It's likely you have seen comedian Anjelah Johnson before, but may not immediately know where to place it. Perhaps you've seen her in the past few months either in an episode of Ugly Betty, or working with Alvin and the Chipmunks in their movie squeakquel, or as a sister of the bride in Our Family Wedding. If that doesn't shake your brains, then perhaps you saw her as a cast member for a hot minute in 2007-2008 on MADtv. Although if you're on the Internet (and you are), then you may be among the 32 million and counting who have watched her MADtv character of "Bon Qui Qui," or the 16 million and counting who have seen her description of a trip to the "Nail Salon."
Of course, Johnson wants you to know more about her comedy than that. The San Jose, Calif., native accomplished that earlier this year with her hourlong special and CD/DVD, That's How We Do It (read my thoughts on that). This weekend, Anjelah Johnson makes her first headlining club stops to New York City at Comix. She spoke with me recently about her fast-rising career.
I knew our interview would be running late because you said on Twitter @anjelahjohnson you were out on a hike. How much do you use Twitter for fun and how much to build your fan base as a comedian? "I haven't really thought about that, what's my purpose. I love that I can express myself in the moment...sometimes you drive down the street and see something crazy and want to call somebody, but it's not really worth a phone call. This way you can send an immediate call to everybody. You can get a kick out of it, or not, but nobody was bothered by a phone call with it. I can say, hey, watch me on the Lopez Tonight show. It's fun. It's a really useful tool for what I do."
How old were you when you first thought of comedy as a career? "24, I guess. It was just like five years ago that I started doing comedy. Even in the beginning I didn't think of it as a career. I thought of it as something fun and something I was good at -- oh, wait a minute, this could actually be a career." You began with an improv class, first, right? "I took an improv class at my church. Every Tuesday night they do a creative arts function at the church, acting classes, singing, art, everything...I know I had some friends in the class. I don't even know what prompted me to go in that direction. They had the acting class. I was in that, and then they said we have an improv class, OK, I'll try that."
That almost makes it sound you stumbled into it. Did you have any earlier comedy ambitions? "I used to watch BET's Comic View all the time. My mom didn't like us watching it because of all the language, dirty content. Even then I didn't think about it, it was just something that was fun to watch and to listen to. Then in college I was taking communications and speech classes. I always knew when I got up to speak I would make people laugh, so I was never nervous about my lack of preparation because I knew i could make people laugh. You know, I think I've been doing this for a long time and I didn't even know it."
Only two years into doing stand-up, you had two bits go huge on YouTube. What's your perspective now on the joys and pitfalls of having your routines become so well-known? Do you feel you have to do "Bon Qui Qui" and "Nail Salon" still at every show? "I think it's all a joy, first of all. Now that I have my Comedy Central (special) and people have seen my material...most of the people who come have come because they've seen that material on the Internet. It's like seeing your favorite band and they don't sing that song that you've been playing in your car all the time. The reaction that I get is very rewarding. But I do get exhausted of just the joke itself, and yet, if I retire it and don't do it, people start shouting out at the end of the show. I just have to be grateful now. It's gotten to the point where I do the nail salon bit and people start shouting out "Bon Qui Qui" during the middle of it. I think, do you want me to do all of my bits at the same time? I totally get it, but it's frustrating. I think it'll just come to a point where the bulk of my material is so fresh and new that they're not thinking about the old stuff. They're just, oh, this is great, this is great. I'm definitely not there yet. I definitely take my time and live my life and the stories that I tell are personal to my life. I want to tell them my way and not just spit them out...also a fear of failure. If I say it now, sometimes I'll get afraid if it doesn't get a great response right away and say won't tell it again, but then I'll thnk it's new and I need to work on it. The pressure of writing new material to measure up to 'nail salon' and 'bon qui qui'...you just have to do it. That's definitely a struggle for me."
One thing that wasn't a struggle was your recent appearance on Lopez Tonight. That seems to be a hotter crowd than any other live TV studio audience. Roll the clip!
What was that gig like? "Even in the interviews they're screaming like crazy. I noticed that and knew going in, I had to cut my material in half, because most of the time was going to be taken up by cheering and applause. Just even setting up my joke, cheering for the Raiders, there are no questions being asked in that set because you're just asking for trouble, so I just got straight to the point...but as soon as you're saying Oakland Raiders, you're asking for someone's opinion. They were excited, which is great. Because they were on your side already."
