When Josiah Johnson described Aida Goitom’s comedy style, he offered nothing but kind words about her talents.
“When [Goitom] gets up to the mic, people start to listen, even if they can’t articulate why,” Johnson said. “I can see her becoming a multi-talented entertainer. She has a distinct way of taking her own experiences and making them relatable.”
One could say Goitom’s description of Johnson was a little bit less complimentary.
“The first thing I would say is that he’s an awful, waste of space, piece of s***,” Goitom said without hesitation.
After a brief pause and an exchange of looks, they both burst out laughing. She then explained Johnson’s comedic delivery as awkward and half-deadpan with a cynical look on reality.
Goitom and Johnson get to see each other flex their comedic muscles through mutual involvement in the Lincoln stand-up community and have both expanded their talents to social media platforms, especially Twitter.
Johnson has around 1,000 followers, while Goitom has over 9,000. Johnson is a senior biological systems engineering major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Goitom recently graduated from the university in December with a degree in philosophy and English.
Johnson added that he often gets compared to John Mulaney and Bo Burnham, which makes him feel like the “basic white bread of local stand-up.”
Goitom interjected by saying people often compare her to Beyoncé or Rihanna. She quickly continued to say she appreciates those compliments, but feels more like the “s***** iPhone version of Beyoncé. She’s the iPhone X, and I’m the first-gen.”
This is the kind of relationship Johnson and Goitom share with each other. A typical conversation between the two is full of good-natured ribbing and constantly changing topics as they talk about everything from their favorite television shows to their thoughts on political news to the activity that brought them together: stand-up.
Johnson initially got into comedy because he felt engineering wasn’t exactly right for him and needed an outlet for creative expression. He said he was awful at first, but kept on going back. He gradually improved and turned it into a regular hobby that allows him to take his mind off his difficult engineering courses.
“It’s what I do when I don’t want to think about school and life and lining up internships and my future career,” he said. “I think everybody needs something like that.”
When Johnson said Goitom has the potential to be a multi-faceted entertainer, he wasn’t exaggerating. She is a musician, as she used to be in a local band named after her given name, and is just as likely to rap original songs at an open mic as she is to tell jokes. She also recently performed her stand-up on a much larger stage than usual in Los Angeles.
For two weeks, from late January into February, Goitom went to open mics around the city and grabbed a gig in a monthly comedy show hosted by Jak Knight, a comedian and writer-voice actor on the Netflix show “Big Mouth.”
The show is called “Tasteful” and is held at the Milk Tavern, an ice cream and cereal bar in Koreatown in Los Angeles. Goitom said it was an unusual comedic experience, as she was performing in a hip dessert bar.
It was a very intimate performance, and she said it was made up of a mostly younger, diverse crowd — a different demographic than the typical Lincoln stand-up audience, she said.
“I was so nervous for what was basically the biggest show of my life so far,” she said. “But once I got into it, it just felt so natural and it was such a unique venue to perform in. It was great to perform in front of an audience my age.”
Getting to know Goitom and Johnson over coffee, one may think their comfortable banter suggests they have been friends since childhood. But they met only a few years ago in 2017 when they both were just starting out in the Lincoln stand-up scene.
They were introduced by mutual friends at a local bar and quickly became close friends. They go thrift shopping together, provide support at each other’s comedy shows and recently took a trip to Arizona for a week to spend New Year’s with people they had never met before — friends they only knew previously from a Twitter group chat.
Goitom said social media has certainly helped to promote her brand and get exposure on the comedy circuit, but she wishes it wasn’t such an integral part of forming her career.
“A lot of people think that you have to be funny online to be funny in person, which I don’t like,” she said.
While comedians have always tried to strike a balance between telling funny jokes and making sure they’re not offensive, Johnson, Goitom and their colleagues have found it has become more difficult and dangerous to do so in recent years. They said there are many new challenges with doing comedy, both online and in stand-up sets, in this, as Goitom described it, “Gen-Z, empathetic culture.”
Goitom and Johnson said social media is the most volatile platform to do comedy on, as they both have received messages from followers who were offended by something they tweeted.
Unlike some older, prominent comedians, like Kevin Hart and Louis C.K., who have refused to apologize for some of their past controversial jokes, Johnson and Goitom will take tweets down and ask for forgiveness if they are approached.
“If somebody is offended by something I tweet, I almost automatically will delete it,” Goitom said. “I have the mindset of, ‘If I offended you, I’m really sorry.’ We have to be conscious of the fact that this new wave of comedy needs to be aware and inoffensive.”
The duo emphasized that it can be tricky to tell creative, funny jokes without crossing somebody’s line of what is personally offensive. While they both listen if someone is offended by their jokes, they also realize they can’t please everybody.
“Sometimes, it can be ridiculous, though,” Goitom said. “A lot of people just want to be indignant and upset about something all the time. It’s a calculus — did I actually say something offensive? Or is it just that person making trouble?”
Going forward, the two Lincoln natives have very different plans for their respective futures in comedy. Before he graduates this fall, Johnson hopes to organize a registered student organization dedicated to solving the student debt crisis and have a job lined up in a bigger city.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t bring his comedy with him. He is grateful to the Lincoln stand-up community for giving him lifelong friendships and his start in comedy, but is excited to experience doing comedy elsewhere.
“The cool thing is that if you’re a member of the community somewhere, you can go to another city and be instantly plugged in due to the connections you’ve made,” Johnson said. “It’s a community born of shared experiences. How many people can say they’ve gone into a bar at 3 p.m., stepped up to a microphone and made some random guy laugh? It’s an objectively strange but wonderful thing.”
Goitom plans to make a full-time career in the entertainment industry. While in L.A., she had meetings with industry executives where she introduced herself and discussed her aspirations and ideas.
Her dream is to be a television writer, as she said she wants to write the next “Atlanta” or “BoJack Horseman.” She is currently working on the pilot for a “dark comedy” based on her life, which she said will touch on her experiences of growing up as a black woman in a predominantly white community.
Although they may soon be on very different paths, Johnson and Goitom will always be bonded by their shared love for stand-up.
“If I could make a teacher’s salary doing comedy, I would be so happy,” Johnson said. “I can do this ‘til the day I die.”
Goitom feels the same.
“No matter what I end up doing, I will never quit stand-up,” Goitom said. “I’ve always wanted to be a touring comedian; I would absolutely love to go around the country and see new places and do my stand-up.”
This article was originally published in the March 2019 edition of The DN.