As far as Joshua Emerson knows — and some moderate-but-less-than-exhaustive fact checking confirms — Charlie Hill (Oneida) is the only Native American comedian to have ever performed on one of the big American late night TV shows.
“I want to be the second,” Emerson says over a recent phone call from his home in Denver. He’s gearing up for the second Colorado Native: Native American Comedy Showcase, taking place at the Dairy Arts Center on Sept. 4, where he’ll share the stage with four other Native comics — and one “token pale face,” as Emerson puts it.
“I also want this show to develop the third and fourth and the umpteenth Native to get on late night TV,” Emerson says. But what he really wants, he says, is for Native representation in the media to be so high, the numbers don’t matter at all.
Emerson is Diné and grew up splitting his time between his dad’s residence in Phoenix, Arizona, and his mom’s house on the Navajo reservation in Vanderwagon, New Mexico.
“It made me feel like an outsider wherever I was,” Emerson says of the back and forth. “So when I would go to the Rez, the thing that people know about me is that I had a white dad. And when I was in [Phoenix], the thing that people knew about me was that I was Navajo, and that was like the most interesting thing about me. It shaped me in terms of not feeling like I fit in no matter what environment I’m in.”
He did six years in the Marines before heading to school at Fort Lewis College in Durango (a former military fort turned Native boarding school turned university), where Emerson fell into comedy at the encouragement of a friend who ran a show in town.
“There’s this sense of making an entire crowd of strangers laugh all at once on purpose that you’re able to sort of unify strangers, to create community off of something you said,” Emerson says. “Comedy is our natural reaction to trauma. When we go through something traumatic and we learn to laugh, it releases that tension in you and it doesn’t keep you in this dark place.”
Emerson worked the admittedly “soft” comedy scene in Durango for a couple of years before teaming up with Jacob Jonas and Elliot Weber to form DeadRoom Comedy, a multimedia touring comedy show.
“We started going down to Albuquerque and then coming up several nights a week to Denver,” Emerson says. “We saw a path that was difficult, but it felt like it could legitimize what we were doing — like, there’s actually people in Denver doing [comedy] on a nightly basis.”
The DeadRoom crew all moved to Denver after graduation and have been working the local comedy scene ever since.
“I mean, I still have a day job, and so do they, but the idea that you can get good in Denver and then follow through on it … I’m addicted to it,” Emerson says. “I love it. And because of that I want to be able to buy a house, you know, support my family doing the thing that I love. I feel like I’m just gonna keep banging my head against the door until it opens.”
Emerson’s got some help breaking down the door for Natives in comedy, both locally and regionally. Earlier this year, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff released his book We Had a Little Real Estate Problem (based on the punchline of a Charlie Hill joke), focusing on how Native Americans have influenced and advanced comedy as an art form, despite being denied representation in the industry. And new TV shows Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs, on Peacock and Hulu respectively, offer viewers a wholly Native perspective.
“Culture sharing I think is the fancy buzzword,” Emerson says. “Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs … those are going to inform people about Natives in an entirely new way because they come from Native show writers and show runners and actors. Even the way that the actors are using their lips to point at things, I think it’s all going to be new to the mainstream audience. I love that because when it comes to Native issues like sovereignty, you really want to culture share as much as possible, because it creates empathy and allows people that are different from you to see themselves in you. Culture sharing is absolutely one of the biggest things that people can do in terms of honoring treaty rights and fighting for future Natives that aren’t born yet.
“Maybe that’s a little bit pretentious,” Emerson adds with a laugh, “but it’s important to me.”
Joining Emerson on stage at the Colorado Native Showcase are ShaNae Ross (Denver, originally from Oklahoma), Shishona Livingston (Los Angeles by way of Canada), Wolf Brown (Phoenix), George Delgado (Denver) and the token white guy, Geoff Tice.
“There’s just a hunger, I think, for Native talent right now,” Emerson says. “People don’t really know about the Native experience beyond a [superficial] level. So understanding that it’s more than ‘I just want my land back,’ but that I have thoughts that are complicated and varied.”
And yes, uncomfortable moments are part of the process for Emerson’s sets.
“I love white guilt,” he says with a laugh. “I like when Caucasians feel guilty around me, just historically. … There’s a lot of tension in Colorado around Native issues because of things like the Sand Creek Massacre. In comedy, I love that uncomfortability. You create tension with the joke and then you relieve that tension with a punchline.”