Anjelah Johnson Interview: "MADtv" Funny Lady Draws Inspiration from Family
Image attributed to Nuvotv
San Jose, California native Anjelah Johnson is one of five children with a large extended family. In the beginning of her career, she was a professional cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders. After that, Johnson decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of acting, but became an Internet sensation with her viral comedy video “Nail Salon.” That led to many standup and performance opportunities.
In 2007, Johnson joined the cast of MADtv as a series regular, which spawned another Internet sensation named Bon Qui Qui. This original character, a disgruntled fast food employee with no filter, has been enjoyed, viewed and replicated by over 55 million people worldwide.
“My parents taught me a lot of important lessons growing up. I was really close with my mom and I learned lessons just watching her, how she raised us, how she really just trusted God, relied on God and prayed a lot.”
The funny lady recorded a second full-length rap song and music video as her character Bon Qui Qui called “No Boyfren,” and the world premiere aired on NUVOtv on July 5. The comedy special, Anjelah Johnson: The Homecoming Show, premiered July 20 on NUVOtv.
Johnson married Group 1 Crew member Manwell Reyes in 2011.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A new Bon Qui Qui music video was released on July 5. How did that come about?
Anjelah Johnson: Well, it’s pretty exciting! Qui Qui’s first music video came out a year ago, and it was kind of this new thing we were trying. We didn’t know if people were going to respond to it or not. But people just loved it, so we wanted to do another video with one of the other songs we did for Bon Qui Qui. We originally did three songs. Now we have the second video, “No Boyfren,” that premiered July 5 on NUVOtv.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does that mean that Bon Qui Qui will be getting out of the fast food business?
Anjelah Johnson: Oh yeah, she’s breaking out of the fast food industry for sure (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You originated this character for MADtv?
Anjelah Johnson: Yes. All my comedy is very observational, and so this character is kind of a mix of a lot of different people I’ve met throughout my life. But more specifically, my brother is my biggest inspiration for Bon Qui Qui. He’s ghetto fabulous, and he has no filter, just says whatever he wants to say. Also this girl I met in a Burger King drive through one night in Memphis, Tennessee, about ten or eleven years ago was ghetto fabulous (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The nail salon girl was also inspired by a combination of people?
Anjelah Johnson: Oh, definitely. I grew up in San Jose, California, and some of my closest friends growing up were Vietnamese, so they would teach me things to say. I went the first time to get my nails done when I was twelve years old, and my mom took me to this place that she had gone for years. Every time I went in by myself as a teenager, they would all ask, “How yo mom doin’?” Everything that I say in that joke has been said to me before, so it’s all from personal experiences.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a young girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Anjelah Johnson: It’s funny, I wanted to be so many different things when I was young. I remember at one point, I wanted to be a lawyer, and I did my third grade report on how I wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t know why I wanted to be a lawyer, maybe just from movies and television shows.
I would make my room look like it was my office with a desk and people work. I don’t know what the people work was for, but it was on my desk, and I was important. I had a telephone on my desk and it just looked important to me, so I think I wanted to be a lawyer because lawyers were important. Then I realized you had to go to school for a long time to be a lawyer, so I said, “Uh-uh, that’s probably not going to happen.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was there an early interest in performing for people or making them laugh?
Anjelah Johnson: I think I used to perform for my family a lot, but my first introduction to public performer was as a Pop Warner cheerleader at eight years old. But I was really shy when I was younger, so I wouldn’t look anybody in the eye, wouldn’t smile or anything. I was terrible in my first year of cheerleading. I had no rhythm, wouldn’t smile or look at anybody because I was so shy, and then all of a sudden, I just broke out of my shell and started performing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You sometimes announce to audiences that you are Mexican and Native American. Are those heritages important to you?
Anjelah Johnson: Basically what I talk about is my life and from my life, so I think that’s the easiest way to write material, stuff that you know first hand. I have a huge family, so I talk about my huge Mexican family. I guess that’s why it’s important to me because of who I am, you know?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What kind of life lessons did you learn from your parents and what is your religious background?
Anjelah Johnson: We didn’t grow up in church but right after our parents were divorced, we started going to a Catholic church, and so I did my first communion in catechism when I was really young. Then my parents got divorced and we had to leave the church. I guess that’s what happens when you get divorced. I was only there for a little while, so I don’t know how that works. But we left and started going to a Christian church separately. By the time I was about ten, I went to church with my mom and my dad to separate churches because they were divorced.
I’m a Christian today. My parents taught me a lot of important lessons growing up. I was really close with my mom and I learned lessons just watching her, how she raised us, how she really just trusted God, relied on God and prayed a lot. We were bad kids … all of us were really bad. My two younger brothers and my sister and I were cutting school, hanging out with the wrong people, drinking and doing drugs. We were not very good kids growing up, and I always wonder, “How did she not have a heart attack and freak out because we were not good kids?”
