NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — When on-duty, serving in the Oregon Air National Guard, Staff Sgt. Juan Canopii, 114th Fighter Squadron aircraft flight equipment craftsman, helps aircrews and pilots get from the ground to the air ensuring their flight equipment is in proper working order. During his off-duty time, Canopii, comedian and entertainer, stands center stage in front of an audience ready to entertain.
His road to success in the entertainment world began 23 years ago while on active duty in the U.S. Air Force.
“I got my break in entertainment when I received orders to Hickam AFB, Hawaii,” Canopii said. “I was buying a car from a captain at the lemon [lot], and we were on a test drive when his cell phone rang. He answered the phone, and I heard him say, ‘Yeah, I’ll bring you some headshots.’”
Canopii noticed 8×10 glossy profile photographs of the captain in the backseat of the car, and an alarm went off in his head.
“I’m thinking this guy must be full of himself,” Canopii said. “The captain must have noticed the look on my face, and he said, ‘it’s not what you think. I am an actor.’”
During the test drive, the captain suddenly had to see his agent. Canopii decided to go along.
“He invited me up, and I was in uniform,” he said. “The agent looked at me and said, ‘Hey, have you ever done any acting?’”
He humored the agent’s request to read a few lines from a script and his journey as an actor and comedian began.
“’Young man, I would like to sign you,’” the agent said.
The random audition scored Canopii the part of an extra in the television show “Magnum PI.”
After that role, he became interested in becoming a stand-up comedian.
“I went to a comedy show, and I literally watched this guy walk up on stage in a room full of strangers and just make friends with everybody; he was just hilarious,” Canopii said. “After the show I went up to tell him how funny he was, and that I thought I would like to give [stand-up comedy] a try. At the end of the conversation, he invited me to an open mic night at the Honolulu Comedy Club.”
His first attempt at winning over a crowd with humor wasn’t quite what he had hoped for.
“I really sucked,” he said. “I was probably the worst amateur in there, but after two or three times of doing that, the owner came up to me and said, ‘I have to be honest with you; you’re not funny, but you have a presence. People like you. I would like to hire you as a host.’”
As a host, he didn’t tell jokes but introduced the comics with only four to five minutes of stage time. As he got skilled at introducing comedians, the club’s management began to allow him to tell a joke here and there. He had only two or three jokes for two years, and eventually the whole island knew the punch lines.
After completing his enlistment with the Air Force, Canopii went to Hollywood with his two jokes in an attempt to make comedy a career. He got to Hollywood at the same time as D.L. Hughley and Dave Chappelle, both comedians and entertainers, and participated in the same open mic lineups.
“They were funny, and I sucked,” he said. “I remember that humbling experience very well. I remember just stinking up the room. I went back to Hawaii dejected but determined and promised myself I wasn’t going to go back to the mainland until I was beyond ready.”
Canopii enlisted in the Hawaii National Guard, and after completing a deployment overseas in support of operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he began fine tuning his craft for a second attempt at comedic success in 1999.
“I practiced, and I wrote. When I came back, I took no prisoners making sure that I was funny,” he said. “When I went back to Hollywood, I was ‘lighting fires’ and kept going and going. Here we are in 2013, and I have finally gotten my break in [Las] Vegas. It takes a long time.”
Gerry Bednob, actor and comedian, remembers his first encounter with Canopii and knew that there was something different about him.
“I met Juan in 1992 at the Hollywood Laugh Factory,” Bednob said. “He was waiting in line to get on stage in an audition spot. I was already an established comedian in Hollywood. Instinctively, I saw Juan as different, not only physically, but also as a gentle person.
“We struck up a conversation, and within a few minutes, my feelings were confirmed,” he added. “I knew immediately that he was somebody with whom I would enjoy a friendship. That is a rarity with me when I meet strangers. I promised myself to support Juan in any way that I could to pursue his goal.”
Experiences and knowledge gained in the military has directly contributed to Canopii’s success in his entertainment ventures.
“[In the Air Force] I learned that if you work hard, you can achieve and make gains,” Canopii said. “If you work hard, you can get anything you want. I took that same formula and applied it in the civilian world, and that is what made me successful.”
Canopii has acted in television shows and movies and has performed at comedy clubs ranging from local bars to the Laugh Factory, but despite his success, he still serves in the Air Force.
“There are different reasons people serve,” Canopii said. “Some people need a job, and some people believe in what they are doing and being a part of something greater than themselves. I am that second one. I love what I do when serving in the military because I believe in this country.”