Nancy Edmonds Hanson
JJ Gordon’s ear-to-ear grin is the best-known smile in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
Until he discovered his inner funnyman 20 years ago, though, the ebullient actor lived in the shadows. “I was a very lonely kid up to 10th grade. I didn’t fit in anywhere at Fargo South High School – not with the smart kids, the athletic kids, the musical kids. I was the chubby guy who wore sweatpants and didn’t have any friends, then went home and played video games,” he recalls. “Being a kid is terrible.
“Then my drama teacher, Gwen Stark, reached out. She said, ‘I know you’re just taking this class for an easy A … but I want you to think about trying out for our improv club.’
“I’d never done anything like that, but I tried out for the Donkey Hoteys – and was accepted into the club. That was the moment in my life when everything changed.”
Everything – his high-school days, his career prospects, his appreciation for the energy generated by connecting with people and making them smile.
Today the once-retiring young man has evolved into perhaps the most reliable generator of laughter in this part of the world. He’s an impresario of sorts – the head honcho of the Linebenders, the improv comedy troupe who’ve headlined corporate and community events across the Dakotas and Minnesota. He’s starring in Theatre B’s hit holiday production, “The Santaland Diaries,” a one-man show based on the sardonic wit of David Sedaris. He’s part of the noontime duo of “It Takes Two,” the radio program he shares with Amy Iler on KFGO Radio.
And he has another goal in mind – passing on the magic that Mrs. Stark (now retired after 39 years teaching drama) ignited in his life. “My mother insisted that, the minute I can’t make a living with improv, I get my degree,” JJ confides. Someday – not now – he will, aiming toward a degree in education at North Dakota State University with the intent of teaching drama to future generations of high schoolers looking to find themselves. “Mrs. Stark has no idea how many lives she changed by reaching out to me and kids like me. I want to share that.”
Improvisational theatre is a world of its own. Unlike both plays and stand-up comedy, it relies on the lightning-fast reflexes of the troupe on stage, who launch spontaneous skits and repartee based on cues suggested by their audiences in the style of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Every performance, JJ says, is guaranteed unique – a creative collaboration between the braver members of the audience, who throw out often-random props and themes, and the crew on the stage, who take it and concoct a story around them.
JJ “bought” the Linebenders enterprise from Bill Lucas, who had acquired the improv troupe first established by Marty Jonason in 2001. Lucas, whom JJ calls a friend and mentor, was moving to Florida in 2008 and sold the ensemble to JJ for one dollar. At that time, they’d already performed for hundreds of corporate, civic and private events. JJ ran with it, taking over as manager, agent, negotiator, director and “grunt roadie” – the multiple roles he still fills today, when their track record has exploded into the thousands.
Some 35 local men and women have been part-time Linebenders in the nearly 20 years of its existence, with ten on the current roster. “We know every American Legion hall in North Dakota and South Dakota, and we’re working on Minnesota,” the director reports. The 120 or so dates on their calendar every year run the gamut from small-town fund-raisers to conventions and private parties; from a charity gig for the Wounded Warrior Project on the USS Lexington in Corpus Christi, Texas, to 3-M annual meetings in the Twin Cities; from a spot with the Australian Improv Explosion in Las Vegas to dates from Utah to Iowa, from Nebraska to Long Island, and countless spots in between.
And then there’s Fargo-Moorhead. Local comedy lovers dreaded the end of stand-up after the closing of Courtney’s Comedy Club in Moorhead four years ago but, he says, saw a surprise instead: a boom in F-M comedy that he calls “just amazing.” Today, open mic nights at multiple spots, including the Red Raven, the Pickled Parrot and Bar Nine, are bringing comedy to the fore. JJ has been part of several what-if conversations about reformulating a full-time comedy venue.
Improv remains closest to JJ’s heart, but it’s not his only avenue. “I stumbled into radio by accident,” he explains. What started as a fill-in on the morning team of Rock 102 evolved into a longer-time role. After its sale, he moved to Midwest Radio’s Mix 101.9, a more family-friendly venue. Then he was drafted for “It Takes Two” from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on KFGO, as Jack Sunday moved to a later slot.
“Jack and Amy gave me a crash course in AM radio,” he says. “It was kind of funny … the show was basically ‘It Takes Two plus JJ,’ which makes three, for the first six months.” Now he’s fully half of the “Two.” “I love every minute. I love having this platform to open up to individuals and groups to talk about whatever they’re passionate about.” While it seems counterintuitive, the full-time talker says that’s his very favorite part of the job – listening.
Theatre B’s “Santaland” show runs weekends through Dec. 15. He turned down the local professional theatre’s offer the first time around because of a frenetic schedule this fall, including not only Linebenders and on-air shifts but his long-anticipated marriage to Jill Anderson. (“We’ve been together 13 years. It took me 12 years to get up my nerve to propose,” he confides.) Asked a second time, though, he agreed to the holiday star turn: “How could I say no? You can’t turn down an opportunity to be the only guy on stage for a whole 90 minutes. It feeds the ego.”
And there’s more. He’s producing a twice-weekly podcast dubbed “JJ Meets World” from his studio in the APT Arts Incubator in downtown Fargo. On the dead-serious side, he and the Linebenders are often called on to employ their improv skills to help train law enforcement personnel to deal with people in emotional crises, from bipolar episodes to schizophrenia and suicide. They’ve also begun working with corporate trainers in bringing the improv approach to enliven and enhance training.
None of this, though, is what the young, newly confident JJ had in mind after graduating from Fargo South in 2002. His dreams were the standard fare of would-be comedy stars – the main stage at Second City, a slot on “Saturday Night Live,” then movie roles in the style of his idol John Candy.
He did escape from what he then considered a “one-horse town” for Chicago. He took classes at the Second City Training Academy and teamed up with its other aspiring stars, performing improv comedy whereever they could find even the humblest stage – attics, bars, basements.
JJ was living the dream, sort of. He was also working by day at Fannie Mae Chocolates. “Until you make it onto one of the main stages, that’s the reality,” he notes, “a real job by day, then performing whereever you can by night. Any moment onstage … well, that’s an absolute blast.” But not all are high points. One memorable show generated an audience of zero. Only later did the humbled troupe discover the landlord had forgotten to unlock the door.
The opportunity to run the Linebenders – whose members were actually being paid – brought him home. At first, JJ admits, it seemed like giving up – as if he’d relingquished the big dream of seeing his name in lights. Soon enough, though, he came to realize as that door closed, he was about to enter a whole new world of professional opportuity.
“Second City, ‘Saturday Night Live,’ the movies – that’s what everyone wants when they don’t really know what that life entails,” he muses. “I love working with community groups, with our improv team, with students and corporate audiences. I can do all these things I love, and sleep in my own bed at night.
“I really am living the kind of life I could only dream of as a kid, right here in Fargo. It’s just a different dream.”
Tickets for “The Santaland Diaries” are available at theatreb.org. For information on the Linebenders, go to linebenders.com. JJ’s podcast can be found at jjmeetsworld.com.