Humble and Hilarious: An interview with Josh Johnson

Louisiana born Josh Johnson is not only a brilliant stand up comic who you’ve probably seen on Comedy Central and Netflix, he’s also a writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and shows no signs of slowing down with his latest project “Elusive.” A unique 33- track mixtape that combines live stand up and music, adding producer and songwriter to the already impressive résumé.

He’s always been in love with comedy but initially majored in lighting design in college, lucky for us he decided to choose comedy instead and moved to Chicago eight years ago to try it out. If I had to sum him up in three words it would be eloquent, inquisitive and of course, incredibly funny. He showed up for our interview dressed in a maroon beanie and blue pyjama-esque shirt but don’t be fooled, underneath the casual exterior lies an extremely intellectual person.

Our conversation was occasionally interrupted by barks coming from his six month old puppy who he affectionately refers to as a “little monster.” We talked about the secrets to being a successful comedian, bombing, and the inspiration behind “Elusive”

The Curve: Where do you get your sense of humour from?

Josh: That’s a good question! I guess I’ve always been a bit weird, so I think that helps! [laughs] I think that I’ve had a hard time seeing the world and things around me the way other people do so, sometimes it lends itself to being very funny and sometimes it lends itself to not being understood.

That’s why I’ve had to make a point to really learn to articulate everything that I’m thinking because I think that the same things that make a person unique can also ostracize them. I think that’s where my sense of humour comes from, not really being able, for better or for worse, to see things the way other people do.

My grandmother was very funny, so living with her for a bit definitely helped cause she was always doing impressions of people. Even when she was a bit angry she was very funny in how she described the thing that she was angry about, it wasn’t just a pure anger that was something to be taken seriously like sometimes she was just annoyed, and I think I get a little bit of that from her. She was the main one and then I took to really enjoying comedy and watching comedians when I was growing up, so all rest of the influence is in large part from them.

“I think that’s where my sense of humour comes from, not really being able, for better or for worse, to see things the way other people do.”

TC:  Who are the comedians that influenced you?

J: Christopher Titus, his special on Comedy Central is probably one of the first specials that I remember watching over and over. Obviously there’s also the big ones like Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr. I wasn’t necessarily a little kid anymore but when I moved to Chicago my peers definitely influenced me a lot. In a weird way, maybe because they started before I did, I still look up to them a lot. A big part of learning how to do comedy for me, was learning how to do it in Chicago and then making that a bit broader.

“Sometimes people understanding you is just as good if not better in some moments than getting laughs.”

TC: When you first got into stand up comedy was there anything that surprised you about doing it?

J: I think the feeling of really nailing down how you want to say something and people understanding it, I really didn’t think that it would feel as good as it makes me feel. Like if you have an unconventional idea and you bring that to someone normally there’s some debate or it takes a while to get your point across but when you do it in a way, especially in monologue form where you’re the only one that gets to talk but then by the end of your sentence everyone understands what you’re saying, I didn’t expect it to feel that good.

Sometimes people understanding you is just as good if not better in some moments than getting laughs. Because the laughs come from the recognition of your idea or how unique it is but I think because in normal life I have a lot of trouble making myself understood, that when it all came together in front of people all at once, that was such a strange feeling, but it was very good.

Imagine if you were never able to do something and then you’re finally able to do it and a bunch of people are watching, there’s so many different emotions that can come through when that happens. I did not expect my bits working to feel as good as they felt, I thought it’d be nice to keep getting laughs but especially once I started talking about things that were a bit more important to me and people really understood or would come up to me after the show and we would talk about it, that was such a great feeling.

TC: What was that first gig like?

J: It went better than I thought it would, but I also didn’t know why it went well. So people were laughing and it was a good time and my jokes were hitting but I didn’t know enough at the time to know why it should be going well. I was not ready for it to not go well the very next time, I think it went well and I was so taken aback by that, that I was like “oh geez, maybe it’s just always going to go well.” 

Josh Johnson performing stand up on the road, photo credit: Lance Patrick

TC: Tell me about a time when it hasn’t gone well- when was the worst you ever bombed?

