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"She does have that buzz," affirms Charles Williams, one of three owners of Union Station's Improv Theater who booked Johnson for the club's mid-December opening night. "People say she has that special thing where she's always pushing the boundaries. Yeah, like Silverman, her stuff's kinda you know."
"You know: Oooh, she did not say that!"
But whereas Silverman digresses into religious taboo, Johnson sticks with the tabooty.
"There's this group of girls that follows me around to my shows, and they hiss at me!" she'll begin. "After one show, the ringleader grabs her girlfriend that has the biggest booty, and she's like, 'Come here! Come here!' I'm like, 'Oh God, is she going to kick my ass?' She's like, 'Stand next to her. Now turn around. Stick your ass out. Stick it out! See that? Bam, you lose!' I'm like, 'I didn't know I was playing.' And then I got mad, and I go, 'Ladies, it's not methat thinks I have a fine ass it's your man.
"'Bam, you lose!'"
Johnson was a Detroit suburbanite until second grade, when her family moved to Lake St. Louis. There she began corralling neighborhood kids into her basement and putting on plays, foreshadowing her membership in the Wentzville High School drama club and roles in its yearly theatrical productions. She was also active in the art club and the only white member of the school's step team. After junior year another move landed her family in Cincinnati. "I spent my senior year in this little redneck dump of a school," Johnson shudders. "The parking lot looked like a junkyard for Ford trucks. It was absolutely horrible. But I tried to make the best of it. I've seen how people live in different cultures, and how it affects their nature, so that experience actually helped me a lot in my comedy."
In the summer of 2004, after earning an art degree from the University of Cincinnati and dealing with a string of relationship woes, Johnson moved back to St. Louis. Her parents had returned to the area the year before, and for the time being and much to her chagrin she's living under their roof in Fenton.
In addition to performing in high school and college plays, Johnson dabbled in tap, ballet, jazz and ballroom dancing. "I always knew I wanted to be in showbiz," she says. "I wanted to be an actress, actually. I've always been a performer, and people would constantly tell me: 'Oh you're so funny; you should be a comedian.' You hear it more and more and more, and eventually you're like: Well, maybe I should be."
Offstage Johnson's hair is tethered in a loose ponytail and there's not a drop of makeup on her. Her voice twangs less when she's not speaking into a microphone and her teeth gleam when she laughs (which is quite frequently), or when she describes how the goal of her material is to "flip" stereotypes, a topic that fiercely dominates conversation.
"I got called Chinese the other day," begins one of her newer bits. "It was over the phone, which I guess means I have a high, squeaky voice and talk really fast, to the point where this woman couldn't understand me. It got me thinking about my ethnic background. I'm not actually white, because my mother's side of the family is Mohawk. But I get so much shit about my ass and my last name's Johnson, so everybody thinks that my dad's black. I'm thinking about it, and I realized that I'm a black Native American with a French name and I speak [like I'm] Chinese. And what's really fucked up is that I'm dating a French Mexican who speaks Italian and is named Chad."
The urban comics in her circle of friends like the bit. Mainstream reactions to the joke's racial undertones are mixed, though, despite the fact that the humor is tame compared to Johnson's more prurient material. It's the latter responses and the environment that gave rise to the joke that Johnson takes issue with. "It's always like you're touching on a delicate subject that people want to avoid until it becomes this 'thing' that causes huge problems," she says. And about this, she's dead serious. Her onstage persona, the grinning small-town girl out of her element in the racially mixed big city, isn't up there making fun of other races or trying to "act black." Johnson isn't consciously out to appeal strictly to black audiences. She simply picks up a microphone and riffs on personal experiences she thinks are funny.
Johnson cites manic college favorite Dane Cook and the late stoner-absurdist Mitch Hedberg as favorite contemporary comics, but she says the reason she always wanted to do comedy was to make her father laugh they way he did when the two watched Jim Carrey movies together. "A lot of people would say Ace Ventura was a stupid movie, but it's those dumb movies that are the funniest," she maintains. "I would look over at my dad and he would be cracking up to the point of tears coming down his face, choking, turning purple. And I wanted to do that: I wanted to make my dad's face turn purple."
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