How does a former NFL cheerleader become a stand-up comedian? Well, there may be some praying involved. But that's no problem for Anjelah Johnson, who cheered for the Oakland Raiders, appeared as a cast member of FOX's MADtv for a hot minute, and was a "new face" at Montreal's Just For Laughs festival just last year. Perhaps you've seen her nail salon bit -- 15 million views and counting on YouTube at this date. She's in the new film, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, and also has parts in the upcoming movie, Our Family Wedding, and a voice role in the animated big-screen take on Marmaduke. Her first one-hour stand-up special, "That's How We Do It," debuted Monday night on Comedy Central. Let's take a quick look.
Johnson is a little lady with a big presence, or at least big attitude. She's Mexican and Native American, and an unabashed Christian. But her stand-up is not dependent upon her heritage or her religious beliefs. Instead, there's a cute bit up front about her family being creative about being poor. There's also several bits about family. Her grandmother's inability to leave good voice-mails. Her grandfather's attempts to be hip and cool. Shopping at cheap clothing stores. Using fake IDs to get into nightclubs when she was 14. Roll a clip!
She talked about cheering for the Raiders the year they went to the Super Bowl and lost to Tampa Bay. "People always ask me, how do you go from being a professional cheerleader to a stand-up comic? Now I just tell them, 'Let's keep it real. It's kinda easy transitioning into telling jokes when you cheer for the Raiders.'" And no, she didn't date any of the footballers.
But if you want to see the popularity of YouTube manifested onstage, Johnson's mere introduction of her "nail salon" bit gets a prolonged round of cheers from the Houston crowd. There's also a bit you may have seen or heard Johnson perform before online or TV, in which she describes how guys of different races and ethnicities will hit on women differently. And she also beat-boxes?! True that. Also a fun fact: Johnson's special was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait! I don't recall seeing this clip in the edited version for Comedy Central, so you can enjoy it now, in which Johnson's mom tries to give her dating tips. Roll it! (Note: It may roll as soon as you click on the extended post)
The folks at Montreal's Just For Laughs uploaded videos last week from its 2008 collection of comedians participating in the New Faces and Masters showcases, so you can finally see what I saw this summer. Rather than bombard you with two dozen embedded video clips, I'm going to embed one or two of my faves, then link to the rest.
From the 2008 Masters, here is Todd Glass, and you'll immediately wonder, what's the rest of Larry Miller's funny story introducing him, and who is Glass calling back in his jokes. Jokes, people! Jokes! Todd Glass is a comic's comic, so always welcomed here (language NSFW):
And from the 2008 New Faces, here is Sean Patton's set that got industry people talking (language NSFW):
Everyone else after the jump.
Anyone who doubted whether TBS could or would pull together a full slate of A-level comedy talent for its first edition of The Comedy Festival in Las Vegas without HBO as a partner, well doubt no more. Over the weekend, TBS unveiled its first look at the official schedule for Nov. 20-22 at Caesars Palace, which includes Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, Dane Cook, Katt Williams, Jim Breuer, Kids in the Hall, Russell Peters, Jim Norton, a roast of Cheech and Chong, David Alan Grier, Jeff Dunham, Laffapalooza hosted by Tracy Morgan, Andrew Dice Clay, Mike Epps, John Oliver, and Caliente Comedy with Gabriel Iglesias, Pablo Francisco and Anjelah Johnson. The network also says it'll have 25 up-and-coming stand-up and sketch acts performing in a separate LOL Lounge. Full sked after the jump!
The people at Just For Laughs in Montreal decided to recap some of their shows in video highlights, which means you can get a feel for what you saw, or what you missed. Although they don't give all of the New Faces face time (hmmm), but the Just For Laughs video portal (yes, they have their own video portal for you to upload your own funny fun-time videos) includes a highlight reel set to music and with more Galas and French Canadians than any other JFL video. So let's start with that one, with the New Faces, Amp'd and Masters after the jump!
