Making 2/3 of Your Dreams Come True (with Josh Johnson)
Listen, I talk to a lot of creative people on this show. But when I saw Josh Johnson’s Peacock special “Up Here Killing Myself” and listened to his mixtape “Elusive” I was like – this person is really thinking out of the box. Josh is not only a creative genius, he’s a writer for the Daily Show with Trevor Noah and a standup comedian. We talk about how comedy is the last step of healing and keeping our crafts timeless.
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Elyse Myers, Josh Johnson
Elyse Myers 00:04
Okay, actually, can you just pretend that you’re listening to a fully complete theme song here, I got really in my head. And I tried to make it perfect. And I couldn’t. So this is going to be the theme song right here. Hello, and welcome to Funny Cuz It’s True. I’m Elyse Myers. Today I’m talking to comedian and writer Josh Johnson. He’s written and performed for the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and is currently a writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Here’s the thing about Josh Johnson. He’s so incredibly talented and creative that once we start talking about his craft, we kind of just don’t stop. If you haven’t seen his special up here killing myself on peacock. Absolutely go watch it. It’s amazing. Any hoops. Two things that are funny because they’re true. Number one, I tried to encourage Josh at the end of our conversation, and as the encouragement was leaving my mouth, I was like, This doesn’t feel right. But I think that it’ll be received well, and he did receive it well, but listening back. It’s because I sounded like I was scolding him. I just sound like I’m like angrily telling him that he’s funny, which is really weird. And number two, Josh taught me a bunch of new comedy terms that I had never heard before. So my dictionary is really growing. Thank you so much, Josh. Okay, let’s get into it. Josh, Hi, how are you doing? I have been like watching your special up, you’re killing myself. And I have to just tell you, I am so inspired by your level of comedy in the way that you tell a joke. And then also make it like serious and not serious. And like, you strike such a balance in your comedy that is so unique and so hard to do. And I’m so curious as to how you learned how to craft jokes like this.
Josh Johnson 03:14
I mean, that’s very common, I definitely don’t know how to take a compliment. So I’m sure I will weasel my way out of it. Eventually,
Elyse Myers 03:21
Josh’s voice is so soothing, that if he read audiobooks, I would for sure use them to fall asleep at night. And I mean that in the least creepy way possible.
Josh Johnson 03:32
But I think that right now it looks like something happens, whether I feel like it’s funny or not. And I’m able to think about how I feel about it. But I think that with the time and the amount of comedy that I’ve done, it’s become easier along the way to go ahead and figure out how to make that relatable to another person. So there’ll be things that could happen to me or could happen to you, that will never happen to the other one of us, right. But I think that for the most part, comedy, especially if you set yourself up well with your level of self-awareness, your level of connection that you can breed with the audience, you end up in a really good position where people are at least trying to see where you’re coming from, and just by them putting in that effort to try see where you’re coming from, because they liked the last joke, they’ll potentially like the next joke. Now you have the leeway that you need to make the type of connections that are unique and funny and will make people think about something that in a different way than they have before. And so I think that’s also why you find so much success with like, clapped her. Like are you familiar with? Okay, so Clapter is basically like someone says something that at least for the audience in front of them is just obviously true, but maybe is a bit in contention right now. Right? So then they’ll say it. And then there’s almost this pause, whether it’s intentional or not. And then everybody claps.
Elyse Myers 05:07
Personally, I’m the person that claps at everything. Because if I ever attend like a live show of any kind, whether it’s comedy or not, I feel like it is my personal job, my full time job in that show to make as much noise as I possibly can and as much noise that is appropriate. Because if not, how does the person on stage? No, I don’t hate them. Right. So in summary, I am the problem. Was it like they’re making a point where it’s like, That wasn’t funny, but that is true. So I’m going to respond to you by not laughing but making noise so that you know that I know that that’s right.
Josh Johnson 05:42
Yes. It’s like any special that a man has had, where he says, Look, a woman has a right to her own body. Applause Applause Applause. Applause. Applause. Applause. Like no jokes been said yet, you know, okay, and they probably have a joke coming. But I think that like, clapter and the opposite of clapter, which is not even letting someone finish their idea before you kind of shoot it down. In your mind, are these two things that you have to balance because you could just pander and get laughs slash clapped her. And you could just fully troll and get a bunch of hate and maybe some laughs because people like that you’re trolling. But there’s a there’s a thin line down the middle of those two things. And to me, that’s what comedy is.
