Funny Lady

Get ready to laugh out loud with Anjelah Johnson when her comedy special, Mahalo and Good Night, which was shot here in Hawai‘i, premieres on Epix.

In comedy, timing is everything. If you are a beat too slow, the joke can fall flat. Do an edgy joke too early in the show before earning the audience’s trust, and they can turn on the comedian in a flash.

Anjelah Johnson has made a living for the past decade by knowing her timing. But in 2014, she booked a show for two nights in Honolulu that had the worst possible timing one could imagine.

“I choose my cities based on where my loyal fans are, and I have always had a really strong, loyal fanbase in Hawai‘i,” says Johnson. “It was proven to me when I put my show on sale and the next day Bruno Mars put his show on sale for the same day as my show. I was like, now no one is gonna come to my show, but I ended up selling out and I was so amazed! Even when Bruno Mars, hometown boy, is there, he was at the arena and I was at the concert hall right down the hallway (at the Blaisdell), and we both sold out the same night, I was like, wow, Hawai‘i has love for me. I am going to shoot my next special here.”

Most people who know Johnson’s act came to it originally via YouTube, where her nail salon bit about her visit to a condescending manicurist amassed some 50 million views. It epitomizes her self-deprecating storytelling style that has endeared her to so many fans.

But while it may be shocking to some, comedy was not her first love. In fact, she did not even realize she had a gift when she was growing up.

“My humor definitely comes from my family. My dad and my grandpa are jokesters,” says Johnson, who made her television breakthrough starring on MadTV. “My grandpa is more of a prankster — even in his old age at 90, he is still pulling pranks on people. And my dad is hilarious, the life-of-the-party guy. He always has a one-liner ready to go. Growing up, I didn’t realize I was funny, I just thought that was normal.”

She started her life in the entertainment world as a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders, even getting to perform at Super Bowl XXXVII. But she wanted something more from her career, so she decided to pursue acting and moved south to Los Angeles, where her stated dream job was, no joke, “to play a rape victim on Law & Order SVU.”

Still, the doors did not open for her right away, so she found another way in.

“I was going to a church at the time. It was kind of arts and entertainment-based church (with) lots of actors and producers going there,” says Johnson, who has made no secret about the importance of her religion and is married to Manwell Reyes, a founding member of the Christian hip-hop band, Group 1 Crew.

“There was this comedian, and she was teaching a joke-writing standup comedy class, and she asked if I wanted to take her class and I asked her if it was free, and she said yes, so I said, I guess so! One of the very first jokes I wrote was this nail salon bit that ended up blowing up on YouTube, and that propelled me to where I am today.”

She has found herself small roles in movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Our Family Wedding and Enough Said On the small screen, in addition to her ALMA award-winning work on MadTV, she has appeared on Ugly Betty, Lopez Tonight and four of her own standup shows — the last of which she filmed here in the Islands. That show, Mahalo and Good Night, is set to premiere on Friday, Sept. 29, on Epix.

It was filmed over two nights at Hawai‘i Theatre and shows a new side of Johnson, as she is having to deal with grownup issues like mortgages. But viewers will also be treated to her own peculiar insecurities about spiders, her certainty that she is going to be a victim on a true crime show, and the awkwardness of having your masseuse pass out on you mid-massage. While the special all occurs in the theater, the opening features Johnson trying to drive to the show and getting lost at various locales around the island.

But this bit is a ruse, for Hawai‘i serves as a second home for Johnson, who has friends and family living here on O‘ahu. She had to force herself to stay away professionally for the past couple years to build her material for the special, as she wanted her fans in Hawai‘i to experience the new show fresh in order to elicit the response that is key to making any comedy special work.

“The audience is so important to a special. The energy that we work off, it has to be big enough energy so that it can be caught on camera, so you can feel it through the TV, but at the same time, not too big so that it is distracting to the timing of my show,” says Johnson, who is also working with Kevin Hart on a new show for the LOL network, which is Hart’s YouTube channel, the details of which are still secret as of this writing.

She is excited about her new material, although it’s difficult for her to get away from her most beloved character, Bon Qui Qui, a disgruntled fast-food worker who has no filter who becomes a pop star … with no filter. Catchphrases such as “Don’t interrupt — rude!”, “I’m a cut you!” and “Sacurrity!” still get hurled at her everywhere she goes. Even better, she now even has a clothing line that’s embossed with her most reiterated sayings.

“It is an honor that I have something that people have latched on to, that people want to share with their family and friends. It is pretty cool. Not everyone gets to say they have that,” says Johnson, who has also made music videos as Bon Qui Qui for her songs Deck the Hos, I’m A Cut You and No Boyfren.

But the coarseness that audiences reacted so positively to with her Bon Qui Qui character can have negative effects in an ever-divided nation, where everyone’s emotions seem to be much rawer. This is creeping into the world of comedy, which was once a bastion against the troubles outside the theater.

“Nowadays, everyone is so sensitive, and not only that, people have a platform from which to tell people they are sensitive. People have an opinion about everything comedians do today,” she says.

“Whether you are going to tell a story about getting your nails done or the fact that you hate kale, somebody is going to start a petition to get you fired because you had a negative impact on the kale industry.”

Johnson is rarely so edgy during her show that it would cause audience members to shout out their opinions during it. She eschews politics, sticking more to stories about herself, her family and her marriage. But the thrill of being a comedian, and the reasons fans come to a comedy show, is being able to discuss subjects that would be taboo in other arenas.

It is this interaction that can help us deal with the issues that divide us, and Johnson hopes that she can provide a little respite while acknowledging that some of the things going on in this country are bigger than any comedy bit can cure.

“Laughter does help heal the wounds, but at the same time, sensitivity is heightened right now,” says Johnson. “I do find that I censor myself more in my tweets. When I am writing it, I think on it for a long time before I actually send it because I am thinking about who am I going to offend. ‘Should I reword it?’ So I do think harder now before I say things.

“It sucks because comedians are the ones who are supposed to say whatever they feel like and get away with it because we are poking fun,” she continues. “But now it is not the case. We are supposed to talk about these things and make people laugh and bring light to it. But now, there is a fear of getting fired and it has made me more cautious.”