com jgwalsh axley Johnny Walsh, business law practitioner by day, stand-up comedian by night. @johnnywalsh via Twitter.
You were a finalist during the 2011 and 2012 Madison’s Funniest Comic Competition. What is a comedy competition like?
The competition is held annually at The Comedy Club on State in Madison in February. Approximately 80 comedians compete. During the first round, each comedian is given three minutes to win over the audience and a panel of judges – only 20 comedians advance. This format continues each week until a winner is selected. The competition is challenging because no matter how good you are, you can always have a bad set. Moreover, you need to be original and cannot repeat a joke you have previously used during the competition. I will compete again this February and intend to win this time around.
How long have you been a stand-up comedian?
The first time I performed on stage was August 2010.
Stand-up comedy and the law – that’s quite a combination. How did it happen?
Short story: I have always had great respect for the art form, and I felt it would be a great venue to practice public speaking and presenting before an audience – a skill that lawyers need to employ often.
Long story: I was born hearing impaired, and when I was 15, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic eye disorder that often leads to blindness. The combination of hearing impairment and RP is called Usher syndrome. I have a central visual field of approximately 5 degrees in each eye. To put that in perspective, when I attend the movie theatre and sit in the back row – I can see about 5 percent of the screen – though I still pay full price for the ticket. This reality limits what I can do. For instance, after work, some lawyers play golf; I stand on stage and tell jokes. If I were a golfer, I would still be looking for a ball I hit last June.
What is your subject matter?
The law, my family, my fading vision, and ironically, observational humor. I keep it clean. You never know when a potential client may be in the audience. I want the audience member to say, "I’d hire him as my attorney."
Johnny Walsh performing at the Comedy Club on State Street in Madison, June 27, 2013.
What is it about getting up in front of an audience that most appeals to you?
The connection with the audience – especially when they laugh and react positively to some of the more personal moments I touch on in my act.
Why did you choose to practice law?
I followed in the footsteps of my grandfather and father.
Has practicing law influenced your material?
Of course. Especially when I write material. Framing a legal argument is very similar to framing a joke – you need to be concise and quickly arrive at the conclusion or punch line. For example, when I draft a memo, I present the question, provide the legal analysis, and provide a conclusion. A joke is not much different – start with a concept, provide the set-up, and deliver the punch line. The key is to use as few words as possible. A partner is not going to read a 20-page memo when all he or she is looking for is a yes or no answer. Similarly, the audience is not going to wait five minutes for a laugh – you have to be quick.
Tell us about your practice at Axley Brynelson. How has it challenged you, and how are you able to practice with your disability?
Axley Brynelson is a special place. I started working here during the summer of 2002 as a mail clerk and gopher, returned to Axley in 2005 as a legal assistant, and was hired as an attorney this past February.
Certainly, the firm has terrific resources but most important, it has a wonderful culture. Indeed, few firms would accept the challenge of mentoring a disabled lawyer, or for that matter, putting up with a stand-up comic.
I am a member of Axley’s business practice group. I enjoy the challenge of identifying and solving problems before they occur. People often think they only need a lawyer because they are dealing with conflicts, when in fact, if they had initially hired an attorney, the conflict may have been avoided. For example, when working with entrepreneurs, I enjoy providing counsel regarding formation, business plan analysis, entity structure, preserving IP assets, and drafting the appropriate documents. I particularly enjoy this area of the law because the client is often just beginning a new journey and I start with them from the beginning, grow with them, and share in their success. Start-up businesses are optimistic and remind me of my own challenges. Axley Brynelson, with its resources, patience, and strategic vision, has been a wonderful platform for me.
I’m able to practice with my limited vision because I have the best legal assistant ever.
Who are your favorite comedians?
Brian Regan for his upbeat and light-hearted delivery – he leaves you in a better mood than before you started listening to him, and that should be the goal of any comedian. George Carlin was the first comedian I listened to in the same way I would listen to a favorite record – on repeat. I loved Carlin’s bits about the English language. Lastly, Rodney Dangerfield is a favorite for the speed at which he delivers his jokes – it’s punch line after punch line – he’s a machine. And Bob Saget – because he let me open for him at the Orpheum Theatre in Madison.
What is your favorite joke to tell on stage?
I have a bit about the United States Constitution and the 2nd Amendment that usually gets a good laugh.
“You can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre, but because of the 2nd Amendment, you can carry a flamethrower into one!”