Is it possible for the host of New Faces to bomb? If your name is Dana Gould and the show in question happened Saturday night, then yes, very much so. Word on the street had it that both groups of New Faces felt more at ease in their second go-arounds at Montreal, not only because fewer industry types would be lurking around, but also because the performers would have shaken off rust, nerves and any material that might not translate to a very mainstream Canadian comedy club audience. None of that explains what happened to Gould, however, who didn't connect with the audience in the first minute, and about 10 minutes later, really didn't have them on his side. Even Gould knew it. "Wow! I have to get out of this hole now," he said aloud.
This certainly helped Mo Mandel, who went up first and killed, particularly with an applause line following his bit on people who do yoga and other healthy things, wondering, "If you're unhappy, why are you trying to live longer?!" His Jew jokes also got big laughs. When I saw Mandel on my small computer screen earlier this year and last, I thought, eh. But live, I could see how he had won last year's Comedy Central Open Mic Fights.
Tougher to figure out Chuck Watkins. What is that accent? What's with all of the tai-chi stage movements? He employed a second microphone to play multiple instruments, and it was more cute than anything, although I got distracted the moment I heard him deliver this joke: "My teacher asked me for a declarative command. I said, 'Go f#$& yourself.'" I liked the joke a lot better two years ago when Dan Boulger said it and used a rhetorical question as the set-up.
Malik S. from Miami appeared to graduate from the D.L. Hughley school of smooth-talking comedy in a vest and tie, and like me, he could not be a thug because he's ticklish. Good point. He also proved that it's always possible to find work, no matter who you are, and closed the way you'd end your day at work.
Last Comic Standing finalist Jeff Dye opened with the work-out routine that got him into the TV house from Las Vegas, then closed with a bit about how the board game Guess Who teaches kids racism.
Vanessa Fraction got all worked up describing the time her son lathered up in her KY jelly, and now she's just looking for a guy with "at least." I know that much, at least.
Nate Bargatze used his Nashville twang to good effect, asking the crowd, "Do y'all have evolution here in Canada?" He talked about how if humans and monkeys are 98 percent alike, that makes his favorite 2 percent "the non-monkey parts," and wondered about the effectiveness of cancer-sniffing dogs.
Jamie Kilstein's joke about John McCain's war experience makes so much sense I cannot believe the Democrats haven't been using it every day.
If you're looking to cast a gay man from Winnipeg, then Trevor Boris is your guy.
Kenny Johnson's routine included several characters, suggesting he was letting the industry know that he is available for your sketch or sitcom needs.
It's the second week of the 2008 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, which means we finally learn the identities of this year's crop of New Faces and Masters to perform later this week. Much more to come, as I'll be reporting from Montreal starting on Wednesday. For now, though, let's deliver some names and congrats to all! Links available via the JFL MySpace blog post.
New Faces Montreal, 2008: Brendon Walsh, Tu Rae, Ira Proctor, Seaton Smith, Chuck Watkins, Sean Patton, Vanessa Fraction, Erik Griffin, Mo Mandel, Harris Wittels, Mike Palascak, Iliza Shlesinger, Jeff Dye, Kenny Johnson, Chelsea Peretti, Anjelah Johnson, Trevor Boris, Jamie Kilstein, Nate Bargatze, Malik Sanon.
Masters Montreal, 2008: Billy Gardell, Todd Glass, Thea Vidale, Henry Phillips, Hal Sparks, Kevin Brennan, Henry Cho.
Want to know how MADtv continues to thrive and survive for a 14th season, coming this fall on FOX? They keep shuffling the cast deck. That's one way they do it. Sure, Michael McDonald has been on for 10 years, and Bobby Lee for seven, but many more are in and out in less than three seasons. Anjelah Johnson lasted only a few months last season before heading back to the club circuit. The year before, Lisa Donovan was the big story as she got cast straight from YouTube, only to disappear (from TV, at least) by season's end. She's still a hit on YouTube. Her new thing is offering sexy "collab-characters" to pump up your own YouTube video stats.
So there's always fresh young talent to tune in and see. We already know (thanks to The Bastion) that MADtv has hired stand-up comedian Matt Braunger -- just a year ago, he was a New Face in Montreal! -- as well as actor/comedian Eric Price to suit up this summer. Who else is joining the show?
