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Think of Johnson's act as a sketch-meets-standup with a hip-hop remix and no profanity.
"I grew up watching a lot of black comedy," she says. "Even though every other word was bleeped out, that's what was funny to me. I was influenced by the style, but I keep it a lot cleaner. I don't cuss in real life, so there's no reason for me to drop an f-bomb onstage."
She's not a patently "Christian comic," or a Latina comic, though the fact that she's Christian and Latina appeals to those respective audiences. And unlike a lot of female comedians who rely on shock value, self-deprecation or hypersexualization to stand out in the predominantly male world of comedy, Johnson seems comfortable in her own skin.
More than anything, she says, her comedy is observational. Acting out truth, she likes to call it.
It's a style that, though hardly unique, earned her a national following since her breakout YouTube hit in 2005 of a bit in which she plays a shrill, inquisitive Vietnamese nail salon lady. Someone else who organized a comedy show uploaded the video, unbeknownst to her.
"Eventually, enough people were coming up to me quoting the nail salon bit," Johnson recalls. "It slowly occurred to me that this was getting pretty popular." Inspiration for the sketch came from an Eastside salon and another on Stevens Creek Boulevard that she used to frequent with her mom. The accents and re-enactments were extrapolated from an inside joke between friends and family after she came back from her salon visits imitating her talkative manicurist.
Some of her biggest fans are in the local Vietnamese American community. "OMG ... love that girl," texts San Jose Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen when she hears of Johnson's coming. "Will definitely check it out. I've always wanted to see her perform in her hometown."
"That nail salon bit took off because it was spot-on," says Ben DelCastillo, a South Bay comic who regularly performs and sometimes produces shows at the Improv. "Anyone living in a cultural melting pot can relate to the Vietnamese nail salon experience. It did strike a chord because it was so familiar, especially to anyone who grew up in San Jose."
Audiences were drawn to Johnson's uncanny ability to conjure up familiar personalities and cultural idiosyncrasies. Johnson's is a tough act to pin down since so much of it relies on body language and vocal inflections.
In one bit, she jokes about church gossip. "One thing they talk about at church is gossiping, how gossiping is bad," she says. "Don't do it, nothing good comes from it. But I like how some people in the church try to disguise their gossip as a prayer request."
The riff isn't particularly quotable. Like much of her comedy, the joke lies in the telling, with on-point accents and affectations.
From Stage to Screen
Online fame, however unplanned, didn't catch Johnson off-guard. She seized what could have been fleeting and turned it into lasting success.
In 2007, the up-and-comer got her big break; she was added to the cast of MADtv for its 13th season. Johnson didn't earn more than a few lines during her time there, but the freshman cast member managed to create another viral hit: Bon Qui Qui, a calls-it-like-she-sees-it fast-food employee with an elaborate up-do and ghetto-fabulous swag inspired by Johnson's little brother and a drive-through cashier she once encountered in Memphis, Tenn.
The character adopts a take-no-grief approach to customers who interrupt her phone conversations or attempt a complicated order—if they dare object, she's quick to call security on them. That attitude neatly sums up the survival tactics needed to get through a day of low-wage service work with one's dignity unsullied.
Bon Qui Qui outlasted MADtv. The character with a life of her own released her EP on iTunes last year.
She picked the San Jose Improv as the stage to record it. Just last April, she filmed her second hour, which is set to air in July on Latino entertainment channel nuvoTV and was produced by Levity.
That same hour of new material will make up the show this weekend, she says. While her early comedy was just as observational, her second act pulls it in a little closer. Since marrying Manwell Reyes, a member of Christian hip-hop band Group1 Crew, those observations have become more personal. Adjusting to married life has given her a lot of joke fodder.
"It's evolved since I'm at a different place in life," she says. "But I still break out some favorite characters once in a while."