Arts Features, Arts

Comedian Joyelle Nicole Johnson Embraces Embarrassment

Let’s face it: if your friend found your dad on a sugar daddy website, it would be a mortifying experience. But, for stand-up comedian, writer, and actress Joyelle Nicole Johnson, it’s golden material for a comedy routine.

“Laughter trumps embarrassment, especially for a comedian,” Johnson, BC ’03, said. “We’re looking for what’s funny.”

Her captivating ability to turn pain into humor and shame into uplifting stories distinguishes Johnson as an entertainer. She draws from awkward experiences and turns them into something to be proud of—critically acclaimed comedy specials such as Love Joy, the show where Johnson recounted when her friend discovered her father’s sugar daddy identity.

Love Joy was named one of the 15 best comedy specials of 2021 by Paste Magazine and also received a nomination for a Critics Choice Award for Best Comedy Special. 

“I released the special out of a pandemic, which is the most amazing thing,” Johnson said. “And then now it’s getting, you know, critical acclaim [and] nominated for Critics Choice Awards, [which is] beyond my wildest dreams.”

Love Joy is a collection of Johnson’s favorite jokes and most comical stories that she has stockpiled throughout her years in the industry, Johnson said. She told stories from all eras of her life—from getting pregnant on the floor of an Amtrak bathroom to briefly moving to Georgia with the motivation to “swing the vote,” as she joked, for the 2020 presidential election. Johnson seamlessly connected all of her comical anecdotes by linking them to recurring elements of her life—including the importance of therapy and advice from friends. 

The comedy special became possible after Johnson appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Despite not speaking with Fallon for too long before or after his show because of her shyness, her abundance of kindness and talent made an impact on him. 

“One of [Fallon’s] producing partners told my boyfriend ‘Jimmy thought Joyelle was really kind,’ and that was a huge compliment for me because we’re in an industry of absolute monsters,” Johnson said. “And part of him wanting to work with me was because he said I was kind.”

After her appearance, Johnson’s manager informed her that Fallon wanted to produce her special. Fallon’s production company, Electric Hot Dog, produced Love Joy, and it was released on Peacock on Nov. 5, 2021. 

Watching Johnson animatedly recount embarrassing stories from her life on TV, it appears as though she would be as outgoing offstage as well. But, growing up in New Jersey, and later attending Boston College, Johnson said she was always a wallflower.

“I realized there’s two types of comedians as kids, usually the one who’s the class clown, and then there’s the one who is just sitting back and watching everything,” Johnson said. “So I used to sit back and watch everything and make jokes to myself in my head.”

The late night shows that Johnson watched as a child, such as comedian George Carlin’s specials, initially piqued her interest in comedy. Staying up to watch them when her mother worked night shifts, Johnson said she loved how the specials mixed comedy with activism and imagined that it was something she could do too. But Johnson was too shy to try it. 

It was not until Johnson moved to Los Angeles that she finally gave herself a shot in comedy. 

After graduating from BC with a degree in communication, Johnson flew to LA to pursue acting. While she was there, Johnson began attending comedy clubs once a week. 

One of the clubs, the Laugh Factory, held a weekly show called Comedy Playground, where she saw Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish perform in their improv group. Johnson had been watching them for a while when a friend of hers asked if she wanted to start doing open mics. Despite her introvertedness, Johnson said yes. 

“There is a space for introverted people in entertainment…you know, if it’s something that you want to pursue, figure out who does it, figure out how to be near them and, you know, just watch it for a while,” Johnson said. “And if you watch it, you can get used to it and then try it yourself.”

Johnson said that the first 10 years or so spent pursuing comedy are about finding your voice and figuring out how to not be nervous on stage. But the secret, she said, is that you are never not nervous. You just have to learn how to hide it. 

Throughout all the events Johnson has performed at throughout her career, including Bonnaroo and her late night show debut on Late Night with Seth Meyers, her nerves were always present, but not noticeable. Out of all these events and performances, she said Love Joy, recorded on Johnson’s 40th birthday, was the most special to her. 

In her comedy routine, Johnson incorporated activism similar to what she saw on Carlin’s specials growing up. In one of her favorite specials, Carlin opened his show by asking “Have you ever noticed that the people who are against abortion are the ones you won’t want to f— in the first place?” The line made Johnson realize there can be an intersection between humor and advocacy.

“I want to be able to make people laugh, but also make people think and also make people have acceptance across the board,” Johnson said. “So that’s why I talk about racism on stage. That’s why I talk about abortion.”

Activism plays just as big of a role in Johnson’s everyday life as it does in her comedy routine. Johnson works with The Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead on Abortion Access Front (AAF), an organization that aims to destigmatize abortion through the use of comedy and pop culture. AAF recruits comedians and musicians to tour and show support to abortion providers and their surrounding communities. Johnson said the destigmatization of abortions is especially important to her, as she has had an abortion herself. 

“It’s a very important thing for me to make sure women aren’t ashamed of it, because, you know, it’s something that just happens, and I want to be able to protect that right,” Johnson said. “And it’s important to me, and it makes me feel good.”

Outside of comedy and activism, Johnson also writes and acts for TV shows. She has written for the final season of Broad City, which was one of her career goals, and she appeared in an episode of the show Crashing as well. Johnson said that the most important things to do when pursuing a career in comedy and the entertainment industry are interning, networking, and writing down your goals. 

“If you want something, make a vision board, write it down, look at it everyday and you can achieve it,” Johnson said. “I am a testament to that.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Mindy Tucker

January 20, 2022