J: I was in New Orleans and I was doing a show where this guy before me, instead of doing any stand up at all he just did 18 minutes of rap songs all about Science, it was very weird. So then half the room leaves, so I go up next and I felt like I was doing the regular comic thing of just giving him a little roast. You clearly didn’t do well if half the people left, but then it turned out that the half of the people that stayed were all his friends. So then I bombed worse then he did. This happened six years ago, so I’ve really lived it down since then [laughs].

TC: What is your comedy writing process like?

J: Some of it is just through talking to people and if someone does say something that’s particularly wild or like a fact that I didn’t know or something that’s worth exploring, that’s one thing. The other is to take things that have been on my mind for a while and really sit with them and sort of stir the idea for a while and then see if there’s anything that comes out of that, that is relatable to someone who previously didn’t hold that idea.

There have been certain situations where it’ll be something as basic as dating but then from that I’m like “have I heard anyone talk about this specific thing about dating that I think is right there, in everyone’s face?” So then I play with that idea, those are the two main forms that it takes.

TC: Your newest album “Elusive” will be released on June 11th, on it there are nine music tracks of which you co-wrote most of them- this has been your first time creating music, what was that like for you?

J: Yeah, I had never done music before but luckily the one thing about the pandemic that did aide in some creation is that because so many people in countries all over the world where in a form of lockdown meant that people who you normally wouldn’t have had access to or would have normally been busier all of  a sudden had freed up schedules. So I did take that time, especially since, I don’t know about you, but I definitely thought the world might end!

Like a small part of me was like “oh I don’t know if were ever coming back from this” because it’s the whole world,  it’d be different if it was just America, I’d be like “ah you know Europe’s fine” but the fact that it was everyone I was like “oh god, this is how the movie starts!” Because of the dire situation that we were all in I was like “why not do this thing I’ve always wanted to do, and reach out to people that I’ve always admired to get it done?”

That’s how it came together and I hope that people listening to the project can hear how the overall project mirrors the year. It starts off very optimistic and light, and then it gets a little bit heavier towards the middle but still hopeful at the end, that’s kind of the journey that I was on the entire year.

If you think back to January 2020 it wasn’t that bad, it was pretty dope, there weren’t a ton of problems yet but then by April it was like “guys the grocery store’s empty, that’s a bad sign!” That was my big take on how I was able to do it and  the reasoning behind it because even in 2019 and 2018 I wanted to do some potential music projects and co-write, and learn to produce but I just never had the time, and they were all good problems to have I was very busy, but yeah 2020 is what really did it.

“Elusive” album cover

TC: When I was listening to it I really felt that you were using comedy as a tool to kind of gently invite the audience in to discuss all of these heavier topics and make it more digestible- was that your intention?

J: Yes, because I think the music and the comedy serve a purpose to complete each other. Because I think that comedy is more accessible for the moment and then the music will be more accessible forever. Because jokes are very much of the time so even people who we look back on as being very funny like Richard Pryor or George Carlin, some of their jokes are timeless and we’re unfortunately living in a world where their jokes about government and social prejudices are still relevant in today’s world. But most of their jokes, I would even say a majority are outdated.

They are great jokes for the time that they were living in, but now we have different products so if you’re referencing a product or movie in your joke that’s going to have a shelf life of maybe a decade unless you’re referencing something classic like “Casablanca” or something. Music is the type of medium where every generation has a different lens to see artists and listen to music to, it’s why people who are not even born yet are going to love the “Grateful Dead” and that has nothing to do with the time that they are living in, they still connect with it as an individual.

So I really wanted the project to have some staying power and I think that music was the only way to do that, because you know it’s not as if we’re all, no matter how much we’d like to, going to forget 2020, that’s not going to happen for at least a decade. We’re still going to feel the economic impacts and there’s going to be whole cultural shifts that change for the next five to ten years but then eventually there’s going to be people born who don’t remember and we’re not alive for that time at all.

