Tales of employees working their way up from a mailroom are as old as time, but what about the path from a comedy club’s front door to its stage? That tale is uniquely Jessie Johnson’s.
The LA-based comedian has recently risen in popularity on Instagram and TikTok, alongside her work on the Bad Friends podcast with Andrew Santino and Bobby Lee. Johnson performs at the San Jose Improv this Wednesday, January 18, as part of her recent stint of headlining shows.
Although she’s just beginning to headline, Johnson has been crafting her comedic prowess for more than 15 years, going all the way back to high school. There, she began performing with her school’s sketch comedy group, “Friday Night Live,” which she first learned about through marching band friends (fun fact: Johnson plays the trumpet and was a drum major).
“I had gone to one of the shows before I got to high school, and when I started [as a student], I heard they were doing auditions,” she says.
The sketch team put on two shows per semester, all of which were written by the students and performed for the entire school. For Johnson, it was her first foray into seeing all that went into the craft.
“We learned about writing scripts, selling tickets, rehearsing, blocking, all that kind of stuff,” she says. “And we had a teacher who really let us run things.”
That teacher, Simon Navarro, was helpful for Johnson as she continued with “Friday Night Live,” eventually becoming its first female director in her senior year. To Johnson, Navarro served as the “morality bar” for the group, and helped her to understand how to play to the audience.
She recalls Navarro scheduling a lunch one day before high school graduation to say he really believed in her comedic chops.
“He basically told me music was a bad idea, but that he really saw the future for me and comedy, and strongly urged me to go into screenwriting or some field of entertainment,” she says.
Yet, after graduating high school, Johnson pivoted back to trumpet, earning a full-ride music scholarship to Northern Arizona University. But Navarro’s advice rang true and, after just a year, she realized that her potential future with music didn’t compare to her potential future in comedy.
“There was a deep part of me that really wanted to do something in the form of comedy,” she says.
She didn’t exactly know how to get back into the field, but it didn’t take long before she found new sketch groups, including “Bully Mammoth,” who performed regularly at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The group had a stand-up comedian open each show, which gave her a chance to learn the form more.
“It was this thing that I could never really do, but I really respected it,” Johnson explains. “[Stand-up] felt impossible for me because I had such terrible stage fright.”
She got over those fears with help from stand-ups like Sean McCarthy, who ran an open mic at the Ice House, a small dive bar connected to a hockey rink behind a Wal-Mart. There, she got ready for more opportunities.
“Once you start doing it, you’ll meet the other comics and they usually have shows, and you kind of jump in pretty quickly from there on out.”
And jump she did. She continued honing her comedic chops in Arizona, while also receiving her Associate’s degree in Film Production from Scottsdale Community College. In May 2017, Johnson moved from Arizona to Los Angeles, with the help of childhood friend (and current Saturday Night Live featured player) Michael Longfellow.
In Los Angeles, Johnson started with the podcast Kill Tony, and soon joined the band as their trumpet player. Since then, she’s become a regular with Bobby Lee and Andrew Santino on their podcast Bad Friends, and has recently opened for some comedic heroes: Pauly Shore, Annie Lederman and Anthony Jeselnick.
Now stage fright is a thing of the past, and Johnson is grateful for all that she’s been able to do in the years since Friday Night Live.
“There’s just the experience of meeting and working with these people that I didn’t even think I’d ever meet, let alone share stages with…it’s rare to have this many mentors, but I’m really thankful for it.”
Wed, 8pm, $20
The Improv, San Jose