There's a scene near the beginning of Comedian, a 2002 documentary that follows Jerry Seinfeld as he crafts a new stand-up act from scratch after retiring twenty years of material: A younger comic about to take the stage at Stand-Up NY in Manhattan confides to Seinfeld that "I was gonna do at least 70 percent new stuff in at least 100 percent new order and open with something I've never opened with before." "Really?" Seinfeld shakes his head. "Wow. I wouldn't do that. You're taking your life in your hands."
On this Wednesday night at II STL Brothers Smooth Jazz Club, 25-year-old aspiring comedian Brie Renée Johnson is gonna do 100 percent new stuff.
The sound system booms Sir Mix-a-Lot as she steps to the stage:
I like big butts and I cannot lie!
You other brothers can't deny!
That when a girl walks in with an itty-bitty waist
And a round thing in your face
You get sprung!
Johnson grabs the mic, sighs in mock-exasperation. "Why do you guys have to play that every time I come up here?"
Maybe it's because her slender frame is composed of 80 percent cheekbones, 10 percent cascading auburn hair and 10 percent "ghetto booty." Or because she's a former lifeguard currently juggling a bit of modeling work for Apple Bottoms jeans along with her budding comedy career. Or perhaps, to borrow from Monsieur Mix-a-Lot, because it's just so round, it's like, out there. She's just so...black!
Only she's not.
A Mufflermat, a discount beauty-supply shop and a pair of dollar stores share strip-mall space with II STL Brothers on Natural Bridge Road in Bel-Ridge. The surroundings might be down at the heels, but inside the setting is swank: linen-covered tables, chandeliers casting a golden radiance, a bar awash in soft candlelight. Everyone's well turned-out, the men in button-down shirts and pressed pants, the women decked out in Sunday dresses. The décor is mostly black-and-white, but virtually everyone here is black.
Everyone except Brie Johnson.
With her baby-doll tee peeking out from under a sleek button-down shirt she "probably got from Wal-Mart," Johnson jumps rump-first into her opening bit, thick Southern drawl suggesting she's out of her element in the big-city setting: "I cannot go through one day without at least five guys talking about my butt. But today a guy came up to me and said, 'Girl, your daddy's black, ain't he?' I said, 'Well, my last name is Johnson.'
"I had another guy once say, 'You've got some black in you, don't you, girl?' And I said, 'Well, not today.'"
Her yokel accent has caught the crowd off guard: The bit kills.
Less than a year into her career, Johnson is a regular at II STL Brothers. When she steps off the stage, audience members and fellow comics flock to offer congratulations and advice. The scenario's similar when she appears at other weekly comedy nights around town Plush, Toxic, the Spotlight, Big Jake's and the Crown among them.
From these informal gigs, Johnson hopes to move up to the regional comedy-club circuit. Already she has attracted the attention of Michael Roberts Jr., head of Gateway Entertainment (and son of local developer/business tycoon Michael Roberts Sr.), who says he and Johnson are discussing the possibility of her signing to Show-Town Entertainment, the artist-management company he recently co-founded with his twin sister, Jeanne.
"She's a sweet girl, and she really has the potential to take it all the way to a world level," Roberts says. "There's nobody like her. I've never seen anybody like her before."
One Tuesday last March, Johnson downed a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice Triple Black, rode to the Westport Funny Bone with a group of friends, drank "five or six" Michelob Ultras and, with a four-minute open-mic performance, popped her comedy cherry.
"I was drunk as hell because I was soooooo nervous," she remembers. "My friends told me I was onstage cracking myself up, and I don't even remember what I said.
"I was going strictly for shock value. When I got offstage, my friends said, 'Oh my God, Brie, that was so funny. When you did your first joke this girl fell backwards out of her chair.' I'm like, 'Hey, that's what I'm going for!'"
Johnson got a little cocky after her debut, thinking the whole comedy thing came naturally. She didn't realize race and gender would retard her climb in the fiercely segregated world of St. Louis nightlife.