Elyse Myers 06:32
Do you think that the way you grew up impacted your comedy?
Josh Johnson 06:35
I think that for the most part I grew up and I’ve been around, so many like diametrically opposed groups of people that even if I think that their opinion, or their way of going about things is horrible, there’s some times where I can see where the person is coming from, because I’ve known people like them who didn’t behave the way that they behave. And then I also have my own sort of like ideologies, or just things that I believe to be fair or right or true, or whatever. And so I think being to call myself being objective would be unfair. But I think that I try to approach things with as much of a universal mindset as I can. And then that also helps me distinguish what series from what’s funny from what’s laughable to other people for from what’s just fine to comics, because then there’s some jokes that I just don’t do. There’s jokes I’ve written that I don’t do, because I’m like, Ah, it’s not going to be taken the right way. Like, like, I think a more skilled version of myself down the line, or a slightly different world would digest the joke differently. But for right now, I think it would just make me sound like I’m coming off as a troll. So there’s been jokes that I’ve written that I’m like, it, it’s also about a level of self-awareness and how people perceive you and how they’ll receive things that come from you.
Elyse Myers 07:56
Have you always wanted to do comedy? Did you grow up just wanting to do this?
Josh Johnson 08:01
Yeah, I think for the most part, I think I wanted to do it before I knew it could be a job. Like when I was little, I think I was telling people I was going to be scientist or, you know, like, all those other things that you have, like a slight interest in when you’re little. And then you take two more when you get in school, potentially. And I think that for me, everything that I want to do require too much math and science for me to actually delve deep. Like by the time I got to eighth grade, I was like, woof, woof nah, nah, and I’m 13. So it’s only gonna get harder from here.
Elyse Myers 08:39
My first college math class made me switch my major to music. So I heard that. You said you always wanted to do it. Even if you didn’t realize it was a job. When did you realize that it was like an opportunity that you could make a job?
Josh Johnson 08:51
Like, like embarrassingly late, like when I was maybe like 22.
Elyse Myers 08:56
Were you doing something else and then shifted to comedy, like did someone you know, go into it?
Josh Johnson 09:01
You know, I was studying design and theater and was going to go into lighting for like Broadway shows and for concerts and stuff like that. And I found out both through gigging myself and through, you know, my mentors and everything, how unstable that type of career is, you know, how you’re, you’re gonna go to competition with people who have already been doing Broadway shows for 30 years.
Elyse Myers 09:29
I just was speaking to somebody, Brian Baumgartner, who was like a wanted to be full time Broadway had mentors, Allison Janney that were on full time Broadway, like people that were like all day every day working and getting gigs, saying no to things. And they were still worried about how they were going to pay their rent and the person I was speaking to was like, and that’s when I decided to do acting on television. I wasn’t trying to be an asshole like name dropping 1000 names, so I didn’t say that but I’m saying now so. Just an ass not the whole It’s interesting that you, like studied to do something that you thought was going to be more steady. And then you’re like, actually, that’s not going to be steady. So I might as well do the thing that I really want to do, which is equally as steady, if not more, I don’t know, maybe equally.
Josh Johnson 10:15
Yeah. I mean, it. I’m from what I, from what I knew getting into it, it was going to be equally as steady outside of success, if that makes sense. So then, by graduation, I’d say I was like, There’s no way which felt crazy at the time, because I had just gone into this debt and achieve this thing. And I was like, oh, oh, no, like, I’m like, I’m holding my diploma, like, Oh, no. And then I moved to Chicago. And immediately just start doing open mics. And everything I was like, not horrible. But I could tell I could see how far there was to go. Because I was going to shows after the open mics, whether it was sketch improv, stand up, whatever. And I would just watch people, like, on some like God more where they’re about to move to New York and make it.
Elyse Myers 11:10
Am I watching you be discovered right now?
