Chris Johnson has a joke he knows will land every time he performs it in Portland.
In the bit, he goes to a local ramen shop and orders the pork ramen with extra mushrooms. The server looks down at him and asks if he wants some fried chicken on that. No one else was asked about fried chicken. At this point, Johnson waits a beat and lets the audience sit in the squelch of casual racism.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'll have some fried chicken on that," he answers, slicing the tension. "It's a bad moment as a black man to find out that fried chicken tastes good on everything."
The joke always kills, but Johnson says it's the kind of humor he wants to move away from.
"I'm kind of ashamed of that joke because it does so well," he says. "Now, I try to write jokes that aren't so on the nose. I try to write jokes that are centered around, not race, but more about my experience as a person."
When Johnson baits the audience into an easy laugh about one of Portland's many quirks, it's not as an outsider—he's one of few Portland natives in the city's comedy scene. Sitting inside a craft coffee shop just two blocks away from Salt & Straw, which he refers to onstage as an example of peak whiteness, Johnson says he's mindful at this point in his career of how his material is received.
"Sometimes I have to decide: Am I a black person or am I a comedian?" he says. "And sometimes I choose comedian. A lot of the time I choose comedian."
Born in Hillsboro and raised in Sullivan's Gulch, Johnson, more than most, understands the complicated dynamics of performing comedy that addresses race in a predominantly white city that touts its progressivism while attempting to sweep its long history of racism under the rug.
But when Johnson speaks about his ascent as a comic, it's almost with a shrug—what else would he be doing? Bernie Mac was a permanent fixture in the Johnson household growing up, alongside Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Wanda Sykes. His mother had a subscription to HBO's Def Comedy Jam and The Original Kings of Comedy on VHS. By the time Johnson went off to college and tried standup for himself at 19, it didn't matter that he bombed his second set.
"I loved it so much I didn't really care if I sucked at it," he says.
After he graduated from Pacific University with a political science degree, Johnson proceeded to go all in on a comedy career.
It's easy to forget Johnson is just 24 and his tadpole comedian days were only a few years ago. Johnson performs with a slow, measured confidence stripped of all the jittery self-consciousness typical at his age. Last April, he took over Ground Kontrol's monthly No Pun Intendo showcase, a relic of Portland's first comedy boom originally led by Ron Funches. Johnson also hosts the Beatdown at Helium Comedy Club and the Dough Comedy Show at Mississippi Pizza (co-emceeing with past WW Funniest Five awardees Jake Silberman and Shain Brenden), and he tries to perform every night of the week.
Given the rate at which he's been rising through the local scene, it seems inevitable Johnson will eventually move on to New York or Los Angeles. But the hope of hometown glory just might keep him here.
"I think it's wack that a lot of people come here and it's their transitional place," Johnson says. "Being from here, I have a certain pride in staying here and trying to build up a name and bring better publicity to Portland."
As Johnson's stage time has increased, the nature of his standup has shifted. There are jokes he chooses not to tell in Portland.
"Jokes have to be read in a certain way where stupid people aren't going to take them the wrong way and confirm their prejudices based on what they hear in a joke," he says. "I think in a hyperwhite city, that's something you really need to pay attention to."
Still, comedians can't accommodate for every bias audiences carry into a show. Ultimately, his chief concern is authenticity.
He has a favorite joke from his recent sets, one he can't relay without laughing in anticipation of the punchline.
"Only a black woman can do certain things in a relationship," he begins. "Only a black woman can look at a black man, when he's down and out, and call him a bitch-ass n—a to his face, and it's actually a productive conversation. I got called bitch-ass n—a last week and I didn't miss dishes for that entire week and became an active listener."