For Josh Johnson, comedy is not just a profession, even though the 32-year-old is very good at his job, touring the country as a stand-up comedian and serving as an Emmy-nominated writer on The Daily Show. Johnson has worked for late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Trevor Noah and lived out every comedian’s dream by performing at the iconic Madison Square Garden. Bu again, comedy is not just a profession for Johnson. It’s his therapy, and Johnson addresses his mental health and other personal issues in his new comedy special, Josh Johnson: Up Here Killing Myself.
In the one-hour Peacock special, Johnson explores seminal moments in his life onstage while weaving in scenes from a conversation with his therapist offstage. Johnson tackles multiple issues throughout the special, including Black mental health, self-discovery, money, family, and a “crazy man on the subway.”
In an interview with Digital Trends, Johnson explains how comedy can be a form of therapy, discusses the New York comedy scene, and shares the best piece of advice he received from Noah.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: Congratulations on the special. I appreciate your bit about the subway and the crazy things that go on there. As someone who lives in New York City, I think people who aren’t from here believe they would step right in and do something if a crazy thing happened. As you described it perfectly, you put your head up, look at it, and put your head back down. It’s just another day that ends in “y.”
Josh Johnson: Yeah. There’s no way you want to get involved.
Seriously. Anything could happen, and I don’t think I would ever step in.
Yeah. That’s how you know somebody is a tourist, by the way. When they immediately go to interact, I’m like, “Oh, geez.” Like, give it a second. I was having a conversation with somebody else from New York, and they were like, “Even if you need to help someone, really take a second to process what’s happening.” You know what I mean [laughs]?
You point at someone else to step in. “Oh, that person could help.”
Yeah. “Let me go get someone.”
Speaking of New York City, I think the pandemic might have shifted comedy a little. It used to be that you move to a major city and try to make it at the [comedy] clubs. Now, you see comedians all over the country with podcasts, and they’re constantly touring. How do you view the New York City comedy scene right now in 2023? Is this still the place where someone goes to try and make it in the business?
I think so. You make a good point that there are so many avenues now. Let’s say you do the full DIY approach, and you have your own podcast. You make your own media company by having a YouTube channel and all the socials branded to you. You’re constantly making things, and then once people start responding to that, you’re able to get bookings off of it and everything. Those personal conglomerates can be built.
But I think the advantage of New York is that you’re in such a concentrated area of comedians. You end up having a ridiculous amount of collaborators and peers to bounce things off of people. Whether [they] invest their time or actually invest money [for] people to go in with you on your projects and everything. I think that as much of a loner and lone wolf game as stand-up feels for people, I think there’s still a lot of community in it. I think that if you’re missing community, you’re going to be missing out on some of the perks of doing comedy, having all these incredibly funny people at your disposal.
The main thing with living here isn’t just the amount of sets you can do because of all the clubs and all the indie shows. It’s that you are surrounded by some of the best comedians in the world. I felt that way when I was in Chicago, and I really feel that way now. The major city thing is not as important as it used to be, but I would say that at least moving to a tertiary market for anybody getting started in stand-up is important.
So where is the best comedy club to do stand-up in New York?
It’s tough, man. It’s so hard. But I will say The [Comedy] Cellar is iconic and is the place where a lot of people drop in. The tand also has a lot of both drop-ins and really, really incredible comics that are going up there every night. And then New York Comedy Club is another place that has just the rawest [comedy].
For any comic, each club will give you a different experience and something that you desperately need to make sure that your set is 100% tight. So if you’re at one place and no other place, you’re not going to grow. But, I think that those three to me are like, “Wow.” Every time I’m at each one of them, whether it’s New York Comedy Club, The Stand, or The Cellar, I’m getting different audiences, and I’m getting different levels of energy.
This comedy special has a unique twist. The majority of it takes place onstage with you doing your routine. But it also has parts where you’re speaking to a therapist. This hour becomes about discussing your life, your problems, [and] your feelings. What gave you the idea to frame your special through the eyes of a therapy session?
I think it’s because that is how some of the subject matter came about. That’s why when you watch it, you see me in therapy. In the beginning, I’m talking about something, or I’m being asked a question. I don’t know how I feel about it, and I’m just trying to get it off my chest, but then it ends up onstage because that’s the trajectory of the joke. I started off not really knowing how I felt, and then by the end of it, I not only processed how I feel, but I’m able to share with people and try to use it to make them laugh.
We felt like that was the best structural tool to use to tell the story and keep that theme up because if we just do it in the beginning and then never do it again, people kind of forget about it. But if you have those interruptions throughout, that resets the audience’s mind. The director, Jacob Menache, and I worked really hard to make sure that we did it just enough. Not too much, [but] at certain points to where you never forget. We’re not in it so long that you lose sight that it’s a comedy special.
When did you realize that you could use comedy as therapy and a release?
I think early on, maybe the first two years in. I was realizing that when I was pressed for more “jokey jokes” and I hadn’t written anything completely different or cool, like something I was excited about, just telling a story about something that happened and then shedding light on it and then making light of it, [that] felt just as fulfilling as having the next best one-liner.
You have experience writing for Jimmy Fallon and Trevor Noah. What’s harder: to write jokes for someone else or to write jokes for yourself?
I think writing for someone else is a bit more difficult because you are trying to fuse together your sensibilities with their voice. You’re writing a bunch of jokes, so let’s say you write 50 jokes, and out of those 50 jokes, maybe 14 of them get picked. Now, it’s not that the others weren’t good. It’s just that these were the ones that both take your perspective and mesh with what that person finds funny.
Whereas when I’m writing for myself, everything that I want to say, I think, is funny. It’s like I already get all 50 picks. Sometimes, I’m wrong because, yes, I wrote 50 things, I said 50 things, [but] the audience was like, “Look. Thirty-nine of those were great. But oof. The other ones, oof.” And so I think that that process feels more organic to me. Because I’ve been doing stand-up for a while now, it all feels really natural, and I have no problem trying things. Whereas, when I’m writing for a different person, it takes much more thought. Like is this something that they would say, or am I wording it in the way that they’d say it, even if they agree with the sentiment?
What’s the best piece of advice Trevor Noah gave you?
That’s a good question. It’s hard to pick. There’s a difference between doing an hour and having an hour, and I think that’s something that is beneficial for any comic to be able to recognize. You can be onstage for 60 minutes, but do you have an hour’s worth of things to say? That’s something that I always try to keep in mind when I’m building out my next piece of work.
You also lived out every comedian’s dream by doing a set at Madison Square Garden. Can you even put into words what that was like?
Yeah. I was blessed enough to do it twice. I think the first time, I was super nervous. I put a lot on it. I was freaking out and everything, and then ended up having fun doing it. But the second time was easy. The second time felt familiar, felt like home, so [the] second time was a blast.
I was so happy to get that one back because you have this thing of like, “OK. I had fun, and I got the laughs, but that first minute, I was a little in my head. I was nervous. I wish I could have enjoyed the whole thing.” Then going there again, I was really able to break through that second time and enjoy myself the whole time.
Josh Johnson: Up Here Killing Myself is now streaming on Peacock.