Josh Johnson 11:12
Yeah, like, that happened a few times, where now there’s people who, um, who I still look up to, but they were in Chicago, I was in Chicago, and we’re just further along in comedy than me. And, but then yeah, then moved to New York and popped. And it was great and everything. And I think that really helped. And that was how I sort of accepted. Okay, even if I don’t do design, even if I low key, like wasted my degree. I’m curious enough. And I’m having enough fun learning from my peers and getting good at this thing. And, and I wasn’t really good at talking to people when I was younger. And so comedy became a way for me to sit down and think about what I think and then express it in a way that people get. And so that’s been the biggest, I guess. Return from comedy outside of any like money or anything like that is the fact that I communicate with people now, in a way that is a bit more concise, and, and a bit more enjoyable for both of us. Because I did when I was young, it was bad. I was like, I think I had a lot of anxiety. And I was really, like, people could tell that I knew what I was talking about. But I didn’t know how to word anything. You know, and I think that was a big struggle for me.
Elyse Myers 12:32
We have to take a quick break. But when we come back, Josh talks about how writing for other people compares to writing for himself. So you’re special up here killing myself has such an interesting concept. Because one moment you’re sitting in a room with your therapist having a very serious conversation about your past and your trauma, but then all of a sudden the camera cost you talking to the crowd about those same topics. It’s so seamless.
Josh Johnson 15:23
Maybe I’m afraid of having kids. Do you remember when you believed in grownups? Do you remember that? Remember, when you were little, and you were like, the big people they know. And then you got older? You’re like, fuck, nobody knows.
Elyse Myers 15:52
And I’m just curious if the way that you structure your jokes and like the way that you write, does that help you process what you’re going through with your life and all of that?
Josh Johnson 15:59
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think that’s, that’s basically, the way that we came to use the interstitials. The way we did is I went to the director, Jacob Monaci, I went to him early on with the concept and what I want to do and everything Yeah, and, you know, he was the one that really helped me figure out how to do it, like how to both make it pop in its look, and how to communicate it. And we had a lot of discussions about in between what jokes to do it and everything. And, and I think that for the most part, that’s why you see when you watch the special, me either say something or be asked a question in therapy, that I don’t know how I feel. But then by the time that you actually see me on stage, I’m not only sure how I feel about it, but I’m able to give it away now because I have sort of like process it that, to me is the whole process of what therapy does for people and what comedians do, too. Right? And I think that what some comedians who are in therapy probably do, like I think that the thing that makes the special unique to me is that at least in its connection with process, it’s unremarkable.
Elyse Myers 17:11
The more I meet musicians and comedians, the more I realized that their art is just like, a very public way to process and heal from their own personal trauma, as is my own art, so it makes sense.
Josh Johnson 17:24
She’s what everyone is doing, you know, and I was just able to visually illustrate the thing.
Elyse Myers 17:31
With you saying that, like, you’re giving it away, because you you’ve processed it, when you write for other people, like I know that you wrote for on The Tonight Show? Correct? When you’re writing jokes for other people, are you able to approach that differently? Like when you’re not the one delivering the content?
Josh Johnson 17:48
To be fair, when you’re writing for other people, you do get to pimp them out? In a sense, because you don’t have to say it, they have to say it. I think that the power of, I don’t have to say that they had to say it can sometimes you can go a little while with it. And now you’re saying things you would never say, I don’t believe in this whole idea of like punching up or punching down. Have you heard of this? Okay, so basically punching up and punching down is this concept of like, if you have more power than a person, and you’re making fun of the person, you have more power than you’re punching down. Right? Okay, so the example is like an able bodied person doing jokes about disabled people or something like that. Punching up is like punching a, you know, jokes that people with more power than us. So like, you know, political humor, whatever I, I don’t know if I believe in these concepts. Because I think that we, there’s too much intersectionality in the world, for there to be a chart for there to be a fair assessment of what every power is, and who you can do a joke about, if that makes sense. Because it’s like, if I’m writing jokes about White women, well, it’s like, I’m a man, and they’re women. Technically, in society. I have more power than them, but they’re White and I’m Black. So does that even it out? Or is one higher than the other or, and it gets into, like a sort of like, identity […] debate around doing comedy that, that I think as long as everyone’s actual goal is to make everyone laugh, none of that stuff should matter. I totally understand how it can. If you do see someone being more mean spirited than funny, it can leave a bad taste in your mouth. And I fully accept that. And I think understanding why people don’t laugh is as important towards making them laugh as knowing what makes people laugh. But I think that for the most part, when I’m working on things, and when I’m writing for person, I see it as an opportunity to here’s a joke that even though I wrote the joke, and even though I think the joke is funny or true or smart or whatever, I know it’ll be better received right? didn’t get for this woman to say it rather than me saying it, where people might perceive me as like being like just being a dick or something that’s fair, you’ll find it’s the people with the worst lives that make light of the things that they went through. It’s, it’s usually someone whose problem it is not that’s the most offended on behalf of the people who they are sort of righteously indignant about. If you’re going to take in comedy, I would challenge anybody who believes that they have a sense of humor all the way to the biggest comedy fan, to also look at whatever their prejudices are, and whatever their sort of sensitivities are. And ask yourself if those are actually being attacked or if you just don’t like this thing, because you are. It feels very present to you, know?
