Girl Walks into a Comedy Club...

Julie Seabaugh profiles local laugh-riot Brie Johnson

She may be on equal footing at this stage, but tradition says Johnson will have to deal with increasing amounts of gender bias if she reaches higher levels in her career.

"There is major sexism in the industry and this unspoken assumption that women are not as funny as men," says Delilah Ramos, owner of New York City's Laugh Lounge. Ramos estimates that while one-third of her club's new-talent pool is female, female headliners make up only a tenth of most established clubs' rosters. The reason? Female comics aren't given a fair chance to hone their skills.

"How were Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock 'created'? By getting tons and tons of stage time to develop themselves as comics and performers," Ramos argues. "I think that if women were given more of a chance, we'd see more female comics rise to that stature. They have to work twice as hard to get half as far."

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

Johnson's down with hard work. She writes almost daily (when she's not modeling, substitute-teaching in the St. Louis public school system or moonlighting at Pin-Up Bowl or, more recently, Modai Sushi Lounge), and she recently completed a sitcom treatment with Def Jam and Showtime at the Apollo vet Tony Woods. She's unabashedly pursuing fame, yet says she would like to still be able to go to the grocery store and not be hounded by people. But that's part of the territory if you want to do this as your career.

"I've been told by several of my fellow comedians who are already out there that they have enough comedians in LA who aren't getting anywhere. But I'm like, 'Well, they haven't seen me yet.'"

"I just wish she would relax," advises Shaun Wesley, artist representative for the promotional firm STL Entertainment, which ups Johnson's profile locally. "I try to tell her, 'This is what a grind is, so just sit back and take it in and then go forward.' And she's hungry. I've never seen a comedian this hungry before."

But Johnson wants to succeed on her own terms, which in the long run might require her to work even harder.

Despite advice from her peers, Johnson bucks conventional wisdom regarding the history of her intended profession. She says she doesn't study the work of comedic forebears Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce or Sam Kinison. Or anyone, really. But that's exactly what she ought to do, paying particular attention to such black females as Sheryl Underwood, insists Wesley. "I told her: 'Do your homework. Get one of those 'Ladies of Comedy' tapes, see how they do their thing, and then add your own spin to it."

"I'm not them," Johnson counters. "This is me, this is what I do. They did their thing, I'm doing my thing."

She's slowly learning, however, that her predecessors can offer influence outside the limited realms of material and style. They can offer a confidence boost she didn't realize she needed.

Flipping channels not long ago, Johnson came upon an old clip of Johnny Carson asking Ellen DeGeneres what it was like being a female comedian. "She explained how it's very difficult because you have to be a lady, and there's certain things you cannot say," Johnson marvels. "I was thinking, 'Man, I'm not the only one going through this crap!'"

Then she surfed across Maria Bamford describing her experiences on the testosterone-heavy "Comedians of Comedy" tour. "She has just got done doing a show, and she's like, 'I got a little dirty at the end there, and I think it was OK.' I was like, 'What do you mean you think it's OK? Of course it's OK! Be as dirty as you want!' She was holding back, so I'm sure she's going through the same things as the rest of us — thinking this or that's not accepted, that girls can only say certain things, that you can't be one of the guys. And I'm like: 'Yes, you can.'"

Think Johnson's attitude's out of line? Feel free to kiss her ghetto ass.

"And that's why I get compared to Sarah Silverman a lot," she concludes. "Silverman isn't willing to follow the politics and the game and everything. And it is a game. You have to play by their rules. You're never really getting up there and being you. You can only say so much until you have a big name, and then you can say whatever the hell you want.

"Forget that. I'm going to say it now. I'm going to say this whether I get up to that level or not. This is me. And I'm not playing the game."

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