The Commissioner Has Left the Building
Remembering Austin Comedy Inspiration Johnny Torrez
The memory of the mythical Austin of yore continues to grow mistier, as we seem to lose more legends than most cities ever have. On Valentine's Day, Austin lost yet another legend: Johnny Torrez, the Commissioner of Comedy. One of the first Austin comics to work on a professional level, Torrez could be credited with practically creating the comedy scene here. He worked tirelessly in the mid-Eighties, working the road, writing reams of material, setting up gigs for other comics, and nurturing the young talent he found in Austin clubs. Every local comic who ever made a living in the business credits "the Commissioner" as an early influence and inspiration.
"Johnny Torrez was more than just the Commissioner of Comedy; he was the King of Austin comedy," remembers John O'Connell, a touring comic who now resides in Los Angeles. "He was the first comedian I ever saw perform, on my inaugural visit to the old Comedy Workshop. I didn't realize that night how important a figure in my life he would become.
"About a year later, I decided to try stand-up. After my first set, Johnny approached me and began dispensing invaluable advice about comedy. He quickly took me under his wing, dubbed me 'the Boy Wonder of Comedy' -- he claimed all comics needed a moniker -- and began using his influence to find me work and stage time. I have always credited J.T. with giving me the encouragement I needed to pursue a comedy career."
"He was the most upbeat person in the business, and I will miss him dearly," says J.R. Brow, another Austin comic who successfully made the transition to Hollywood. "He really, really, really was my mentor. I used to call him from the road, just to keep in touch, to tell him that he was loved and appreciated. The Commish [his Riviera had personalized plates to that effect] taught me how to play blackjack with the best of them. When I play Vegas in March, I will play one $10 game -- 'J' being the 10th letter in the alphabet -- and one $20 game -- 'T' being the 20th -- in his honor."
Chip Pope, one of the stars of the MTV series Austin Stories who now makes his living writing for television in L.A., recalls how Torrez gave his career a boost. "Johnny was instrumental in getting me onstage at the Laff Stop for the 1994 MTV auditions. I had just moved back to town a year earlier and hadn't been working there at all. He and Joey Waldon asked Ross [Jackson, the club manager] to get me onto the show that night. Johnny kept saying to me, 'You're the dark horse, bro. Everybody loves a dark horse.' We didn't get a show [on MTV] till three years later, but thank God I got to audition that night. I'm indebted to him for that one. He was always encouraging and just made you feel good."
Torrez understood what it meant to be an entertainer. As he once advised young comic John Duke, "If you're having fun, the people will have fun." While other comics of the time were following in Sam Kinison's angry footsteps, Torrez stuck to his classic comedy roots: timing, delivery, and jokes, jokes, jokes. "He was a very funny and polished comedian," Duke adds, "carrying on a grand tradition of classic comedy built around really funny one-liners. Who could forget: 'I work hard, I play hard, I sleep hard ... I wake up hard.' One of my all-time fave jokes."
Good punchlines and moral support, however, don't necessarily make a legend. Torrez was more than a comic; he was a true character. He cultivated a sense of mystery about his private life, a life purportedly filled with underworld connections, high-stakes gambling, and partying exploits that will likely earn him a berth in the Rat Pack of the Great Beyond. His knack for getting into trouble with the law was exceeded only by his ability to smoothly talk his way out of a jam.
