You might not believe that Josh Johnson is funny. His friends and family weren’t so sure, either. But a career writing for two award-winning comedy shows, plus a successful comedy podcast and a hit cross-country comedy tour tells me – the brother’s funny. And he owes it all to his grandma.
To look at Josh Johnson is to know him, pretty much; or so you think. He’s a young comedian, a rising star on the scene, by way of Louisiana through Chicago into New York. His move from writing for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to his current position, writing for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah is a True-Hollywood-Tale told over corn beef specials at $20 delicatessens…of old.
He’s soft-spoken, a bit introspective but opinionated; no shortage of conviction in his viewpoints which he shares with the world on The Josh Johnson Show podcast with his friend and fellow comedian Logan Nielsen. It’s an amusing exploration of friends being friends and, refreshingly, it is exactly as advertised. They swap stories that reveal their thoughts, feelings, fears, ticks, and general shit; You know – as buddies do.
Listening to the show, you’ll liable to hear Josh regale his captive audience of two (Logan and his silent paramour in the room) about a very strange day on the subway in NYC, where he happened upon a man with a literal plastic bag of soda. Not soda cans, bottles, or 2-liters; a plastic bag tied off and filled with the liquid we call soda. He’s taking his comedy stylings and the show out on the road, with a stop in Philly coming very soon. But today, Josh Johnson walks us through the Josh Johnson story already in progress.
Who was the first person that you remember thinking ‘they’re funny?’
My grandma, because my grandma was really good at impressions. She could do a lot of people. She could do a couple of famous people, I think; I don’t remember. But she mostly did my family; people she met. Looking back on that, that was wild.
Most people don’t go to ‘the grandmother.’ That’s interesting. She would just be sitting there mocking everybody in the family; probably mocking your mom and everybody?
Yeah. Like, she would go in hard. She would do like that old-school roasting that was maybe a step too far. She just stayed in it!
Did grandma go a little ‘blue’?
Not quite ‘blue’ but something that, just, really hits in the feelings, y’know?
Okay. So, that’s real life. As far as when you’re growing up and developing, who was the first person on a TV show or a particular comedian…somebody you saw that made you say ‘I like what they’re doing. That feels like me.’
Watching the comics on Comedy Central was mainly the lifeblood of my learning and understanding what stand-up comedy was and what it was for, y’know?
You knew you wanted to be a stand-up?
Not really. I just knew that I really enjoyed funny people but I think that, for the most part, I still didn’t even know it could be a job, y’know? To me, it was just something on TV that those funny people were doing. Now I look back and, I guess, I was always trying to figure a way in and everything. Watching Christopher Titus, Bill Burr, and Wanda Sykes; watching all these people just be incredibly funny and straight writers as well.
Were you funny growing up? Like, some comedians are the class clown, and some are inward and just funny to themselves, but their noses are in the books. Which were you?
Um, I was, kind of, to myself; I was quiet about it when I first started out so it was a surprise to everybody. So that gives you an indication of how introverted I was.
So, people were like, ‘Josh, you ain’t gonna be funny. You ain’t gonna be funny.’
Yeah. 100%. I feel like, even now, people aren’t really expecting it. When they meet me or when they talk to me for a bit and they don’t know what I do, I think that it’s always a surprise.
Well, to be fair, reading a little bit about your history, it’s not like you went to a performing arts school and your degree is in Lighting and Design (Centenary College, 2012). This definitely speaks to creativity, but I don’t know how funny ‘HA-HA’ it is.
Yeah, no no. I’m never offended. It’s just something that, over the years, has been reinforced, over and over again, where people are depressingly surprised.
How do you land in lighting and design (L&D)? What aspect of you is that from?
I think I was just drawn to the production side when I was in college and I didn’t really have the patience for sound design. I didn’t have, I guess you could say, the technical and drawing ability for set design. And so, lighting is what really stuck out to me as this thing that was really cool, that I wanted to use to essentially be a part of creating a show. But then acting didn’t really take me; I wasn’t like swept up in it or anything. The other aspects of the designs out there just weren’t for me. And so, I knew I wanted to do something that was creative and also had a different sort of spin on it, and learn things that I think are really cool and in-depth.
But I don’t know if other people were going to feel the same way and it really had nothing to do with performing. Someone once asked me if I did design because I wasn’t ready to get on stage; that also wasn’t part of it. I genuinely find L & D really interesting and find that the skills that go into being that type of creative are something different than any performance type of creative. It was all those things in college that I was drawn to it immediately.
