Girl Walks into a Comedy Club...

Julie Seabaugh profiles local laugh-riot Brie Johnson

Johnson was soon hitting three urban — which is to say: black — clubs a night and building a reputation as the girl with the ghetto booty who first appeared too nervous to take the stage but was clearly unafraid to cross the line when it came to making fun of stereotypes. She also formed working relationships with national headliners like LA-based comedian and actor Ricky Harris, St. Louis-born Joe Torry and Last Comic Standing housemate Corey Holcomb.

Harris, who met Johnson after he headlined at II STL Brothers, applauds her cojones. "If they don't like you, white folk will think: 'At least they're trying; at least they've got the nerve to get up there,'" says the 21-year veteran, who once took a young Chris Tucker under his wing. "Most black people will be like: 'Get that motherfucker off the stage!'"

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

The Punch

Johnson's portion of this evening's "Terry Houston & Friends: Soul Classics 1490 Showcase" at the Fairview Heights Funny Bone is being videotaped for Eric Rhone, manager and producing partner of famed St. Louis comedian Cedric the Entertainer, who's memorialized in the club's showroom with a giant portrait. If Rhone likes what he sees, bigger things might follow.

Third on the bill, Johnson takes the stage wearing an oversize Rams jersey. "Hey, y'all!" she grins, revealing a mouthful of metal. "I've been labeled as an 'urban comedian,' so I figured: Why not dress like one? I went down the other day to buy a gold tooth, but I didn't have enough money to buy a gold one, so I got some tinfoil, and that stuff works pretty good. It's custom fit every time. And $1.59 will buy you a whole roll."

Then off comes the tinfoil and Johnson starts strong with her traditional opening bit: "I can't seem to find a decent man to pick me up, take me out to dinner, pay for dinner, go back to his place, turn the lights down low, light some candles, turn on some soft music, maybe some moonlight dancing...and then at the end of the evening doing it up the butt!" The crowd responds with a healthy rumble.

Next it's Wednesday's "Black in You," followed by one of her more dependable standbys: "A black man will stand in line to get his thing sucked but he will not go down on a woman. Why is that? My friend said it's because it smells like tuna, tastes like tuna and it looks like sushi. Well, honey, just because you had a bad piece of fish in your life doesn't mean it's all bad. And I don't know about you, but mine tastes like chicken.

"And what is it with black people and chicken? Why not hot sauce? Y'all put that shit on everything. You do. And you know what, I bet if you put that on some tuna, you'd probably eat that too." Louder approval, and the black occupants of a table to the left whoop and wave their arms.

Offstage, Johnson self-critiques her ten-minute set: She lost the crowd with new material about Hooters waitresses and radio pop songs and failed to finish strong. But by her standards, tonight's performance before a half-white, half-full room went "OK."

A few days later, comic Dwayne Ingram, who signed Johnson up for her for Westport open-mic debut, reports that some audience members were put off by her Fairview Heights performance. "People came up to me and would say, 'That girl with the jersey should not be doing comedy. She is offensive and racist.' Things of that nature," Ingram explains. "I told them she was a new comedian and that I would talk to her. And oddly enough, the day that I was going to call Brie to talk to her, she called me and started crying. She told me that she took a VHS tape of that show up to her job and her co-workers all said that her performance was offensive and racist, except she said the one black person that worked there, this young guy, thought it was funny."

Skating the line of racial disharmony for comedic purposes is a phenomenon with roots in the minstrel shows of the 1920s. The late Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, even Dave Chappelle built their reputations by addressing stereotypes, but it's thanks to the current proliferation of a comedy-concert film called Jesus Is Magic that Johnson is earning — much to her dismay — comparisons to a nationally respected stand-up.

"I've heard a lot of that lately, and I'm sick of being compared to Sarah Silverman," Johnson complains. "She has her own style and I have my style. I mean, I guess we look kind of alike, and some of our material might touch on the same things, but I would never say the word 'nigger.' I don't even use it when I'm sitting around with my friends. It's just not appropriate."

Still, there is an undeniable likeness. Both are white, both female, both tread the line — under the guise of naiveté — to the point of causing discomfort. And in the case of both, that's the only way their material can work.

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