"The thing is, in St. Louis, the black and white crowds aren't going to come together unless you pick a neighborhood that is black and white," says Florissant native Kathleen Madigan, who made the hard-won leap from the St. Louis comedy scene to the big leagues in the 1990s. "The black people in north St. Louis aren't driving out to the Westport Funny Bone, and the St. Charles people aren't going to drive to Natural Bridge Road to watch a comedy show. It's too territorial and too neighborhoody."
During one early gig at Janae's West off Olive Boulevard in University City, Johnson rattled off all the silly, mundane things that happened to her one day, only to be greeted with deafening silence. "The main event of the night was when my friend got a DUI and I had to go pick her ass up from jail. She was swinging at the cops, and this was happening and that was happening and no one was laughing. My friend [U. City rapper] Boulevard came up to me afterward, like, 'I don't know why you were talking about that stuff. Look at the room you're playing in front of.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I've been here before.' He says, 'Brie, everyone in this room has been to jail: We don't care. It's not funny.' I did the same thing in front of a white audience and they thought it was hysterical. After that I took a step back and figured out what was for which audience."
Johnson was soon hitting three urban which is to say: black clubs a night and building a reputation as the girl with the ghetto booty who first appeared too nervous to take the stage but was clearly unafraid to cross the line when it came to making fun of stereotypes. She also formed working relationships with national headliners like LA-based comedian and actor Ricky Harris, St. Louis-born Joe Torry and Last Comic Standing housemate Corey Holcomb.
Harris, who met Johnson after he headlined at II STL Brothers, applauds her cojones. "If they don't like you, white folk will think: 'At least they're trying; at least they've got the nerve to get up there,'" says the 21-year veteran, who once took a young Chris Tucker under his wing. "Most black people will be like: 'Get that motherfucker off the stage!'"
Johnson's portion of this evening's "Terry Houston & Friends: Soul Classics 1490 Showcase" at the Fairview Heights Funny Bone is being videotaped for Eric Rhone, manager and producing partner of famed St. Louis comedian Cedric the Entertainer, who's memorialized in the club's showroom with a giant portrait. If Rhone likes what he sees, bigger things might follow.
Third on the bill, Johnson takes the stage wearing an oversize Rams jersey. "Hey, y'all!" she grins, revealing a mouthful of metal. "I've been labeled as an 'urban comedian,' so I figured: Why not dress like one? I went down the other day to buy a gold tooth, but I didn't have enough money to buy a gold one, so I got some tinfoil, and that stuff works pretty good. It's custom fit every time. And $1.59 will buy you a whole roll."
Then off comes the tinfoil and Johnson starts strong with her traditional opening bit: "I can't seem to find a decent man to pick me up, take me out to dinner, pay for dinner, go back to his place, turn the lights down low, light some candles, turn on some soft music, maybe some moonlight dancing...and then at the end of the evening doing it up the butt!" The crowd responds with a healthy rumble.
Next it's Wednesday's "Black in You," followed by one of her more dependable standbys: "A black man will stand in line to get his thing sucked but he will not go down on a woman. Why is that? My friend said it's because it smells like tuna, tastes like tuna and it looks like sushi. Well, honey, just because you had a bad piece of fish in your life doesn't mean it's all bad. And I don't know about you, but mine tastes like chicken.
"And what is it with black people and chicken? Why not hot sauce? Y'all put that shit on everything. You do. And you know what, I bet if you put that on some tuna, you'd probably eat that too." Louder approval, and the black occupants of a table to the left whoop and wave their arms.
Offstage, Johnson self-critiques her ten-minute set: She lost the crowd with new material about Hooters waitresses and radio pop songs and failed to finish strong. But by her standards, tonight's performance before a half-white, half-full room went "OK."
A few days later, comic Dwayne Ingram, who signed Johnson up for her for Westport open-mic debut, reports that some audience members were put off by her Fairview Heights performance. "People came up to me and would say, 'That girl with the jersey should not be doing comedy. She is offensive and racist.' Things of that nature," Ingram explains. "I told them she was a new comedian and that I would talk to her. And oddly enough, the day that I was going to call Brie to talk to her, she called me and started crying. She told me that she took a VHS tape of that show up to her job and her co-workers all said that her performance was offensive and racist, except she said the one black person that worked there, this young guy, thought it was funny."
