Anjelah Johnson is a different breed than most current female comedians. She strays from the raunchiness (albeit, hilarious) style that Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler are infamous for, and isn’t tasteless or offensive like Sarah Silverman. On the contrary, the Christian San Jose native has an almost calm demeanor onstage, with a somewhat clean lexicon.
This is not to be mistaken for a dull show or docile persona: Johnson has the ability to transform from pony-tailed, jeans wearing funny woman to boisterous, audacious, and gaudy MADtv character Bon Qui Qui.
“Bon Qui Qui is a mix of a lot of people throughout my life, more specifically my brother,” explained Johnson of the character’s conception. “He’s ghetto fabulous and he doesn’t have a filter, he just says what he wants, you know? And a little bit of this girl who I met at Burger King drive through in Memphis, TN many, many years ago. I had never experienced anyone in customer service like this. Girl, she was a hot mess but she was so confident in her hot mess-ness that it changed my life. It was like, ‘wow’. So I took a little bit of her, little bit of my brother, bit of a bunch of people I met and kind of morphed them all into this one loud, ghetto fabulous, confident beauty that is Bon Qui Qui.”
Not surprisingly, the fictional character sometimes makes an appearance in Johnson’s life offstage. “She’s easy to fall into,” the comedian said. “So in any kind of situation, whether it’s me personally or someone telling me a story of something that happened to them, my reactions can sometimes be like [Imitating Bon Qui Qui] ‘Uh-ah, no she didn’t! And what did you say?’ all of a sudden. She comes out, trying to defend her friend.”
In fact, Johnson isn’t signed to Warner Bros. Records Inc., but Bon Qui Qui is. “Like, that’s not even me. My name’s not even on that record deal!” she laughed. About touring as Bon Qui Qui, Johnson stated that she would start onstage “as Angela” and perform standup. While another act performed, she would change into character and would emerge as Bon Qui Qui herself.
Although Bon Qui Qui is easily a fan favorite, it’s another one of Johnson’s own jokes that holds a place in her heart. “Well, I’m so grateful for the ‘Nail Salon’ joke because that’s what blew me up and blew up my spot so I’d be crazy to say that that’s not my favorite, you know? Do I get tired of doing it? Yeah, ten years later, sure, of course,” she said.
“My favorites are usually whatever I’m doing that’s new that I have a grasp on. Like, not brand new where I’m just trying it out for the first time, but like a new bit that I’ve gotten to a place where it works. I get excited to do that bit, I get excited when it comes up in my set because it’s something new and fresh and I know it kills so far like the past ten shows I’ve done. It’s killed, so I’m so excited to do it again right now. I feel like my favorite jokes constantly change to whatever my new big closer is, you know what I mean? But overall, I mean the ‘Nail Salon’ is what set me apart, so I’m very grateful for that joke.”
“Set apart” is an understatement: Johnson gets recognized specifically for the famous joke while frequenting, natch, nail salons. In some instances, salons will contact her to stop by, sometimes Tweeting her to come in when she’s in town. When asked if attendees at fast food places (aka Bon Qui Qui’s place of employment) recognize her like the frequenters of nail salons did, Johnson replied, “Oh yeah, that’s funny, I haven’t had that yet. But you never know.” Another role she gets stopped for is her spotlight in Alvin and the Chipmunks. “It’s so funny, because people still play it for their kids. So when people recognize me, it’s like you never know what they’re going to say,” she said. “Is it the ‘Nail Salon’?, and the next thing you know, they’re like, ‘Were you in Alvin and the Chipmunks?’ I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’s hilarious.’”
In relation to modern times and how she would tell “Nail Salon” differently if she were to do the skit today, Johnson explained that it “would be way more controversial than it was, only because of the time that we’re in right now where everything is controversial.”
She elaborated: “Don’t get me wrong, racism exists. Racism is real and alive and full functioning at the top levels. However, because we are so aware of that, I think sometimes people tend to get trigger happy to call something racist when it’s not. My ‘Nail Salon’ video is not racist, it’s me telling a story. My experience at a nail salon from the time I walk in to the time I walk out. I’m able to portray myself and the other people in the story accurately. There’s nothing hate filled about it. I don’t call my nail salon lady any names, I don’t say she’s stupid, I don’t demean her in any way. It’s just basically an accurate portrayal of a story that a lot of people relate to.
“And I think the same thing with Bon Qui Qui. Bon Qui Qui is a mix of a lot of people…I like to say I hold a mirror up to society and things that I see, and I put it into a story. So we all have a hood chick in our culture, whatever your culture may be. Even if you’re white, you got your hood chick, too. If you’re Mexican, you got your chola chick. You’re Cuban from Miami, you got your chongas. You’re whatever you are in the hood. Whatever hood you’re from, you got yours, too. So, we all have a hood chick and Bon Qui Qui is a representation of that hood chick and it would almost be a disservice if I didn’t portray her the way I do because she’s so accurate. You know somebody like that, or you’ve seen somebody like that or you’ve met somebody like that. So to ignore that person, what good does that do? Pretend she doesn’t exist?”
Aside from her aforementioned brother, Johnson has three other siblings, with herself as the middle child (of her siblings is her half-brother, whom she met in her teens). Much like her tour buddy and fellow comedian Jo Koy, her experiences with her family assist in shaping her jokes and material. “There’s more people to talk about, more relationships to cover…I’m a story teller, but I’m an observational story teller,” she said. “I like to share my personal life with my fans and I like to connect with people and I like to tell stories that are relatable and sibling stories are relatable stories, marriage stories are relatable stories…I love to share that part of my life.
“It’s funny, I think my family enjoys being in my act and if I post a picture about them on Instagram, I get people commenting like, ‘Oh, is this the brother with the bear, the one that sleeps with the Teddy Bear? Oh, is this the brother that does your hair? Oh, is this the sister that listens to a police radio scanner?’ They get to identify with my act and my stories when I post pictures about them and I’m sure my family loves that they know that they’re known, you know?”
The same story telling ability is sharpened by Johnson’s “everyday life” encounters as inspiration for her jokes. “I think when I take time off the road and just experience life, that’s when more stories come,” she elaborated. Funny fact: even though she is of Mexican and Native American descent, Johnson does not know Spanish. Yet, she has aspirations to learn. “I want to,” she said. “Because I get far in my [language tool] levels but then I take too much time off, so I have to go back and start over.”
After meeting during a radio show about ten years ago in San Francisco, Koy and Johnson became quick friends. Needless to say, it’s been never-ending fun since. “We always joke with each other on everything, like if he sells out a show, he’ll text me a picture and be like, ‘Oh, I just sold out, what are you doing?’” she said fondly. “We’ll riff with each other like if he has a not sold out show, then I’ll be like, ‘Oh no, what happened? Last time I was there, I sold out like seven shows!’ So we tease each other like that.”
When asked if she or Koy was funnier, Johnson chose her male counterpart: “I think Jo is hysterical. I think he’s hilarious. I’ve been a fan of him for a long time. So, I guess I’m voting Jo.” Let’s call this one a draw.