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Yet she won't let her parents see her perform. Maybe once her career starts picking up, she hedges, but not right now. "They're at that older age where they'd probably have a stroke, and I don't want to kill them," she quips, then adds: "The problem is, they wouldn't understand."
One day Johnson caught her 53-year-old father checking out one of her performance DVDs. She says she knew what was coming next. "He's like, 'What? That was good!' But then he has to throw in, 'Was that an all-black audience?'
"'No, Dad, there were some white people.'
"'Well, was that a black club?'
"I'm like, 'Oh God, here we go.' That's really hard to deal with. I hope wherever I eventually get with comedy that my parents can look at it and realize the whole race thing and the prejudice is just stupid."
Dave Johnson, who'd only recently learned his daughter was doing stand-up, remembers the moment a little differently. "As a family, we've always enjoyed comedy that's off the wall," he ventures. "I got a sneak peek at one of her DVDs that she asked me to copy. I was surprised to see how she connected with the audience. She said, 'Well, the last time I was here everyone was white!' It took courage to do that. Then she told a butt joke, and that's when she caught me watching and snatched it away.
"She probably just wants [her material] to blossom before she exposes it to us," Johnson goes on. "Frankly, we're just amazed at her ingenuity and her stick-to-it-ness. I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage and fortitude to stand up in front of an audience and get favorable responses from them. Lots of people have tried to do that and go down in flames. But some people can make it work out.
"When's she's ready, she'll invite us."
She hasn't performed it in a while, but an extended version of Johnson's "Up the Butt" lies buried somewhere in the back of her notebooks: "You know how black people make fun of the way white people walk, like they've got a stick up their ass or they're clenching their butt cheeks? Well, I'll tell you why they clench their butt cheeks: It's to keep the shit from falling out. In my experience, every white guy I know likes to do it up the butt. Most of the black guys I know and yeah, they like some freaky stuff but they think up-the-butt is gross. But white guys like to do it, so that's why white girls are walking around clenching their butt cheeks. They're doing it up the butt all the time."
The reason the add-on isn't in rotation has nothing to do with Johnson being in front of a black or white audience. It has more to do with her gender.
Johnson wasn't exactly a tomboy growing up, but she says she was always considered "one of the guys" among her predominantly male friends. As Wanda Sykes once said, "Comedy is the opposite of being ladylike," and Johnson considers herself nothing like a lady. In her eyes, crossing the gender gap should have been as easy as hopping a puddle.
But gaining entrance to St. Louis' comedy treehouse was more difficult than she'd imagined. She remembers guys congratulating and buying her beer after her first show, but also explaining that as a female performer she was in a separate category from them. "I remember thinking that they would see," she recalls. "You just have to prove yourself to them."
Comics would show interest upon discovering she was a fellow performer, claiming to own a comedy club in Chicago or to know someone in the business who could help her along. But Johnson's gut instinct said they wanted her number for reasons unrelated to comedy. "Some of the guys that came in from New York or LA or whatever, we would exchange phone numbers and they'd say, 'Maybe next time I'm in town we'll have to get together,' or, 'You'll have to show me around town.' Then at, oh, four o'clock in the morning, I get phone calls wondering what I'm doing: 'You wanna come on over? I'm just sitting in my hotel room not doing anything.' 'Uh, no thanks. How stupid do you think I am?'"
"The way she earned respect was by keeping it all-business," says Dwayne Ingram. "A lot of male comics saw her as a target and approached her like she was fresh meat. She stood her ground and wasn't going to fall for anything. She wanted to do their shows, but she wasn't going to sleep with anyone to do them."
"I think the main reason there are so few female comedians out there is because of the crap we have to deal with," says Johnson. "I thought: If this is what it's going to be like for the rest of my life, forget it. I don't even know why I'm doing this. But eventually you'll come to that point where you get respect."
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