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With 12 siblings, comic Zainab Johnson has plenty to joke about in new special

Writer, actor and comedian Zainab Johnson is one of 13 siblings who grew up in a Muslim family in Harlem. She jokes about all of it in her new Prime Video special <em>Hijabs Off.</em>
Matthew Misisco
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Zainab Johnson
Writer, actor and comedian Zainab Johnson is one of 13 siblings who grew up in a Muslim family in Harlem. She jokes about all of it in her new Prime Video special Hijabs Off.

Comedian, writer and actor Zainab Johnson is known for telling stories about dating, being a Black Muslim in America and her very big family.

"You know in a house with 15 people, a journal ain't safe," she jokes in her new standup special Hijabs Off on Prime Video, "They were so disrespectful. They read my journal, made notes, corrected my grammar... Like, 'You've been talking about him for two years. Let it go.'"

Johnson is also returning as a cast member in the third season of the sci-fi comedy Upload.

For someone so funny, off stage Johnson can be pretty serious. Raised by a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked for New York City's transit authority and then managed buildings, she says writing jokes was not her first career choice.

"I studied math and education. I thought I would be a teacher in another life. Maybe I would have been a lawyer. I'm an amazing debater," she tells NPR, "but the first time I did standup comedy, it felt very different than anything I had ever done. It felt like this was already a part of me."

Like so many aspiring comics, Zainab began her career doing open mics several nights a week. In her new special, she explains that open mics aren't like regular comedy clubs. Audiences, she says "were there to smoke hookah," not watch a rookie try to hone her jokes.

Her first big break came when her friend and fellow comedian Wil Sylvince urged her to drive from LA to Sacramento to try and convince Shawn and Marlon Wayans to be part of one of their shows, resulting her first, paid standup set.

Another big break came in 2014 when Wanda Sykes and her producing partner Page Hurwitz invited Johnson to compete in the NBC-TV series Last Comic Standing.

"There's nobody like her in standup," says Hurwitz who recalled that, at the time, Johnson was bald, which you also "don't see very often with women in comedy."

Johnson has mined her bald period for standup material. "Women were like, 'Wow you must feel so free, so spiritually lifted.' I was like, 'It was Tuesday. I didn't feel like doing my hair. So I shaved it off,'" she says in one.

Zainab Johnson as Aleesha and Kevin Bigley as Luke in the sci-fi comedy <em>Upload</em>.
Liane Henstcher / Liane Hentscher/Prime Video
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Liane Hentscher/Prime Video
Zainab Johnson as Aleesha and Kevin Bigley as Luke in the sci-fi comedy Upload.

Hurwitz says Johnson knows how to hit "the sweet spot" of comedy.

"She can be silly and absurd, but she can also just give you a really good gut punch with a line that's so poignant and substantive," she says.

That mix of silly and serious seems to come naturally for Johnson. But, she says, her family didn't always think so.

"I was talking to my mom a couple of weeks ago and I was like, 'Was I funny as a kid? And she was like, 'No,'" Johnson laughs. The first time one of her younger brothers watched her standup, he confessed he was terrified she would bomb, "'Because I don't ever remember you being funny,'" Johnson recalls him telling her.

Cat's out of the bag now. Johnson is a regular on the comedy club circuit. In addition to her recurring role on the Prime Video series Upload, she's appeared on Ramy, A Black Lady Sketch Showand the kids' series Tab Time.

In Hijabs Off Johnson spins some not-so-funny topics into laugh-out-loud anecdotes, including a traumatic personal experience from her childhood.

Without giving too much away, Johnson found herself, alone, in a dangerous situation when she was seven years old. The comic relief comes when she tells the audience she escaped, running down "25 flights of concrete steps and didn't fall once." She goes on to say she has trouble watching horror movies because, "Every time the girl fell I was like 'Well that don't need to happen. My 7-year-old legs made it. You're a cheerleader, right? You got this.'"

For Zainab Johnson, that's part of the power of comedy, to allow people to both process and bring levity to painful experiences.

As a Black Muslim, she also hopes her personal stories help non-Muslims see how much they all have in common.

"To walk into a room and try and make a body of strangers laugh and they all come from very different places and walks of life... That's a very difficult thing, but it is also very rewarding when you do it."

Johnson says her next project is developing a TV show based on her life growing up in Harlem with her parents and 12 brothers and sisters.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.