The third season of Comedy Central's Live at Gotham -- the show that replaced Premium Blend as the showcase for up-and-coming stand-up comedians and put them in a more intimate comedy club setting at NYC's Gotham Comedy Club -- debuts tonight at 10 p.m. after a not-so coincidental rebroadcast of Jeff Dunham's special, "Arguing With Myself." That's because Dunham hosts the premiere, with routines from JR Brow, Erik Griffin, Jared Logan, Anjelah Johnson, Michael Palascak and Lenny Marcus. I showed you a clip from Johnson earlier. Here is a teaser clip:
More teaser clips from each of the other performers, as well as your host, after the jump!
The third season of Comedy Central's Live at Gotham doesn't kick off until June 6, but the network already has leaked a few clips online. Here is a minute with Anjelah Johnson in which she schools the boys who want to check out her bum.
The 2008 season of Comedy Central's Live at Gotham debuts the Friday after Memorial Day. But why wait that long for some deep dish insider exclusive scuttlebutt? Especially when we got plenty of bits of tid to share just from swinging by the tapings on Saturday and Sunday at Gotham Comedy Club.
Let's get to it! First off, don't be surprised if many of the guys have a similar look. It's not a new fashion trend in stand-up comedy for the summer/fall runways -- it's a Comedy Central/Levity edict: No red, no patterns, no logos. Also, we learned that TV's standards and practices (read: the censors!) sometimes can actually make your jokes funnier. Matt McCarthy had to change one of his lines from "choke her to death" to "murder her to death" (see? funnier, right?) so it wouldn't sound as though he were endorsing domestic abuse. Baron Vaughn said he couldn't say "KKK.com" in a joke, but realized he didn't need to spell out the Web site for the joke to work. Vaughn noted that Patton Oswalt got a new six minutes out of one joke he had to change years ago for Comedy Central.
Vince Averill was more than just happy to be there. He only got the gig on Wednesday after another comedian couldn't fulfill his or her duties. From first alternate to TV credit. Congrats, Vince.
Lucas Molandes had a funny cover line when the audience didn't know how to react to his dreamcatcher joke: "Sorry I blew your minds with awesome!"
Joe List uses nervousness in his act, so even if he was nervous about his first TV taping, it wouldn't show, would it? Let's ask him, after he's done.
Sunday's final two show tapings had plenty of odd incidents, starting from the top when early show host D.L. Hughley walked offstage with the mic, leaving Paul Ogata wondering what to do. Fortunately, Ogata had a relevant bit at the ready and raring to go. Myq Kaplan blew plenty of minds with his awesomeness, earning multiple applause breaks and the attention of everyone downstairs in the lounge/green room. Very poised. Kaplan told me he had an even better set last week at a showcase for Eddie Brill -- if so, man, Kaplan is on his game. And he didn't let the cold/flu get in the way of delivering a shining performance that'll certainly get him industry attention. Hughley then got Liz Miele's name wrong even though they had the pronounciation in the teleprompter (they should clean that up later, right?) but she seemed unfazed. Shane Mauss, watching his fellow Bostonian Kaplan tear it up, announced he'd go up and get 12 applause breaks. He just might've done it, too. But what I remembered most about his set was seeing him have an "American Idol moment" when the camera panned across the stage and in close-up, Mauss gazed directly in the camera to deliver the set-up punch to his vegan coffee joke.
The biggest thing about the late show Sunday, other than Daniel Tosh and his strong hosting set, was the light show. As in, the lights failing multiple times, most notably during Matt Braunger's set. He was a trooper, though, even starting from the top a third time which must've been difficult considering he had a weary live TV audience to deal with (they can clean that up with his earlier takes, right?). The first time the lights went out on Braunger, without missing a beat, he broke into song: "When the lights...go down...in the city!" Tosh had to return to the stage. "The lights are overheating," he explained. "Which is really good for comedy." During one such break, he exclaimed: "Let's do jokes that won't air. Do you know who loves to get fisted? Sock puppets."
Mary Mack was very nice and funny and you can join us in her writers club, as soon as I find it.
Raj Desai and Anjelah Johnson were both so fun to talk to during the afterparty that I wished I'd seen their Gotham sets earlier last week. James Smith told me he forgot one joke in his set, but I told him not to worry...he can tell it during his next TV apperance! The afterparty brought out most of the comedians who performed during the weekend, plus their friends and plenty of other New York comics. Good times. On a Sunday, even.
Related: Paul Ogata shares his Gotham experience with the folks at Shecky. The Live at Gotham site.