From the time she was a child, Punkie Johnson knew she was destined for a career in entertainment. Born and raised in New Orleans, the 37-year-old grew up in a home that promoted laughter, even during the darkest of times.
“My whole family was goofy,” Johnson said during an interview with The New YorkHER podcast. “My mom would – I would get in trouble and my mom would crack jokes on me as I was getting punished.” Her mother, Mary W. Johnson would also turn on the works of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor while cleaning the house on weekends, as opposed to playing music, like many other families did. These consistent influences of comedy, along with being an avid watcher of BET’s ComicView, moved her on a path of unimaginable success.
After graduating from Nicholls State University in Louisiana, followed by a brief stint back in her hometown, Punkie moved to Hollywood in order to start her journey in show business. She attended acting classes in Los Angeles; eventually landing a job at the world famous Comedy Store as a bartender. While waiting tables and observing the hundreds of comics grace the stage, she learned from many of the best in the industry, indirectly honing her craft in the process.
“‘I can’t believe I’m standing in this building.’ Because I just stumbled there,” the actress said about her employment at The Store in a discussion with NBC News. “I ended up there. I didn’t plan it, you know?” She worked night in and night out for almost a year before she would get her chance to shine on stage. Upon becoming a regular at this historic establishment, Punkie also landed a few acting roles in shows such as A Black Lady Sketch Show, Crank Yankers, and Netflix’s Space Force.
As far as stand-up was concerned, the future looked bright. She appeared at several comedy clubs, including Chicago’s Laugh Factory, as well the Straight Up, Stand Up Series in 2019, and Bill Burr Presents: The Ringers, in 2020. Just as things were about to really take off for the New Orleans native, an unforeseen event would change her life, as well as the world around her.
On March 11, 2020 the coronavirus outbreak was declared as a pandemic. For Punkie, it was a moment of uncertainty that would benefit the budding comedian in the long run. Due to COVID, the Comedy Store was shut down indefinitely, leading Johnson to move back to New Orleans, again. During this time, she earned two rounds of auditions for a spot on Saturday Night Live, wowing its creator Lorne Michaels. “We think you’ll be a good addition to the cast,” he said to Punkie on a confirmation phone call. She was cast as a featured player on SNL shortly thereafter, and made history while doing so.
Starting in its 46th season, Punkie became a member of the most famous sketch series in television history. In 2022, she was promoted as a regular prior to its 48th season. Johnson’s casting marked a milestone for the show, because she was the first Black, openly lesbian cast member, and the eighth black female in the show’s history. Following Danitra Vance, who was not publicly out during her lifetime, Punkie is also the second black LGBT woman to be a cast member, and the seventh LGBT cast member overall. Her journey to stardom – however unlikely – was certainly needed, especially for queer women of color.
“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.”