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John Heffron keeps comedy apolitical at Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

“Last Comic Standing” alumnus and former Detroit radio personality John Heffron promises that he won’t joke about the recently-concluded presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic when he takes to the stage this weekend at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak.

“I’ve performed at a couple places the last couple weeks after five months of being nowhere, and they were some of the best shows," he says. "People are so relieved to be out, y’know? You can bring up the coronavirus, but people are done with that stuff. I’ve never been political, I’ve never pushed buttons. I just look at myself as an hour’s distraction from what’s going on in the world… People don’t need to hear my dumb opinions on anything. After 30-some years, that’s still how I do it.”

Heffron, 50, who moved back to his native Michigan from Los Angeles prior to the pandemic, will perform at Ridley’s Thursday through Sunday. Ridley’s reopened Nov. 5 and is following social distancing protocols and operating at a capacity of 100 seats per show.

John Heffron

“We ran at just about the full (Center for Disease Control)-recommended capacity this past weekend, and the crowds were very happy to see us reopened,” says Mark Ridley. “We have marked where customers line up inside and outside to socially distance. No customer can enter without a mask. If they fail to wear a mask, we have them at the front door or they are turned away. Our manager takes the temperature of all our staff before they start their shift and the temperature of each customer. We have the names, phone numbers, and emails of all customers who purchase tickets. The tables are spread 6-10 feet from each other, and we use the entire 400- seat showroom for the 20 percent capacity limit for seating.”

Additionally, the dampers have been opened to circulate fresh air into the club. Hepa filters have also been installed. All high-touch surfaces and restrooms are sanitized numerous times throughout the shows, says Ridley.

Heffron’s excited to return to the Castle.

“It was touch and go whether the place would ever open by this time," Heffron says. "I think of Mark and his staff and what a disruption this whole thing’s been. I know Mark has taken as many precautions as you possibly can to make everybody safe…. We all can take a collective breath – with masks on. We don’t wanna get the coronavirus.”

The eldest of three children, Heffron grew up in South Lyon. After graduating from South Lyon High School, he attended Oakland Community College. He later transferred to Eastern Michigan University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in communications and psychology.

Heffron got his start as a stand-up comic at what’s now the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase. He and his friends were watching the open-mics when the waitress encouraged them to sign up for open-mic night.

Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle

“We were 18, so why not? You’re fearless at that age,” recalled Heffron. “We all signed up. I started doing stand-up all through college, between that place and Ridley’s.”

Heffron noted that the waitress who convinced him to sign up for open-mic night was actress Lucy Liu – best known for her roles on “Elementary” and “Ally McBeal,” as well as the “Charlie’s Angels” film franchise. Liu is a 1990 University of Michigan alumna. Although he mentioned this in numerous interviews, Heffron has yet to meet Liu to thank her personally.

“It’s weird how you meet somebody one time and they can push your life in whatever direction, y’know?” he said of Liu.

Ridley’s was the first comedy club where Heffron was the headliner.

“That place has a lot of history for me,” said Heffron.

Ridley’s also got Heffron his job on Detroit morning radio in the mid-1990s on WKQI-FM (95.5 FM). Initially, he was a guest on Detroit radio legend Dick Purtan’s show, promoting Ridley’s. When Purtan left WKQI circa 1995-96, he recommended Heffron to WKQI’s executives. Heffron was the wingman to former “Partridge Family” star Danny Bonaduce on the morning radio show, “Danny Bonaduce and the Q Crew.”

“That was a whole different era in radio,” said Heffron. “I’d love to be in that position now as an older dude. I was only in my mid-20s. Your skills at handling strong personalities aren’t developed then and I was pretty much scared the entire time I was working at the radio station, but I liked it though. I look back at those days when I hear some of the songs we’d play all the time, some of the concerts I got to go to – it was a super, super time in my life.”

After his stint in morning radio, Heffron moved to L.A. He appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn,” as well on two Comedy Central specials. In 2004, he was declared the second season winner of “Last Comic Standing.”

“At the time, it was the show that got you noticed,” he said. “Our season had 15-20 million viewers every Thursday. It was a real popular show… There was no social media back then. People saw you and liked you, but you really couldn’t get a fanbase like you can today on Instagram or Twitter. But it was great.”

He believes that his Michigan roots was one of the factors that contributed to him winning on “LCS.” On one of the episodes, he wore a Detroit T-shirt, which was his way of letting people know he was from Michigan.

“What helped me win is Michigan people are so brand loyal to other people from Michigan,” he said. “You immediately have allegiance to Detroit. They didn’t let me say anything after I’d won, but I remember wanting to do something. The camera was on me for a second, so I did the Michigan thing and put up my hand and said, ‘Thank you, Michigan.’ That was the only thing I got to say after I won. Who knows? I think the shirt had something to do with it… That was my hashtag back then. I was also coming off of being on for Detroit radio for five years, so I had some name recognition that way.”

By his own admission, Heffron has trouble defining his brand of comedy. Some of the comedians who’ve influenced him include Ray Romano and the late Richard Jeni.

“I’m always talking about whatever era or phase of life I’ve been in. I’ve always tried to be relatable, where people say, ‘Were you spying on my family?’ or ‘You sound just like my husband.’ I’ve always wanted to be relatable; if I’m complaining about something, it’s the same thing everyone else is complaining about. Again, I’m not here to push buttons or poke you with a stick – I’m pretty lazy. I’m not gonna argue or debate you, so I’m just gonna keep it pretty simple. About 99 other comics will tell you, ‘It’s your job to be edgy’ or ‘It’s your job to have a voice.’ Not this nasally voice. I’m not challenging anybody,” he explained.

One of Heffron’s Netflix specials called “Middle Class Funny” has been rereleased and currently available on Amazon Prime.

“I look younger, and my hair looks good,” he quipped.

Heffron was initially supposed to perform at Ridley’s from Thursday through Saturday. However, due to popular demand, an additional show was added on Sunday. 

“I first saw John when he was a 19-year-old student at (EMU),” said Ridley. “Immediately, I saw how relatable he was as a comedian. He drew upon his life experiences growing up with the parents we all had and the siblings we all had. His growth as a good, clean comedian is something I still am in awe of to this today. He is truly one of the best comedians in the business.”

John Heffron at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle

310 S. Troy St. in Royal Oak

7:30 p.m.· Thursday 

7:15 and 9:45 p.m.· Friday

7 and 9:30 p.m.· Saturday

7 p.m.· Sunday

Purchase tickets, between $25 and $30, at www.comedycastle.com, or call (248) 542-9900.