She was just a woman of faith, just prayed and believed and loved us through everything even when I was going through my bad phase. I was just so mean and mean to her and talking back, getting into fights with my mom. She would still just love me and try to hug me all the time. So I think the most important lesson I’ve learned from my mom is to be a woman of faith and prayer, believe in the power of prayer and to love unconditionally no matter what, to love people through their problems and phases because that’s what mom did for us. All of her kids are successful now and doing well and are healthy, so she did a good job.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your standup act is “clean” in the sense that there is no offensive material, although I did hear you talk about the farting valet in a standup video (laughs). But I’m talking about what some people consider offensive using “vulgarity.” Do you ever feel pressured from anyone to change?
Anjelah Johnson: No pressure at all. I feel like in the beginning of my career, I would try to be like people wanted me to be because I look Latina. So I think in the beginning, I would try to be way more Mexican than I really was. I didn’t have my own point of view.
Now I have my point of view, and I just tell stories from my life and from truth and who I really am. So the way I am on stage is kind of a reflection of my life. Of course, it’s exaggerated for the stage for performance sake. But I don’t really have to adjust who I am on stage or feel pressure from anybody to be a certain way. I don’t try to be more Christian. I don’t try to be less Christian. I just am me really.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What has been the funniest joke you’ve told in your act?
Anjelah Johnson: I would say the most popular joke story is the nail salon bit. It’s the first joke that I wrote and the reason why I even took the joke writing class in the beginning. I said, “I have this nail salon character, and I could probably make that into a joke.” That was the first joke that I wrote and now I can’t get away from it. It’s everyone’s favorite.
People love it and relate to it, so I think that’s definitely the most popular. It changes all the time and depends whatever is going on in my life, but right now I really enjoy talking about my husband and our marriage. Those jokes are my favorite to tell because they’re real stories, and I love seeing people enjoy these stories about my husband and myself.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You are married to Christian hip-hop band Group 1 Crew member Manwell Reyes. Is he supportive of your career?
Anjelah Johnson: Oh, yes, totally. He’s my biggest supporter, my biggest cheerleader. He’s always encouraging me to grow, write more jokes, and he’s always coming up with great ideas. It was his idea to have Bon Qui Qui be a rapper and do music.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about The Homecoming Show.
Anjelah Johnson: The Homecoming Show is kind of an evolution from my first hour special. My first one was when I was young and single, sort of a girl’s perspective type of thing and about my family as well. This one still has stories of my family, and I start off talking about my dad because he’s in the audience. But I’m married now, so I talk about my wedding day and things like that.
I go back to my hometown of San Jose. I just wanted to take it back to the people that I grew up with. The reason I am who I am today is because of all of those people there. We all grew up together in the same city experiencing the same things, so I wanted to come and share that with them. It was filmed at the Improv there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you preparing for your role on the new NBC series About a Boy?
Anjelah Johnson: No, actually. I was on the show, but I’m no longer on it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What happened?
Anjelah Johnson: I was just let go from the show. Pilots go through re-casting and that whole thing, and they ended up thinking that my character wasn’t necessary to the story. They didn’t recast me. They just kind of cut that part of the story out of the show.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You filmed Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said last summer with James Gandolfini. What do you remember most about The Sopranos star who passed away just a few weeks ago?
Anjelah Johnson: That was an amazing experience. First of all, I rarely get star struck. I get excited to meet people and go, “Oh, that’s so and so,” but I don’t get excited to the point that I actually freeze up and have nothing to say. That’s what happened when I met Jim Gandolfini, which is crazy because I didn’t expect that. I didn’t grow up watching The Sopranos and wasn’t a fan of the show. I watched maybe two episodes and thought that it just wasn’t my show. But there was just something about him that was just so strong and powerful that I had nothing to say when I met him. I just stared at him.
Jim actually kind of called me on it, and he said, “You’re kind of quiet.” I was like, “I’m actually not quiet. I’m just acting weird around you.” I don’t know what it was. But it was a little laugh moment for us and after that, it broke the ice. From then on, he was so friendly, and we were laughing for the whole rest of the shoot. It was a great time. I remember he came to my trailer with his son because his son wanted a picture with me because he was a fan of mine. I called my manager and said, “This is crazy, but Jim Gandolfini just came to my trailer asking me for a picture.” That was so crazy! Those are some fond moments that I will always remember. Jim was just a sweet, sweet human being.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And gone way too soon. What are your professional goals, Anjelah?
Anjelah Johnson: I want to flourish in film and television. There are so many different kinds of characters that I want to play. I love doing standup. I love traveling and getting to meet people on the road in different cities all across the country. There’s definitely no feeling like being on stage telling a joke that you wrote or a story that happened to your life and hearing a thousand people just crack up in laughter.
There’s also no feeling like walking on to the set of a TV show or film set and just feeling the magic. You’re like, “Yeah. I’m about to make a movie.” It’s so fun and magical. When I was in high school and would go to the movies, I couldn’t enjoy myself because I was mad I wasn’t in them. I knew I could do it. I knew I would be good at it. So I just want to see where that takes me.
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