There are a lot of reasons comedy-lovers should be paying attention to Joey Clift.
Perhaps it’s because he is wearing a suit with images of cats all over it on his social media profile image, or perhaps it’s because he is standing with his comedy troupe looking over a dead body of Columbus. Or maybe you may like Clift because of a bear video he made comparing Native culture to beardom, wearing a giant lobster suit as a Nickelodeon writer, or because he recently ruined a comedy podcast when refusing to play into a Native American trope.
Whatever your reason for paying attention to the career of Joey Clift you're certain to get your money’s worth.
Though he is an enrolled citizen of the Cowlitz Tribe, Clift grew up on the Tulalip Reservation in the state of Washington. A point he says can be a source of confusion for some folks. He is now based in Los Angeles.
In 2010, Clift moved to Los Angeles to pursue his career in comedy. In college, Clift admits that he hadn’t even considered the fact that he could work in comedy and he nearly accepted a job as a regional weatherman in Idaho.
“I grew up in the Tulalip Indian Reservation in Washington State. I loved comedy growing up. I knew that I wanted to make people laugh for a living but because at the time there weren't really a ton of prominent Native American comedians on TV or Native comedy writers I could point to. I didn't think that I was allowed to work in the entertainment industry. So I went to school to be just a small market TV weather guy because I was like, ‘Oh they get to crack jokes on the air.’”
“I'm one of a few Natives involved in the Los Angeles comedy community. I'm not the only one, but I'm the only one that's been given a lot of opportunities at places like the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre and other LA comedy theaters in recent years which is why I produced the Native American comedy showcase.”
In 2018 and 2019, Clift performed and helped coordinate the sellout comedy show with an all-Native cast titled "The Ghost of Christopher Columbus Theater Smudging Spectacular."
“I know a lot of super-funny Natives in Los Angeles,” he says. “So I was always asking myself like, "Oh, like why are these really super funny Natives not getting opportunities at this really cool, big mainstream comedy theater. So I finally, last year, used my position as a veteran member of the community to basically put together the first-ever showcase of Native American comedians at that theater.”
Clift says they are likely to do it again in 2020.
The American Indian Ready to Wear Catalog
Clift’s influence on the non-Native world also runs strong off the stage as he has contributed as a comedic writer to the likes of the Cartoon Network, Dreamworks, Nickelodeon and more. He also created a Native American satire zine, The American Indian Ready to Wear Catalog.
“I released a comedy satire zine that my mom illustrated a year or two ago. And in it, I had a joke about non-Native new agers who built sweat lodges and they don't know what they're doing. I'm probably one of two people who've ever written down a joke about wrongful sweat lodge death lawsuits.
As Clift describes it, "It's a 12-page satire zine about all of the weird ways Native American people are represented in the media. Written by Joey Clift. Illustrated by Janet Myer, Joey's mom. How cute."
Telling People You’re Native American When You’re Not Native Is A Lot Like Telling A Bear You’re A Bear When You’re Not A Bear
He also worked with IllumiNative last year to distribute his film short: “Telling People You’re Native American When You’re Not Native Is A Lot Like Telling A Bear You’re A Bear When You’re Not A Bear.”
Clift says the video idea became a concept when a friend of his was speaking about the Washington DC Football franchise on social media. A person responded that they had had a DNA test, that they were five percent Native American, and didn’t have a problem with the NFL team name.
Clift wanted to send the person a link to explain his view as a Native American, but nothing existed in the way he wanted to explain it. “I wanted to be able to send this guy like a link to explain to him why what he was saying was maybe not the best thing to say, or maybe not the most educated thing to say. And nothing really existed with the tone that I had in mind.”
Clift embarked on a video-making effort.
After he made his animated short to be showcased at the UCB Theatre, Clift pitched his project to the Yes, And Laughter Lab put on by Mik Moore and Associates and Caty Borum Chattoo from the Center for Media and Social Impact at Comedy Central in New York. Clift’s project was one of six selected out of 500 submissions. There he met Chattoo and Crystal Echo Hawk from IlluminNative.
“Crystal Echo Hawk actually flew out specifically to this event to talk to me about this stuff and to see how we could work together.” Clift and Echo Hawk discussed the best ways to make a point or an impression to non-Native people. They decided they would have to go about it in the right way.
“We could scream at non-Natives about sports mascots all day, but at a certain point, they're going to shut down,” describes Clift. “But if you come at them with humor or a sort of joke, if they're in a situation where maybe they took a DNA test and think they have a right to say how Native they are or whatever, they're like, ‘Oh, I remember this short, what it said, that that's bad and I agree.’"
