TV | February 17, 2023 5:44 am

How Josh Johnson Uses His Therapy for Laughs

The Emmy-nominated comedian frames his new standup special ("Up Here Killing Myself") around real-life trauma. And yes, it's funny.

Comedian Josh Johnson, who used therapy sessions to frame his new comedy special on Peacock
Josh Johnson: Using therapy to turn trauma into laughter
John Cafaro

“A lot of trauma is funny.”

Josh Johnson isn’t trying to mock pain. He’s trying to deal with it in the best way he knows how: On a standup stage. 

His new special on Peacock, Josh Johnson: Up Here Killing Myself — the title seems a bit extreme until you get to the gut punch at the end — is the comedian’s second streaming special after the well-received 2021 Comedy Central special #(Hashtag). In the new set, Johnson deals candidly with money, a stalker, family relationships and other real-life situations.

And, most importantly, his own mental health. 

What makes Up Here Killing Myself unique is the framing: The set is loosely based around real-life situations Johnson was sharing with his therapist; the interstitial moments of the special take place in a makeshift therapist’s office, then often cut directly to the standup.

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First, a little background: Based in New York City, Johnson may not be instantly recognizable but he’s already an Emmy-nominated writer, performer and NAACP award-winner. He’s currently a writer on The Daily Show and a former writer and performer on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Outside of those accolades, he’s also released a music/comedy mixtape and currently co-hosts two podcasts, The Josh Johnson Show (with fellow stand-up Logan Nielsen) and Hold Up (with The Daily Show colleague Dulcé Sloan).

“I think I’m in the phase of people squinting at me and saying ‘I know you from somewhere, you did something’ level of fame,” he says. “Maybe someday I’ll be open-eye famous.” (He is not, however, the veteran backup NFL QB with the same name, but the stand-up says he “knows every time that Josh has a good or a bad game based on the hateful DMs I get.”)

Johnson wasn’t using these therapist trips to test out new material. But he does admit that the two worlds cross over a little. “There was definitely a moment where [the therapist] was like, you don’t have to perform here, because I guess in a sense I was kind of padding everything rather than just speaking,” he says. 

Johnson’s special is full of real-life pain — many tales regarding his poor upbringing — but he also takes time to make amusing everyday observations (e.g. microwaving fish at work is akin to terrorism). But the set highlight is stark: It’s a long, emotionally painful story about losing a family member and how people express grief, which — spoiler alert — somehow ties back perfectly into an earlier, seemingly unrelated anecdote about a guy who publicly shits his pants.

And that’s what most of the special is really about: Sharing pain, publicly, with humor. Or, as he puts it, “Laughing is a way to exhale hurt.”

As a writer and performer, Johnson has a unique outlet for his grief. He does recommend therapy if you can get access. but most importantly, just talking to anyone. “If you feel out of place in the world, you feel it might only be you [having those feelings],” he says. “Being able to say those things to anyone is a life-changing thing for a lot of people…but even talking to someone professionally, that could be a placeholder. Therapy is playing a role, but you should be talking to people. It’s not a replacement for community.” 

Again, Johnson’s special is more funny than soul-bearing confessional; don’t go into this thinking you’re headed for a downer. But do recognize that comedy and pain often go hand-in-hand.

“I think there are six stages of grief,” he says. “They talk about the five stages. I think when you can truly laugh about something, that’s the most definite stage of being over something.” 

Josh Johnson: Up Here Killing Myself debuts on Peacock on Feb. 17