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Character Building: Anjelah Johnson Keeps It Real with Mahalo and Goodnight Comedy Special

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Anjelah Johnson has been reliving the same trip to the nail salon since 2007. The comic, whose fourth stand-up special, Mahalo and Goodnight, premieres Friday, September 29, on EPIX, is still most famous for a bit imitating a Vietnamese manicurist that went viral (37 million YouTube views and counting) a decade ago. The mere mention of it in her 2015 Netflix special Not Fancy resulted in uproarious cheers.

“I cannot get away from it,” Johnson said during a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, where she was taking a break before heading back on the road. “It’s like a band has their number one song that everybody wants to hear. Sure they’ve come out with seven other albums since then, but everybody wants to hear that song.”

Johnson doesn’t disappoint.

“I’m at a place in my career now where I know people are coming to my shows because they know they’re going to see a great show, that nail salon joke is so nostalgic for them. I kind of give it to the audience as a gift now.”

Though some Vietnamese people have taken offense at the imitation, as Johnson, who is Latina, discusses in Not Fancy, many YouTube commenters have praised her ability to mimic the accent, peppering the broken English with actual Vietnamese words, and to create a specific character rather than a lifeless stereotype. Her knack for character building is surely what grabbed the attention of Mad TV producers and also landed her a gig promoting Taco Cabana in a TV ad campaign.

“The advertising agency saw my nail salon video and they reached out to me,” Johnson said. “At the time, they didn’t really even have the Taco Cabana account. They were competing for it, so we shot the commercial on spec, and they paid me to do this one commercial and they were like, ‘There’s the possibility that there could be more of these’ and they won the account and I ended up doing it for three years.”

Johnson said advertising for Taco Cabana was easy because she loves the food.
“Every time I go to Texas, I eat it, even though I have to pay for it now,” she said.

Another of Johnson’s signatures, first introduced on Mad TV is fast-food cashier-turned rapper Bon Qui Qui, also the star of several viral videos with tens of millions of views. Johnson even recorded two albums in character — Gold Plated Dreams and the holiday-themed EP Merry Hoodmas — released on Warner Brothers Records in 2016 and produced by her husband, musician Manwell Reyes.

“It was great working with my husband,” Johnson said. “He’s very talented and he knows what he’s talking about, but sometimes we bump heads because we both have our strong points of view. When we combine forces, it’s always an amazing product but we have to bump heads a lot to get to that product.”
Johnson uses her gift for imitation to inhabit real-life people as well, imitating her family members onstage.

“They’re all characters in my act,” she said. “People get to know my family through my act. If I’m with my brother and I put him on my Instagram story people will comment and say, ‘Oh is that the brother that dutta-dutta-dutta-duh?’ and they’ll quote my act.”

Earlier in her career, Johnson says, her own onstage persona was closer to a character than to her true self, something she’s moving away from as her career progresses.

“Early on when I didn’t have my own point of view yet, my own voice, I think I was just trying to be who I thought people wanted me to be,” Johnson said. “And as I was developing as a comedian I first started going to a lot of Latino rooms so I was like, ‘let me act really Latino so they’ll like me,’ you know? As I started to grow as a comic, as a person, and started to be more honest with myself and honest with my point of view, then I would portray myself and my family more accurately.”

She thinks Mahalo and Goodnight represents the most accurate version of herself she’s presented to an audience.
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“I’m really proud of it, and I’m proud of the material, and I’m proud of how much I’ve grown as a comedian, and I hope a lot of people get to see it,” Johnson said. “I look back at my earlier specials and I can see it; I don’t think anybody else can point it out but I can see where I’m nervous and where I’m insecure. And I think in this special I’m a little more ‘this is me, so I’m doing me, and take it or leave it,’ and it seems like people were onboard.”

Though she’s become famous for her ability to inhabit other people, she says portraying a truer version of herself is significantly more satisfying than pretending to be someone she’s not.

“Being more honest with people, more transparent, that’s always liberating onstage,” she said. “When I know I’m just keeping it real, I’m not putting on a façade that I have to keep up — it’s just me, it’s so relaxing.”
She’s also proud of the updated, more authentic version of her family included in the special.

“Early on in my career, I painted my mom as this very Mexican-American, English-as-a-second-language woman, like in my very first jokes that I wrote, but that couldn’t be farther from who she actually is," Johnson said. “So in this special, the way I talk about my mom, she doesn’t have an accent, she’s very modern American hip mom, so I paint her more truthfully in this hour.”

But Johnson, who’s currently working on a sketch comedy show for Kevin Hart’s LOL Network, said she’s not entirely sure at this point exactly what material made it into her Mahalo and Goodnight.

“What’s funny is, when I recorded this special, we were over by like 16 minutes that I had to cut out, and I can’t remember what I actually cut out. I don’t even remember to be honest, so it’ll be a surprise for all of us.”
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