[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]
It’s been a week since Punkie Johnson wrapped her first season on “Saturday Night Live,” and she still can’t believe it happened. She can’t believe she was cast, or that her mom got to say, “It’s Saturday night!” for the show’s cold open, or that she has the number of the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, in her phone.
“It wasn’t even a dream because I never thought that I would get there. That’s how surprised I was,” she said. “I'm just this little lesbian chick from New Orleans who is just enjoying life doing comedy and thinking that's it.”
Johnson, 36, made history as the first out Black queer woman cast on the show. She joined other LGBTQ cast members Kate McKinnon and Bowen Yang. Danitra Vance, a Black lesbian who starred on “SNL” in the mid-1980s, was not out publicly when she was on the show.
When it comes to representation, Johnson said she has been honored by the messages of support she received when she was cast. “My heart just opened up,” she said. “I want this responsibility.”
A longtime comedian and performer, Johnson has starred in TV shows including “Space Force,” “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and “Corporate.” She got her start at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where she began as a server. Even waiting tables there was competitive, she said, adding that when she arrived for her interview, there were at least 70 people vying for the job.
“And that was when I made a deal with God and the universe,” she said. “I was like, ‘If I get this job, that means that I'm supposed to do comedy.’”
Johnson grew up in a home that instilled an early love of laughter. Her mother, Mary W. Johnson, has been watching “SNL” since the 1980s and has never missed an episode. She raised her daughter on the work of Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle. When her mom cleaned the house, she wouldn’t turn on music, but rather people who made her laugh, Johnson recalled.
“It was just comedy all day, but I didn’t know how to get into it,” Johnson said. “So I just went to acting school.”
Johnson attended acting classes in Los Angeles. She’d saved up after college, bartending in New Orleans until she had enough money to pack everything into her Honda and head west. She had enough to sustain her for six months, but when the money started running out she began looking for jobs. The Comedy Store was hiring.
“When I get in there, I see names on a wall, Robin Williams, Jimmie Walker, and my soul just was like, ‘I can't believe I'm standing in this building.’ Because I just stumbled there. I ended up there. I didn't plan it, you know?” She got the job and spent six months quietly waiting tables, listening and learning.
Her comedy is direct and honest. She pulls from her personal life, talking about queer relationships, the gay community and her family. In those early days, even though she worked at The Comedy Store, she still had to put her name down on the open mic list and hope to be selected. Sometimes, there would be hundreds of names. They’d pick 16. She put her name on the list for a year before she got a spot on stage.
When asked what kept her what kept her going, she said, “You ever just keep failing at something, but you want the torture of it? I tried to do everything. I tried to write a book. I tried to be a rapper. I tried to be a teacher,” she said. “With this, I just didn’t want to quit. I’m going to take the rejection. I’m going to take the failure.”
The call to audition for “Saturday Night Live” came in the middle of the pandemic. By this point she’d been working as a comedian in Los Angeles full-time, but when the pandemic hit, she went home to New Orleans.
“Everyone moved back in with their mom, right?” she said. “No matter how old you were, if you didn’t have a job, you could’ve been 50 years old, you move back home with mom.”
When everything shut down, she was unable to perform, and also couldn’t wait tables or bartend. She started looking at Amazon warehouse jobs because they were paying $20 an hour. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to have to humble myself,’” she said.
Amid the uncertainty, she went through two rounds of taped auditions and did a dozen or more characters, including Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington and NeNe Leakes from the “Housewives” franchise. When she sent her second tape off, “it was a wish and a prayer,” she said. “Usually after doing an audition, I forget about it immediately because I don’t want to stress over it. And I was like, ‘It’s “SNL,” what would they want with me?’”
A few weeks later, it was football Sunday, and Johnson was on her way to the liquor store, doing a tequila run, when Lorne Michaels, the creator and producer of “SNL,” gave her a call. As he spoke, the nerves hit. She began sweating. “I looked like I just jumped out of a dunk tank, you know? My face is soaking wet.”
They spoke for 15 minutes before she heard the words, “We think you'll be a good addition to the cast.”
Before Johnson left for New York, her mother took her shopping at Hollister. (“The only place I can find jeans to fit my a-- is this white boy surfer store,” she said.) They had a small family barbecue, and Johnson packed her bags.
Her mom tucked photos into Johnson’s suitcase, hiding them among her things. When she found them, she saw her mom had written on the back of two of them. One said, “I can’t believe you did it. I’m so proud of you,” and another said, “Now you’re one step closer to paying me back for giving you life.”
When asked to reflect on her debut season of “Saturday Night Live” and what the future holds, Johnson said: “Comedy is one thing that sets me free … It's where I feel at home. It's where I feel safest.”