There is some fear that in our current climate, where P.C. police are always on the prowl and racial tensions are more pronounced than ever, that comedians like Anjelah Johnson might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Skyrocketing to fame in 2007 due to her viral impersonation of a Vietnamese nail salon worker, Anjelah found success before political correctness had reached its zenith. Her other most famous bit, from her time as a cast member on MADtv, was a fast food employee named Bon Qui Qui who called "sah-curity!" on any customer who gave a "complicated order... rude!"
Much of Anjelah's standup material centers on her Mexican heritage and the diverse tapestry of characters in her life, like a Filipino grandmother who accidentally runs over dogs with her car ("Oi! Sorry, dog!") and a chicken taco-snatching thug on the loose in South Central Los Angeles. "My comedy is never far-removed from myself," Anjelah recently told us. "I typically talk about my life and a lot of personal stuff. I never go 'Oh, I saw this guy do this and that' and make fun of him. I go, 'If I were him...' and then bring it back to me."
Her approach explains why her race-based standup resonates where it may get so many other comedians in trouble. No one is a punching bag in Anjelah's comedy, wherein she discusses cultural differences honestly and frankly. Anyone can see themselves reflected in her array of spot-on accents and impersonations, which is precisely what makes her comedy so uproariously funny and, in a time of great racial and political strife, oddly healing.
Meeting at the Hôtel Americano in New York City, Anjelah was pleasantly warm (she's a hugger) and seemed to be busier than ever. She just dropped a Bon Qui Qui Christmas album, which includes the first-ever Hoodmas classic "Deck the Ho's," she is soon going on tour as Bon Qui Qui, she's got another hour-long comedy special in the works, she's developing a workplace comedy with NBC, and she's even starring in a movie coming out in January, titled The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.
But Anjelah was fully game to discuss her greatest hits, including "Tammy" from Beautiful Nail salon, why Bon Qui Qui is still going strong and her increasingly frequent and nasty run-ins with keyboard warriors on social media.
You have such a knack for accents. Is it fair to assume you grew up in a diverse area?
Yeah, I'm from San Jose, CA, which is very diverse, and I grew up around a lot of different types of people. But I always wanted to be a little chola chick. I dated a guy in a gang; there were drive-by shootings at his house; it was unreal. And one of my best friends growing up was Vietnamese, and he and his mom would teach me how to say certain things so I could impress my nail girls. Then the nail girls would teach me how to count to 100 and basic things like "thank you" and "you're welcome." It's funny because any accent that I do now always turns into Vietnamese. If I start in London, I'll end up in Vietnam.
Had you always wanted to be a comic?
Definitely not. When I moved to Hollywood, my dream role was to play a rape victim on Law & Order: SVU. That was #goals for me. Of course, I didn't know that show filmed in New York. So I went to L.A. to become an actress, and I started from the ground up. I worked as an extra, and then I started taking this joke-writing class because it was free. I didn't want to be a comedian, but I was like, "Free education? Yeah, I'll take a class." So I took this class, and one of my first jokes I wrote was this nail salon bit, and it just blew up my spot. The whole time I was like, "No, no, no. I'm not a comic; I'm an actress. I'm just doing this for fun." But I wasn't getting any auditions, and standup was the only thing that was blowing up.
When did everything turn around?
The nail salon video came out in January 2007. At that time, I didn't have an agent, I had no auditions, I had no money in my back account, and my unemployment checks had run out. Everything in my life was saying, "Well, you tried but you failed! Time to go home." I was at that point in my life. Then this nail salon video blew up on YouTube, and this was when YouTube was brand new... when if a video was popular, everyone on the site saw it. Between January and February it got four million views, and by March everyone in Hollywood had seen it. I started taking meetings, and I wound up getting an agent and a manager. So in one year, I went from having nothing in my life, nothing on the horizon and no opportunities to touring the country as a stand-up comedian headlining my own shows, and I was on a hit show on FOX.
When did you get the call from MADtv?
My manager sent me out on this audition for MADtv, and I was like, "Oh, I've never done sketch comedy before. I don't have any characters, and I don't do celebrity impressions. What do I do?" So I went on YouTube and typed in "Latina famous people" and was like, "Who can I copy?" I did Jennifer Lopez, Roselyn Sánchez and then Paula Abdul because she was at the height of American Idol. I also did this impersonation of my "sister" who was trying to be a rapper, and that eventually turned into Bon Qui Qui. And I ended up booking it. This was when Myspace was hot, and all of the sudden my Myspace page started blowing up, and I was getting pages and pages of messages from all over the world—the Philippines, Australia, Atlanta, Ohio, New York, everywhere—asking, "When are you going to perform stand-up comedy here?" I only had 12 minutes of material so I was like, "I guess I better write more material."
