Josh Johnson Made Jimmy Fallon and Trevor Noah Funnier. Now It’s His Turn.
The former “Tonight Show” writer and current “Daily Show” staffer talks about watching Jimmy Fallon ruffle Donald Trump’s hair and his breakthrough stand-up special “Hashtag.”
Comedian Josh Johnson spent the first few years of his comedy career writing monologue jokes for Jimmy Fallon at The Tonight Show, and then crafting longer bits for Trevor Noah at The Daily Show. Now, after an extended pandemic-induced delay, he’s getting his own voice out there in a big way. In addition to his new stand-up special Hashtag, which is streaming now on Paramount+, Johnson also put out a mixtape album this year called Elusive, which combines deeply funny comedy and deeply emotional music.
On this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, he opens up about how a fear of dying young pushed him to expand his creative ambitions and shares stories from his late-night writing gigs, including what it was like to watch Fallon playfully ruffle Donald Trump’s hair and how working with Trevor Noah has made him a better comedian.
“I had always wanted a special since I was a little kid,” Johnson, who grew up near Shreveport, Louisiana, watching Comedy Central, tells me. “In my mind, that was the pinnacle.”
He was about to achieve that dream in March 2020 when he started to realize that his planned taping would likely get canceled—along with pretty much everything else.
“You’ve got to remember, at the time, in early 2020, we were just living,” he says. “We had plans, everybody was chilling. And so even as some fear around the pandemic started to emerge and even as the virus started to spread to other places, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine.’ Then as places started locking down, I was like, ‘Oh, should we do this?’”
After Comedy Central indefinitely postponed the special taping, Johnson says he felt sorry for himself for a few days. “Then I stopped thinking about anything except not dying,” he explains. “I do feel like if the world ended, I would have much bigger problems. Like, now I got to learn how to fight.”
In the year between the original taping date and when they were finally able to shoot it, Johnson threw out pretty much all of his material and started over from scratch. “It’s a different hour,” he says. “I don’t think that there’s any jokes from what I planned on doing in what I did.”
“I really thought I might die last year,” he adds, sincerely. “I didn’t even get COVID, but anytime there’s even a stomach flu going around, I’m usually the third one to drop. When I saw the numbers, I was like, yo, this might be it for me. And I was being really careful. I was doing all this stuff that would’ve made Fauci smile, but I still was like, ‘Hey, you never know.’”
This fear is part of what pushed Johnson to put out his first album at the same time as he was finalizing his first special. He had always wanted to write and produce music, so he decided to stop putting it off and take the plunge, producing what ended up being a 33-track mixtape album that oscillates between short stand-up bits and deeply sincere music that exists somewhere between hip-hop, gospel and soul. “There were no excuses,” he says. “I had nothing but time.”
That line echoes a bit from his stand-up special about how lockdown “made a liar” of all of us who claimed to have big ambitions, but proceeded to spend the past year and a half watching TV. “I’ve always said, my entire life, ‘If I only had the time,’” he jokes.
For Johnson, it was a big step to put himself out into the world after spending so much time writing for other comedians in his late-night TV jobs. When he moved from Chicago to New York and quickly landed a role on The Tonight Show staff, he says he would write something like 125 jokes in a day, and only one or two would make it into that night’s monologue. The next day, he’d start from scratch and do it all over again.
“I understand what it takes to deliver a joke,” he says. “So when I’m writing jokes that I feel like Jimmy [Fallon] would say, I’m not pimping him out to try to say something edgy. You obviously need to write for a person’s voice, but you also need to write to what that person would be comfortable saying.”
He had been at the show for several months in 2016 when Fallon gleefully messed up the hair of his guest Donald Trump, setting off months of controversy over supposedly trying to humanize the bigoted presidential candidate.
While many people might have wondered what it was “like to be a fly on the wall in the moment that was happening,” Johnson was there and says he had no idea it would blow up the way it did. “I definitely didn’t feel that way in the room at the time, because it’s very intoxicating to be around people who feel a certain way,” he explains. “So when he’s ruffling his hair and the whole audience is losing their minds laughing, that sort of takes away the bite.”
“I was not a fan of Trump in the least, the whole way through,” he clarifies, adding that like “a lot of coastal elite liberals,” he never thought he actually had a chance of winning the presidency in 2016. As for the argument that Fallon actually helped Trump win by portraying him as a harmless comedy foil, Johnson says, “I mean, there’s a much bigger issue at play if letting Fallon play with your hair won a lot of votes. That makes you question who is voting and how they pick.”
All of that being said, Johnson did leave The Tonight Show shortly after the election, landing at The Daily Show in early 2017.
“Working with Trevor Noah really took me to a deeper place,” he says of the host who “presented” his new special and has become a mentor of sorts. “And I like being in that deeper water, because if someone does come up to me after a show, I can tell that I’ve left a deeper impression than I would have if I had not worked there.”
So far, Johnson has remained entirely behind the scenes at the show, so I wondered if he had secret ambitions of becoming an on-screen correspondent.
“I mean, maybe?” he replies. “Potentially. I’m open to it, but I’m not necessarily gunning for it. I look at how hard the correspondents work and I’m glad I am where I am. That’s a lot of extra.”
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