From cheerleader to extra to TV star to stand-up comic: Anjelah Johnson has had a circuitous path to get to where she is now, a headliner with a full fan base. This is her second performance at the Granada, and, she thinks, her third in Santa Barbara. She’ll be bringing her clean — well, mostly clean — stand-up, as well as her well-loved characters Bon Qui Qui and the nameless nail salon worker whose incomprehensible language is part of the charm. Her second one-hour special, “The Homecoming Show,” aired last year on Comedy Central.
Ms. Johnson, who can claim both Mexican and Native American blood in her heritage, grew up in San Jose, which she describes as a “melting pot” of the best kind: big Latino population and big Vietnamese population. She bounced about through various high schools, including a performing arts high school, and then to an “independent studies high school” which she says was essentially her mom picking up her homework every week for her to finish.
“I moved away, not because I didn’t like my home town, but because I knew my dream was in L.A.,” she says. But she didn’t go to L.A. first. Instead, she tried out for the Oakland Raiders cheerleader squad. “I thought I’d try out and if I got in that would be my sign to pursue acting in L.A.” She not only got on the squad, but that was the year the Raiders went to the Superbowl, so she got the full experience. “A week after the Superbowl I packed my bags and moved to L.A. and I’ve been here ever since.”
The move to L.A. turned into a long struggle. She got extra work at first — if you check out Season 9 of the sitcom “Friends” you’ll see her perpetually walking past the “Central Perk” or sitting inside drinking an endless latte. There were the call-backs that looked like big breaks — including the ill-fated Kanye West pilot — but turned to nothing.
“It was a huge reality check,” she says about those low, low times. “I could do nothing but laugh. I mean, this is what I wanted to do. I was paying my dues.”
“But I truly felt in my heart that God was not done with me yet,” she continues. “I felt that there was something bigger and to keep trying.”
Her local church helped, and not just on the spiritual side. A popular church for actors, producers and writers, it began to offer joke-writing classes, so Ms. Johnson took it and out popped her nail salon character. To graduate from the class, all students had to perform weeks later at a real comedy club. It was an awesome night, she says. “Had it not been I wouldn’t have done it again. Stand-up wasn’t something I was pursuing; it wasn’t my dream.”
However, she was good at it and that led to getting a spot on Mad TV. (However, her debut season was hobbled by the writer’s strike, leaving her with only a short run on the show.)
“But it’s not so much that I’m a character comedian as they are my most popular bits,” she says. “I’m just a storyteller.”
Her current stand-up is an evolution and a refining from those earlier days.
“I’m more honest and real about who I am,” she says. “I felt like at the beginning of my career I would be who I thought people wanted me to be. I’d be ‘super-super Latina’ but it was not who I was. Now I’m like, guess what guys? I don’t even speak Spanish. I have a Rosetta stone, I’ve had it for six years, and I’m still on chapter one!”
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.
Information: 899-2222, granadasb.org