How 'Saturday Night Live' Star Punkie Johnson Is Using Music to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Punkie Johnson says she is looking to fill the music void Pete Davidson left behind on 'Saturday Night Live,' after creating viral song with SZA.

Punkie Johnson SNL

Image via NBC

Punkie Johnson SNL

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Punkie Johnson’s life changed for the better.

While the rest of the world struggled to adjust to the results of a global pandemic, the comedian got a call from her agent asking if she wanted to audition for Saturday Night LiveJohnson did, and the rest is history. Prior to that, Johnson was set to leave New York and move back to Los Angeles to continue pursuing comedy while working as a bartender to make ends meet, but instead, she became the eighth Black woman to be a cast member on the legendary sketch comedy show. 

Starting a TV career on SNL is like starting a singing career at the Super Bowl. While she had done stand-up for nearly 10 years, working at The Comedy Store in LA as a paid regular and appearing on a number of shows like Space Force and A Black Lady Sketch Show, she still feels like SNL is her start. She may not have the preparation her colleagues have, but she has the skills and dedication necessary to make it on the show—already delivering some of the most praised (and viral) musical moments of this season. “When I first got there I started talking to the cast about their past. A lot of them went to school at The Second City, The Groundlings,” Johnson tells Complex. “II didn’t have any of that experience. So a person like me, I got to get in where I fit in.”

The NBC show, which aired its first episode in 1975, is responsible for introducing some of Hollywood’s biggest names who have gone on to have remarkable careers, like Eddie Murphy—whom Johnson wants to model her career after. The legendary comedians’ headshots fill the hallways at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and while impostor syndrome weighs heavy on Johnson at times, seeing them and all they have become since their time on the show gives her the push to keep going.

She first joined the show for Season 46 amid social distancing rules that kept her apart from the rest of the crew. Now in Season 48, Johnson feels more confident in her abilities and is finding her place on the show. Complex hopped on a call with Johnson to chat about her experience on SNL so far, the responsibility she feels to uplift Black women and the LGBTQ+ community through her performances, and being the one to provide the show’s musical moments following Pete Davidson’s departure. Check out our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity below, and check out Punkie Johnson live from New York City on SNL this Saturday on NBC. 

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Can you talk to me a little bit about where you are right now in your career?

My career right now is somewhere I never thought I would be. Honestly, I thought I was going to be a comedian, do tours, and maybe book a little role here and there. But then COVID hit, and I got this audition for SNL. Throughout my 10 years of doing comedy, people always told me, “You’re never going to be on network television.” It’s crazy what people say in those rooms. I don’t think they understand how much they hurt your feelings, but I actually started believing that. And then I got this audition. Then a month later, I got the phone call and they were like, “Yeah, we are going to put you on a plane tomorrow to SNL.” I’m still surprised. Every day I walk into that building like, “Girl, what the hell are you doing here?” 

How are you feeling about this season of SNL so far?

The season is going well. I do the best that I can with the opportunities that I have. It’s a hard job. I’ve read about people who have done SNL and many things they say are true. You’re sleep deprived, but also, they give you breaks. We get these two-week hiatus so we can recharge and reset. So I’m just happy. The season’s going by so fast. The year started off really well for me. I had a great show with Aubrey Plaza and with Michael B. Jordan. I got to touch him and feel him.

I had a moment with him that went crazy viral. Everybody still hits me up to this day like, “What does he feel like? What does he smell like?” One person told me, “This is a waste, Punkie. It’s a waste that you get to do that with Michael B. Jordan because you’re gay.”

Well, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the finer things in life.

Yeah, it was fun playing with him. And then I had a great show because we did “Lisa From Temecula.” I had a really good moment in that and people keep tweeting me about that too. So I’ve had a really great first start to this year. My goal is to get on that Weekend Update desk. I gotta get up there this year.

Punkie Johnson SNL

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How involved do you get with the writers and everything they do behind the scenes?

So with the writing or whatever, everybody has their pods. You can do your own thing or with another person or with them. When I first started, it was COVID. I did a lot of things alone. I had to learn all of that by myself because we weren’t allowed to really see each other. So I didn’t really have friends. It was tough. The second year we were able to be around each other a little bit more. I found me a little squad and I worked strictly with them.

Now this year, I’m watching everything because they are just throwing you in the water. We ain’t kids, they ain’t going to walk you through it. So I’m working with other writers. Every week I’m dipping from person to person and seeing if we vibe on something. If we do, then we’ll write a sketch. If not, you go to the next person. I’m learning how to work the writing system over there. And that also helps because then I get to see the different writers’ processes and it all helps me too.

Did SNL reach out to you and do you know how they found you or how they came across you to ask you to audition?

That is a good question that I never asked myself. I have no idea. My manager just hit me up. I don’t know if there was a request. I don’t know if it was open casting and it was just the time when people submitted for SNL

To this day, whoever said I was the right fit, I still think they’re crazy. Sometimes I feel like I’m just way in over my head. Those people are so good at what they do and just coming in there with a lack of experience just made me run a lot and hide. But I’m coming out of my shell more. People don’t notice, it doesn’t seem like it, but yo, I’m really shy low key and I’m awkward in social events. I’m super, super timid to be in front of people. I don’t like big events and everything about this job is big. But I’m learning how to be around people. I still can’t believe it, honestly. I don’t know when it’s going to really sink in that I’m on the show. It’s crazy. I’m on SNL. What?

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SNL had some backlash regarding representation and the lack of, especially Black women, in the cast. How does it feel for you to now be part of this new generation on the show?

Honestly, it’s an overwhelming feeling. Everyone who’s ever done SNL has headshots hanging on the wall in that building. I look at all of these people and I just try to suck in all of their energy and talent that they have, I like to stand there and just try to breathe them in. I know I’m getting a little creepy. I feel crazy when I do it, but it’s just something that I do and I have to do it. And honestly, I found out I’m the eighth Black woman on this show. And that is also overwhelming as well. 

Sometimes I am like, “I don’t know if I can do this. Maybe I’m not meant for this.” Then I walk outside of NBC and there are Black women out there and they are like, “Y’all just really don’t know what this means for us to see you in there go on this show.” It’s stuff like that that makes me say, “All right, you big dummy. What are you talking about?” Everything is hard. This ain’t for the weak. Toughen up, get your head out of your ass, and go do your damn job.

For sure. 

Stop all this pity shit on yourself. Go handle your business. So it’s stuff like that. They are like, “Y’all have no idea. Y’all representing for the culture.” Even gay people come up there to see a woman like you on the show.” That’s the type of stuff that helps me wake up in the morning. It lets me know that it comes with a responsibility. You want to make sure you do it some justice and do the best that you could do for the people that are outside because it’s not about me anymore. It’s bigger.

People from SNL have gone on to have these incredible, fantastic careers. When you see them on the wall and see where you are now, how does that make you feel about your future and where you want to go with your career as a comedian, an actress, or as a performer?

Well, number one, SNL carries a lot of weight. At this point in my career, I can go to any club that I want to without calling. I could just show up off the strength of SNL. I never do the time because I always want to respect the clock and respect the comedians that are there and I don’t really like to bump people like that. But it just feels good to know that I can. I don’t know if that makes sense. 

It also helps me to get in the rooms. If I want to make a movie or a TV show, just having SNL helps to talk to these people and people to want to work with me. It’s like when you go to job interviews and they see that you completed college. It’s not what you majored in. It’s the fact that you made a commitment to something. And I think that they see that I’ve been committed and investing in my career and they’re like, “We can do something with this.”

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