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This guy's standup comedy really blows

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Here are a couple of words one doesn't usually expect to find in the same sentence:

"Hilarious" and "bagpipes."

Though they're usually associated with dour melodies and bleak circumstances, the most traditional of Scottish instruments take on a very different personality in the mischievously skilled hands of Johnny "Bagpipes" Johnston, who's just as likely to launch into a rendition of AC/DC's Thunderstruck or use the pipes for sound-effect purposes as he is to perform the more traditional likes of Amazing Grace or Flower of Scotland.

"People think there's only two songs played on the bagpipes -- the one that's played in parades, and the one that's played at funerals," he laughs. "But there's a lot more to it than that, and it's kind of cool to see that it's becoming more and more accepted."

Johnston will contribute his unique brand of bagpipes-fuelled humour to this year's Winnipeg Comedy Festival, taking part in Thursday night's Alan-Thicke-hosted gala, Save The World Telethon (7:15 p.m., Pantages Playhouse Theatre).

A native of Portland, Ore., Johnston was a self-described "bagpipe nerd" during his teenage years, and would likely have enjoyed a lengthy career as a member of a pipe-and-drum band if he hadn't suddenly been struck by the notion that the instrument he'd spent years learning to play could be used to perform not-so-traditional forms of music.

"I started playing bagpipes when I was 11," he recalls. "My dad would send me to bagpipe college in the summertime -- normal kids got to go camping or go to the beach, but I went to bagpipe camp. But I totally got into it.

"When I was younger, I thought there was no limit to the instrument, because I could learn everything by ear. I would practise different rudiments in the bathroom, for the acoustics, and I'd think, 'That sounds really cool; if I played it faster, it would be like rock 'n' roll.' And I started playing that way -- and then once, on St. Patrick's Day in Portland, I was on the radio and I played an old Van Halen song. Then went I went to band practice, the pipe major was so mad -- he was like, 'I heard you on the radio; what was that crap?' And they booted me out of the band. I got suspended from a bagpipe band for not playing traditional music."

And when Johnston became interested in standup comedy during his late teens, it was only matter of time before his rebellious brand of bagpiping and his repertoire of really bad jokes collided.

"I was at community college, in theatre (class), and I started doing bad impressions, like Mr. Rogers and that kind of stuff," he says. "And then one guy said to me, 'You should put your bagpipes into your act, and then you'd stand out.' So I did -- at first, all I did was play Scotland the Brave through the crowd, and they'd all go crazy for the bagpipes, then I'd put them down and go into my lame impressions. And they'd go, 'Wow, that's really bad... and what's with the bagpipes?'

"But over the years, it kind of evolved... it wasn't until about 10 years ago that I started wearing a kilt onstage. I would be in regular clothes and I'd pull out my bagpipes; I never thought about how I could pull the whole package together, until suddenly I thought, 'Well, duh! That kind of works together.' I guess I'm not the brightest bulb."

These days, Johnston is a hot commodity, particularly in the corporate sector for companies seeking clean, clever entertainment for conventions and special events. The Victoria resident has produced a bagpipe-themed documentary (They Pipe Among Us, which aired on Bravo in 2001), released a couple of comedy DVDs and appeared at comedy festivals across the country, including Montreal's Just For Laughs.

Despite his enduring success, Johnston says he still experiences resistance from traditionalists in both the bagpiping and comedy worlds.

"I consider myself to be a comedian who uses the bagpipes," he says. "But when you do what I do, comedians tend to look at you as a prop act rather than a true standup comedian. They view it as a hook, and think you're only getting away with it because you have that hook.

"Well, yeah, it's a hook, but people are going to remember me and book me before they remember, 'So, what's up with Volkswagens?'... The pipes are powerful and they get the crowd going, which is perfect for corporate shows, which is where I'd rather be instead of those one-nighters in Slave Lake after the strippers."

There's something fitting about Johnston's inclusion in the Save The World Telethon gala -- a fake fundraiser -- because he and his wife have been involved for several years in a real-life charitable effort that has produced very impressive results.

His wife runs a travel company specializing in African adventures; during a trip to South Africa in 1998, they encountered a one-room school that was badly in need of supplies. On subsequent trips, they brought pencils and notebooks, and soon decided there might be something more they could do.

Flash forward a decade, and Johnston and wife Marianne Schaubeck's registered charity, African Preschools Society, has raised enough funds to build and sustain a modern 12-room schoolhouse that provides nearly 400 children with education and two meals a day. A second school is slated to open next month.

"It sounds kind of sappy, but we've found our purpose in life," he says.

For a sampling of Johnny Bagpipes' humour, visit www.johnnybagpipes.com

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

COMEDY PREVIEW

Thursday Night Gala: Save The World Telethon

Hosted by Alan Thicke; featuring Johnny Bagpipes, John Wing, Lou Dinos, Laura Landauer, Michael Winslow and Hot Thespian Action

Thursday at 7:15 p.m.

Pantages Playhouse Theatre

Tickets $39.95 at Ticketmaster

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2012 C3

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