The day before his Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents taping, comedian Josh Johnson sat down with me in the green room of New Orleans’ Civic Theatre. One thing I noticed very quickly was that he was there to work. New Orleans is an easy city to get distracted in, especially if you feel like celebrating your first half hour special. But for Josh the live taping was work, the photoshoot was work, even this interview was work. It’s that kind of work ethic that led the Chicago comedian to head to New York after only three years of doing standup. Since the move he’s performed and written on The Tonight Show, made New Faces at Just for Laughs, and recently released his debut album I Like You. Josh and I discussed the benefits of coming up in Chicago, the illusion of industry credits, and striving to create universal comedy.
Before we sat down you had to do the promo shoots that will be added to your intro when the special airs. It’s like a fashion show: wardrobe, hair, makeup, catwalk. I know you’ve done The Tonight Show with Fallon, but do you have much pre-existing experience with this level of production?
Not really. @midnight and Fallon were the only real times I’ve done anything even close to this. It’s been fun.
I noticed that some of the comics are kind of unnerved by the whole process.
I think it makes you more nervous if you’re not just like, talking to everyone. The woman that did my makeup is so wonderful. We talked the whole time to where I didn’t even notice she was done.
How long were doing standup in Chicago before you moved to New York?
I had just about hit my third year when I moved to New York.
You must have felt pretty confident to make the move only three years in. Did you go specifically for standup?
Yeah, I went there straight for standup, but I don’t think I had that amount of confidence. I feel like moving to New York is a lot like having a kid. If you feel like you’re ready, you’re probably the most unequipped person. You’re not supposed to feel like you’re ready so that you take the care that it takes to make the move correctly. I felt like it was a good time because I was making the rounds in Chicago. I had done all the shows and was passed at all the clubs and there wasn’t much more for me to do there. But I think Chicago helped me, because everyone gets so good so fast because it’s a concentration of comedy with real audiences. People move to New York with stars in their eyes, but it’s like, “People who have done things do shows for ten people.” I don’t think that’s something people are ready for. Chicago really spoils you. I still feel like I have everything to learn. I know like two things and that’s about it.
What are those two things?
Don’t be a jerk, and don’t look at the ground while you’re doing your set. Outside of that, everything else is malleable. Even the jerk thing is more to the people you’re working with than to the crowd. Don Rickles wasn’t kind to the crowd, but they loved it because he was good at it.
Do you remember a moment after moving to New York when you could totally confirm that you had made the right move?
I’m still waiting for that moment.
Even after The Tonight Show and this Comedy Central taping?
I feel like I fit in. I’ve made friends, get asked to do shows and things like that. But I still have the question of whether I feel equivalent to my peers. People you’ve never heard of are doing the most brilliant bits you’ve ever heard. That’s a weird thing to reconcile. Deep down, if you’re being objective, you know that the best comic in America doesn’t have a Netflix special. They’re probably at an open mic in Kansas right now. Credits are fine, but in real life they don’t pass for much. When I do a show a year from now, no one will care that I was anywhere but there, right then, trying to make them laugh. You can’t bring your wins with you in comedy. They care about right now and making that connection.
When you look at your comedy now, what are you doing currently that you want to continue with and grow and what is something you’re doing that you would like to shed?
You can have eight Netflix specials if you want, but if no one watches them 20 years from now then they don’t really exist. I think the key to long-lasting comedy is the universality of the experience, whether that’s being an American – there are 300 million Americans, or being a person – there are 7 billion people. There’s something I can do to encapsulate a moment that I had that’s like a moment you had that wasn’t the same moment, but is something relatable. That’s what I’m trying to go towards. I’m always wary of being a little too wordy or highbrow in that way. If you over-explain something you haven’t really explained it. Over-explaining muddies the water. I don’t do a lot of topical stuff or a lot of political stuff. First of all, lots of people are handling it better than me. Getting into being political without have the prowess to back it up just means you’re making more noise. I also feel like no matter how divisive everything looks right now, no one really wants to fight. It’s a secondary reaction. I think most people just want to sit back, laugh, and be like, “Yeah, I’m kind of like you.”