I’d like for them to still be able to listen to something like “Elusive” and connect with it on some level, that’s why the first arc of the mixtape is so much about love and the stages that it takes and then the stuff that’s more about the year we were having is later on in the project.

“I think the music and the comedy serve a purpose to complete each other, because I think that comedy is more accessible for the moment and then the music will be more accessible forever. “

TC: Do you think  you’ll want to create and produce more music in the future, now that you’ve discovered this new talent of songwriting that you have?

J: I definitely will! I’m actually working on something right now that will also be coming out a bit later. I’ve been very blessed in reaching out to these people and meeting up with them virtually at least, like the craziest thing about the project is almost none of us have ever been in the same room as each other.

The executive producer Mike Relm he’s in L.A, Groovebox who is on four of the tracks is in Chicago, and Frankie Tsunami is also in L.A but has never met Mike. The choir director, Roderick Frazier is the only person that I’ve met in person and collaborated with face to face. The best and only in person part of the mixtape that I was able to do was go into the studio and be with the choir when they sang the two spirituals and that was amazing to watch, I wish I had recorded more of it.

TC: Out of the 33 tracks on the mixtape, do you have a favourite?

J: I honestly don’t. One of the craziest things that I did not expect to feel while I was working on it was the same thing I mentioned before about how when you convey a joke and it’s like [pauses] I guess no joke is perfect but it’s almost perfect in the sense that you know when the laughs are going to come, you know that people understand you and you know that they’re enjoying themselves, that feeling is so good and I didn’t expect that feeling to be almost amplified in finishing a song.

I would work with Groovebox and we would co-write the lyrics and then he would send vocal tapes, he’s so good that it required so little production. Everytime he sent something I was like “is this the song?” because it was always so polished that it almost felt weird making changes. Really getting a song and listening to it over and over and knowing that this is the song even though the project hasn’t been come out yet was such an amazing feeling and I got to feel it nine different times which was incredible.

I didn’t co-write on his track but, with Frankie his song is a remix of his own single that he did especially to contribute to the overall mixtape and I really enjoyed it because it was something special for people who already enjoy his work but also are looking for that little bit of extra. So I know it’s a non-answer but it’s too hard to pick a favourite.

TC: You’re also currently a writer on The Daily Show, and before that you wrote for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, that’s also where you made your stand up debut. Take me through how you became a writer on those shows and what’s it like, is it as stressful as it seems?

J: No it’s not stressful, especially not now! I think any job you start where you’re new, you’re very stressed out. It would be delusional to not be stressed out and you don’t know where the bathroom is. 

TC: But it’s not just any job, it’s writing for The Daily Show! Did you feel some sort of pressure when you first started?

J: I definitely felt some impostor syndrome. As you get older especially and people think that you’re talented or funny, it’s very hard to accept that sometimes and I have to remind myself that we’re all adults now so no one has to be nice to me. No one has to give me a job just to do me a solid, they believe in me and think I’m funny and that gave me a bit more confidence in the first few weeks and months after that I started to pitch all the jokes I wanted to pitch and write all the pieces I wanted to write.

Working at The Tonight Show was really good not just for my career but my overall approach to comedy because it was the first place where I had to write everyday whether I felt funny or not and a lot of comedians write out of inspiration so if you don’t feel funny or like anything around you is funny, you’re going to have a harder time. The other thing that it taught me was to not be so precious with my jokes because at The Tonight Show I was writing over 100 jokes a day and then maybe two or three might get on the actual monologue of the show.

It really taught me that not every joke has to be held on to for dear life. Working at The Daily Show has been amazing because it’s really taught me how to write for TV and how to think long term about how to tell a story. It’s improved my stand up in that now I’m thinking about how to be more clear and convey my message in not necessarily just the quickest way possible but really letting people into the more concise parts of what makes a story or joke special.

Also the people that I get to work with on The Daily Show, much like the Tonight show but since I’ve been on The Daily Show longer, the people that I get to work with and have formed relationships and trust with my ideas and pitches have improved my thought process towards comedy so much.

