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BO JOHNSON is interviewed by SURAJ SEHGAL about being a stand-up comedian, the humanity behind humor, and the nerves around how it will be received. He also reminds us why we need humor more than ever before.


Q: What initially drew you to a career in stand-up? 

BJ: When I was in the seventh or eighth grade, the iTunes Store had just become a thing. They had all the old-in some cases not so old-Comedy Central half hours. I was mowing a lot of lawns and doing yard work at the time, and I spent almost all the money I made on music or comedy specials at the iTunes Store. I’ll never listen to it again.

The first comics I loved were Mitch Hedberg and Demetri Martin, who were both great non-sequitur one-liner comedians. I also loved humorous books like those of David Sedaris and Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I had been writing a little satire zine with two friends, but after college they lost interest. I was also frustrated by writing something that no one would read, so I wanted to find a medium where the engine was my own interest. Stand-up was perfect; even if at first it’s three-minute open mic sets, there are captive audiences, and they give immediate feedback on what sucks and what works. That was the start of it, right after graduating college. I was busing tables and starting to do stand-up.

Q: I’ve seen your stand-up routine twice, once in Atlanta and once in San Francisco. I noticed you have jokes you are comfortable with, and then you have your sheet of paper with new material you’re workshopping. What’s your creative process like for developing new material?

BJ: If I’m on the road, I’ll slip in a few new lines, or some newer material, into the main set. I’ll try to do five to ten minutes of new material on a headline show, and if it’s working consistently, I’ll move it into my regular set and see if it still holds up. If it does, then it has a more permanent home.

When I’m at home or doing shorter sets, I’ll go to an open mic and do 30 minutes. In an ideal world, that’s where I would try new ideas, where no one’s paying to see me. But some jokes are longer, and don’t really work on an open mic, and some jokes just work better if you do them 30 minutes into a set versus a cold opening.

Q: Comics have different ways of writing. Do you spend a certain amount of time writing each day? Or is it when inspiration hits?

BJ: I should do more sit-down writing, because some of the stuff has been written that way. But right now I’ll go for a long walk or workout and jot down an idea here and there. If I’m in a city for shows, I like to walk around and think about something that will hopefully catch. A lot of it is conversation-based writing. If I’m talking with friends and something makes us laugh, I’ll write it down as a premise. I have a weekly call with a couple of friends, and we go over the jokes we’re working on and try to improve each other’s material.




Q: What’s been the most challenging aspect of being a stand-up comedian? And what have you done to try to overcome it?

BJ: I’ve been doing stand-up full-time for about a year and a half now, and doing it as a whole for eight and a half years, including during the pandemic. One of the most challenging parts is doing three or four different jobs. I have a manager now who helps with my bookings, but I still run all my online ads and social media. Those tasks that make it possible to earn a living directly eat away at my ability to be creative. But without doing them, there’s no way to make a living doing stand-up. I try to make sure that I take time away from the business end to be a person, to experience the world directly, let my brain be free enough to be creative, and to have new experiences to write about.

I try to make sure that I take time
away from the business end to be a
person, to experience the world
directly, let my brain be free enough
to be creative, and to have new
experiences to write about. 

Another challenge is that it’s easy to take it personally if I’m not doing well on stage. I’m basically saying, “Hey, here’s what I think is funny.” Sometimes people won’t like the way I view the world. There’ll be some weeks or months where I feel super creative and very funny. I’m writing a lot of new material that is all working. Then there will be stretches where nothing is working, and I don’t feel sad or funny. Life is just more stressful. Maybe something’s happened to my personal life.

Stand-up is essentially freelance work. You’re going paycheck to paycheck, regardless of whether or not those paychecks are big or small. As soon as one job is done, you’re waiting on the next. Your mood can be tied to how well you’re doing on stage. Sometimes you don’t know how to balance your emotions. When I had a day job as well, and I wasn’t feeling creative or funny, or I did poorly on stage, it wasn’t my only identity. I could think, “Oh, I have this other job. And this is part of who I am.” It didn’t feel as much like the only thing I did.