In retrospect, who knows? I wonder, all the time, what life would be like if I had just not gone to college and started right away. I mean, I wouldn’t technically be who I am, and I wouldn’t have the same sort of know-how and background and experiences, but I also wouldn’t have had to take out those student loans, y’know?
Have you had the opportunity to use these hidden skills of yours for good?
When I graduated college, I did design exclusively for 4 months and I used that money to move to Chicago to start doing stand-up. So, in a sense, it really, really helped and it was the springboard for everything that’s come since. So you know, I definitely don’t look back on it as a mistake – building up a skill is never a mistake – but I look at it as like, wow, I really wouldn’t have studied this thing for 4 years, just to do it for four months then to go into something completely different. It’s a big part of life and it’s something that I think a lot of people end up doing; I honestly don’t know that many people that are actually fully still doing what they studied in school.
That’s very true. It’s almost, like, you go to school and get this degree to learn what you don’t want to do. So, you move to Chicago to get into stand-up. Why Chicago?
Chicago is one of the best markets in the country. It’s not one of the major major markets – that probably still is New York and L.A. — but it still has a level of industry there that’s more than just massive. You learn about getting acclimated to how the industry works, how to build a following, and how to build up a body of work. Whereas the city I was in (Josh hails from Alexandria, Louisiana), it was pretty much non-existent. And the cities that I could have moved to, you’re still going to need to go a step up after them, you know? So, I felt like Chicago was the best breeding ground and place to learn and fail and get really good. Because then you do move to a primary market, and people are just like, “Wow! Where did this person come from?”
So that was smart, being strategic. I like that. Speaking of which, you’re about to release a podcast album of The Josh Johnson Show. I love the idea of putting the best parts of the podcast out there in an album as opposed to a typical comedy album. What was the impetus for doing this, I think this may be the first podcast album, certainly the first one that I’ve heard of?
Yeah, I think that for most career things, I try to either be first or be best. It takes quite a lot to be the best because I’ve seen so many people try to do it; being first is a lot easier. And It basically came about because I’ve been doing my podcast for almost two years now, and as we get close to that two-year mark – even though every episode stands alone and the storytelling and what we’re doing when we tell each other stories, and we talk about comedy and we talk about life things – we* still have the slight issue of people feeling that they’re too far behind to get into it. They’re feeling, like, ‘maybe this thing builds in a way where I’ll miss something if I don’t start from the very beginning.’
They’ll miss a reference that’s from, maybe, a couple of episodes before or something like that.
Right. And even though we don’t do that very often at all, I think that those references, in and of themselves, would be Easter eggs because it doesn’t actually happen that often. I think that the album is a way of showing people what we do where they don’t have to start from square one and, especially if you like the album, you’re going to love the show. And from there, you build on your following in a different way. And you also open yourself up to a different side of the algorithm than the regular podcast, you know?
I think (with) podcasting, they have their categories, but what they are missing – I don’t know if this is completely true for all the platforms, but potentially what’s missing is the sort of metadata of getting into the comedy tracks and having a crossover with the stand-up. And so, this is my way of doing that, because both Logan and I are stand-ups, and some of these stories are things that, at one point, might have been in (my set). So, I felt there was very little difference between what we’re doing now, and what people who like my stand-up would like to listen to and see.
I’m a big podcast head too, and I love the idea of it building its own universe, and this being a way of honoring that and giving people a good jumping-on point. I like the pitch of your podcast – it is about two guys who are friends talking about their friendship – because it’s another way of doing what comedians with podcasts routinely do more and more. It’s the opportunity to show the other side of the person that’s on stage being funny and cracking jokes. You actually become real people and this becomes a real exploration of what a friendship looks like, even when it’s also a showbiz friendship because you’re both comedians.
Yeah, that’s essentially how we started and I think the thing that people take away from it is a sense of peeking in; like, you’re just at the table with friends and we want to always be open and inviting to our guests. I think they also have a sense that we want to get to know you as well, and so, I think building that community is probably the main goal for the next 200 episodes.
You know, I think that we just want to fill out this feeling that people are getting from the podcast of friendship and also having a light-hearted time just enjoying yourself. There are plenty of people doing it; I’m not trying to imply that we’re the only source. But I think that sometimes people just need a break from everything. Like, if you wake up and the first thing you do is check social – which no one should do – all you get is back into the breeding ground of conflict and infighting, and people willfully misunderstanding other people. I think that to have a little bit of a break from that for an hour every week if nothing else, is something that people are flocking to and Logan and I are happy to be a part of that.
