Comedian Anjelah Johnson-Reyes Talks LEO About New Book, Jokes and Jerks – Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO Weekly)
By Erica Rucker
How do you go from Oakland Raiders cheerleader to comedy stages and theaters across America? Ask actress and comedian Anjelah Johnson-Reyes. Johnson-Reyes took her shot with the Oakland Raiders as a Cheerleader and dancer as a sign that more in the entertainment industry could be at her disposal if she took a risk and went for it.
Born and raised in San Jose, California, Johnson-Reyes approaches comedy with a sense of being ridiculously human and connected to other humans in a world that seems to have unreasonable expectations about both experiences.
Johnson-Reyes is of Mexican and Indigenous descent but her comedy includes her experiences growing up with close proximity to other ethnicities, including other Latinos and Asian people. One of the first comedy sketches to get Johnson-Reyes noticed was her “nail salon” character Tammy, where she portrays her Vietnamese nail tech.
Johnson-Reyes has also had other characters who’ve come from experiences with real people that, in our politically-sensitive climate, have garnered a bit of controversy. While working on MADtv, Johnson-Reyes developed the character of Bon Qui Qui, a service worker who didn’t necessarily have the best service skills. Bon Qui Qui became wildly popular, which included making a full record and even a Christmas album. Bon Qui Qui has retired as Johnson-Reyes realized that she wanted to be known for more than her characters and imitations.
LEO got a chance to chat with Johnson-Reyes ahead of her show Saturday, Oct. 15 at the Brown Theatre. We talked about her characters, the changing times of racial comedy, dealing with men as a female comedian and her new memoir, “Who Do I Think I Am?: Stories of Chola Wishes and Caviar Dreams.”
LEO: Tell me about your book and tour.
Anjelah Johnson-Reyes: My book is ‘Who Do I Think I Am? Stories of Chola I Wishes and Caviar Dreams.’ The title, ‘Who Do I Think I Am?’ is stories of self-identity growing up Mexican American, but I didn’t speak Spanish. My last name was Johnson. And I wanted to be a chola real bad, but nobody was scared of little Basta Johnson. Like, it didn’t have a sting to it. And then, it’s also, who do I think I am to dream such big dreams and go for them? So it’s also stories of me chasing my dreams and how I got to where I am today. My tour, it’s my new hour of standup comedy that isn’t necessarily in support of the book.
I’m not performing jokes from the book. It’s my new hour of ‘my life after COVID’ and how things have changed for me. With the tour, you can buy a book bundle ticket where you can get a signed copy of my book with your ticket to my show. That’s been amazing.
How did you make the leap from Oakland Raiders cheerleader to stand-up comedy?
When I first tried out for the Oakland Raiderettes Cheerleading Squad, I was using it as my sign to pursue the entertainment industry. And I was at a place in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, even though I was already a grownup. I was praying about it and I was like, ‘I’m gonna go try out for the Oakland Raiders and if I make the squad, I will do it one year and then I’m gonna move to Hollywood and pursue my dreams to be an actress.’ And if I don’t make the squad, then I’ll know that the entertainment industry is not for me, and I’ll just go another direction. I made the squad and so I came home from the Super Bowl and the very next weekend, I packed my bags and moved to Los Angeles. I started from the ground up as an extra on TV and worked my way up to where I am today.
Tell me about developing the characters of Tammy and Bon Qui Qui.
I’ve been getting my nails done since I was young. I grew up in a very big Vietnamese population area where one of my best friends growing up was Vietnamese. And so he taught me a lot about the culture. He taught me how to say certain words in Vietnamese. And so anytime I’d go get my nails done, he would teach me something new to say, so I could impress my lady who was doing my nails. I’ve always had an ear for accents. So I’m a storyteller and I can do accents. And so that’s where, uh, Tammy, the nail lady came about. And then Bon Qui Qui is the character I did on MADtv. She’s a mix of a lot of people that I’ve met throughout my life, but more specifically my brother. And, my brother at the time when I created the character, he was not sober and he just had no filter and he would say whatever he wanted to say, and he was a trendsetter.
He would start talking a new way. People would start talking like him, he would come up with a new slang word and everybody started saying his new slang word. He would start laughing a certain way and people would start laughing how he would laugh. And it was like he’s this character himself that would say what people were thinking, but would never say out loud. He was the guy who would say it out loud and he would say it in a funny way. And that is the main inspiration for the other part of is, I went through a burger drive-thru in Memphis, Tennessee back when I was like 16 or 17 years old. I met a woman in the drive through that literally changed my life. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this woman is a character in herself’ and customer service was not her forte. You know, why this character works for King Burger is she has a lot to do with the girl that I met getting drive-thru when I was a teenager.
Considering the social awareness of race and sensitivity about how people are portrayed, has that changed how you present these characters?
