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Anjelah Johnson is unapologetically herself in new Netflix special

Anjelah Johnson (Photo: Netflix)
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Anjelah Johnson wants you to know that despite the fancy ring on her finger, despite all the fancy red carpet events she attends and the fancy first-class trips she takes, she is not, in fact, fancy. Her new hour-long special for Netflix, appropriately titled Anjelah Johnson: Not Fancy, begins with the former MadTV cast member listing off the moments when she felt like she didn’t quite belong in the fancy world she exists in now.

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But then she’s complaining about the smell and general discomfort of an overnight train. Johnson is contradictory in her own portrayal of herself. At times, she’s the outsider in a world of glitz and glam, and yet she’s the one wrinkling her nose at the outsiders. The conflicting points of view aren’t necessarily a pitfall for Not Fancy. Johnson does, at least, seem somewhat self-aware of these inconsistencies, and it quickly becomes clear that contradictions inform most of Johnson’s voice in Not Fancy, but the effectiveness of contradiction as a theme wavers. Wearing Forever 21 on the red carpet makes for a fine juxtaposition, but it doesn’t hit quite as hard as when Johnson talks about the complexity of being a Latina woman who doesn’t speak Spanish. And her delivery of “I love Jesus, but I will punch a hoe” kills.

When Johnson speaks about herself and her own experiences, she thrives. Her self-deprecating jokes about getting old and not being fancy enough can be really fun. It’s when Johnson starts to step outside of herself and comment on others that Not Fancy enters murky and detached territory. Her opening bit about being mistaken for a lesbian never finds its footing, and a joke about black people in movie theaters crosses over from off-target to hack. “I just do me,” Johnson says. “I can’t be anyone else but me,” and she indeed harnesses a completely “I don’t care what you think” energy throughout Not Fancy. She’s being her authentic self, and that authenticity makes her comedy visceral and personal. The jokes that have Johnson’s DNA all over them—about her family or her relationship with her husband—make for her best material. She also shines when she has a clear point to make, like in her material about how white people tend to conflate all of Latino culture into a single entity.

Johnson certainly has a specific and distinct way of delivering her jokes that lends to her candid comedic voice. Her bouncy cadence especially gives life to her act-outs, which are, again, the most fun when she’s playing up herself as opposed to others. Her act-out of trying to save a man having a seizure in a Starbucks is among the best moments of the hour, and her renderings of what she would be like as a cop or 911 operator are super fun. When she talks about her attempts to learn Spanish, she starts beatboxing and turns the phrase “bicicletas son verdes” into a banger worthy of a full song. It’s weird, and it’s genuine—a glimpse into Johnson’s mind.

But when she returns to the viral bit that defined the early stage of her career—an impression of a Vietnamese worker in a nail salon—it just feels like territory that isn’t worth retreading. Johnson makes it very clear in Not Fancy that she is going to be herself—for better or worse. Here, she even remarks on the backlash she has received for the initial bit, but that doesn’t stop her from repeating it. The racial stereotypes upon which her entire nail salon bit hinges are lazy, especially when they’re rehashed. Culturally specific humor, of course, can be extremely effective, and Johnson does it quite well most of the time. Not Fancy shows growth for the comedian: She possesses a self-awareness about her life and is self-deprecating in ways that come off as genuine. So why the need to return to a bit that has been done before?

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