Who was your biggest inspiration for Bon Qui Qui?
My brother. He is ghetto fabulous, and he has no filter. He just says whatever he wants to say, and he's a trendsetter. He'll just do things and everyone picks up on it, and that's kind of like Bon Qui Qui. She'll say "Rude!" or "Sah-curity!" or "I will cut you!" and then everyone wants to say it. My brother is definitely my biggest inspiration for the character... along with a girl in a Burger King drive-thru in Memphis, TN who changed my life. No customer service at all; just like, "Go 'head with ya order!"
Why has Bon Qui Qui remained so popular?
I think people relate to her because everyone knows someone with no filter, or everyone has their own inner Bon Qui Qui. I have to stop myself from doing it sometimes... like if someone cuts in line, I want to be like, "Oh no! You see me here, sir? Rude!" The funny part is that I'm not that creative; I didn't just make this up. Bon Qui Qui is funny because you have seen her before.
Have you ever been accused of racism for your characters?
I would say 95 percent of people get it. They get that I'm relating and connecting. Then there's this small five percent of people that wanna protest and be like, "Oh! You're just being stereotypical. You're being racist." I've had nail ladies or Vietnamese people in any other profession tell me, "Oh my god! I love this! It's so funny" but then I have people tweeting me like, "How dare you make fun… yadda yadda yadda." So there's a small percentage of people who just don't get humor. That's the only way I know how to describe it.
Is much of this due to the current online outrage culture?
It's unreal how much we have to censor ourselves now. Some comics don't, but I think the smart comics will censor themselves to some degree because this is our business. This is how we make money. If you piss off the wrong person then all of the sudden someone will start a social-media campaign to end your career or get you kicked off your talk show. So now when I go to tweet something, I think, "Oh God, lemme think this through. Who am I going to offend?" With the nail salon joke, I did get hate mail in the beginning, but it's now starting to come up again just because of where we're at… just the atmosphere of our country right now.
How do you think we got here?
Because there is a lot of genuine racism and hate being put on the spotlight in our country right now. So I feel like because of that, it has got people stirred up and wound up and trigger happy to call anything racist and hate, which is unfortunate. But I get it. It's because people are sensitive right now. "I feel attacked; I don't feel protected." Someone genuinely has attacked them so now they call everything racist. I feel like that's where it's coming from, but none of my material is done in anger or hate. People want to call me racist for doing the Bon Qui Qui character, and I'm like, "Look, Bon Qui Qui is a representation of a hood chick. That's it." There are lots of hood chicks out there: some are black, some are Mexican, some are Salvadorian and some are white.
That's interesting because I could never figure out what race Bon Qui Qui was supposed to be.
And I like to keep her that way. If you see something in her that you recognize within your culture, then I'm sorry if that offends you. But if I didn't do it, that would be a disservice because that's what I do: I comment on society, I comment on pop culture, I comment on what I see. So if I were to pretend that I don't see this, how is that any better? Pretending we don't have these things? Pretending that most nail salons aren't owned by Vietnamese people? That doesn’t help anybody. I had this Latino guy hit me up and say, "We're not all cholos. We're educated too. I went to college… yadda yadda yadda." Good for you! I'm not talking about you then. But guess what? There are some cholos out there. There are some cholas. I used to be one of them.
Gotta ask: are you basically persona non grata at every nail salon in America?
Pretty much every nail salon I go to people recognize me, but there has only been one time where I felt like they didn't like me. I was in Orlando, FL, and I went to get a manicure and pedicure, and I started getting my manicure first, and the girl was being really mean with me. She was being rough with my fingers, being cold, not talking, not smiling. And they're all talking to each other in Vietnamese, and I was like, "Maybe they recognize me. Or maybe it's just in my head." Then all of the sudden I started hearing my nail salon video playing from the backroom, and I was like, "Oh, they don't like me." I was exactly right. So after my manicure, I just paid and left because I was like, "Nah… I don't feel comfortable anymore." And then at a different nail salon in Orlando—and I go back to this one often—they were fans. So some people get it, and other people are just like, "No."
What's coming up next?
I'm still doing the Bon Qui Qui tour. I'm about to film my next hour, and my film, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, comes out in January, and that is my first leading role in a film where I am not the funny one. I am not cracking jokes; I'm just the straight character—the pastor's daughter, and I'm pretty uptight. I can see how a lot of people might not like me in the movie. I had to have some real emotional moments with other actors, and it was so fun for me because I got to do something so different.
Lastly, is Bon Qui Quo still with Duwan?
[Extremely Bon Qui Qui voice] Oh, he messed up. He's straight from the hood... cheater! He had his chance. Moving on!