When Joshua Emerson’s mom died in the winter of 2019, he felt like a crucial part of himself had been severed. The Denver-based comedian, writer and actor was raised partly on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, and his mother’s passing sparked a difficult reckoning with his Native heritage.
“There’s a sense that I lost a little of my Indigenousness when she died, because she was the one that was Navajo, and was from the reservation, and she spoke Navajo,” says Emerson, whose dad is white. “I don’t speak Navajo. There’s a sense that I have to learn how to come back to that as an adult … I feel orphaned culturally, and because of that, it’s made me want to do Native projects and be around Native people.”
Now 31, Emerson is co-chair of the Denver American Indian Commission, and puts on one of the only Native comedy showcases in the United States. He also just became managing director of Creative Nations Collective, a permanent onsite gallery for Indigenous artists at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder.
Emerson stays busy these days, performing comedy and helping various communities blossom — from the Colorado indie-comic circle to the world of local Indigenous artists. He’s also the co-founder of DeadRoom Comedy in Denver, a troupe and production company he started with friends Elliot Weber and Jacob Jonas after graduating from Fort Lewis College in Durango four years ago.
Hosting nearly 200 events since its inception, including the Colorado Native comedy showcase, DeadRoom has become the perfect vehicle to combine Emerson’s industrious ambition with his passion for Indigenous issues. He sees comedy as a vehicle for Native people of various tribal backgrounds to connect and learn from each other.
“Comedy is unique in that it’s able to give voice to minority communities,” he says. “It helps us talk about difficult things and then relieve it through a punchline that just makes everybody laugh and brings [them] into community. When you can talk about difficult things, you’re able to be more honest.”
‘You don’t know what’s funny until you try it’
With that uplift and honesty in mind, Emerson stresses that “Native Americans are not a monolith.” As the only Indigenous member of DeadRoom, which has expanded from its three founding members, he wants folks to know that understanding Native people takes more than catching up on the latest season of Reservation Dogs.
“When you’re talking to a Native you gotta ask, ‘So what tribe or community are you from?’ They [each] have their own history and backstory,” he says. “There’s a big difference between being Ojibwe and being Navajo — being Diné, which is what I am. But it’s cool; we have similar struggles; we see each other. There’s definitely, like, a head nod. There’s a community [that comes] from being Native.”
DeadRoom is now putting on roughly a dozen comedy events a month, according to Emerson, stretching across Colorado and into surrounding states. And as the collective’s footprint grows, Emerson waxes poignantly when asked whether there is any subject that shouldn’t be joked about.
“If you’re going to talk about something that’s going to bring up trauma in people, you gotta have an exit for it,” he explains. “Are you being irresponsible by making jokes that are gonna hurt people? And then there’s this other thing of, you don’t know what’s funny until you try it. So the attempt becomes sacred.”
When it comes to that “sacred” attempt, Emerson says there are few crowds tougher than those found here in Boulder.
“I’d say Boulder is one of the hardest places to talk about race … even [harder than] Colorado Springs or Fort Collins. When you’re talking about race in those communities, their racism is out in the open, and they’re OK laughing about it,” he says. “You come up to Boulder, I think there’s less racism but the racism that is here is very inside — very hidden — and it’s very hard to reach. When you do bring it up it makes people uncomfortable, because they’ve compartmentalized it. It’s hard for them to find the funny in it. I don’t know if it’s that they’re ashamed, or if they’re aware they even have it stored away.”
But as Emerson continues to push audiences into uncomfortable territory while working to ensure “a seat at the table” for Native people through various organizations and events, the self-described comedy “lifer” returns to a simple but profound goal.
“The best you can do is try to make it better, and hope that creates a lineage so that it’s easier for anyone that comes behind you.”
ON STAGE: Underground Comedy Showcase feat. Joshua Emerson and Ben Roy. 7:30 p.m. April 27-29, License No. 1, 2115 13th St., Boulder. Tickets here.