Now, when things aren’t going well on stage, it’s harder to balance out and feel, “Okay, let’s not sit on this for too long.” Like an athlete having a bad game, you don’t want to dwell on it forever. You want to have a short memory, ideally, being honest about how it didn’t go well, but not sitting on it for too long.

Q: It’s hard not to take things personally. You thought it was funny, you were literally standing up in front of a bunch of people sharing it because you thought it was worth sharing. With music, people can say, “We don’t like your voice.” With stand-up, people can say, “We don’t like you the way you think.” In the last eight years, I’m sure there have been times when your moods were different, or you were just in a phase where you felt less funny. What helps you move forward from that?

BJ: It’s easier to say than do in practice, perhaps. You learn over time that it will always pass. There have been enough times where I’ve felt very funny and done great on stage, then bombed for a while, then been funny again, then bombed for a while. It’s just remembering that this has happened before.

If I’m on the road, I try to write something about the city, or have a new joke, a new line. It makes it easier to be present. I don’t want to come across as if most of it is written or is an act. I don’t want to be reciting it like a play with no emotion on autopilot. If I think about my favorite concerts, it wasn’t just that they were good singers; they were clearly very happy to be there. We’re all in the moment. That’s the goal. I want to be in the room when I’m performing. I love that. And that makes it more fun to love.

Q: There are changing boundaries with what is considered appropriate or respectful. I think a lot of comedy is trying to push boundaries, but at the same time trying to be respectful and keeping it enjoyable.

BJ: I think it’s about your own individual sense of humor, and how good a joke you can write. I’d say that my sense of humor tends to skew more toward silly than serious. Great joke writers can get away with joking about anything, because you can make anything funny if it’s coming from the right perspective. Who you are also makes what you can joke about, what you can say, and how it’s understood. If you’re joking about your own identity, it’s very different from commenting on a group that is different from you. I’m ideally not writing jokes that will make people feel bad. If I write something that reads the wrong way, I just don’t do that joke anymore. When people are talking about things you’re not supposed to joke about, you can joke about whatever you want; but if people are upset, that’s a reaction and it’s totally fair.

Who you are also makes what
you can joke about, what you can
say, and how it’s understood. If
you’re joking about your own
identity, it’s very different from
commenting on a group that is
different from you. 

Q: Have you ever decided not to share a joke because people have been upset?

BJ: I don’t think I’ve posted or shared any that are too controversial. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong with this; there are some subjects you can joke about from all the right places, but they are darker subjects. Even if the joke’s written the right way, someone in the room won’t want to hear it. Maybe it’s tied to their past experiences. Someone could be doing jokes about mental health and suicide, for example. I’ve seen instances of that with people I care about, where they’ve had a bad experience and they don’t want to have that memory brought up, even if it’s done in a mindful way. I think that’s fair. Ideally we don’t want people leaving feeling worse than when they came to a show.

Q: There’s a lot right now that feels pretty challenging; there’s plenty to be sad about. It strikes me as important to have people still laughing and making jokes. What do you think about the importance of humor and comedy, especially now?

BJ: My favorite part about stand-up is the initial idea of a joke, even before you find out if it works. This is true about other art as well. I remember cartoons like Calvin and Hobbes when I was growing up; it made me stoked that someone was making stuff that I thought was cool. And it made the world seem like a better place. At college, one of my roommates showed me another comic I really love, Mike Birbiglia. We bonded and connected when he showed me this guy, who he really resonated with and loved. The same could be said about my best friends in high school; I’m still really close to them. We all loved Flight of the Conchords and had inside jokes tied to different shows and comics we enjoyed. We grew closer laughing together. We had a shared sense of humor. If anything I’m doing has that same impact, it would be really cool.

More from Bo Johnson:

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLGWWlDBQUcW77ENfRCLeUw
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bojohnsoncomedy/?hl=en


Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL


Bo Johnson

Bo Johnson

Bo is a comedian from Seattle, Washington. He can be found headlining clubs, breweries, and theaters across the United States and Canada. His stand-up has been featured on Netflix Is a Joke Radio, Comedy Central, and at many well-known v... Read More