Viral videos launched Anjelah Johnson's comedy career

Comedian grew up in a family of jokesters, and her popular YouTube characters have made her a success on the stand-up stage

slinn@thetribunenews.comMay 8, 2013 

“Welcome to King Burger, where we can do it your way but don’t get crazy.”

Meet Bon Qui Qui, a fast-food employee with long, sparkly nails, a colorful, complicated hairstyle and a seriously bad attitude. Cross her, and she’ll threaten to “cut you” and have “secur-rity” escort you off the premises.

Thankfully, Bon Qui Qui is a fictional character — the creation of comedian Anjelah Johnson, who performs Friday at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.

Johnson’s inspiration was “a mix of a lot of people I’ve met throughout my life,” she said, ranging from an employee at a Memphis, Tenn., drive-through to her “ghetto fabulous” brother, Kennie. “He has no filter and he’s a trendsetter. I just listen to him talk to his friends.”

Johnson, a professional NFL cheerleader-turned-actress and stand-up comedian, relies on her instincts to tell which material works.

“If I say something that makes me laugh — and I love to laugh — I definitely say, ‘I’m going to try it on stage,’ ” she said.

Johnson, who was born and raised in San Jose, said she gets her sense of humor from her hilarious family.

“We grew up laughing a lot,” recalled the comedian, who has three brothers and a sister. “I’m not the only one in my family that’s funny. I’m just the one who ended up taking it to the stage.”

In fact, Johnson said, her truck-driver father is a “huge jokester.”

“Every stop he makes, he’s the star of the show,” she said. “All the ladies love him. He’s definitely a ‘life of the party’ kind of guy.”

Despite her upbringing, Johnson wasn’t immediately drawn to a career in entertainment. She flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer or a teacher — “I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I needed a desk,” she joked — before deciding to pursue an acting career.

How did she know she was on the right track? “I just needed a sign from God,” Johnson said.

That sign came in the form of an invitation to join the Oakland Raiderettes, the Oakland Raiders’ professional cheerleading squad.

Johnson, who started out as a Pop Warner cheerleader at age 8 and continued cheering through high school and college, spent a year on the squad. She was named “Rookie of the Year” and performed at Super Bowl XXXVII.

Encouraged, Johnson moved to Los Angeles in 2003. Three years later, she was broke, frustrated and unemployed.

“I was basically ready to pack up and go home because nothing in my life was saying, ‘You’re on the right track. Keep going,’ ” she recalled, but she couldn’t quit quite yet. “I really felt in my heart that God was telling me that He wasn’t done with me yet.”

Then, in 2007, Johnson’s YouTube video “Nail Salon” — featuring her impression of a Vietnamese nail salon employee who’s constantly up-selling her customers — went viral. It’s garnered nearly 30.5 million hits.

The same year, Johnson joined the cast of “MADtv” as a series regular, spawning another Internet sensation, Bon Qui Qui. (That character’s YouTube debut has scored more than 67.5 million hits so far.)

Although her time on “MADtv” was cut short by the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, Johnson relished her experiences on the show.

“That kind of an environment is really awesome” for entertainers, she said.

Johnson’s accomplishments since then include a Comedy Central stand-up special, 2009’s “Anjelah Johnson: That’s How We Do It,” guest-starring roles on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The Shield” and “Ugly Betty,” and appearances in commercials for Snickers, Sprint, Visa, Verizon and more.

Her film credits include 2010’s “Our Family Wedding.” She plays the sister of Mexican-American bride America Ferrara, who stirs up strife by getting engaged to African-American doctor Lance Gross.

“It was definitely a learning experience and a fun experience,” Johnson said of the chance to act alongside Carlos Mencia, Forest Whitaker and others.

Johnson’s next project is the NBC series “About a Boy,” based on the 2002 Hugh Grant film. She and Al Madrigal, best known as a correspondent for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” will play the married couple who encourage bachelor David Walton to settle down.

Asked what guides her career choices, Johnson said her faith is “basically my foundation.”

“It’s not like I have a handbook that says, ‘Because you’re Christian, you can do this role but you can’t do that role. You can be in this movie but you can’t be in that movie,’” said Johnson, who is married to Manwell Reyes of the Christian hip-hop band Group 1 Crew. “You have your own moral compass. (And) my moral compass is based on my relationship with Jesus.”


Anjelah Johnson 7:30 p.m. Friday Cohan Center, Cal Poly $38 to $50 756-4849,

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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