Skating the line of racial disharmony for comedic purposes is a phenomenon with roots in the minstrel shows of the 1920s. The late Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, even Dave Chappelle built their reputations by addressing stereotypes, but it's thanks to the current proliferation of a comedy-concert film called Jesus Is Magic that Johnson is earning much to her dismay comparisons to a nationally respected stand-up.
"I've heard a lot of that lately, and I'm sick of being compared to Sarah Silverman," Johnson complains. "She has her own style and I have my style. I mean, I guess we look kind of alike, and some of our material might touch on the same things, but I would never say the word 'nigger.' I don't even use it when I'm sitting around with my friends. It's just not appropriate."
Still, there is an undeniable likeness. Both are white, both female, both tread the line under the guise of naiveté to the point of causing discomfort. And in the case of both, that's the only way their material can work.
"She does have that buzz," affirms Charles Williams, one of three owners of Union Station's Improv Theater who booked Johnson for the club's mid-December opening night. "People say she has that special thing where she's always pushing the boundaries. Yeah, like Silverman, her stuff's kinda you know."
"You know: Oooh, she did not say that!"
But whereas Silverman digresses into religious taboo, Johnson sticks with the tabooty.
"There's this group of girls that follows me around to my shows, and they hiss at me!" she'll begin. "After one show, the ringleader grabs her girlfriend that has the biggest booty, and she's like, 'Come here! Come here!' I'm like, 'Oh God, is she going to kick my ass?' She's like, 'Stand next to her. Now turn around. Stick your ass out. Stick it out! See that? Bam, you lose!' I'm like, 'I didn't know I was playing.' And then I got mad, and I go, 'Ladies, it's not me that thinks I have a fine ass it's your man.
"'Bam, you lose!'"
Johnson was a Detroit suburbanite until second grade, when her family moved to Lake St. Louis. There she began corralling neighborhood kids into her basement and putting on plays, foreshadowing her membership in the Wentzville High School drama club and roles in its yearly theatrical productions. She was also active in the art club and the only white member of the school's step team. After junior year another move landed her family in Cincinnati. "I spent my senior year in this little redneck dump of a school," Johnson shudders. "The parking lot looked like a junkyard for Ford trucks. It was absolutely horrible. But I tried to make the best of it. I've seen how people live in different cultures, and how it affects their nature, so that experience actually helped me a lot in my comedy."
In the summer of 2004, after earning an art degree from the University of Cincinnati and dealing with a string of relationship woes, Johnson moved back to St. Louis. Her parents had returned to the area the year before, and for the time being and much to her chagrin she's living under their roof in Fenton.
In addition to performing in high school and college plays, Johnson dabbled in tap, ballet, jazz and ballroom dancing. "I always knew I wanted to be in showbiz," she says. "I wanted to be an actress, actually. I've always been a performer, and people would constantly tell me: 'Oh you're so funny; you should be a comedian.' You hear it more and more and more, and eventually you're like: Well, maybe I should be."
Offstage Johnson's hair is tethered in a loose ponytail and there's not a drop of makeup on her. Her voice twangs less when she's not speaking into a microphone and her teeth gleam when she laughs (which is quite frequently), or when she describes how the goal of her material is to "flip" stereotypes, a topic that fiercely dominates conversation.
"I got called Chinese the other day," begins one of her newer bits. "It was over the phone, which I guess means I have a high, squeaky voice and talk really fast, to the point where this woman couldn't understand me. It got me thinking about my ethnic background. I'm not actually white, because my mother's side of the family is Mohawk. But I get so much shit about my ass and my last name's Johnson, so everybody thinks that my dad's black. I'm thinking about it, and I realized that I'm a black Native American with a French name and I speak [like I'm] Chinese. And what's really fucked up is that I'm dating a French Mexican who speaks Italian and is named Chad."
