Anjelah Johnson has a go-to line when asked about making the jump from NFL cheerleader to stand-up comedian.
“I just tell them, ‘Let’s keep it real,’ ” former Raiderette Johnson explains during a bit from her 2017 album “The Greatest Hits … So Far.” “ ‘It’s kind of easy transitioning into telling jokes when you cheer for the Raiders.’ ”
Johnson kids because she loves — though she doesn’t necessarily love her team relocating to Vegas.
She can’t ‘Yeee!’ for them anymore.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Johnson confesses, “because I’m from the Bay Area, so my favorite part about rooting for the Raiders is all my Bay-isms that I get to put on it, our slang and all that kind of stuff. Now, when they’re in Vegas, I can’t be like ‘Yeee!’ ’cause they’re not from the Bay. I’m going to have to change my verbiage.”
Johnson, who cheered for the team during Super Bowl XXXVII when current Raiders coach Jon Gruden led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a throttling of Oakland, expresses less concern about the team’s notoriously rabid fan base sticking with the Raiders through the move.
“We’ve got Latinos everywhere,” she says. “(They) will find their team. Don’t you worry.”
Attention to detail
The Latino heritage that Johnson alludes to figures prominently in her comedy. The former “MADtv” cast member inhabits various characters culled from her experiences coming of age in San Jose, California, and mines her background as a Mexican-American who doesn’t speak Spanish, which she elaborates upon for a particularly funny routine, her repertoire a vibrant slice of a life lived in all caps.
Onstage, Johnson is an energized presence, an exclamation point incarnate.
Her comedy is inherently observational, but not in a Jerry Seinfeld, riffing-on-the-absurdities-of-life kind of way.
Instead, she approaches her craft with an almost journalistic sense of detail, focusing on the nuances, the minutiae of the characters she portrays.
“Different things stand out to me,” the 36-year-old Johnson says. “I notice things that maybe other people won’t notice, so I can highlight a very tiny mannerism, a very tiny inflection, a very tiny anything about a common situation. It’s something that’s typically overlooked because it’s so common. I can highlight that thing, and then it makes it that much more funny, because everyone can relate to it, but maybe they never noticed it.”
Johnson’s two most popular characters exemplify this approach.
First, there’s Bon Qui Qui, a sandpaper-coarse fast-food worker who loathes having to actually serve her customers. Johnson brings her to life with head-swishing, homegirl ’tude, managing to inhabit a persona that feels human and real despite being a source of over-the-top parody.
Then there’s My Linh/Tammy, a Vietnamese nail salon tech whose off-handed condescension and questionable sales tactics inform a verbal pitter-patter that’s almost jazzlike in its mellifluousness.
‘Laughing at them or with them?’
Bon Qui Qui, in particular, helped Johnson develop a large YouTube following, which she has parlayed into a successful stand-up career with hourlong specials on Comedy Central and Netflix.
“I had no idea that was going to happen,” Johnson says of Bon Qui Qui’s clips going viral to an audience of 65 million. “I had no idea that so many people would relate to that experience. And that’s kind of what it is: It’s an experience that we as a society go through and we can all relate to. I think that’s what kind of blew it up.”
Of course, there’s always a fine line between being satirical and being insulting.
“That is something that comes up, ‘Are you making fun of people?’ ‘Are you laughing at them or with them?’ ” she acknowledges.
Johnson treads this line knowingly.
But the reason her characters don’t feel like the fodder of racial stereotyping, which they certainly could in clumsier hands, is because they come across as being both authentic, in the highly detailed way that Johnson portrays them, and strangely endearing, for all the life that Johnson infuses into them.
She likes to say that she holds a mirror up to society, her comedy born of its reflection.
“If you don’t like what you see because it stings or resonates in a different way, that’s less about me, and more about you and your feelings,” Johnson contends. “All that I’m doing is showing you what I see.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.