You’ve been writing for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for 4 years now. How is that different from writing for stand-up? Which comes easier for you?
You know, they both have their place. I think that for the Daily Show I’m mostly writing things and talking about things I probably wouldn’t myself on stage.
I’m sorry, it sounded like you said “I’m mostly lighting things,” I was gonna say ‘way to go putting that degree to work, bruh.’
Two checks would be great, but there’s a very talented designer that already works there.
So yeah, I feel like I don’t really cover the same topics in my personal stand-up as we do on the show. So for the show, it’s a bit easier to flex a different part of your brain and go after takes that you wouldn’t normally be sitting on stage telling people yourself. It’s a different muscle and it’s just a different part of the aspect of writing comedy.
Writing for someone else, you have to be very concise because when you write for yourself, you know what you mean so you can fill in the blanks on stage in real-time and finish the joke for yourself in front of an audience. But when you’re pitching a joke to somebody else to say for themselves, you need to be concise so that everyone fully understands what you’re trying to say and what you’re telling them to say. I think that the other thing that’s made my writing, overall, better is the level of collaboration that goes into Daily Show. These writers are amazing and I also get to work with the correspondents on pieces. Stand-up to such a lone wolf game, if you let it be and I think the collaboration that comes with Daily Show has elevated me in a way that probably wouldn’t happen if I was just writing all by myself for myself all the time.
What was it like writing for The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon?
I was with Fallon for 2016 and, you know, the difference is, with Fallon, I was writing monologue jokes. I was still having to work a different muscle than I’m used to because my jokes aren’t very set up and punchline. I tell stories and I like to talk about a topic for a while, with a bunch of tags to it. Whereas with a monologue, obviously, the format is pretty set; so that was a bit of a challenge to start, but I’m better off for having learned the two most important things of real joke construction: writing something down to its very base nugget and then try to get the most fun out of that that you can. And then, also, being less precious with every joke. I think that sometimes the mistake is made of thinking ‘there’s gold in there; I just need to fiddle with it,’ and then you fiddle with it for, basically, forever. And so some jokes are just funny to you for a moment and then, you’re done; and that needs to be okay. That’s why I learned not to be so precious with a joke, and to write when I didn’t feel like it.
So, I guess there’s actually a third thing in there – when you’re a stand-up, write as much as you can. There are certain days, you just don’t feel funny and you don’t feel like you’re connected on ideas. And so, with Fallon, it was the first time in my career where I had to show up and produce something funny, whether I felt like it or not. And that thing is really, really powerful. You start treating it a bit more like something you can do that’s not fully based on an emotion, or a state of mind, and just being able to do that every day has also helped me write way more; and not to be as hard on myself, when things aren’t further along than I want them to be.
How did you wind up getting the job with Fallon?
You know, I was actually trying to do stand-up on the show so I sent in a clip of my stand-up to the head writer, who didn’t really like it, but I was told by my manager that I should send in a packet of jokes to be a writer for the show. So, I did that, and I sent in another packet after that. Then I went in for an interview, and I got the job. So it wasn’t something that we were actively seeking the whole time.
Does working with Fallon, and having that as a calling card, propel you over to Trevor Noah?
Oh, I don’t think it hurts. I can’t speak to everyone’s reasons why they hired me, but I definitely think that my experience on The Tonight Show showed that I could take on the job. They are so different that, while I definitely credit already having had a late night job with being able to get another one, I don’t know how relatable the two things are exactly.
But The Daily Show job was a job that you actually went after, right?
Yeah, f’sure. That became a slightly different thing because in a similar way, but not quite the same instance. I applied to be a correspondent on The Opposition with Jordan Klepper. I didn’t get it, but some of the people from Klepper are obviously also Daily Show people, come from Daily Show, and work on Daily Show stuff. So they told me to, also, send in a packet. And, I did, and then I got the interview, then I got the job.
Sweet. So, when’s the Josh Johnson movie coming out?
If you find out, you tell me. I think I may need a couple more acts in the story…
Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. Especially nowadays, there’s always an outlet for people to do something. Do you have a story of your own percolating or maybe you and Logan sitting on something?
