Thursday, October 23, 2008
By William Loeffler
Only in comedy would Anjelah Johnson's beauty be considered a drawback.
The former dancer and Oakland Raiderette was a reliable sketch performer on the 13th season of "Mad TV." Her controversial "Nail Salon" routine was a YouTube hit. She recently finished shooting a pilot with Valerie Bertinelli for TBS.
But Johnson, who plays the Pittsburgh Improv today through Sunday, still gets dismissed by audience members who focus on her Baywatch body, big brown eyes and cover-girl smile.
"As soon as you get onstage, people judge you immediately," she says. "I come onstage, and I'm not overweight and I'm not ugly, so they look at me and say, 'Oh she's not going to be funny.' The first few jokes that I tell, they're still judging me. They're not listening."
Tradition seems to be stacked against her. Comics from Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin have mugged it up and tamped down their beauty in the service of comedy. Recently, however, female comics such as Lynne Koplitz and "Last Comic Standing" champion Iliza Shlesinger have brought the sexy as well as the funny.
Johnson was born in San Jose, Calif., to Mexican and American Indian parents. She says she still can't figure out where she got her surname.
"I've always wanted the sexy Latin name growing up," she says.
Her career in stand-up began in church. She was a member of the Oasis Christian Center in Hollywood in 2006.
"It's very entertainment-friendly," she says. "There's a lot of actors, producers, directors just starting out."
Members included comedian Lisa Alvarado, who appeared on "America's Funniest Mom." She taught a comedy class at the church. Johnson signed up.
"It was really a random thing to happen," she says. "'You want to take this class?' 'Sure.' At the end of the class, we had to perform at a real comedy club. I've been doing it ever since."
She was on "Mad TV" for only one season, when the writers' strike forced the show to cut its budget, she says. However, she used that show to create one of her most memorable characters, a lazy, rude fast-food worker named Bon Qui Qui.
In her "Nail Salon" routine, she recounts how she encountered a language barrier while getting her nails done by a Vietnamese manicurist. She says she got some flak for mimicking an Asian accent.
"The funny thing is that, when something is so true, it's hard to be mad at it," she says. "You can't argue with it. It's not really making fun. That's just me telling a story of what happened to me from the moment I walked in to the moment I walked out."