Elyse Myers 20:55
Time for another break, but when we get back we hear about Josh’s 2020 mixtape elusive. So your mixtape elusive is like another project that’s on a completely different level. Did you write for that? And did you also perform on that?
Josh Johnson 23:34
Yes. So basically, with allusive in case the people listening don’t know what it is. It’s a mixtape that I made back in 2020, where I have like a hybrid. So it’s basically two jokes in a song two jokes in the song, two jokes on a song. And then the song sort of finishes the idea of what the two jokes are about. And so for the stand-up portion, those are my two jokes. That’s like each time that’s me. And then for the music, I wrote all the music except one song I co-wrote or wrote the songs. And then I had my friends performing them and everything. So there was one there was a little confusion where people thought I was singing and I kept being like, Guys, I cannot sing like I’m like I’m not because then I didn’t want to take credit away from these great collaborators that I had and stuff. Even with elusive I feel like my goal is to try to create something similar with comedy, or at least my comedy that music has. Because standups very much of the time, you know, you don’t really hear about kids stumbling on to this 50s special or this 50s album that’s like fire and they love it. It’s like no if you’ve listened to old Bob Hope you’re not going to get a good portion of it. And it’s not because he speaks a different language. It’s just different things were funnier back then. So the sense of humor was different but Also, the pacing was different like now in a world of TikTok, you can literally just get right to the joke. And back even as recently as the 90s. There still was this thing of like, paint a picture for me like you’re telling a story and then.
Elyse Myers 25:15
10 minutes of story.
Josh Johnson 25:18
And you watching it back will be like, What am I looking at? There’s like eight jokes in this whole special, but for the people there. And for the people when it came out, they’re like, this is brilliant. This is amazing, you know. And so music has this benefit of being digestible whenever, whenever you hear it. So the music that’s new to you is new music. And the conversations I was having in 2019 and 2020, were just like the solidifying thing of okay, I’m going to make it I’m going to make something, it’s going to be comedy based, the songs are not funny, but I think that what it will do is add at least a timeless aspect to the project, you know, and so even if there’s something that that people don’t end up getting about it, like, let’s say years from now, you’re listening to illusive, and like years and years and years, like hopefully we all live this long, but like, years and years and years,
Elyse Myers 26:18
When I’m listening to it, 60 years from now, okay, pause really quick. This moment right here. I picked 60 years because this was supposed to be a joke, because he said, you know, hopefully we all live this long, like years and years. And I said, Yeah, like 60 years from now, we’ll be listening to this. And in my mind, I was like, hopefully I’m alive in 60 years. But what I should have picked was a number like 600 years, because that would have made more sense than 60. because when I said 60, all it sounded like was, I don’t know, maybe people will be listening to your stuff in 60 years, like a complete dis not like a joke in terms of like, I’m gonna live forever, I’m a vampire. But then he didn’t really understand that that was my joke. So then he responded well, and was like, Yeah, totally 60 years from now, like taking a dig at his own self. And then I wanted to jump in and explain hold on that 60 was meant for me as a joke for me, like one day, I’m going to die. But then if I went there, I would spiral because if I think about the fact that everyone’s going to die, at some point, it really throws me off. And that’s usually not funny. So I just let it go. But I couldn’t let it go fully, because I’m doing this for you right now about it.