In a memorial service at the Velveeta Room on Monday, Feb. 19, comic after comic told of the Commissioner's miraculous connections in the strangest places. Kerry Awn -- who opened the show in true comic brilliance, moving the mike stand and knocking down a wreath of flowers, which fell into the poster of Torrez, which then fell into another wreath, wiping out the entire stage decorations -- told a typical "J.T." story: "I was always scared of Johnny on the one hand, but at the same time, I knew if we ever got in trouble he would be the one to handle it. We were at a one-nighter in Del Rio. After the show, J.T. says, 'Let's go to Mexico, I want to see my family.' So we go to Mexico and take a cab to Boys Town and walk into some bar and, sure enough, these people knew him or they all acted like they did. Anyway, he bought me drinks and a girl and we had a grand old time and then headed back to the border. As we were crossing, the border patrol stopped our cab and started searching it. They were looking in the engine and everything. So Johnny goes, 'Let me talk to my boys,' and he gets out of the cab and starts talking to the cops. Then he gets back in the car and they wave us through. So I ask, 'What did you say?' and he replies, not missing a beat, 'I told them you were Kerry Awn.' I asked what they were looking for and he said, 'They were looking for drugs. Luckily I had them on me.' Then he lifts up his pants leg and shows me a big bag of weed in his sock that had been there the whole night. He actually brought drugs into Mexico just so he could bring them out. I said, 'What did you do that for?' His reply: 'I guess it's in my blood.'"
Torrez was a sharp dresser and a damn good gambler. Not only would he have gold dice on his trademark cufflinks, he'd have a pair of orange dice in his pocket for any fool that would shoot craps with him. Russ Forbus tells of Johnny's notorious magnetism for money: "Johnny had every gambling apparatus you could imagine stuffed into his one-room apartment. You'd go over there and say, 'You know, I could really use that 20 bucks you owe me.' And he'd say, 'Russ, step over here to the big wheel.' Well, an hour later you'd be leaving after paying him the $120 you now owed him."
The Commissioner could set up a comedy gig pretty much anywhere and would drive young comics across the state of Texas just to get them a paying gig. Kerry Awn remembers playing to a room of blue-haired old ladies at the Weimar Bed and Breakfast, with Torrez in the back of the room encouraging him with a beaming smile and a "thumbs-up."
But the Commish's gigs didn't always work out. Forbus recalls that Torrez "had a knack for booking gigs that only he'd know about. You'd drive all day to get to some bar in Amarillo, walk in, 'I'm here to do the show.' And they'd say, 'Show? What show? Tonight's Disco Night.'"
Despite the occasional dud, no one gave more energy and support to other comics. Torrez lived by a code that hearkened back to more civil times; he was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. He had charisma in spades, and it came from a generous heart and a deep, caring soul; his interest in the well-being of others was genuine and constant. He set high standards for how to be a human being. As Tom Hester says, "Johnny was the most positive person you'll ever meet, and that's saying something in a business where we all tend to tear each other down and turn each other out. He was always supportive, and I hope we could all get to be like that one day."
Evidence of the Commissioner's wide influence could be seen in the eclectic crowd at his funeral. His longtime companion and girlfriend was Tracy Lamar of the Texana Dames, and many of the finest musicians from the old Lubbock scene turned out to bid farewell to Torrez. His extended family was huge, filling the church in Round Rock. And of course, many comics were there as well.
One of Johnny's closest friends, Paul Theron, gave a description of the service that should send Torrez off with a smile. "The rosary was a Catholic mass in Spanish with English subtitles running along J.T.'s casket. I couldn't follow much of it," Theron says. "There was some lady who sang 'How Great Thou Art' for about an hour, hitting most of the notes on key, but the flat ones are gonna haunt me forever. Even J.T. looked bored. Her 'Ave Maria' was better because if she hit clinkers I couldn't tell. It was an open casket and I got to tell him, 'Goodbye.' He had on a tie I gave him for Christmas a while back, with dice on it and a pinstripe suit similar to the jacket I was wearing. It was like we were a team one last time. I saw Allen Danziger of 3 Ring Service [a casino gaming company for whom Torrez worked] there. Perhaps you remember him as the guy in the wheelchair who got it in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He was checking up on J.T.'s alibi for missing a blackjack dealer gig."
John Duke related the ultimate tale of Torrez's underworld connections. "Johnny used to say, 'When I die, I'm going to go through the gates of hell. Hitler will be standing there talking to Satan and he'll say, 'This is the guy I was telling you about.'"
We know you're not in hell, J.T. The room wouldn't be hot enough for you anyway.