If I wasn’t at the show, I don’t think that I would be doing the level of comedy that I’m doing, like it’s honestly a testament to the people that I get to work with more so than any natural god given ability. Being able to sit with Trevor, Roy, and many others and talk about comedy or the thoughts that go into making sure a joke is tight or making sure an audience connects with you.

I was very blessed with the Tonight Show, I actually sent in a tape to do stand up on the show and the head writer at the time really liked my set so asked if I wanted to send in some jokes, so I did and then they asked me to send in more jokes, so I did, then I got an interview and got the job and worked their for a while.

Then with The Daily Show it was a much more straightforward process, they said they were hiring so I sent in a packet, they liked it and then brought me in for an interview and then I got the job. That’s like the 10 second breakdown but everything else along the way has just taken me to another level. Sometimes I am taken aback when I’m like “oh yeah that’s my joke like I write at the show, that’s crazy!” Even though it feels more familiar now I still get giddy like a little kid whenever I see my jokes being used.

The craziest thing is when I’m not in New York and I’m on the road doing stand up and I turn the TV on and there’s Comedy Central and Daily Show and a piece I’ve worked on, that still feels weird, like a great kind of weird. Like with any job, when you’re fully in it and immersed, it starts to feel normal, but then when you realize that this goes out to people, you’re more like “oh wow! I got to be a part of that!” 

“The people that I get to work with and have formed relationships and trust with my ideas and pitches have improved my thought process towards comedy so much. If I wasn’t at the show, I don’t think that I would be doing the level of comedy that I’m doing, like it’s honestly a testament to the people that I get to work with more so than any natural god given ability.”

TC: Not only are you working on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, you’ve also been opening for him on the Loud & Clear tour, what has that experience been like? Are you still kind of startled around Trevor or do you just see him as a regular guy now?

J: He’s probably one of the most approachable people that I’ve ever met, he definitely made me feel welcomed. That’s hard for comedians to do because we’re in constant competition to be the funniest, but he’s very warm and good at making you feel funny, like he’s not too cool to laugh at all the jokes he thinks are funny.

Being on the road with him especially, I learn so much about performing stand up specifically because to watch him every other night or whenever we’re on the road was like “oh ok this how you do crown control, this how you broach a new or hard topic, this how you  build together all the pieces that make an hour of comedy an experience and not just a succession of non stop jokes and then you leave.” People walk away with specific feelings and favourites and that’s something you want to create whether you’re doing an hour or ten minutes.

TC: You’re currently living in New York, what’s your favourite thing about living there (before the pandemic hit) ? 

J: Honestly it’s hard to beat the food here, it’s crazy because there are so many places that look like they’re going to collapse, like it does not look safe to go in! And then you go in and whether it’s like a Japanese or Italian restaurant or whatever type of food it is, it’s some of the best food that you could experience but it’s born out of like “wow! Should we go in here? It looks like something bad will happen to us!” There’s a ramen place with a faded sign called “Totto Ramen,” there’s a couple of locations but the one that is on 52nd street is the best Ramen I’ve ever had in my life. It’s actually not that far from The Daily Show and I used to love going there before the pandemic. I would think about it all the time when we were in lockdown. When people were like “do you miss the office?” I was like “yeah and…”

TC: Between writing and performing stand up, what do you prefer to do?

J: I love stand up so much, it’s the first thing that I ever connected with that made me realize I was funny and helped me connect with people. It’s going to be hard for anything to beat stand up, whether that’s producing music or writing on a show or even being on TV. There’s something about live performance and the connection you make with people in real time that’s very difficult to beat for me.

Writing is a close second, but not every joke or topic that I think or feel passionately about can or should be delivered by me. I would like to believe that I’m very good at the style and approach to comedy that I have but then there’s so many other things worth saying or pieces worth working on and I don’t necessarily have to be the face to put that out there. That’s a nice thing, I think that would be exhausting if I felt like everything had to be me all the time, that’d be crazy. 

