Zainab Johnson promises ‘a good ass time’ at Dayton Funny Bone

By Gary Spencer

Photo: Zainab Johnson performs May 11-14 at the Dayton Funny Bone

For most comedians, the lives they lead form the backbone of what they do. It’s “write what you know” applied to comedy. The adage applies particularly well to young New York City comic Zainab Johnson, whose life experiences serve as inspiration to make the world laugh alongside her.

Johnson comes from a somewhat unusual background. Born in Harlem, she is one of 13 children raised by Muslim parents, an upbringing that would later serve as a jumping off point for her comedy.

“Growing up with 12 siblings was like being at a playground all day,” Johnson says. “There was never a dull moment, and at times it got pretty crazy. I didn’t have a diary that wasn’t read or a leftover that wasn’t eaten by someone else. I have unlimited stories, and I have 12 different characters to pull from. I think being around so many kids, you can’t be afraid of speaking up and you have to be quick, so I may have developed my wit just trying to keep up with my siblings.”

Johnson’s quick wit was also enhanced by her discovery of stand-up comedy as a child, an interest that her parents encouraged.

“The first stand-up special I saw was Eddie Murphy’s ‘Raw’ years after it came out, and I thought it was so funny—I’d watch it over and over,” Johnson explains. “When I was about 11 or 12, I remember my mom sneaking me into the Uptown Comedy Club.”

Despite Johnson’s passion for comedy, she decided to focus on academics and eventually went to college to achieve a degree in math. However, not long into her career as a teacher, Johnson’s creative urges soon overrode the path she’d chosen.

“Teaching was always the safe choice and I was always good at math,” Johnson says. “My students were wonderful, but I wasn’t satisfied. My curiosity and fear of regret motivated me to leave the teaching profession and pursue entertainment.”

With that motivation, Johnson left the world of education and got a preliminary job in the comedy business, which served as the final gateway to her own career in stand-up comedy.

“I was working for a comedy booker, which forced me to be around comedians at The Comedy Store every week,” Johnson explains. “After seeing an all-female show, I found myself dissecting all the women’s sets and rewriting their jokes to work better in my mind. A week later, I quit my job with the booker and went to my first open mic.”

Johnson’s ability to write effective jokes was strong. Her first open mic experience was anything but a bomb.

“I went to an open mic at a hookah lounge, and I noticed very few people were laughing at the other comedians,” Johnson recalls. “I got on stage and told my first joke and people laughed. They laughed at everything I said, so I stopped and made sure they meant to laugh! I said, ‘You guys are laughing?’ and someone screamed out, ‘Yeah, keep going!’ I went to another open mic the next day to make sure it wasn’t a fluke and they laughed too, and I haven’t stopped.”

Bigger gigs soon followed. Johnson is the 2013 winner of the annual American Black Film Festival Comedy Wings competition, which led to appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show, HBO’s All Def Comedy, MTV’s Acting Out, BET’s Comic View, and AXS TV’s Gotham Comedy Live. Not long afterward, Johnson reached a national audience on the long running Last Comic Standing reality show on NBC.

“I knew LCS was the biggest audience that I have ever performed in front of,” Johnson says. “When they told me they wanted me to appear it was so exciting, but I was apprehensive because it was reality television and, being a newbie, I was a little afraid that I’d mess up and be the joke on the show!”

Since her breakout on Last Comic Standing, she has appeared at major comedy festivals, such as Just For Laughs in Montreal, toured six countries, and has become a comedy club headlining act. Johnson attributes part of her success to her very personal comedy style and feel-good vibe that connects with virtually any audience.

“My show is pretty much my story, and it’s steadily evolving,” she says. “I talk about whatever is going on with me—whatever I’m passionate about, feel strongly about, or maybe even confused about. My goal when I’m on-stage is to invite people into my life—almost like they’re coming into my living room and getting to know me. When I get off stage, hopefully, they’ve learned enough that they want to come back. If nothing else, we’ll have a good ass time!”

 

Zainab Johnson performs at the Dayton Funny Bone, 88 Plum St. in Beavercreek on Thursday – Sunday, May 11-14 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, May 12 and 13 at 10 p.m. Tickets range from $15-$60 for patrons 18 and over. For tickets and more information, please call 937.429.5233 or visit ZainabJohnson.com and  DaytonFunnyBone.com.

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Gary Spencer
Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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