Her Name's 'French.' Her Humor's Universal.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Atlanta-based Joyelle Nicole Johnson is a fast-rising star in comedy who doesn't take herself too seriously and does take others' concerns lightly.
By Toyloy Brown III
- Joyelle Nicole Johnson has opened for Dave Chappelle and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers.
- But the Atlanta-based comedian is also using her unique ability to make people laugh to counter vaccine skepticism and advance female reproductive rights.
What was the first illegal thing you ever did? If you’re like most people, it was probably underage drinking or illegally downloading music. Joyelle Nicole Johnson’s first offense was going to a New Jersey school that was in a different district than the one she lived in, so she could get a better education.
“It’s like the first gangster sh*t I ever did,” Johnson says. She got caught and even had a private investigator following her for a while. Her mother then hired a lawyer who managed to ensure that Johnson could continue studying in the school of her choice.
Now 39, the Atlanta-based Johnson has taken that lifelong appetite for taking risks to the comedy stage. There, she’s a fast-rising star with a rare gift: She doesn’t take herself too seriously. Moreover, she doesn’t take things that really matter — like gender rights and public health — lightly.
She has opened for Dave Chappelle and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers and Comedy Central’s digital series Comics to Watch. She also acted on the final season of HBO Max’s Crashing and will be on the fifth season of Search Party. Yet when a post on Twitter promoted a show describing her as someone seen on Fallon & Meyers, she was quick to quip that it sounded like she had been seen “at a personal injury law firm.”
Johnson’s mother, Joyce, always wanted to visit Paris. So she decided to give her daughter a French-sounding name, Joyelle. But the curse of having a one-of-a-kind name is that it is almost sure to be mispronounced.
“I think my favorite is Julia,” Johnson says. “I’ll say my name and people will be like ‘Julia’ and I’m like ‘you just don’t listen.’”
Johnson’s debut comedy album, YELL JOY, is an inversion of the syllables in her first name. It was released this year on Juneteenth, the recently named federal holiday and a special day for her and many Black people throughout the United States. Choosing June 19 — which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. in 1865 — for the album drop was intentional.
It is OK to talk about race, every single moment of the day.
Joyelle Nicole Johnson, comedian
The record label, in fact, preferred to drop it on a Friday. But Johnson knew it would be significant to set the release for the Saturday of Juneteenth. “I am a descendant of slaves, and . . . not that far back,” Johnson says. “We’re talking about a great-grandparent. That’s crazy.”
Johnson is proud of her Blackness and loves that it reflects in her jokes. “It’s how I feel, I can make it funny,” she says. “[Comedian] Paul Mooney taught me that it is OK to talk about race, every single moment of the day.” She is content with having her routine exude her Blackness because “America is always reminding” her of it.
She is also passionate about female reproductive rights. Johnson is a part of Abortion Access Front, a team of comedians and writers who use “humor to destigmatize abortion.” The group was formed by Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show.
“I wanted my comedy in some way, shape or form to inform people politically of something,” Johnson says. “This is exactly what I wanted in life: to be able to use comedy to tell people [to] not make women feel ashamed about having abortions.”
She’s also been using her witty social media presence to push back against vaccine skepticism, especially within the African American community. Following news reports of zoo animals receiving experimental COVID-19 vaccines, she wrote on Twitter: “Dear Black people, white people are giving it to animals. It’s safe.”
Yet Johnson’s comedy style isn’t geared toward topical subjects in general. Her storytelling strategy primarily involves telling unique, personal accounts that people will find humorous. “One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was, if you’re talking to someone and you’re making them laugh, you should write it down because you could probably use it on stage,” Johnson says.
On her comedy album, YELL JOY, expect to be enthused by her off-beat anecdotes. Say, the story of a former roommate, who was a dominatrix, bringing a patron with a foot fetish to their home. There’s also a joke about the time Johnson was on a plane with a “chatty” 90-year-old white woman naming old Black people from her past or as Johnson calls it, “throwblacks.”
Comedy and acting are her priorities in life. But if she wasn’t telling jokes for a living and in front of the camera, she says she would still want to be in entertainment, behind the scenes in production. Next, she has a commercial with Subway on the way. “[I’m] going from 0 to 100 real quick,” she says. “I mean, I never related more to a song.”
- Toyloy Brown III, OZY Author Contact Toyloy Brown III