Zainab Johnson walked by Harlem Stage often as a child, wondering what happened inside the 1890 gatehouse. Now she’s on the inside, metaphorically and literally, having filmed her debut hour stand-up special in the round there for Amazon Prime Video. Much may have changed in Harlem since Johnson were a child. But how much has she changed?
ZAINAB JOHNSON: HIJABS OFF: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Prime Video subscribers may recognize Johnson from her role as Aleesha, one of the handlers in Upload, which just premiered its third season. Corporate synergy!
Johnson also serves as one of the hosts for Netflix’s 100 Humans.
Her debut special explores her identity as a Black female Muslim, having 12 siblings, and growing up in Harlem. It’s produced by All Things Comedy (who coincidentally also produced this week’s other major streaming stand-up release, for Pete Holmes at Netflix), and directed by Marcus Russell Price, who has a longer history as a still photographer and/or cinematographer for plenty of comedians, and previously directed Nimesh Patel’s 2022 YouTube special, Thank You China.
What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: The look and feel of Johnson’s debut resembles that of another young Muslim-American, Ramy Youssef’s Feelings, or even more akin to Jerrod Carmichael’s 8.
Memorable Jokes: Johnson addresses her lack of a hijab and how that may reflect upon her as a good practicing Muslim at the beginning of the hour, noting harassment from “the haram police” but having an easy, quick retort when they ask: “You don’t cover your hair? Well, this is a wig, so…”
We learn exactly what kind of a Muslim she is, and how she realized that being Black and Muslim meant something completely different after 9/11. As well as how she might “play dumb” to the point of portraying herself as a sloppy drunk with a baby voice, but only if it might convince the right man to marry her or keep her safe after the end of the world.
She has some fun playing with the paradox of her name, too. Zainab: Super popular among Arabs, which she points out most playfully juxtaposing her inability to find her name in American souvenir shops with a white Jessica stumped looking for hers in the Middle East. “I feel like the Johnson saves me,” she jokes, in reference to potential Islamophobia. But she’s also quick to let us know that she’s one of 13 kids, and because her parents converted to Islam, they only began passing down their new Muslim surname to the younger half of her siblings. Which has resulted in more than a few awkward situations with government officials.
She singles out a few of her siblings for extra ribbing; among them, a gold-digging sister who married a white British doctor 30 years older than her and who introduces herself as Dr. Mrs.; a sister who’s a stripper; and a brother who she suspected might be gay. On the latter point, Johnson explains how that joke about her younger brother means more to her because of her experience telling it in her first late-night TV set, and walks us through that whole experience.
For reference, this is her set on Late Night with Seth Meyers from 2018:
And then there’s the story she tells near the end about how her father tried to teach her how to make her way safely around Harlem as a young girl — “not this Harlem,” mind you — and an experience she had going to the store alone at age 7 ended quite unsafe, and perhaps the opposite of Netflix’s Old Enough!, in that an old man led her into dangerous territory with the promise of $5 and candy.
Our Take: Don’t worry, though. Johnson’s stories have happy endings. She’s not here to trauma dump.
But she is willing to make things quiet and uncomfortable. The way she paces her performance is much like Carmichael’s, more pensive, more open to pausing and taking in what the audience is giving her (or not giving).
Almost a half-hour in, she even stops the flow of the show to address why she decided to film her debut in the round, with a joke about in her first warm-up gig for this taping, a man in the front row had kept his eyes closed to prevent him from seeing Johnson’s butt. That wasn’t the issue here. Instead, she confesses: “If anything you all might be more distracted by my hair separating from my tracks.” Why would she tell us? “I felt like I should say it,” she continued, because she knew that audience members could see, and she wanted them to know she knew, too. “I want you to know, sis, I see you, I hear you, and we’re gonna have fun, regardless.”
And at the end, Johnson also acknowledges that she didn’t write a funny ending to the story of what happened to her on the roof of a Harlem building when she was 7 “because that’s what happens in life.” You’ve got to keep going, keep striving. She did, at least, tell us also that she decided to wait until the end to get more serious, wanting to know for sure that we could handle it first. And she wants us to know she has put in the time and effort to get things right, and has gone to great lengths to be the comedian she’s always wanted to become, referencing her opening act for the taping (Wil Sylvince, whom we don’t see onscreen) and how his belief in her was so strong that he persuaded her to drive six hours from Los Angeles to Sacramento, just to ask Shawn and Marlon Wayans if she could perform a five-minute guest set on their tour stop. She was only a year into stand-up, and she’d never earned money for stand-up, but she made that drive anyhow. Of course it paid off.
Our Call: STREAM IT. There’s a bit in which Johnson claims that Hollywood’s paranoia over inclusion has benefited her as a Black Muslim woman, making her “a diversity trifecta.” She adds: “If I were gay, this wouldn’t be a comedy show this would be a TED Talk.” Those shouldn’t be selling points for watching this hour, but it’s a net positive nevertheless for voices like Johnson’s to be seen and heard in comedy.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat. He also podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.