Well, Bon Qui Qui has since retired. It’s funny because after MADtv, we went on to continue the character’s work and she got a record deal with Warner Music and we released a full album. We released a Christmas album and we toured as the character for a couple years. Then, honestly she had her own cult following of fans and I’ve always kind of wanted to be like, ‘Okay, when is Angela’s turn to shine? When can I show that I am more than this one character? I am more than this, I can do other things.’ And, um, so I ended up retiring the character so that I could not just be known for that character. Then, the times have changed with comedy and it’s funny because you can see the different generations of people, like with new platforms like TikTok and somebody can post my old video from Bon Qui Qui, and you can see the people who grew up in that season that were like, ‘Oh my God, this is so nostalgic for me.’ ‘We used to quote this all the time, this was our favorite sketch.’ And then you see the newer generation that’s just like, ‘Oh no, problematic in all the things.’ Right.
So it’s interesting. Now I don’t post [on social media] on the regular, like something of Bon Qui Qui, but a lot of people do post and tag me. And every now and then I’ll repost it like on Halloween. Every Halloween people always dress up as Bon Qui Qui. And so I’ll repost a couple of people in their costumes or I get a lot of drag queens that love to perform Bon Qui Qui.
Then the nail salon joke is… it’s kind of become bigger than a joke. ‘I know this is the joke that introduced you to me, and this is the joke that means a lot to you.’ So I present it at the end of my show, kind of like a thank you to my fans who have been riding with me for so long.
Being a female comedian, and knowing about the many male comedians who have had sexual assault or impropriety allegations against them, have you had any unwelcome experiences with men in your industry?
I have, when I first got started. I was brand new in the standup scene. I didn’t understand really what it meant to go on the road and to, you know, have comradery with other comedians. I think I was just trying to be a comic. So, I remember I got invited to do this show that was like an hour away from Los Angeles. And the guy who invited me to do this show, he’s very friendly with me and I appreciated him so much.
He was like, ‘Yeah, you can ride with me and my girlfriend to the show.’ And I’m like, ‘perfect.’ And then at the last minute he’s like, ‘Hey, my girlfriend’s getting off of work late, You can ride with this other comic.’
I’m like, ‘Okay, I don’t know him,’ but, in my mind, I’m trying to just be a comic and roll with the punches. Go hang out with the other comics. ‘You’re good, you’re fine. Just like do it.’ So I go and I park at this guy’s apartment and I get in the car with him and we’re driving there and we’re just having fine conversation on the way. It’s a private event that we’re all working at and I go up first, I do my set, I did well and he goes up and talks about how he wanted to jerk off to me right there. It was just completely inappropriate. It was so awkward. He kept digging in deeper and deeper. Nobody was laughing, nobody thought it was funny, but he just kept going and going and going.
I remember I was so embarrassed. I was so uncomfortable. I hid inside. It was at somebody’s birthday party at a private estate. I remember I went into the house and we weren’t supposed to go in the house, but I went into the house and I hid in the kitchen and, I think it was the owner of the house, he came and found me and was checking on me to make sure I was okay. And I’m in that position where I kind of have to like, just act like a professional, act like this happens all the time.
Then I had to drive home with this guy the whole entire way for an hour. And I remember the whole way home, I was just, um, calling anybody I knew so I could be on the phone with them instead of have to talk with this guy or say anything to him at all. I remember I was just on the phone the whole time, and at the very end when I get to my car, he has the audacity… he goes, ‘So do you wanna come up?’
Come upstairs?! Are you kidding me?
I remember feeling violated and this new industry that I’m in, I’m trying to like be one of the guys trying to be one of the comics. It was not for me and probably had a role in why I didn’t really hang out at the comedy clubs very much.
You have a large following in the LGBTQ community
This is another topic I talk about in my book as well. God has blessed me with a gay audience. Like I have a truly loyal, strong gay following. I have the gay boys who love me and my ‘lesties’ who love me. I think it’s important for somebody like me who professes to love Jesus and love God to show this community love and acceptance, and that I have been a mouthpiece for them to say, ‘You’re welcome at my table, come sit with me. Jesus loves you and that kind of message, which is opposite typically of the message that they would typically receive from a Christian person.’
You’re very open about being a person of faith. LEO is the book of heathens.
I think within my standup, anytime I’ve talked about my faith, it’s never been in a preachy way. It’s been almost in a self-deprecating way. I think the Christians come to my show because one, it’s clean and they know they’re not gonna be offended and they can bring their niece or their daughter or their grandma or whoever, and they can trust that they won’t have those awkward moments. The moments where I do talk about anything faith and I’m making fun of us, they get it. Because they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, we do gossip in the church sometimes. Oh my gosh, yes.’ You know, whatever. ‘Oh, after church we do go eat,’ There’s that, that correlation there that’s like, ‘oh, I connect with that.”
And the people who are not of faith, they’re able to laugh at us as well, like ‘Oh my gosh, Christians do be like that.’ So I feel like I’m able to talk about my faith in a way that kind of brings people together. If you are the type of person who can laugh at yourself. I think that’s with faith, that’s with ethnic humor, that’s with my culture, it’s with all kinds of things. If you’re not the type of person who can laugh at yourself, then you probably won’t enjoy your time at my show.
So you’ve got the book coming out, you’re going on tour… any movie or TV projects that are coming up?
I just finished recording my sixth one hour special, um, in Nashville, Tennessee at the Ryman. And so we’re not sure where it’s gonna land yet, but I’m very excited about that and continuing my tour.
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