life started out somewhat accidentally as he began handling introductions for the old Spike and Mike Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. The festival’s co-founder, the late Mike Gribble, gave Jensen his first exposure and inspired the young performer to live a committed and creative life without compromises.
Jensen worked off and on for the Spike and Mike franchise for more than a decade, traveling with the show across the country and into Canada as well.
As Jensen started getting a sense of his own stage persona, he also started studying the masters for inspiration.
“I think Woody Allen is the greatest standup comedian of all time, and it’s hard to say exactly why,” Jensen said. “He could get very personal and draw from his own life while going on these very surreal flights of fancy. He took his insecurity onstage and made it work for him. It was a big part of his character.”
The idea of personal acceptance was central for Jensen as he developed his own comedy material.
“I think whatever you have that is a detriment, you should own it in comedy. I love Richard Pryor for some of the same reasons.”
Jensen also lists the late Bill Hicks and legendary Mort Sahl as influences and comedy heroes. Part of Jensen’s study of comedy legends also helped lead him to his combination comedy and jazz night.
“I read a lot of comedian biographies and there are things that comedians in the past have experienced that I’ve always been kind of jealous of, and it’s usually the worst things, the things they hated,” Jensen said.
“Performing in the lounges, performing in strip clubs, so I went and did burlesque shows and now I do a regular burlesque show. I always read about Lenny Bruce turning his back on the audience and just performing for the band. I never performed with a band, so I had this idea.”
Jensen has been learning about jazz so he thought he would make it a jazz band.
“They just merge perfectly, they’re so similar in so many ways,” Jensen said.
“There’s timing to comedy. When you put a rhythm behind it, the comedians just fall in step, and then when the musicians listen to you, they also get the emotion of what you’re saying and adjust the groove accordingly.”
Jensen believes most comedy is very much a work in progress, and comedians need places like open mikes or short-set events where they can develop and work out routines. For five years Jensen booked a relaxed, intimate Wednesday comedy night at Luna’s in midtown, where every level of comic, from raw beginners to experienced local pros such as Larry “Bubbles” Brown, Mike E. Winfield, Hassan Minhaj and Ngaio Bealum, were featured. The much-loved event ended this spring.
He also toured with the Coexist Comedy Tour as the atheist comedian. “It was a subject I enjoyed talking about and one there was an audience for,” Jensen said.
“So being an out atheist, standing up for separation of church and state, and for science education and a rational approach to problem solving is important to me, so long as I can also make it funny,” he added.
Jensen tries out new jokes and ideas on Reddit and Facebook, where he can get almost-immediate response. Like every other performer in front of an audience, though, Jensen knows there’s no substitute for being in front of real people.
“Sometimes you just have to take it on stage and start telling that story,” he said. “You have a very strong survival instinct onstage. You don’t want to bomb, and sometimes you need that terror to push your brain.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.