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Comedian Josh Johnson Dares To Make Us Laugh In A Global Pandemic

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After what we've all been through the last 18 months, we desperately need a laugh. But there hasn't been much to laugh about. Josh Johnson was one of the few brave comics who tried to hold up a funhouse mirror to the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH JOHNSON: In all that uncertainty, in all that fear, somebody somewhere definitely ate a person. That happened, all right? And we need to talk about it, OK?

CORNISH: Johnson is a stand-up comedian, a writer for Trevor Noah's "Daily Show." And his career has bloomed during the pandemic. Recently Josh Johnson hosted his first special on Comedy Central, and he's out with a mixtape that puts music next to bits from that show. It's called "Elusive." But before all of that success, Johnson was sent home from work at the start of the pandemic, like a lot of us. And I asked him what that meant for the work of comedians.

JOHNSON: For the most part, all it really has done is sort of widen that lens of things that are happening because, like, the world was always crazy, and lots of things were always happening. It's just that we were so busy that we could ignore most of it. And then in a year where we had to be still and couldn't go anywhere or distract ourselves, we realized how much can be going on in a world in general. And I think that that - in a strange way, it's made it a little bit easier to write about because now I think I'm writing from a breadth of experience that a lot of people are sharing as opposed to having to explain every type of story or every new idea.

CORNISH: There's also some experiences like, say, the run on toilet paper, which now seems kind of funny-ish (ph). But at the time - I don't know about you, but, like, I'm watching these images, and I'm feeling like, wait. Are things going truly, truly sideways here, like apocalyptic sideways? When did it start to feel like you could make jokes out of things, or were you kind of taking notes the whole time?

JOHNSON: For me, I'm willing to, like, die laughing. So it was never not wild. And I think that whenever something is incredibly crazy, there's going to be humor in it. Depending on when you want to laugh is really when you can make the jokes that the public will accept. But the jokes are being written in my mind throughout the whole thing. It's just I can also read a room to know if people are going to be ready to laugh at something or not or if something needs to wait or if something needs to be rewarded.

CORNISH: Why do you think we're not seeing more comedy about this moment? Kind of, like, what's the chatter among writers about whether or not a set or jokes or - this is a moment you can make fun of or whether you're there to provide escape, so to speak?

JOHNSON: People come to see comedy because they're looking for that interesting perspective that they want to spend time with. And that means you really can talk about anything. There's so many comedians, and there are so many audiences that there's no blanket statement that can be made about what should be talked about, necessarily. I think that a lot of comedians lived through it in a way that was pretty traumatic, and so they also want to wait to talk about it until they have really, truly processed it.

CORNISH: Can you say, like, what do you mean about trauma for them?

JOHNSON: It is a trying thing to your mind to evaluate and try to process analysis of the world around you all the time, whether it's for jokes or for science or - there's a strain on you mentally when you already take on this job. And also the fact that within this field of work, you have people who struggle with depression, struggle with addiction - there's so many things that were compounded on people because of lockdown. And then to come out of that and try to do comedy, it's a double-edged sword because you have to both try to use all of this pain as a release and give it to the audience and make jokes. But you also have to potentially delve deeper into something that you either want to avoid or you just don't enjoy thinking about.

And so those struggles are also probably why you might not be seeing the most COVID material. Like, I don't think it's to a point now where people think it's hacky because we're still in it. So it would be insane to say, like, nobody wants to hear COVID jokes anymore. It's like, COVID is still happening, you know?

CORNISH: There is some creativity and experimentation in the style of work that's coming out. You're a part of that trend. You released a kind of mixtape this year. So that's got bits of the special. It's got music. And maybe it speaks to kind of trying to create in the middle of all this.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, I'll be honest with you. I thought when - you know, even when it was sort of announced, people started talking about it, I was, like, not sure, but I was pretty positive I was going to die. Like, I'm the type of person that - if there's even a stomach flu going around, I got it, you know?

CORNISH: I want to laugh, but that's kind of dark. We should mention you have asthma.

JOHNSON: Yeah, no, I do. I do have asthma. But basically, I just really wanted to start making whatever it is I wanted to make in case that did happen. I worked on "Elusive," which is the mixtape. And I had jokes that didn't feel like they could go into the Comedy Central special because it became - it would make it so COVID-heavy it was the only thing I was talking about. But then I also had these really funny ideas that I had that were a moment in time. I don't know if those jokes will always work for the rest of time. And so I just really dug into it. And then I reached out to Mike Relm, who's a producer in LA who I've always really admired. And that was the other thing that COVID did - is that since everyone was in lockdown, I knew people were around. And from there we worked with, like, Roderick Frazier, who's a choir director who helped us band together this choir for these, like, new renditions of Negro spirituals and stuff.

CORNISH: That whole sentence I didn't expect to hear (laughter), like, when I got this assignment. Like, I needed a choir for the remixes of Negro spirituals on my comedy mixtape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH FREEDOM")

THE PSALMS: (Singing) Oh, freedom over me.

JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. I mean, but that's the thing - is that it became this wish list of everything that I had ever wanted to do musically. That's why there's, like, some funk on there. There's, you know, obviously, like, gospel through the Negro spirituals. And then there's, like, smooth R&B, sort of new wave alternative R&B and then just some general hip-hop. And so at the end of the day, if nobody likes it, I have a dope playlist that I love listening to, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYBODY")

JOHNSON: (Singing) I don't mix up my dollars with anybody's. Looking in the mirror, I see dad inside me. I'm a soldier at heart, man. I been about it. We was in the streets, man.

CORNISH: And in the end, what's been the kind of lesson or takeaway from you from this kind of period of creativity that's happening at a time that, you know, there's kind of so much turmoil in our society right now?

JOHNSON: You know, you spend so much of your life worrying about looking stupid. And the real worry is if people just aren't looking. That's not to say try to garner attention at any cost. It's just that you don't get any points for that fear that held you back. And so reaching out to people to make "Elusive" was scary. And I did it, and I'm so thankful to everyone involved and myself that we made it happen. But if there's something that you want to do, you at least have to try because that - not to sound like one of those motivational posters or anything, but, like, that regret lasts so much longer than the moment that you looked a little silly.

CORNISH: Well, Joshua Johnson, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk with us. This has been great.

JOHNSON: Yeah, no. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. I'm so glad I got to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXMAG'S "ZAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.