comedians you should know

James Austin Johnson’s Trump Brings All the Boys to the Yard

Photo-Illustration: Selman Hoşgör; Photo Courtesy of Subject

This week, we’re highlighting 22 talented writers and performers for Vulture’s annual list “Comedians You Should and Will Know.” Our goal is to introduce a wider audience to the talent that has the comedy community and industry buzzing. (You can read more about our methodology at the link above.) We asked the comedians on the list to answer a series of questions about their work, comedy during the pandemic, and more. Next up is James Austin Johnson.

When did you feel that you were funny enough to make a legitimate go at comedy?
I first tried my own comedy at like 14 or 15. I was doing conservative Christian firebrand Brad Stine’s comedy in monologue competitions during middle school, and when my dad had to fill time at a college event he was hosting, he asked me to do my monologue, and instead I put up my own stuff that I made up. And it worked! And then I bombed consistently for like three years before quitting.

At college, I was just trying to lay low, quit acting and comedy, and be a poetry and short-stories professor — these were the guys I looked up to. But, oddly enough, when I saw that Apatow movie Funny People, I had a strong feeling that I wanted to be Seth Rogen, crashing on a couch and trying to be a comedian. I would say it all started to click when I was at Christian film school in Los Angeles finishing out my degree, that’s when it really started to look like a path I could take and be, like, a professional. I was just an open mic-er from Nashville, and these people I looked up to were trying to book me, and I had to move back because I had no plan of how to survive in California. I’ve sort of been acting all my life and doing stand-up for so long that my family didn’t really question my motivation to be a comedian — they were very worried I would get into, like, heroin or something, but I’ve been zeroed in on this for a while.

Describe your comedy in five words.
Adult Swim Andy Griffith, baked.

What of your work do you think you’re best known for, and what of your work are you most proud of?
I think people freak out the most about my Trump videos, where I’m just walking around Glendale babbling as Trump. So the voices-and-impressions thing is really what I think brings a lot of boys to the yard, so to speak. The things that I’m most proud of are getting to work with the Coen brothers, and getting on SNL. But when I ask my wife what I bring up the most as a proud moment, she says it’s when I was Ed Begley Jr. on the Josh Hutcherson show Future Man. That was the first comedy acting gig I had where I let loose and goofed around, did the job but brought a little of myself to it. I felt really cool on that set, like I was actually learning how to do this job and not blowing it.

If there were a ’90s-style sitcom built around you and your material, in which you had to have a different job than comedian, what would be the title and logline?
Blood Sugar Sex JAJ: You don’t have to be a sorcerer to go back in time to teach Flea how to play bass … but it helps!

What have you done for comedy during COVID that you thought you would never do?

Who are some of your favorite comedians right now? Who is putting out work that excites and inspires you?
I mean, aside from watching my dudes Sam Wiles spread his wings and Zach Pugh become a goofy podcast lord, I can say the homie Sarah Squirm is a favorite right now. Fearless, hilarious, and borderline unwatchable in the best way. Conner O’Malley is amazing, Joe Kwaczala’s sketches, Danny Palumbo’s cooking videos. But, hard to think of anyone funnier in L.A. than Jamel Johnson, an effortless crusher and super charming and weird. I love anything really stupid that’s been assembled in a cool way.

What is the best comedy advice, and then the worst comedy advice, you’ve ever received, either when you were starting out or more recently?
Best comedy advice: “Have fun up there.” Took me years to realize what that means, but now that I kind of do, it really helps. 

Worst comedy advice: When my papaw told me to avoid the theater crowd and be a history teacher. Would not have been the best thing for my comedy!

Tell us one story from your childhood that is a good representation of your life.
When I was maybe 5, I put on a white blazer with no shirt and performed the trailer to Jim Carrey’s The Mask for my family. I feel like this was at 10:00 p.m.? I told them when to come to the front room to watch the show. Not a whole lot has changed.

What’s an embarrassingly earnest goal you have?
To be funny for 50 years.

If you had the power to remove anything from the comedy world right now, from trends with material to how the industry operates, what would it be?
Deepfakes. Really struggling to think of something that was improved by deepfaking. It’s unsettling and distracting. Like, why would you deepfake Bruce Willis’s face onto Monica from Friends, and then after you did that pointless thing, why would you post it? What did you even post? What did you accomplish? You just posted a nothing. Any time I’m watching one of those things, I’m just like, Why do this? What did this do?

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James Austin Johnson’s Trump Brings All the Boys to the Yard