When Alabama clobbered USC, 52-6, Jermaine “Funnymaine” Johnson took out his iPhone and Macbook, sat on a couch in a Nashville hotel room and pieced together a 48-second video.
Titled “How Bama Fans Watched Week One SEC Games,” it’s approaching 3 million views on Facebook.
If you follow Alabama football, chances are you’ve watched at least one episode of the weekly comedy skit. A lifelong Tide fan, Johnson pretends to flip through the TV channels, reacting to the final score of every SEC football game.
That first video depicted Johnson, clad in Crimson, giving a 7-second belly laugh when he discovered Auburn lost its season opener to Clemson.
When Florida, South Carolina and Georgia all won, the scores appearing in the corner of the video, Johnson shrugged. “Saban assistant. Saban assistant. Saban assistant.”
Another video shows Johnson typing an angry halftime letter imploring Lane Kiffin to run the ball against Texas A&M.
It’s comedy gold, as judged by the millions of views, shares and likes. Numerous SEC digital media companies (including SEC Country) seized on the opportunity, disseminating the videos to massive social audiences. It’s easy to assume that Johnson, a fan with a sense of humor, stumbled upon the right concept during a 14-0 season and became the latest viral sensation.
The making of a creative genius
The reality is that Johnson, a Birmingham resident, is 12 labor-intensive years into a comedy career that took even longer to matriculate.
Born in Opelika, Ala., Johnson’s entire family pulled for the Tide despite the proximity to Jordan-Hare Stadium. “Class clown” at every grade level, Johnson also participated in an accelerated learning program.
“I was always a very playful kid. Very creative. I think because of the wit, I remember teachers trying to figure me out, like, ‘Is this kid a genius, or is he a problem?'” Johnson said. “The grades and the test scores are there, but the behavior issues are also there. We can’t figure this kid out.'”
Then his mom died of lupus, his dad re-married (an Auburn fan) and his family relocated to Birmingham. He lost the structure of his childhood. His grades slipped. He got involved with negative things outside of the classroom. And he had to attend mandatory counseling sessions.
“I became a C student, but I still had above-average test scores,” Johnson said. “So now again, they’re like, ‘Is he a genius, or should we be worried that he’ll grow up to be a serial killer?’
“I heard, ‘He’s bored. We think he’s bored. We know he can do the work. He needs a challenge.’ So yeah, I heard that word ‘bored’ a lot.”
He did not get accepted to the University of Alabama. But Stillman College, a small HBCU on the other side of Tuscaloosa, recruited him in 1998. Stillman was starting a band program, and Johnson had channeled his creativity into becoming a percussionist.
That path turned him into a drum major. And a public address announcer for the school’s basketball games. And the band announcer. He provided color commentary for basketball games. He held a job at Stillman as a recruiter. And from 2001 to 2005, he helped host comedy events and wrote jokes for others.
Comedy career develops
In 2005, he finally got the nerve to get on stage and tell a joke at UAB. He left to an ovation.
Call it fortuitous timing. Stillman fired Johnson in 2006. He needed to make comedy work as a full-time gig.
In 2014, after eight more years of grinding, he made his first football video for catharsis. Nick Saban’s Alabama team lost to Ole Miss, 23-17, in Oxford. The team had lost to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl months earlier. National media members started to pounce on the “end of a dynasty.”
Fans seemed to enjoy the videos, so he made a few more during the ’15 season before getting consistent this fall. He had a hit almost immediately.
His videos chronicled one of the best seasons in Alabama history, as Saban tries to win a fifth national championship in nine years. But Johnson, who makes regular appearances on radio, TV and as a stand-up comic, worried that this gimmick, however successful, would obscure everything else he’s done as an entertainer.
Then he appeared on Kevin Hart’s Comedy Central show, “Hart of the City,” the week of the Iron Bowl.
“It allowed people to see that, ‘Oh wow, he really is like a real comedian. He’s next to Kevin Hart. He’s on stage,'” Johnson said. “After that aired on Comedy Central, the shows just started selling out. It was like, we already like him because of the videos, but he’s funny and clean too? Let’s go check him out.”
Comedic point of view
Football and comedy are a natural fit.
It isn’t lost on this writer that Johnson’s videos found traction in 2016, during a fall fraught with negativity. A divisive presidential election, bloody mass murders, racial tension and other depressing stories blasted the American public on a weekly basis.
“Especially at this time in the country’s history with everything going on, we just need to laugh,” Johnson said. “That’s all I’m concerned about.”
Johnson’s shows are “silly, inclusive, Southern-fried and clean.” SEC football offers a similar distraction.
“The greatest thing about football in the South is that everybody knows our history,” Johnson said. “We hate to admit it, but it had a lot to do with race and color. To pack in 100,000 people in one venue and for them to only care about one common color, Crimson, that’s a beautiful thing.
“Most games you sit beside strangers. But for those 3 to 4 hours, y’all are best friends. Given our history, I think it’s such a beautiful thing.”
An Alabama fan for life
The comedian remembers an emotional attachment to “the red team” that began at 2 years old. Some family members lived blocks from Bryant-Denny Stadium and sold Coca-Cola to thirsty fans.
Johnson’s first cousin, Marvin Constant, was an All-SEC linebacker and part of the 1999 SEC championship team. His goal-line tackle of Josh Booty preserved Alabama’s 23-17 win against LSU. It also shredded Constant’s knee, eventually squashing his NFL dreams.
Now Constant, and several of his former teammates, marvel at his cousin’s hilarity while reminiscing about their own days wearing Crimson.
“He always did a phenomenal job at captivating his audience,” Constant said. “A lot of people just didn’t know how to take it. But he’s taken that and turned it into something very unique and very positive for himself, and I’m very proud of him for that.
“We have so many famous people in our family, but for him to take our family name to a whole other level, we’re just extremely proud of him.”
Johnson doesn’t pretend to know much about human psychology. Instead, he relies on a lifetime of perspective as an Alabama fan to extract the humor from each week’s results. In short, he’s a huge SEC football fan.
“I don’t think in my lifetime I won’t see a better defense than this one, this 2016 version of the Alabama Crimson Tide defense,” Johnson said. “It’s time to start talking about them in that conversation of best defenses ever.”
Alabama and Clemson will play for the 2016 national championship (8 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN). A true freshman quarterback, Jalen Hurts, and a beleaguered former head coach, Steve Sarkisian, will try to usurp the most exciting quarterback in the country in Deshaun Watson. Adding to the degree of difficulty, Sarkisian replaced former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin just last week, soon after the Tide beat Washington in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
But there is that all-time great defense.
“Any Bama fan that says they’re not nervous is lying to themselves and lying to you. There’s a little nervousness,” Johnson said. “Every time I get nervous I have to remember who our team is and who our coach is and what this football culture is all about. This is what we do. This is what we’re built for. To win championships. And here’s another opportunity.
“I’m interested in seeing what Coach Sarkisian is going to bring to the table on Monday night. But from everything that I’m hearing from Tuscaloosa, the offense is re-energized. They’ve got something to prove. They’ve got a chip on their shoulder. And that’s scary for Clemson.”
If Saban adds to his legacy and this group cements itself as the first college football team to go 15-0, thousands will turn to Johnson to celebrate.
After a lifetime of preparation, Johnson will know just how to make them laugh.