Laughter has the power to heal and process trauma, something comedian Josh Johnson understands wholeheartedly. “Being able to laugh at something personal that’s happened to you does give you a certain power over it,” he says. In his new Peacock special Josh Johnson: Up Here Killing Myself, the Louisiana native turns a therapy session into an hour of comedy. In this comedic exploration of Black mental health and self-discovery, Josh shares with his therapist, and the audience, his thoughts on growing up poor, grieving the loss of his father, gratitude and more.
“Comedy gave me this outlet: there’s nothing that’s too bad or too dark to be talked about or shared with people as an experience,” Johnson tells Reckon.
Josh Johnson: Up Here Killing Myself took the novel approach of alternating settings between a therapy session and a standup comedy performance. The special uses color narratively. The therapy scenes are shot in black and white, the standup in color. This method juxtaposes the seriousness of Johnson processing his trauma and his laughing at it. While mental health is often a taboo topic in the South, especially in Black households, Josh’s family believed in the power of therapy.
“I was lucky enough that my mom, my aunt, [and] family did believe in [therapy]. I always thought that [therapy] was important to incorporate in your life if you need it and something you should try even if you feel like you don’t,” Johnson says.
This foundational understanding inspired the structure of Josh Johnson: Up Here Killing Myself. The experiences that became his standup routine in the special began as something he didn’t know how to process. And through talk therapy and his love of comedy, Josh copes with his trauma.
“The first question happens in therapy, and then we end up on stage. Because that’s essentially the trajectory of the joke, I start out just struggling with these ideas, and by the time I tell them to other people; I’m set. I know how I feel about it, and I can make light of it, and we can all have a good time talking about it,” says Johnson.
In the special, most of Johnson’s trauma stems from poverty. Within the first 15 minutes, his therapist asks if growing up poor affected Josh’s outlook on life. He responds, “Well, it just hurts. You know, [because] when you’re poor, all you want to be, is not.” Although poverty is an experience many people can relate to, sharing your trauma publicly is no easy feat. But for Josh being able to take control and laugh at what happened to him is key to his healing process. The one story that was hard to tell was a run-in with a cop who stopped Josh and his family on Thanksgiving. While Josh and his family feared the worst, it ends with the cop giving them a turkey, albeit a weird way to go about doing a good deed.
“The hardest was maybe the turkey story, just because I know that people are so tense while I’m telling the first half that it then makes me like, all right, I know this ends well, at least enough for me to be here now. So you at least know I survived. But I can see how tense that moment is. And so that one was where I wanted to make sure that people came back with me once all the reveals happened,” says Johnson.
In the Peacock comedy special, Josh also shares how he grieved his father’s death. It took time, and he struggled with regret, but it ultimately taught him not to take life for granted. “I missed [my dad] a lot and didn’t know if I had done everything [right]. I did everything I could toward his passing, but I don’t know if I did enough. It’s hard to put that pressure on yourself as a kid, but I didn’t know if I did enough to be a good son. It’s one of the reasons why [I] changed [how] I talk to and treat people. You never know how long you have with someone,” Johnson tells Reckon. But he understands healing isn’t linear and has his days when grief consumes him, whether in moments of sadness or joy.
“There’s still days where I have milestones in my life where he’s not there that I take stock [of] and appreciate the time I did have with him. But accept that [his constant presence is] just not part of the story now,” he says.
Johnson has developed a fresh outlook on gratitude by using comedy to process his grief and trauma, a perspective that looks at the glass half full rather than empty. Despite his life obstacles, he believes that “accepting how good a person might have it, even if it doesn’t feel like it, is gratitude for what’s there.”
“Imagine you’re talking to someone, and they talk about how no one ever listens to them when they have problems, and you’re literally listening right now. You’re like, well then, who am I? And that thing, I think, is probably at the center of what not being grateful looks like, to have the thing that you’re pining over and not recognize it,” Johnson tells Reckon.
The Emmy-nominated comedian often takes stock of his life to remember to be grateful. He lets people in his life know they are appreciated any chance he can. “Even if it’s a small gesture [or] getting to know someone, and all we have is five minutes together, I’m still happy that they were a part of my life in any way,” says Johnson.
Johnson sees his journey as something that’s molded him into who he is today, appreciating the highs and the lessons that came from the lows. Comedy gave him the bravery to go out into the world, meet people, and experience new things. “I think most of my life I owe to comedy, in a sense. I don’t think I would be this version of myself if I hadn’t gone after that specifically,” Johnson tells Reckon.
Josh Johnson: Up Here Killing Myself is streaming now on Peacock.