Love Life’s Punkie Johnson on the Beauty of Her ‘Regular’ Gay Role
Author: Tracy E. Gilchrist
When book editor Marcus Watkins chaotically upends his marriage and explores a string of new girlfriends in the second season of the HBO Max anthology series Love Life, he inevitably turns to his gay sister, Ida, for advice. In a refreshing change from coming-out stories and messy queer characters, Punkie Johnson’s Ida is a happily partnered lesbian who lends support to her newly single brother, Marcus (The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper), as he wades through the dating pool. As siblings can do like no other, she’s also at the ready with a solid familial quip when he screws up.
Johnson, best known for Saturday Night Live, where she’s one of three out cast members along with Kate McKinnon and Bowen Yang, appreciates the non-trauma-based visibility Love Life affords her character as a Black gay person. It’s the kind of positive representation that could have made a difference when she was growing up in New Orleans.
“I appreciated that they didn’t make a big deal about being gay. A lot of shows try to do that,” Johnson tells The Advocate. “We’re regular people. We didn’t have to make it a thing.”
A history maker as SNL’s first out Black woman (Danitra Vance, a lesbian, was not publicly out during her tenure in the 1980s), Johnson says that her first real recollection of LGBTQ+ people on TV was Queer as Folk when she was in high school. But that series, although groundbreaking at the time, centered primarilyon a group of gay white men. The series had “nothing to do with a crazy Black butch from the South,” she laughs. When Love Life and Ida and the Watkins family came along, she was all in.
While she was excited to play a “regular” queer person, Johnson also shouts out to Love Life for eschewing stereotypes about Black families that often proliferate on TV. An episode early on sees Ida and Marcus visiting their parents, played by John Earl Jelks and Janet Huber, at their suburban home for their anniversary. The biggest familial drama that in the series occurs when Marcus seeks advice from Ida about how to better relate to their dad, although he did follow in his father’s footsteps by entering the publishing industry.
“They explored Black families that do exist. Like, Marcus didn’t sell drugs. And he wasn’t a rapper. I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing. I’m saying that a lot of Black stories on TV, it’s like that is what we get to see,” Johnson says. “I love the fact that Marcus, he had a career, he had dreams, he had goals. And he had a really great foundation of support around him. Everybody wanted to see Marcus win.”
“And he had a mother and he had a father who was still together. I love the fact that he had a real, genuine family. Black families like that exist,” she adds. “When I got hired for the job, I’m like, This is how Black families should be [portrayed]. I love that.”
The first season of the comedic anthology series from creator Sam Boyd followed Anna Kendrick’s Darby through hit-and-miss relationships, with the character appearing briefly in season 2 to hand off the story to Marcus. Love Life has yet to picked up for a third season, but Boyd has said he hopes the show gets to “season 47 and all 46 previous protagonists are somehow involved.” Johnson hopes Ida is one of those protagonists. She shares that it’s Ida’s rich dating history (though not on-screen) from which she drew the experience to counsel Marcus in matters of the heart.
“I would love to know, myself, a lot more about Ida and how she went through a range of relationships as well, because she understood Marcus, because she also went through the same thing, but you didn’t get to see that,” Johnson says of her character, who asks Marcus to be her at her side when she marries her wife, Keiko (Emma Kikue). “The underlying story with Ida, I have this inside monologue. You got your brother’s back, you’ve dealt with this. You went through it, so you know how to help him get through it.”
Seemingly isolated from other LGBTQ+ people in the South because queerness wasn’t discussed, Johnson says she tried to “pray away the gay.” Years later she discovered she’d had a gay uncle and thought, I could have been talking to him all this time?
Eventually “I decided that I’m just going to be gay. And I was put out of school because I was gay. I didn’t care. I went to Catholic school. And I came out of the closet, and I decided to be in my skin and be who I was,” Johnson says.
A stand-up comic who became a regular at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles before SNL, Johnson went on to attend Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. She calls it a “country college” in a town that’s not even “spelled like it sounds.” While she found a queer community outside of school, again, LGBTQ+ people weren’t visible on campus, she explains. Seeing well-adjusted queer characters like Ida when she was growing up would have made an impact. But even with all of the progress in queer storytelling, Johnson has never seen her experience reflected on the screen. She’s considering how to change that through her art.
“I still haven’t seen a person like me on TV. I’m from a place of gay that people don’t know exist. I had to act like a man in order to survive when I was growing up. And I had to act like a man in the gay community because we had the portray this traditional [role],” Johnson says. “If you were the masculine one, you had to be the masculine one. You couldn’t wear girl underwear and girl bras and stuff like that.”
“It’s a whole world out there that I want to explore and tell people how it was I grew up as a Black gay lesbian in New Orleans,” she adds. “People just don’t know. I think that’ll give a lot of people a deeper understanding as to why we act the way we act.”
Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Tracy E. Gilchrist