Lydell Roberts pulls many of his jokes from his family. People laugh when they hear the comedian is raising eight kids, five of which foster children. “I didn’t even know I was a foster parent,” he says. “I just thought I was babysitting for a long time.” For the most part, Roberts is playing nanny. He and his wife Jessica have seen 24 children come through their home on a temporary basis in 22 years. “That’s where I get most of my material: Really living everyday life in a chaotic household. It keeps me busy; keeps me sharp.”
Known as Jonny R., or the Ojibwe Outlaw, the 39-year-old is entering his seventh year in comedy. Roberts travels more than 200 miles from the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota to perform at open mics in Sioux Falls and Minneapolis. He once flew to California to compete in a Native comedy competition at The Laugh Factory and do an open mic at the famed Comedy Store. He also has a dedicated YouTube show in his name, and many well-known Native entertainers have been guests.
With five performances booked in 2016, he’s an established up-and-comer. But as Roberts has found, doing comedy doesn’t pay the bills — yet. Jonny R. would love to get into a wellness or conference comedy circuit. “That’s the next stage: To inspire youth on the other [reservations] to show them there’s more to life than your surroundings.”
But what exactly would be appealing about having a comedian dubbed an ‘outlaw’ on a trip to help teach children about wellness? “I struggled with alcohol growing up,” Jonny R. says. He earned his nickname after being kicked out of The Red Lake Ojibwe’s Seven Clans Casino following his first-ever comedy show, where he opened for Tatanka Means and Vaughn Eagle Bear. He brought a bottle of hard liquor onto the dry reservation and “had a little too much fun,” he says. He was banned from the casino for six months, but they enjoyed his work so much they invited him to perform again just three days after the ban was lifted. “I’m addicted to comedy now [instead],” he says.
He also began recording his comedy show, titled, “The Jonny R. Show,” broadcast on YouTube. He gained experience in video and audio by following the Battle River drum group one powwow season. A few years later, he gathered the courage to take on his first open mic session. “I was terrible,” he says. “But I got that rush.”
Performing on stage was a feeling Roberts dreamed about since hiding in his home, sneaking a peek at his stepdad’s VHS comedy tapes. Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious,” was a favorite. Roberts also recalls being influenced by a Native comedian who used a puppet at a show in Red Lake.
He took a plunge in attending the Red Nation Film Festival, where he made a comedy competition’s final cut while performing at The Laugh Factory. In the 12 days he spent in California, he and other comedians were chauffeured around town by well-known Native comic J.R. Redwater, and he got onstage at The Comedy Store. Unprepared but tapping into content from his family life, Jonny R. had one of his best shows, he says.
With nearly seven years of entertaining audiences on stage, Johnny R. says Native casinos are giving him and many other comedians the opportunity to show they can be as funny as the better-known comics on the circuit. “They’re making it all possible,” he says. “We need more exposure. There are a lot of talented people out there.”
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