I like underwear," confesses Jonathon Brandmeier, otherwise known as Johnny B., with the cheerful indiscretion peculiar to morning-radio personalities. "For my show on [Chicago's] WLUP, I'll go out on the street, have some guy who's on his way to work get in his underwear and lay in a puddle. I offer him 60 bucks out of my own pocket—I don't know whether that's deductible—if he'll swim in the puddle. And this guy comes by in a dessert truck, and he hands me this lemon meringue pie, and I say to the first guy, 'Aaaaaaand you can throw this lemon meringue pie in my face!' Over the top! That's what I am—the crazy guy."
Yeah, and this guy—whose dark, wiggly brows seem to be signaling mischief in some secret code—has crazy-like-a-fox plans to become a national television personality. To that end, Brandmeier, 34, a manic fixture of Chicago radio for seven years, is about to be set free on NBC. He stars with Mary Tyler Moore and Tony Curtis in Thanksgiving Day, a proudly lowbrow TV-movie farce airing Nov. 19, then returns later this season in Johnny B. on the Loose, a comedy special with Oprah
Winfrey, Brigitte Nielsen, Bert Parks and a lot of farm animals. Brandmeier is thrilled with the special, since he is its executive producer, and just as happy about playing MTM's jerko son. "I get to burp and sing 'Singin' in the Rain' in a car wash with Mary," he exults. Better, "Someone yanks my underwear up by my butt. That was the selling point."
Brandmeier was yanked to NBC by a development deal with entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff. It isn't clear what Brandmeier, named Billboard's radio personality of the year for 1987, '88 and '89, is being groomed for. But whatever it is, he has been grooming himself for years.
"I was already entertaining when I was 12," says Brandmeier, who grew up in Fond du Lac, Wis., the oldest in a family of five boys and one girl (dad Frank is a drywaller, and mom Hanky is a nurse). "I was doing comedy in a rock band—the comedy between the songs. It wasn't like I sat in my room, read Hustler and dreamt about hosting The Tonight Show." By 15, he was making $2.75 an hour as a deejay and was working in three bands, one of which played Holiday Inn lounges. "We'd put Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets over our heads and sing the Kentucky Fried Chicken theme song," he says. "Then we'd go into 'You Deserve a Break Today.' No wonder we played to about 40 people a week.' " Following his graduation from St. Mary's Springs High School in 1974—and almost completing college at three campuses of the University of Wisconsin—Brandmeier's audiences have grown exponentially over the years as he drifted through radioland from San Jose, Calif., to Rockford, Ill., to Phoenix and, in 1983, to Chicago. There, moonlighting as the leader of a rock band called the Leisure Suits, Brandmeier has played for up to 26,000 people a night.
A highlight of his act is his dubious hymn to fatherhood, "How'm I Gonna Be a Dad?" which he composed at age 30 after his wife, Lisa, said she was expecting. "I kept thinking to myself, 'This is great. I'm really excited,' " he remembers. "So I go out that night, and everybody's saying, 'You're gonna be a dad? How?' "
In fact, says Lisa, 32, he's a great dad—in his own way—to Jennifer, 4, and Christina, 2. "He's like the third child," she says. "They have a lot of fun. The kids crawl around on their bellies like snakes. Then they go into a chicken routine. 'Look, Mom,' they say, 'look what Dad showed us how to do.' "
That's nothing compared to what Brandmeier himself does. "I had to run around the Hancock Building six times in my underwear for some bet," he says.
But Brandmeier's tongue, not his track record, has always been his chief attraction and selling point. "I remember sitting and watching him talk," says Lisa of the first time they met in 1978, "the way he just took control of the conversation." The two were introduced by Brandmeier's sister, Mary, who brought her friend Lisa home from college to meet her brothers—and to provide Lisa with a husband. John (he later expanded the name to Jonathon) was the winner. "He made me laugh," Lisa says, "even back then."
He made her laugh again three years later, when she was visiting him in Phoenix. "We went up to the top of a mountain," Lisa says, "and we were just sitting there talking of the future. He said, 'Are you sure you want to spend the rest of your life with me? Because I'm crazy. I know I'm going to be popular one day. Are you sure that's the kind of life you want for yourself?' He had already purchased the engagement ring, and it fell out of his pocket. And he said, 'It's God! God is telling me to get engaged!' "
His mountain prophecy came true, but, should it become truer still, Lisa isn't sure she wants a Hollywood lifestyle. "I love the Midwest," she says. "I love Chicago." She, Brandmeier and the kids live there in a suburban two-story home in which she rules as the voice of reason. "I grew up in a pretty stable, Italian-family environment," she says. "I'm pretty much there to keep John grounded."
Brandmeier swears that he won't get spoiled, because his ambitions have their limits. "I just think we'll go on," he says. "I don't think anything will really change. I don't want to be the next Meryl Streep." But Lisa knows that destiny is calling. "We used to watch old home movies of all of the Brandmeier brothers," she says. "And who's always in front of the camera? Guess."
—Tom Gliatto, Beth Austin in Chicago