Thanks to more than his fair share of lemons in life, Juston McKinney has been making some of the tastiest, occasionally most bittersweet comedy lemonade in New Hampshire for years, and this holiday season he’s back at it again.
McKinney, whose comedy is a retrospective of Granite State life, marriage and kids, will perform at the Medallion Opera House in Gorham Friday; the Colonial Theater in Keene Saturday; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center in Plymouth on Saturday, Nov. 24; and The Music Hall in Portsmouth on Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 28-29.
During a recent interview at Crackskull’s Coffee and Books in Newmarket, which he calls his office away from home, McKinney reflected on how he came to be where he is at age 48.
The third of the four sons of Perry and the late Sherry (Peterson) McKinney, Juston McKinney, thanks to his dad, came out of the delivery room at Portsmouth Hospital funny.
While Perry McKinney back then was deep in his alcoholism, he nonetheless retained a wicked sense of humor, declaring that his newest son would be named for the way he arrived in the world: “’Just-on’ time.”
And the alternative spelling has stuck, despite the boy’s contention that his dad could have achieved the same effect by naming him “Justin” — and saved him from thousands of explanations about a first name that is pronounced “Justin” but spelled with an “o.”
Already dealing with that minor indignity, McKinney’s life was plunged into tragedy when his mother died when he was just 6. Compounding the loss was how it happened. McKinney had completed first grade and had accompanied his mother to the school where she was volunteering at a fair. He remembers his mother suddenly screaming in pain and collapsing. He remembers her holding her head, the arrival of an ambulance and of adults removing him from the scene as paramedics tried to save his mom, who had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. Despite the paramedics’ effort, Sherry McKinney died. She was 29.
“I’ve always used humor to relieve that situation,” said McKinney. There would be more to come, several involving his dad, who his son thought “would die on the streets” of Portsmouth, homeless and drunk. At one point, McKinney recalled, his dad lived in a pay toilet at the municipal parking garage.
But Perry McKinney was able to get his life back in order, and recently Juston presented him with a 10-year sobriety chip.
“My dad is now my biggest fan,” said McKinney, adding he is also a loving father and grandfather to Juston’s sons, Josh, 11, and Jack, 8.
When McKinney was in junior high, his family moved to nearby Kittery, Maine, where he attended and later graduated from Traip Academy in 1988. McKinney then enrolled at Southern Maine Community College and earned an associate’s degree in law enforcement, explaining to Jay Leno in 2001 on “The Tonight Show” that he was “destined to be a cop because they were always over, arresting my dad.”
At age 19, too young to even buy bullets for his gun, McKinney was hired by the York County Maine Sheriff’s Office and spent the next few years figuring out what he wanted to do when he really grew up.
“It was rural patrol and a lot of material came out of that,” McKinney said, including fodder for a future comedy tour known as “Deer, Moose, Ticks and Hicks.” The “Hicks” in question was Roger Hicks, who was McKinney’s patrol partner.
McKinney said he was able to get yucks from his fellow peace officers by doing observational comedy about the travails of working for a small, underfunded agency, but it was while teaching drug abuse resistance education to youngsters in York County that he discovered that he was not only funny, but that he enjoyed stand-up comedy.
In 1997, McKinney moved to Astoria, Queens, and “did the whole comedy scene and worked all the clubs,” he said.
McKinney was well received in the Big Apple and got himself an agent based in Los Angeles, which led to development deals from Warner Brothers and CBS, respectively, in 1998 and 1999 for his own sitcom.
“Getting a show on TV is like hitting the lottery,” McKinney said, but just because you’ve got a ticket, doesn’t mean you’re going to win, and so both deals fell through, although Warner Brothers and CBS “paid me six-figure” settlements, all of which McKinney put into the stock market, which then promptly tanked.
Even so, McKinney kept smiling, wondering “when is this ‘luck of the Irish” thing supposed to kick in?” Still, he has been lucky in love, married since 2004 to Jennifer Lacroix.
Despite not getting a show on network TV, McKinney kept working, and to date he has appeared three times on the “Tonight Show,” once with Leno and twice with Conan O’Brien; done two Comedy Central specials; and released “Parentally Challenged,” a streaming special available on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
This year, McKinney appeared in a Showtime special with Ron Gronkowski, the New England Patriots’ tight end, and previously he has appeared in two movies, “Zookeeper” and “Here Comes the Boom” with Kevin James, and he guest starred on James’ former TV show “The King of Queens.”
Part of the Blue Collar Comedy Next Generation Tour with Bill Engval, which aired on TBS, McKinney also had his own weekly show on Sirius/XM radio, “Live From the Woods with Juston McKinney.” In 2017, he performed at the TD Garden in Boston as part of Comics Come Home.
McKinney has written and starred in the web series “Hosed,” about a volunteer fire department in the fictitious New Hampshire town of Effingwoods, and is working on a podcast that he is tentatively calling “New Englandwood,” which would feature a gigantic depiction of that name, a la the Hollywood sign, on the side of Mount Washington.
“People always tell me you can’t make it in Hollywood living in New England, and I say you can’t make it in New England living in Hollywood,” McKinney said. “And that’s the gist of the podcast.”
As he has observed in past specials, including “Live, Freeze, then Die!” life in New Hampshire isn’t always easy, including for stand-up comedians.
“I work really hard to turn my material over every year so people will come and see me,” said McKinney.
The hard work has paid off in the form of sold-out shows, most of which are at venues in the Granite State and Maine, although McKinney has also started appearing in Vermont.
While Hollywood still beckons, McKinney said that since 2006 Newmarket has been his family’s home and will be the place where he and his wife raise their children.
“I would rather be a great dad and have a good career than have a great career and be a good dad,” said McKinney, “and I feel fortunate and blessed that I’m able to make a living here.”
McKinney also has a handful of 2019 shows already on his schedule: Feb. 23 at Jeans Playhouse in Lincoln; March 2 at the Rochester Opera House and March 22 at Theater in the Wood in Intervale.