Josh Johnson 27:27
And then you’re like, alright, I don’t know what tender is. But like that, that funk song was pretty cool. You know. And so it’s a way to bridge that. And I think that the more ways that I can do that, the more I’ll be able to look back on a catalogue that I’m really proud of, and that I think I did a lot of interesting things with, because I have so much deep, deep respect for stand up, stand ups. And the process that it takes to bring an hour, whether it’s an hour recorded or an hour performs to people, right. But I think that we’re slowly getting past this world of just doing straight stand up for the people in a way that is that anybody can do, I think that famous people will still be able to get away with it. But I think that for the form. And what makes it closer to the arts is to like touch on frames and, and push, push specific limits by just a touch like, like, even in the special. When we did up here killing myself, we were like, We don’t want to make it half and half, because that would be too much. But if you just if you just clock back in, if you pop back out. And if you check if you have check ins with the audience that that this is the framework that we’re working under, and then this feels more like a story. So you do have that retention, where people want see what happens in the end, if that was.
Elyse Myers 28:56
Like a talking head in a reality show or like a narration in a POV kind of like show or something like that. I think that you are very funny. And you can just talk and people would listen because you’re great. Your style of comedy and your creativity are so unique that no one can do what you do. And like, I know that there are people that do things like this, but not like you what you’re doing is working and like funny.
Josh Johnson 29:23
No, I mean, that means a lot to me. Like that’s the reasoning that I am like trying to take those big swings because a part of me is like, I think this will just be cool. Like even if it’s just for me like I remember the week before allusive came out, save for myself because it would sound insane to just be like No, I just listened to it over and over. I really listened to the music over and over again because I was like, wow, we like really did it. That’s crazy that we really did it, you know? Yeah. And I think that I feel a bit more comfortable now especially having that cosine. Not that not that you should need other people’s opinions but the thing that is worthwhile and the thing that is a confidence boost as any artist is that sort of..
Elyse Myers 30:16
Recognition, appreciation for what you’re doing.
Josh Johnson 30:19
And like sponsorship to a degree like when people cosign on you, I think that it, it lease reminds you you’re on the right track. I definitely feel for people like what if we talked about before social I definitely feel for people who had to believe in what they were doing for like a decade straight with no pat’s on the back with no like, attaboys or anything. And then they just were in this in this world of, of, I really hope I’m right. Because you, you can be wrong. Some things have never been done before, because they’re bad ideas.
Elyse Myers 30:59
They don’t work because they’re bad ideas.
Josh Johnson 31:01
Yeah, they like don’t work because it’s like, oh, man, what if we did this? And I’ve even I’ve even had things like that where I tell everybody on my team. I’m like, if I ever say something? That sounds crazy. You should tell me.
Josh Johnson 31:17
Because I won’t. I won’t know.
Josh Johnson 31:20
Like, that’s how I feel I feel for people. I’ve even told audiences this and shows that’s like, I hope everyone listening everyone listening to this podcast, everyone listening to the sound of my voice, I hope that two thirds of your dreams come true. That’s a really good number, and it keeps you sane as a person.
Elyse Myers 31:41
And grounded and also like working hard. If every dream
Josh Johnson 31:46
You ever had came true, you would lose your mind.
Elyse Myers 31:50
Two thirds. Honestly, that’s a really beautiful sentiment to like, give people when you’re performing for them.
Josh Johnson 31:55
It’s still most.
Elyse Myers 31:57
it’s still most of them. It’s the majority. Well, I just I’m really grateful that I got to talk to you today. And everything you do is two thirds of what you do is so good. Well, cool. Yeah. It was just very, very good to meet you. And I’m so grateful, Josh that we got to chat today.
Josh Johnson 32:16
Yeah, great to meet you, too.
Thank you so much for listening to my conversation with Josh Johnson. Check out his special up here killing myself on peacock and his album Elusive. If you liked the show, give us a rating and a review. It helps other people find us. Alright, be back next week. Bye. There’s more Funny Cuz It’s True with Lemonada Premium. You’ll get access to all of Lemonada Premium contest, including my five questions with Josh Johnson coming out this Friday. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts. Funny Cuz It’s True is a Lemonada Media and Powderkeg production. The show is produced by Claire Jones, Zoe Dennis and […], our associate producer is Tiffany Buoy. Rachel Neil is our senior director of new content and our VP of weekly production is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Paul Feig, Laura Fisher, […] and me Elyse Myers. The show is mixed by Brian Castillo and Johnny Evans. Our theme song music was written by me and scored by Xander Singh.