Tanzina Vega: We're going to round out the hour today talking with Joey Clift, an emerging comedian who almost chose a very different career path.
Joey Clift: I knew that I liked making people laugh and I knew that I wanted to work in comedy, but because I didn't really see any other Native American comedians on TV, I didn't think I was allowed to work in comedy. Instead, I went to school for what, to me, was the next best thing, to be a small market TV weather guy. Fortunately, when I was in college, a bunch of my professors realized that that was what my plan was. They pulled me aside and were just like, "Hey, you know you could just actually work in comedy, right?" This was about 2010. I moved to Los Angeles around then, and then, just dove with both feet into the LA comedy community and haven't looked back.
Tanzina: Joey is an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and grew up on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington State. During his time in Hollywood, Joey's written for shows on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, and this month, Joey was announced as one of the writers for an upcoming children's show on Netflix called Spirit Rangers. It's the first US animated show to have an all Native American writer’s room. When I spoke to Joey, he began by telling me how working on Spirit Rangers has compared to his experiences on other shows.
Joey: Usually, when I'm writing on shows, I've written on a bunch of shows for a bunch of different places, being the only Native in the room, whenever I pitch Native ideas or Native storylines or Native jokes, I'm aware that I'm coming in from a level of the average person doesn't know a ton of about Natives. For them to get a joke, I have to explain to them, "First off, I grew up in a house and not a cave." It's like that's the low-level of knowledge base that we're working from, and something that's great about Spirit Rangers, because it's an all-Native room, is we can just get to it. We can get into deep Native subject matter and just like great Native mythology and Native lore and stuff like that, that I would have to unpack for a non-Native room for them to get to the meat of the stories.
Tanzina: Again, we talk about this a lot on the show, but this is the first all Native American writers’ room for a US animated show. It's 2020, why did it take so long?
Joey: The short answer of that is racism. [chuckles]
Tanzina: [laughs] I kind of knew that, but I had to let the question go out, yes.
Joey: Right. Hopefully, it's not a surprise to you as well as the listeners that Native people haven't been treated super well in the media over the past 200, 250 years or so. We're also coming across in 2020 when a couple of months ago, a major sports team franchise for the NFL was named after just straight up a Native racial slur. I think that we've definitely experienced a lot of growth in Native issues and stuff like that over the past couple of years, but if you ask any Native, it's infuriating and disappointing that it took this long, but not surprising.
That said, we're doing great stuff. I'm super excited about the show. There are two other Native TV shows in production right now, Sierra Ornelas' Rutherford Falls for Peacock and Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi's Reservation Dogs for FX. In previous years, Native representation wasn't great in television, but I think that things are really getting better, and it's cool to see.
Tanzina: This summer, you were part of an anti-racism initiative at the UCB. What are some of the changes that you were hoping to see as a result of that? Are we getting closer to that? You just mentioned these two shows.
Joey: Yes, I'm a part of what's called Project Rethink at UCB. It's an unofficial think tank of performers, comedians, and writers from marginalized groups, who are basically trying to do what we can to improve diversity, equity, inclusion at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and also, just comedy theaters around Los Angeles. A lot of my personal goal with my involvement in Project Rethink is to do something called pipeline building using the Native experience, Native Hollywood, as an example.
There are so many talented Native comedians, Native actors, Native performers, Native writers, who are doing great stuff in, I would say, primarily, Native places. There's an all-Native theater ensemble called Native Voices that runs out of the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. There are a lot of really great things happening around the Sundance Film Festival and a lot of other places, but a lot of those performers aren't necessarily getting shots in mainstream places.
People are doing great work, but your average Hollywood executive probably isn't going to these shows in the same way that they're going to The Comedy Store, Groundlings, Second City, UCB, et cetera. A lot of what my goal is with Project Rethink is to build a pipeline between these Native spaces into more mainstream spaces. People that are extremely talented, that have been doing the work, that are super funny, who've been killing it for decades, get to be seen by people who can boost them up and give them jobs and et cetera.
Tanzina: Well, let's talk about that because you did a takeover of the Comedy Central Instagram on Indigenous Peoples' Day this year, which itself has taken quite some time to even change that day to reflect and think about Indigenous people. What was your goal with the platform that day?
Joey: I mentioned that I started doing the UCB all-Native comedy show on Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2018. It was a standing room only sell-out. It was a great show. We did it again in 2019. It was also a sell-out and a really good show, and some of the comedians even got discovered for TV writing jobs and acting gigs and stuff like that after 2019 show. They were all extremely talented before that and they definitely deserved and earned the opportunity, but I feel like the show probably helped them get on some radars and stuff.
Unfortunately, with 2020, COVID being a thing, and live comedy theaters largely being shut down for the moment, I was racking my brain trying to figure out what's a good way to boost up Native comedians in 2020 if we can't do a big live show. I talked to a few of my friends at Comedy Central and a few of my friends at a really great Native non-profit called IllumiNative, and we put our heads together and thought, "Oh, it would be cool if I took over Comedy Central's Instagram Stories for Indigenous Peoples' Day to tell jokes about Native stuff."
In addition to that, I worked with IllumiNative to put together a list of 25 Native American comedians to follow in 2020. I did the takeover to make Comedy Central's viewer base aware of super funny Native folks, but also, to promote this list of super funny Native folks. I would say, that in spirit, that was the 2020 version of the shows that we done in 2019 and 2018 to boost up super funny Native folks.
Tanzina: You also pointed out, Joey, that no Native comedians have been booked to perform standup on a network late-night show, this is unbelievable, since Charlie Hill in the mid-2000s?
Tanzina: If late-night comedy bookers or producers are listening to this interview, what do you have to say to them?
Joey: The first thing that I have to say to late-night bookers listening to this interview is, what the hell? Native American people have been killing it, doing standup in so many great places, and have been really putting in good work, but they haven't been on-- A single Native comedian hasn't been on a network late-night show in the US since probably around 2005, 2006. That's 15, 20 years.
Really, at that point, even at this point, I think Charlie Hill is the only Native comedian to ever be on network late-night shows. To me, I feel like if you're a booker for a late-night show-- Late-night network shows, for a lot of people, are still their eyes and ears to what's happening in the rest of the country and by not booking Native comedians, you're not just robbing yourself of really talented comedians, but you're also robbing the American television audience of a point of view that isn't just important to listen to but also needs to be listened to.
Like I said, in a year where sports teams are still named after racial slurs toward Natives, I think that having more Native comedian perspectives out there in the media would be a good idea. Also, I don't know, if you booked a Native comedian on it, we'd all think you were super cool and you'd have a bunch of Natives like you. That's cool, right?
Tanzina: I think that this is a conversation that will continue to evolve. I think we're really excited to see Spirit Rangers and see what you all do with it. Joey Clift is a comedian, staff writer for Netflix's Spirit Rangers, and an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. Joey, thanks so much for being with us.
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