You know, there’s a couple of ideas that I have for shows so, we’ll see what I can get made between now and when we talk again, but I think that, as far as the biopic, I’m staving that one off for a while. I think that the story has to have some more just a bit more color to it before I’m comfortable working on that exclusively. But yeah, I’m always thinking of new stuff so there’s a lot that’s going to be coming down the pipe for the rest of this year and next, and so I’m excited to take things to the next step. That includes coming to Philly for a couple of nights this time, so I can really showcase what I can do. I’m really looking forward to it.
Last question – If you were able to have your own personalized Batman utility belt, what would you have in it?
You know, I have one of those flashlights that are really blinding; where it’s not about you seeing anything, it’s about truly blinding the person that’s in front of you., like, is really, it’s not really about you.
That Batarang with the grappling gun, honestly, that’s, like top tier; like those have to be in there, they’re just too good. They don’t even fully make sense. Like, when you see him shoot it and then immediately shoot up; so, is it stronger than concrete? Is it sinking into the concrete and it’s enough to carry his weight and lift him up. SO, I gotta get one of those because it’s clearly from the future.
And then I think I would definitely have whatever anti-poison tablets he has, okay? Because he’s always getting gassed and he’s always getting hit by something, and he always has like a pill or something to drink in the belt. And also, those little pellets or smoke bombs. Those things always come in handy. So it’s like, outside of what he already has, you can really only add a couple of things, you know?
On the TV show, he was always good for a compartment in the back. So, he’d just reach in the back and pull out a big plexiglass bifold Bat-shield.
Yeah. And I think there’s gotta be a place for a wallet. A wallet would also be great. I understand that the man is very wealthy but, I’m not gonna lie, it’s so weird when he strolls up to where he parked the Batmobile and it’s gone. My man is just lost; he’s just out by himself. And so, even if you are a billionaire, even if you’re Batman; if you don’t have any petty cash on you at all, I feel like you’re really stranded now.
Okay, that was the last question; this is the final one. Full disclosure – I’ve been a victim of identity theft before and I know your story is going to be part of The Josh Johnson Show album, but I have to hear how you were a victim of identity theft, while your date was in the bathroom.
Yeah, so it was my first date in New York, and I went to this restaurant with this woman. She goes to the bathroom. I got a call from my bank. This was back when they would call you; now it’s just text messages: is this you or whatever. They ask me if I am in Arizona; I tell them, “No, I’m in New York.” Well, they tell me that your card’s been compromised, so we have to turn it off and send you another one, but you won’t be charged with charges today. And so, I explain that I’m currently on a date, right now. And if they could, please just let this person steal a little bit more. I just need, like an hour, at least. I’ll call for the check now; I’ll actually go ahead and get the check now; just please, don’t shut my card off. Because this was also at a time in my life when I literally had my debit card and my credit card, and that’s it. I think they did it on my debit, so now all of the real money is compromised.
Yeah, that’s brutal. I have a friend who went on a first date with a guy. Supposed to go to dinner but something happened, so they wound up walking around downtown Philly, on a nice summer night. They come up to a hot dog cart; figure “let’s just get a hot dog.” Dude didn’t have money for a hot dog. She said, “how were you gonna pay for the dinner if you don’t have money for a hot dog?”
Especially since hot dogs are not expensive. That means that he’s struggling, because a hot dog – even at a baseball game – is, like five bucks, maybe. Maybe I’m wrong about that but I feel that I’ve never seen an expensive hot dog. I’ve never seen a hot dog cost what a steak costs.
You’re talking about a $5 baseball game hot dog. They were on the streets of Philadelphia; the jawn was, like, a dollar fifty.
Aw man! I will say though, whether he’s broke or not, that’s bad meat. You shouldn’t eat that. No meat should be a dollar fifty. It’s not even a dollar fifty because you also need the bun. The bun is at least 25 cents, so we’re talking about, literally, ‘dollar meat’, which can’t be healthy. That can’t even be good for your track, you know? Like, that’s something that actually stays in the guts. I thought you were going to say $2.75, which isn’t much better. But a dollar…a meal, that’s all meat? I understand that it’s expensive to eat healthy, but it’s not that expensive if you do it right, y’know? Like, a banana – that’s 20 cents. So, even on the hot dog budget that he’s apparently on, he could do something healthy. That right there is chaos.
And you definitely want to eat it close to home.
That’s the other thing. Your body is going to try to reject that immediately. That’s not what food is supposed to be.