The urban comics in her circle of friends like the bit. Mainstream reactions to the joke's racial undertones are mixed, though, despite the fact that the humor is tame compared to Johnson's more prurient material. It's the latter responses and the environment that gave rise to the joke that Johnson takes issue with. "It's always like you're touching on a delicate subject that people want to avoid until it becomes this 'thing' that causes huge problems," she says. And about this, she's dead serious. Her onstage persona, the grinning small-town girl out of her element in the racially mixed big city, isn't up there making fun of other races or trying to "act black." Johnson isn't consciously out to appeal strictly to black audiences. She simply picks up a microphone and riffs on personal experiences she thinks are funny.
Johnson cites manic college favorite Dane Cook and the late stoner-absurdist Mitch Hedberg as favorite contemporary comics, but she says the reason she always wanted to do comedy was to make her father laugh they way he did when the two watched Jim Carrey movies together. "A lot of people would say Ace Ventura was a stupid movie, but it's those dumb movies that are the funniest," she maintains. "I would look over at my dad and he would be cracking up to the point of tears coming down his face, choking, turning purple. And I wanted to do that: I wanted to make my dad's face turn purple."
Yet she won't let her parents see her perform. Maybe once her career starts picking up, she hedges, but not right now. "They're at that older age where they'd probably have a stroke, and I don't want to kill them," she quips, then adds: "The problem is, they wouldn't understand."
One day Johnson caught her 53-year-old father checking out one of her performance DVDs. She says she knew what was coming next. "He's like, 'What? That was good!' But then he has to throw in, 'Was that an all-black audience?'
"'No, Dad, there were some white people.'
"'Well, was that a black club?'
"I'm like, 'Oh God, here we go.' That's really hard to deal with. I hope wherever I eventually get with comedy that my parents can look at it and realize the whole race thing and the prejudice is just stupid."
Dave Johnson, who'd only recently learned his daughter was doing stand-up, remembers the moment a little differently. "As a family, we've always enjoyed comedy that's off the wall," he ventures. "I got a sneak peek at one of her DVDs that she asked me to copy. I was surprised to see how she connected with the audience. She said, 'Well, the last time I was here everyone was white!' It took courage to do that. Then she told a butt joke, and that's when she caught me watching and snatched it away.
"She probably just wants [her material] to blossom before she exposes it to us," Johnson goes on. "Frankly, we're just amazed at her ingenuity and her stick-to-it-ness. I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage and fortitude to stand up in front of an audience and get favorable responses from them. Lots of people have tried to do that and go down in flames. But some people can make it work out.
"When's she's ready, she'll invite us."
She hasn't performed it in a while, but an extended version of Johnson's "Up the Butt" lies buried somewhere in the back of her notebooks: "You know how black people make fun of the way white people walk, like they've got a stick up their ass or they're clenching their butt cheeks? Well, I'll tell you why they clench their butt cheeks: It's to keep the shit from falling out. In my experience, every white guy I know likes to do it up the butt. Most of the black guys I know and yeah, they like some freaky stuff but they think up-the-butt is gross. But white guys like to do it, so that's why white girls are walking around clenching their butt cheeks. They're doing it up the butt all the time."
The reason the add-on isn't in rotation has nothing to do with Johnson being in front of a black or white audience. It has more to do with her gender.
Johnson wasn't exactly a tomboy growing up, but she says she was always considered "one of the guys" among her predominantly male friends. As Wanda Sykes once said, "Comedy is the opposite of being ladylike," and Johnson considers herself nothing like a lady. In her eyes, crossing the gender gap should have been as easy as hopping a puddle.
But gaining entrance to St. Louis' comedy treehouse was more difficult than she'd imagined. She remembers guys congratulating and buying her beer after her first show, but also explaining that as a female performer she was in a separate category from them. "I remember thinking that they would see," she recalls. "You just have to prove yourself to them."
Comics would show interest upon discovering she was a fellow performer, claiming to own a comedy club in Chicago or to know someone in the business who could help her along. But Johnson's gut instinct said they wanted her number for reasons unrelated to comedy. "Some of the guys that came in from New York or LA or whatever, we would exchange phone numbers and they'd say, 'Maybe next time I'm in town we'll have to get together,' or, 'You'll have to show me around town.' Then at, oh, four o'clock in the morning, I get phone calls wondering what I'm doing: 'You wanna come on over? I'm just sitting in my hotel room not doing anything.' 'Uh, no thanks. How stupid do you think I am?'"