“Persistence and patience are two very powerful things and they’re honestly what I would credit where I am in my career right now with. Because I think you have to be patient enough to know that things don’t happen overnight, but you have to be persistent enough to not give up or get discouraged as they obviously don’t happen overnight. “

TC: Comic icon Jerry Seinfield once said in an interview that in order to be a successful comedian “ you have to be a relentless and ruthless person”- do you agree with that?

J: I agree in a sense. I don’t know the exact way Jerry means it, but for me my form of ruthless and relentless is mostly just with my own ideas. Persistence and patience are two very powerful things and they’re honestly what I would credit where I am in my career right now with. Because I think you have to be patient enough to know that things don’t happen overnight, but you have to be persistent enough to not give up or get discouraged as they obviously don’t happen overnight.

There’s a ruthlessness with my own ideas that I have to fight for sometimes even in my own head towards self doubt because even working on “Elusive” there were times where I was like “all these people are talented artists and I’m just learning”, “I’m just showing up and asking them for help” or “I hope I’m not annoying them.” All those thoughts went through my head but you have to be ruthless with yourself and relentless and say “no this is a good idea and I’m going to see it through to the end.”

I think that is a recipe for getting better at anything eventually, whether it’s comedy, music or anything that you want to do. Ruthlessness and relentlessness out in the world can only get you so far. It works great if you’re a boxer you know, be relentless and ruthless and beat the crap out of people, but in any artistic endeavour there’s so much more that goes on with the self than anything outside that you need to worry about. 

TC: You regularly perform at the legendary Comedy Cellar in New York, it’s notorious for having a tough crowd- how do you deal with that?

J: Even though a lot of comics are neurotic and worried about their writing and how they come off, there is a level of narcissism that you have to have to get in front of people thinking you have the most interesting ideas. I think if you lean into that it doesn’t really matter how tough a crowd is, the audiences as well as the way the club is run is what makes the Comedy Cellar one of the best places to do comedy in the entire world. Because it’s not just about running a tight ship and selling out shows, it’s also about curating a line up that gives people something different with every comic.

Any place could just try to put up the most famous people in order, but they don’t necessarily do that. They take their time and help build comics the same way that they give comics that are already famous a very good platform to work out their stuff. There’s things you see people do at the Cellar that’s then going to be in their special.

I think that the crowd, [pauses] this is going to sound weird, but I feel like the crowd is just an extension of how your jokes feel in your own mind. With confidence and clear writing I don’t think that there’s a crowd you can’t win over. People pay money so they want a good time, so even if they’re reluctant at first or don’t get you, I think that they can still be won over, so I never really stress about the crowd as much as am I bringing them the best possible product? 

TC: What’s the best comedic advice you’ve ever received?

J: It was from my friend who I believe is still in Chicago, Kyle Scanlan who said that you have to treat your approach to doing a set like you would if you were meeting someone on the bus. If you’re sitting next to someone on the bus how do you start that conversation? You usually start it with your name, a little bit about yourself, all that stuff, and then you can get into deeper waters. I’m not saying that this has to be the approach to comedy across the board but I find that it’s true.

If you start a set off with “you know I think about killing myself sometimes‘ people are going to be like “oh geez!” but even if you only have a 15 minute set, if you build up a rapport and some trust that you are a person in front of them with interesting if not just unconventional ideas than by the end of that set you can get to a place that’s like “you know sometimes I think about killing myself” and people may even be like “ah me too! Things get rough!”

He told me that when I was about a year and a half in to doing stand up and it really helped shape how I approach not just the writing that I do but also the sequencing in a set, because the order that you put your jokes, the way that you open and close is so important and affects how people take in your work.

“You have to treat your approach to doing a set like you would if you were meeting someone on the bus. “

TC: Now that “Elusive” is out there, what’s next for you?

My Comedy Central special is coming out on the 18th of June, then I’ll also have some more mixtape stuff out soon. Any other time you can just listen to my weekly podcast “The Josh Johnson Show,” it’s on wherever you listen to podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, all that.

“Elusive” is out now and available on all streaming platforms 

You can follow Josh’s journey here: