If you’ve ever gotten a manicure, it’s easy to relate to Anjelah Johnson’s YouTube stand-up bit “Nail Salon.” The four-minute clip, which has been viewed more than 34 million times, pokes fun at the peculiar experience of getting your nails done and the attendants who throw shade your way—usually in a foreign language. Aside from becoming a viral sensation, the clip also launched Johnson’s comedy career. The 33-year-old comic went on to star on MADtv and continues to do stand-up in sold-out venues around the country. Today, the comedian is premiering her first original Netflix comedy special, Not Fancy. We caught up with Johnson via phone while she’s on tour in Cleveland to talk comedy, Twitter, and the inspiration behind Bon Qui Qui.
How did your career in comedy begin?
It’s crazy. I never thought I was going to be a comedian. I moved to L.A. to be an actress, but I ended up taking this joke-writing, stand-up comedy class at a church. The only reason why I even took that class was because it was free. One of the first jokes that I wrote was this nail salon joke. It ended up kind of blowing up on the Internet.
So when did you perform this joke in front of an audience?
I had only been doing stand-up for about four months when that video was recorded. I had maybe 12 minutes of material at the time. I was so brand new. I didn’t even feel comfortable enough to take the microphone out of the mike stand because I was so awkward onstage and uncomfortable. That’s when that was taped, and that’s what went viral. Still, until this day, people will say how much they love that video, and I hate watching it because I was so awkward.
Did you post it online?
Somebody else posted it. I still, until this day, do not understand YouTube and how it works. It’s such a science. Everybody is like, “You can make millions on YouTube.” And I say, “For real? How do you do that?”
How did you find out the video went viral?
I started getting phone calls from people. They would say, “There’s an email chain going around at work. Everybody was sending this video around and it was you!” And this was the classic line I got from people: “They didn’t know that I knew you. They just sent it to me randomly!” That’s when it all started happening.
What came after?
This was when Myspace was hot, okay. So my Myspace page starts blowing up. People all over the world, from Australia to the Philippines to Atlanta and Ohio, people all over the place started messaging me, saying they saw this video and asking when was I coming to perform there. And in my mind, I’m like, Oh, my God, I only have 12 minutes of material. I need to write some new material.
How did you deal with all the attention?
I didn’t have an agent at the time. I was an aspiring actress with no life, no agent, no auditions. Nothing in my life was telling me, “Hey, you’re on the right track, keep going.” Everything was pretty much like, “You failed, go home. Done.” And this video blows up and next thing you know, I start getting messages from executives at networks. 2007 was the year that changed my life. This video came out in January. By February it had 4 million views. By March, I had met with all the networks, with production companies, with different agents. I met with all kinds of people. I ended up getting an agent and manager. By May, I had auditioned for MADtv and booked MADtv, and then by the end of the year I wrote more material and was now touring as a stand-up comedian who was now on MADtv. That was all in one year.
Wow. It’s on MADtv that you created Bon Qui Qui, the fast-food waitress with a major attitude problem, and the skit “Bon Qui Qui at King Burger,” which has been viewed more than 68 million times. I’ve heard the character is inspired by your brother—is that true?
First of all, Bon Qui Qui is a mix of a lot of people. One person in particular is this girl in a Burger King drive-through in Memphis, Tennessee, that I met about 13 years ago. She changed my life; she was unreal. But a majority of Bon Qui Qui is my little brother, who is ghetto fabulous. He has no filter whatsoever. He just says what’s on his mind. But you can’t get mad at him because he’s probably saying what you’re thinking, just that you would never say it out loud. He’s quick-witted and he’s a trendsetter. He’ll start saying a word a certain way, and then everyone around him starts saying it like that, too. Like Sah-cuh-ri-ty! A lot of things that Bon Qui Qui says have started from his mouth.
What has Bon Qui Qui been up to these days?
Bon Qui Qui still lives. She’s a recording artist now. She ended up getting a record deal with Warner Bros. Records. We came out with her first hip-hop comedic album and it’s called Gold Plated Dreams. We did a whole tour as Bon Qui Qui earlier this summer. It was an amazing experience. We had a lot of fun. It was a sold-out tour, and we’re planning on doing it again next year.
In your new Netflix stand-up special, Not Fancy, you talk a little bit about “Nail Salon” and the hate mail you received after that bit went viral.
Some people love it, some people hate it. People would leave me hate mail messages—they said they were going to protest my shows. Nobody did anything, though. But yeah, people used to threaten me online. It was really people who misunderstood what was happening in the joke. Anybody who has seen the joke knows that it’s not mean-spirited at all.
Amy Schumer got into trouble earlier this summer for some of her jokes that made fun of people’s ethnicity. Trevor Noah’s old tweets also landed him in hot water. How do you feel about this moment in comedy where political correctness has become such an issue?
It’s sad. It’s really sad. For instance, if somebody on TV makes a comment that somebody doesn’t like, next thing you know, their sponsors start backing out, the commercials start dropping, and you can lose your career over saying one simple joke that somebody took the wrong way. Even if they took it the right way and it’s more of a harsh joke, it’s still a joke. It’s sad because comedians are having to censor themselves. In this day, I would say to be a little cautious because that’s just the world that we’re living in right now, where you could lose your career because you said one joke that people didn’t like.
Do you feel like you’re censoring yourself?
My stand-up is clean; it’s not too edgy. I’ve played it safe since the beginning. However, I have noticed with myself, I mostly try to censor myself [on] Twitter and Instagram. There are so many times where I want to say something so bad, but I know somebody is going to write me a letter. And if that letter goes viral, then forget it. I just started this huge thing because I wanted to tell this one funny joke. So I’ll just call one of my friends, get it off my chest, say it to them, and get a good laugh out of me. And it sucks because you’re not giving your best to your audience. It’s kind of where we’re at right now.
Are you actually scared to go back into a nail salon?
There have been times when someone recognizes me. There was one salon in Orlando, where the girl who was doing my manicure all of a sudden started being really cold with me, and being rough while filing my nails. She’s talking in Vietnamese to all the other girls in the salon and they’re all looking at me. Next thing you know, I hear some girl at the back of the salon pull out her phone and I can hear her pulling up my video. So I knew for a fact that they were talking about me—and they were not fans. I was supposed to get a pedicure as well, but as soon as my manicure was done, I was like, “That’s okay. Bye!”
What is your one piece of advice for comedians who are just starting out?
I would say to do you and do you well. Don’t try to be anyone else. Don’t try to emulate what someone is doing. Play to your strengths. Even if you see someone onstage that is killing it, don’t try to do what they’re doing. Just keep doing you.
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