"The way she earned respect was by keeping it all-business," says Dwayne Ingram. "A lot of male comics saw her as a target and approached her like she was fresh meat. She stood her ground and wasn't going to fall for anything. She wanted to do their shows, but she wasn't going to sleep with anyone to do them."
"I think the main reason there are so few female comedians out there is because of the crap we have to deal with," says Johnson. "I thought: If this is what it's going to be like for the rest of my life, forget it. I don't even know why I'm doing this. But eventually you'll come to that point where you get respect."
She may be on equal footing at this stage, but tradition says Johnson will have to deal with increasing amounts of gender bias if she reaches higher levels in her career.
"There is major sexism in the industry and this unspoken assumption that women are not as funny as men," says Delilah Ramos, owner of New York City's Laugh Lounge. Ramos estimates that while one-third of her club's new-talent pool is female, female headliners make up only a tenth of most established clubs' rosters. The reason? Female comics aren't given a fair chance to hone their skills.
"How were Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock 'created'? By getting tons and tons of stage time to develop themselves as comics and performers," Ramos argues. "I think that if women were given more of a chance, we'd see more female comics rise to that stature. They have to work twice as hard to get half as far."
Johnson's down with hard work. She writes almost daily (when she's not modeling, substitute-teaching in the St. Louis public school system or moonlighting at Pin-Up Bowl or, more recently, Modai Sushi Lounge), and she recently completed a sitcom treatment with Def Jam and Showtime at the Apollo vet Tony Woods. She's unabashedly pursuing fame, yet says she would like to still be able to go to the grocery store and not be hounded by people. But that's part of the territory if you want to do this as your career.
"I've been told by several of my fellow comedians who are already out there that they have enough comedians in LA who aren't getting anywhere. But I'm like, 'Well, they haven't seen me yet.'"
"I just wish she would relax," advises Shaun Wesley, artist representative for the promotional firm STL Entertainment, which ups Johnson's profile locally. "I try to tell her, 'This is what a grind is, so just sit back and take it in and then go forward.' And she's hungry. I've never seen a comedian this hungry before."
But Johnson wants to succeed on her own terms, which in the long run might require her to work even harder.
Despite advice from her peers, Johnson bucks conventional wisdom regarding the history of her intended profession. She says she doesn't study the work of comedic forebears Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce or Sam Kinison. Or anyone, really. But that's exactly what she ought to do, paying particular attention to such black females as Sheryl Underwood, insists Wesley. "I told her: 'Do your homework. Get one of those 'Ladies of Comedy' tapes, see how they do their thing, and then add your own spin to it."
"I'm not them," Johnson counters. "This is me, this is what I do. They did their thing, I'm doing my thing."
She's slowly learning, however, that her predecessors can offer influence outside the limited realms of material and style. They can offer a confidence boost she didn't realize she needed.
Flipping channels not long ago, Johnson came upon an old clip of Johnny Carson asking Ellen DeGeneres what it was like being a female comedian. "She explained how it's very difficult because you have to be a lady, and there's certain things you cannot say," Johnson marvels. "I was thinking, 'Man, I'm not the only one going through this crap!'"
Then she surfed across Maria Bamford describing her experiences on the testosterone-heavy "Comedians of Comedy" tour. "She has just got done doing a show, and she's like, 'I got a little dirty at the end there, and I think it was OK.' I was like, 'What do you mean you think it's OK? Of course it's OK! Be as dirty as you want!' She was holding back, so I'm sure she's going through the same things as the rest of us thinking this or that's not accepted, that girls can only say certain things, that you can't be one of the guys. And I'm like: 'Yes, you can.'"
Think Johnson's attitude's out of line? Feel free to kiss her ghetto ass.
"And that's why I get compared to Sarah Silverman a lot," she concludes. "Silverman isn't willing to follow the politics and the game and everything. And it is a game. You have to play by their rules. You're never really getting up there and being you. You can only say so much until you have a big name, and then you can say whatever the hell you want.
"Forget that. I'm going to say it now. I'm going to say this whether I get up to that level or not. This is me. And I'm not playing the game."