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Arts + CultureCulturePapp Johnson: 'I'm telling jokes that will last for...

Papp Johnson: ‘I’m telling jokes that will last for generations to come’

From NBA prospect to standup player, the Oakland comedian looks ahead on new album 'Timeless'

Comedy albums tend to be topical and, with hundreds of new ones vying for attention each year, have short shelf lives. Any expectation of longevity becomes a tall order. 

But Oakland-born comedian Papp Johnson, who stands at 6’8”, is up for the challenge.

“I guess it’s just blind arrogance, but that’s what I want my comedy to be,” says Johnson, whose debut stand-up album, Timeless, comes out Aug. 11. “I’m telling jokes that will last for generations to come, where you come back to them and are like, ‘That joke still resonates and is hilarious no matter what.’”

Taped a year ago at Los Angeles’ now-defunct Comedy Nook, Timeless finds the comic (“Black-ish,” “That Damn Michael Che,” and “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,”) exploring perennial subjects including race, politics, social graces, parenting, sex, and relationships—all in his inimitable laid-back style. 

Nothing is off limits; the comedian even pokes fun at his tremendous height and his own johnson.

The 11-track album marks the relaunch of Kill Rock Stars’ comedy division, which previously released hilarious albums by Bay Area talents W. Kamau Bell and Emily Heller.

Johnson first broke out after winning San Francisco’s “Death at a Funeral” stand-up competition in 2010—while sitting down, injured—and has since graced numerous stages and festivals from the Bay (SF Sketchfest) to LA—and beyond.

I spoke to the comedian about creating enduring work, trading in his hoop dreams for a comedy career, and why height does matter. 

48 HILLS How are you so confident that your work will be appreciated in decades to come?

PAPP JOHNSON As an artist, that’s how I see myself. I’m trying not to limit myself in time. I know in 40 years, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton will be relevant because of what they’ve done already. And it’s like, OK, how can I look at this person in a different light? How can I make you say, “Dang, we might have missed a moment right there?” Or like my tickling joke where it’s like, yeah, tickling has been happening the whole time, but no one’s talked about the juicy details of what tickling entails. 

So I challenge myself with some intellectual stuff but also make it silly and stupid enough that you can have fun with it and not feel too bad about what I’m saying.

48 HILLS Were you always funny?

PAPP JOHNSON Yes. If you ask any of my classmates, they’ll say, “Yeah, you were meant to be on this path.” And I always used to have my family cracking up. I  grew up around a lot of shit-talkers. So I was raised by a lot of women, and they had a lot of problems. The best way to help them with their problems was for me to be the man that would keep them laughing. No matter the situation, let’s have a good laugh because those are the moments we share and cherish. So I bring that wherever I go.

48 HILLS You were originally on track to become an NBA player?

PAPP JOHNSON For a long time, I thought I would make it to the NBA, but I didn’t have a lot of mentors to tell me that you need to work hard and practice and do all those other things. I thought, “You just need to play basketball and you will make it to the NBA.” But it turns out it was harder than I imagined.

48 HILLS Everything changed for you on April 15th, 2010. Talk to me about that night.

PAPP JOHNSON So I had ruptured my Achilles while playing basketball a month earlier. I had already been thinking about doing comedy, but my friend signed me up for a national comedy competition based on the movie Death at a Funeral. I wrote a little funeral story. I practiced it in the mirror and had a few punchlines that I thought would hit. They did incredibly. I won like $1,000 that night and a bunch of T-shirts. And after that, I was like, “Oh, I’m a comedian. I’ve never made this much money in one night.” And I thought that’s how comedy would go for the rest of my time. But I was sadly mistaken.

48 HILLS So after winning the comedy competition, you became a regular at The New Parish and did shows with #HellaFunny at the Great Star Theater. When was that moment when you felt like it was time to move to LA?

PAPP JOHNSON I was crushing. So I was like, “Oh, I like this feeling.” But I also had a feeling of “There are only two comedy clubs out here, and I don’t necessarily see local comedians getting on those stages at Punch Line and Cobb’s. So I was like, “Even if I make it big in San Francisco, eventually I’m going to have to be in LA. So I just decided to test myself and come to LA in 2014 and try to be a big fish in the biggest pond there is. 

I’ve been enjoying that journey and it’s led me to Portland, Boise, and other places that landed me at Kill Rock Stars with this album. So I’m just so thankful for my blind arrogance.

48 HILLS Now you’re in LA and working on all these projects, from major commercials for Dunkin Donuts, Samsung, and Fox Sports to appearances on “Black-ish,” “That Damn Michael Che,” and “Wu-Tang: An American Saga.” How does that feel? 

PAPP JOHNSON It’s a dream. One of my favorite movies is Jim Carrey’s The Cable Guy where it’s a guy who has grown up watching television and knows all these characters and lines, trying to find some way to be a part of that world. He’s not an actor. He doesn’t envision himself on television. So he gets into the cable business to provide that service for somebody else. 

I’ve always seen myself as an actor but I never dared to get into it until I started doing comedy. So being a part of those big things, you see how much work goes into it.” These people are talented and good, but they’re also super hard workers and dedicated to their craft—and that is why they shine. So I’m working on carving out my craft and being able to shine in the way that I’m good at instead of placating or trying to mold myself into what I think an actor is. Bring who you are to that character and then shine full force. So it’s been an eye-opening and amazing journey for me.

Photo by Andrew Max Levy

48 HILLS I’ve always dreamed of being over 6 feet tall. What’s it like?

PAPP JOHNSON The good is you’re a superhuman. When I walk into a room, people know I’m in the room. People are interested off the top. They want to know what I ate to get this big. What do I do to get this tall? Like those types of things. Like it’s an easy conversation starter because people understand that I’m an anomaly, sadly. 

The bad would be concussions, hitting your head getting off the bus, out of an Uber, or walking into a home. Or people violating my personal space by trying to do a side-by-side with me or trying to big dog me to feel more powerful. 

But it is good. I get a few perks. I’m like a walking billboard, so I get free T-shirts and things. I got a great smile, so I’m like a jolly green giant in that way. 

48 HILLS Do you get hit on a lot?

PAPP JOHNSON People are drawn to me because I’m tall and think of myself as good-looking. I enjoy any compliments but I deny everybody because I have my lady. I just say, “Thank you.” It’s like, “Oh, you are touching my chest. That’s what’s up. Enjoy it while you can. But, you know, I’m off the market for everybody.”

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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