Born and raised in New York, Zainab Johnson is an incredibly hilarious comedian, whose comedy is based on her unique point of view, which was shaped growing up in Harlem as one of thirteen siblings in a Muslim family. We spoke to her about the Epix stand-up series UNPROTECTED SETS.
What can we expect to see from your episode of UNPROTECTED SETS?
Zainab Johnson: I think what I’m always trying to achieve, and I think you get it on this show, is inviting people into my world. So you watch me, whether it’s on stage, or whether you watch me in the docu-style interviews, and you get to know me. You get to know who I am, and where my humor and topics come from. You know why my perspective is the way it is, and hopefully, after doing that, you’re laughing, having a good time, or feeling something significant enough that it’s memorable.
What was it like to do UNPROTECTED SETS, where they encouraged a “no limits” focus for your material?
Yeah, I think that was the beauty of UNPROTECTED SETS. Wanda [Sykes] and Page [Hurwitz], the producers, they’re comedians. So they understand why it’s important to not restrict the creativity of the artist. For me, two things happened. One, I’m never concerned about language for any of the shows I perform on, because my language is never necessarily offensive. But some of my set that I chose to do on this addresses a lot of social, color, and political issues. I was happy that no one came back and said “oh, you can’t do that,” or “this isn’t appropriate.” There was the freedom to try and make conversation that is usually hard. Like I talk about #MeToo in a very different way than it’s talked about right now. I just felt like “wow, I get the freedom and the encouragement to broach this topic that is very sensitive.” Even when you’re in a club, even when it’s not taped, it’s sensitive, because people feel a very specific way about it. The fact that I was able to talk about it on TV was really good.
How did you try to balance out your set with bigger political topics and jokes about your personal life?
I think that most times, it’s seamlessly weaves in and out one another. Meaning that by virtue of being a black woman, a sister to twelve other siblings, me being Muslim – all of those things are already political, you know? So it makes it easy because that is my foundation, that is my person. It makes it easy for me to weave in and out of my personal life, my family life, into those topics, because I’m actually living it. And I prefer to hear people speak on something they’re actually experiencing, versus someone who is “an expert” by literature, or commenting outside of it, if that makes sense.
I know you also dig into these topics with your podcast. Do you find there’s a difference between how you talk about these topics on your podcast versus your stand-up?
Absolutely. On my podcast, I have the freedom of conversing about something without the pressure of it being funny. Like on UNPROTECTED SETS, it’s like “yeah, I want to talk about what I want to talk about, and I want to talk about some serious issues, but there has to be laughs.” That’s comedy. If there’s no laughs, then it’s not comedy. And with my podcast, I have the freedom sometimes where if it’s funny, cool, but that is not the main goal. The main goal is to start a conversation that I hope continues beyond my podcast, about issues that are going on in the world amongst a generation of people that the public isn’t as quick to speak either the honesty of it, or the not so popular opinion.
Like recently, on my podcast, I posed the question of should a person who falsely accuses another person of sexual assault have to do some sort of time, or be criminalized in the same way as someone who actually did it? And I think that’s a very hard question for people to answer, because it seems like a lesser offense, but I mean, is it? Or isn’t it? I like to approach the topics on my podcast in a way that I can’t necessarily onstage, because sometimes I don’t know how to make it funny yet, so I can’t talk about it on stage, but my podcast is where I can figure out how to make it funny.
It’s also a way where I can discover a lot of ideas. My podcast is just me. I’ve only ever had one guest, it was my mother, and it’s probably the highest listened to episode. We talk about respect to elders, even in my opinion, when the elders aren’t showing you respect. And that’s something everybody deals with – how do I respect my mother, or grandmother, or father, when they don’t respect me? So because I do the podcast alone, it’s like 30 minutes of me hearing myself. You know how sometimes, when you have a conversation, you may just be reacting to somebody else’s ideas. But when I’m just talking by myself, I really get an idea of how I feel about things, what I’m struggling with, and how I communicate.
How did you get your start with comedy, and how long do you think it took to find your voice & approach?
I like to think of my comedy as conversational, and I found that out really early in my process. I would tell my friends stories, and they’d be like “that’s a great story, you should say that on stage.” Then I would write it, I’d say it on stage, and it would be lacking everything that I had when I told it to my friends. I was like “oh, something’s getting lost in translation.” So very early on, I stopped writing material, and I started to just talk on stage. Like I would go into a show or open mic with a topic, or an idea, and then I’d just spend the five minutes with no script, trying to flesh it out. I recorded myself, and I studied myself almost like it wasn’t me. I was like “I need to have that every single time – this is great! I feel like I’m a fly on a wall, and I’m just watching this girl converse with a group of people.”
Once I learned that about myself, it was always my goal to achieve that when I was on stage. Now in terms of my voice, I think that I have a good sense of who I am. My ongoing journey is to keep developing it, and cultivating it. Comedy has honestly made me so much more confident in who I am. Like “this is me, and this is okay, and I share the world with how and why I’m me.” It’s made me so much more comfortable in my every day life, existing how I exist, being the person that I am, and being proud of myself. I feel like it’s interchangeable – life is helping comedy, but comedy is helping life, you know? (laughs)
Zainab’s episode of UNPROTECTED SETS airs tonight, Friday October 5th, at 11:00 PM.
UNPROTECTED SETS is an intelligent, provocative, and original new series that takes an unfiltered look at stand up through the eyes of the funniest working comedians from across the country…who are poised to become the next big names in comedy. From executive producers Wanda Sykes and Page Hurwitz (Push It Productions) & Barry Poznick, President of MGM’s Unscripted Television and MGM Television, new episodes of Unprotected Sets will air every Friday at 11:00 p.m. ET/PT on EPIX.