Mike Goodwin remained steadfastly confident.
Never mind that 40-plus other acts were waiting in the wings — people in sequined leotards who executed backflips, swallowed swords, and pulled rabbits from top hats. Never mind that the self-described nerdy sweater-and-bowtie-clad comedian was about to be seen by millions and judged subjectively by four discerning, sometimes snarky, celebrities. This was America’s Got Talent, and he had spent years honing his craft for just such a moment.
“I think all my time doing standup prepared me to walk on that stage,” Mike says. “All I do is talk. There are no acrobatics. It was the ancillary part of the experience that was overwhelming, the interviews and wardrobe questions, and such. It was really challenging. But two years into the pandemic, society wanted to laugh. Comedians tend to be underdogs. I was just trying to make sure I did my best performance.”
Mike had submitted his audition tape to the show in January 2021, not thinking much would come of it. His acceptance came quickly, however, and within a few months, he was flown to Pasadena, California, to shoot his broadcast “audition.” Each act was given just two minutes to perform. That’s not a lot of time to warm up an audience. It was sink or swim.
A casting director on set told Mike that about half of AGT contestants blow it off and act nonchalant. The other half are nearly hysterical and crazed, believing this is their big Hollywood break. “She said, ‘Just be in the middle. Take it for what it’s worth.’ It was the weirdest thing,” he says. Another person, a photographer on set, advised Mike not to let anyone push him around.
“When you go into a scenario like that, you are really compliant, and sometimes you can give up your leverage and authority,” he says. “It was a challenge. I think it was confirmation of the hard work I put in.”
On a high note, Mike initially advanced from the audition. Even the curmudgeonly judge, Simon Cowell, had given him a thumbs up in the beginning.
“To me, for all four judges to say ‘yes’ was really momentous,” he says. “Simon Cowell said, ‘Yes!’ They brought us back to do a wild-card show, which was broadcast on Peacock. I didn’t make it out of the wild-card round. We got to do a six-minute feature, but I didn’t advance.”
While the experience had been Mike’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame, he didn’t really need the exposure professionally because his Columbia-based business as a comedian and keynote speaker is thriving. He stays on the road a lot. Even on routine days, he can’t resist joking with everyday folks he encounters, such as bored hotel clerks.
“When I check into a hotel, and the desk clerk asks me how many room keys I will need, I will say some outlandish number, like ‘78.’ It totally takes them off their script,” he says. “The essence of comedy is to catch people off guard.”
Just a Kid from Camden
Mike Goodwin grew up in Camden. He admits he lacked ambition back then and was not focused on academics. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Army and spent four years serving on active duty, followed by eight years in the Reserves. He says his time in the military instilled a sense of confidence as well as an awareness of his leadership ability.
“It’s easily one of the best decisions in my life, to have that experience. The thing that is interesting for me was, after the Army, there was nothing left that I was really scared of,” he says. “There really wasn’t anything I didn’t think I could do.”
Mike used his GI Bill benefits to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Lander University in Greenwood and a master’s in education from the University of South Carolina in Columbia. His goal at that point was to pursue a career in higher education.
“Attending college gave me the opportunity to right my wrongs, academically,” he says. “College changed the trajectory of my life. My goal was to be a dean of students at a college. I loved academic rigor and inquiry of thought and debate. A guy I was in graduate school with approached me about being a counselor at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School. To be the person helping students navigate the college process I thought would be a perfect fit. I was at Heathwood for eight years.”
During those years, Mike still had an itch to entertain people and make them laugh. He performed occasionally in venues like coffeehouses, bars, or small outdoor events.
“I was working a full-time job and serving in the Army Reserves, but I would go to open mics in Greenville. I would drive four hours to do a five-minute set,” he says.
The journey wasn’t without its trials. Mike himself admits he wasn’t very good in the early days.
“I was the funniest comedian in the car on the way to events. I would be killing it in the car,” Mike says. “Then we’d get to a show, and I wasn’t a fraction of that guy. The car was very comfortable. On stage with a microphone and looking out at people was not comfortable. I didn’t know how long it would take, but I knew I could be better than I was. With comedy you will know immediately if you are going to continue to do it. I had a great experience the first time out, but after that, I bombed. I just wasn’t a good performer.”
Mike moved forward, determined to improve his act. He taped his sets on his phone and played them back. He had to make the hard decisions on editing. “The heart of it is to cut out the fat,” he says. “I am a technician as it relates to editing. I take great pride in the craft of developing great material.”
With the steady, stable job he enjoyed at Heathwood Hall working in the field he had trained for, Mike coasted for a while but with a slight, ongoing restlessness. “I was a productive citizen and was doing great things, but I still didn’t feel like I had tapped into what I was created to do.”
Keeping it Clean
Mike’s wife, Rozalynn, could see the drive her husband had for comedy, as well as the fulfillment and purpose it gave him. She ultimately was the one who encouraged him to pursue it full time. He was 28 years old. It was a hard decision to leave the education field.
Some may consider it a hefty risk for Mike to make the conscious choice to keep his comedy act clean and family friendly. He sees it differently, however.
“I realize that being ‘clean’ can be synonymous with being corny. I didn’t want to be defined as a ‘Christian comedian.’ I always just wanted to be an excellent comedian … as a Christian,” he says. “For me, my faith is a big part of who I am. People ask about that a lot — isn’t it tough doing clean comedy? It continues to be a choice, but it’s really congruent with who I am. I was raised in the church.”
Mike maintains that “clean comedy” per se is actually more marketable and potentially profitable than the risque content that regularly gets bleeped. He can market himself to a wider array of venues, such as church events, civic club gatherings, school districts, and business conferences.
Those wider opportunities also helped Mike evolve his act. When a friend asked him to give the closing keynote at a conference of social workers, he questioned whether the social workers, who handle so many heavy human issues daily, would want to hear straight comedy. He didn’t want to seem superficial and wrestled with the content, wanting to deliver more than jokes. So he pulled from the leadership lessons he learned in military service and worked it into his act.
“It was a ‘serious’ keynote, but my wife said it was too dry. She said to put some more jokes in there,” he says, and he took her advice, lightening the presentation while still preserving its depth. “I have given that presentation many times now. I have really refined it over the years. I feel really good about it. It’s inspiring and motivating content, but it’s funny.”
Mike feels so positive about the presentation that he is developing a similarly themed book with the working title Leadership and Laughter. While it is still in the proposal stage, with Mike’s determination, audiences likely can watch for its release in the next year or two.
All in the Family?
Like many comedians, Mike harvests the best of his material from his own life. His two children, Gabrielle, 15, and Michael, 12, are not spared. Their youthful exploits often are shared, with punchlines volleyed at their expense, but it’s all in fun.
“My kids are constant sources of content. When I’m on stage, I call Michael ‘The Boy.’ He provides a lot of the content in my routines,” he says. “The best source material, I think, comes from your life.”
Some of that content that comes from life may originate in not-so-funny circumstances. Mike processes stories of misfortune differently from most.
“I have always been told I was a funny guy. I just saw life as funny,” Mike says. “I process trauma very quickly. If something is uncomfortable, I will think of a way to use humor to defuse it. It’s just inherently the way I am.”
Mike even finds humor in the infamous “Oscars Slap” that started a national debate about the treatment of comedians who deliver content that’s not to one’s liking.
“It resonates with me,” he says. “Heck, if I were to use bad language in my act, I could totally see my mother or my aunt storming up on stage and slapping me!”