Stand-up comedy is an intensely personal form of performance. You are alone on stage, allowing, even asking, an audience to judge your presentation, your looks, your wit, your ideas, your sensibilities – in short, almost everything about you.
In recent years, confessional comedy has become increasingly prevalent, Josh Johnson doesn’t think stand-up should be therapy but his new special, “Up Here Killing Myself,” which premieres on Peacock, Feb. 17, positions itself at the intersection of the two. He has taken serious topics he discussed in therapy – the lingering impact of growing poor, encountering the police as a Black American, his fears of having children and raising them in New York, and the death of his father – and found ways to build comic riffs around them. Going one step further with the theme, each segment is introduced by a brief interstitial bit of Johnson talking to a therapist.
“As a comedian, I need both my therapist and an audience,” he said recently over lunch in Brooklyn where Johnson, who writes for “The Daily Show,” lives. “Without one or the other, I’d feel incomplete – I need the comedy to put some distance between me and the things that happened.”
Johnson, 32, grew up in small-town Louisiana but after college moved to Chicago to work in design. He realized that design was almost as unstable a career as comedy so he might as well pursue the one he was passionate about.
He found success as a writer and performer fairly quickly though he has grown increasingly assured and animated on stage in recent years, an improvement he attributes in large part to touring with Trevor Noah. “Being in a room where you’re not the best is how you see what you need to grow and get better,” Johnson says. “Trevor also gave great advice, which was a huge help.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You told me you started off focused on the writing and that your performances had a reserved, “please don’t let me bomb” approach, which you’ve obviously shed. How is your writing evolving, especially now that you’re more comfortable on stage?
People have seen me be super-squeaky clean and then silly and then more thoughtful. Now I’m willing to be more open. I always told stories from experience but now I’m willing to share perspective and it’s paramount for me that every bit enables people to connect with me on how we feel about things. It’s how we invite memories in with bits.
Community is one of the things we seek out and treasure the most, so if you can build community with your audience, it becomes something special to them outside of you. I think what I was craving in performances was that sense of connection.
I was shy and soft-spoken as a kid but now I’m finding the urgency in what I’m talking about needs more animation and a more compelling way of speaking; touring with Trevor really helped me learn to get out of my own way in terms of being reserved.
And having more tools is influencing the writing. I have more diversity in pacing and more characters and I’ll say to myself, “Why don’t I do an ‘act out’ more.”
Q. What inspired the comedy/therapy concept?
My therapist once responded to something I’d said by saying, “You know you don’t need to pad it with a joke for me.”
I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I was trying for a laugh and was not willing to be completely in it. And sometimes onstage I was oversharing without a joke. So I started to think about finding the spot in the middle.
I’d been playing with the concept for a few years, telling [director] Jacob Menache things from my therapy and tinkering with it. Having Jacob direct made me feel comfortable communicating ideas I wouldn’t have otherwise, especially because he was around for some of the stuff I went through.
Q. Did you worry that people would say, “I’m not your therapist. Tell me jokes.”
I don’t think that stand-up is therapy. If I’m speaking earnestly about trauma and processing it, I’ll talk to a professional. But as I start to get over it, the last step is being able to laugh about it with other people. Talking about things that happen to you is how you get a grasp of your perspective and then how you end up finding the jokes.
Audiences want to know their favorite comedians – it may not always be personal and you don’t need a deep, dark secret in every hour, but I think they want to come away with something other than their takes on planes and pizza.
There’s a grace audiences give you that some comedians don’t easily accept, which is that you don’t have to be funny every second. But there was a moment where we got worried and thought about scrapping the whole idea, leaving just the jokes. But that wouldn’t have been taking the necessary risks. If you don’t have an understanding of who you are, you’ll gravitate toward what you think your audience wants from you – and in the process, you’ll lose your audience.
It’s such a turnoff when an artist is so deeply unsure that they’re, “I’ll do whatever you want.” That reeks of desperation. You need to have the vulnerability. I don’t expect everyone to buy what this is doing but I think it feels fresh without being a violation of what you expect.
The therapy interstitials are very quick and just re-center us in terms of tone and to tee up the next big idea. I end every idea with a joke so the audience doesn’t have to feel they have a job to do.
Q. You have a bit about people acting out on the subway and a memorable story about your family’s car being stopped without reason by the police … only to have them give you a turkey for Thanksgiving. There are a lot of jokes but you don’t explicitly tie each to the therapy theme. Were you concerned about how they fit?
I tried not to spell everything out too horribly. The subway story fit because so much of my life is tethered to New York now and the idea of raising kids here terrifies me and the story is not about the crazy people but about the kid who didn’t react — my real fear is not that the kid will be exposed but that they’re exposed to so much that they’re the chilliest person on the train.
When we were stopped by the police, we really were terrified. In therapy, you don’t lead with the funniest part but with the shell-shocked part— “I’m okay, but here’s everything that was going through my mind. Did I process it well enough?” In therapy, I like to get a sense that my thinking and handling process are aligned with the type of person I’m trying to be.
Q. You talk about the pain of losing your father but you manage to end that segment with a joke. Do you worry about the audience getting too sad and losing the ability to bounce back for the laugh?
Because of the distance I have from these traumas, I’m able to talk about them but I know that while I’m over it so I think the bit is hilarious, you’re just finding out about it and might think, “Oh my god.”
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It’s a risk and sometimes I have to remind the audience that I know what I’m doing and we’re here to have fun. I felt the pacing and misdirection work there.
But also I’m better at knowing who I’m talking to and how the material is coming off and I’m not as defensive as I was. If the set doesn’t go the way I like, it just means I didn’t tell it right or these aren’t the people who would receive it the way I wanted. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure as an artist. I’ve learned to be more gracious with myself.