comedians you should know

Josh Johnson Wants to Become the Kanye of Comedy

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 Josh Johnson.

When did you feel that you were funny enough to make a legitimate go at comedy?
When I made the move from Chicago to New York I definitely could not have imagined I’d be where I am now, but I had so much love, support, and stage time logged in Chicago that I absolutely felt it was time to take the next step. Ever since I was a kid I had some kind of job, and I had no shame about working at Trader Joe’s by day and doing sets at night. So making a go of comedy wasn’t as scary, because I always had some type of job that also gave me joy. I also remember I got to open for Demetri Martin, and he was so kind and complimentary after my set that I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a huge ego boost. Having one of the comics you’ve looked up to since you were little go out of their way to tell you you’re funny and invite you to open for them again is for sure the type of cosign that makes you feel ready to see how far you can go.

Describe your comedy in five words.
Dani Rojas from Ted Lasso: “Comedy is lifeeeeee.”

What of your work do you think you’re best known for, and what of your work are you most proud of?
I’m probably best known for the clips of me on YouTube. Whether it’s from storytelling shows, Comedy Central clips, or my own personal clips on my channel Joshjohnsoncomedy, whenever I am approached, those are the things people reference.

Fortunately, they are also the things I am most proud of. I put so much of myself into the writing of my stand-up and into tweaking the best way to tell my stories, the fact that people appreciate it makes me feel so blessed. I hope as I go forward in more stand-up, acting, and producing shows that same love for the work will shine through.

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?
This already happened. It’s called Family Matters. I could only change the logline that I am Urkel instead of a stand-up and my job is to terrorize the police.

What have you done for comedy during COVID that you thought you would never do?
I did shows in the park, which, looking back, was genuinely insane — to go from doing clubs in New York to being in Central Park trying to deliver quips while a Frisbee flies by and a dog tries to pee on my leg.

I also, like many comics, did Zoom shows at the height of lockdown, which were a good way of keeping your writing sharp but just can’t match the experience of being in front of people in person. You also have basically brought all the awkwardness of a work meeting to a comedy show. Should we talk to each other before the show starts? Does it count as heckling if someone leaves their mic on and someone who isn’t watching the show walks in and breaks up with them? (I know this is very specific. It was my third Zoom show ever. A woman walked in and broke up with her fiancé very loudly who was watching the show.)

Who are some of your favorite comedians right now? Who is putting out work that excites and inspires you?
Eagle Witt, Jordan Jensen, Derek Gaines, Daniel Simonsen, Rosebud Baker, and Gina Yashere are all incredible comedians. Whether it’s the subject matter they tackle, their charisma, or just the overall work ethic, I feel very fortunate to be doing comedy at the same time as all of them. They all make me want to be ten times better.

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: “All a comedy audience really is are people who came to hang out with you. Never lose sight of that.” Just like if you sat next to someone on the bus, how would you start that conversation? How would you open yourself up to them? How quickly would you do it? Just because you’re onstage and telling jokes, the way you approach people doesn’t actually change. Warm them up to you, help them to understand you, all the while downloading information about what they are like as a crowd and doing your best to understand them.

Worst: Quit.

Tell us one story from your childhood that is a good representation of your life.
One time when I was little, my mom was sitting on the couch minding her own business and I just walked out and started doing a show for her. I don’t even remember what it was, and I don’t think I even planned what I was going to do. Looking back at that, you can tell that showing up to bother strangers was my destiny.

What’s an embarrassingly earnest goal you have?
I want to do with comedy what Kanye has done with music. If you look over his whole discography, you can point to one album that inspired a whole class/genre of rappers. For better or worse, everything that he has tried musically has expanded hip-hop as a whole, and we are all better for it. Doing that with jokes and storytelling is my dream. I truly believe some of the best comedians we’ve ever seen are still on the way, and to have a hand in helping them carve out a place in the craft is a big goal for me.

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? 
It’s so so important as comedians to make sure funny comes first. Funny is the goal. There are a lot of people, especially when they get into comedy, that want to be edgy before they’re even funny. There are also a lot of people with a lot on their mind that want to say something meaningful and important, and just leave making it funny to the side when it gets too hard. If you’ve chosen this discipline to communicate with people, it’s important to respect what makes it a discipline worth communicating with. Ironically, when you put funny first, all those things come along for the ride.

It’s the funniest people that we find the most edgy, engaging, and interesting. It’s the funniest people who share thoughts with us that are meaningful, important, and quotable that can change our minds about the world. If you’re a stand-up giving us your point of view without trying to be funny, you’re just preaching. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the worst thing in the world, and you’ll probably make way more money as a preacher than a comic. It’s just not stand-up.

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Josh Johnson Wants to Become the Kanye of Comedy