Clift says the intent wasn’t for the video to be necessarily cathartic for all Native people, but it was for him. He had originally wanted the animated short to be included in a documentary, but it didn’t make the deadline.
“It didn't make it in time. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh, like I really like this idea. I think this is funny and I think it would be useful to send it to idiots. And also cathartic for Native people to make. So I just basically sat down, took five minutes, wrote the script for it, sent it to a couple of my Native comedy writer friends to give me punch ups. And then I literally just made it.”
“The guy who animated it, his name is David Kantrowitz. He's a super talented animator who has animated stuff for Nickelodeon and a bunch of other places. Most of my notes for him in animating this was, "More blood. Make it gorier."
Here is the video
Clift says would love to make more animated shorts, as his original bear video was to be part of a continuing series, a concept he is still seeking. “I would like to make more animated shorts about different weird microaggressions non-Natives make toward Natives such as Columbus Day, Native sports mascots and more, but I'm not currently in production in them. I'm looking for funding and all of that jazz.”
Clift ruined a comedy podcast for Native American Heritage Month
Last November, Clift made quite an impression on the non-Native comedy crowd when he was invited onto the popular online podcast How Did This Get Played, with hosts Heather Anne Campbell and Nick Wiger. It was produced by Matt Apodaca, who also appeared on the episode.
In an opinion-editorial for AV Club, Clift explained the situation leading up to his appearance on the podcast.
Native American people are so poorly represented in the media that we’re referred to as an “invisible minority,” and Nick, Heather, and Matt wanted me, as the first and only Native person invited on How Did This Get Played, to review Custer’s Revenge—an old Atari game where the player, as the ghost of General Custer, rapes a Native American woman for points—for a special Thanksgiving episode. I had two options in responding to this ill-conceived invitation. I could say no, and kick the can down the road for the next unsuspecting Native guest, passing on a legacy of microaggressions for future Native comedians to deal with from here to eternity. Or I could go on the show and risk my career.
Clift continued to explain in the op-ed, that he could have done the “all too common thing” and “screencap the invitation, post it on Twitter, and bathe myself in internet mob justice like hot shower water on a cold morning. The hard thing to do would be to calmly educate Nick, Heather, Matt, and their listeners about why what they did was wrong.”
Clift chose the latter and agreed to appear on the podcast. He wasn’t thrilled. “As a 5-foot, 10-inch comedian built like a piece of dried discount spaghetti, I’m not a confident person. Confrontation of any kind gives me a full-body migraine,” he wrote.
Nervous and uncomfortable, Clift apprehensively waited out the six days until going onto the show. Two days before the recording, Clift emailed the hosts—who were some of his first sketch-comedy writing teachers in Los Angeles—to tell them he would be bringing a serious discussion about Native American representation to the show. They responded with enthusiasm, which raised Clift’s eyebrows.
”It was clear they didn’t understand what they were requesting and had just said ‘yes’ to,” Clift told Indian Country Today.”
On recording day, Clift sat in a Denny’s parking lot and prayed he was doing right for himself and his community. Once he sat in Earwolf Studios, the show was on for a bit over 24 minutes until Clift would address the issue head-on.
Live in a podcast booth with the hosts, wiping his sweating hands on his jeans, Clift moved up to the microphone and said, “What the f*ck?” amongst other things about appearing on a podcast to discuss the video game Custer’s Revenge for the Thanksgiving episode.
The following day, Clift received apology emails from the hosts who offered to have additional Native guests on the show, and for other times aside from November.
Clift wondered if he had done the right thing, then the emails, tweets and texts began to pour in supporting his stance and courage for speaking out.
Clift summed up his feelings about his appearance on the show in the op-ed, noting the experience as a whole, as a success.
“One of my favorite stories came from a friend, who was in a café that day and overheard a table of podcasters discussing the episode while going through their own guest lists. They’d been convinced to triple-check their future bookings to make sure that their own efforts toward inclusivity weren’t also accidentally tokenizing,” wrote Clift.
‘I've seen the needle start to move’
Clift, who moved to Los Angeles in 2010, says of the 10 years he’s been in Los Angeles, “I've seen the needle start to move.”
“The more that Native people are infiltrating non-Native spaces, getting jobs with production companies as writers, actors, and are able to show people that we're funny people at that is showing other Natives that our voice matters and our stories are important to be told. By putting contemporary Native American people in a position of prominence, we are demonstrating that we exist in the modern world.”
Joey Clift on Native Americans in Entertainment
As a Cowlitz kid growing up on the Tulalip Indian Reservation in Washington State, Clift says he has always loved comedy. And now he is glad to see more opportunities.
“I think that by more Native American people getting opportunities in the entertainment industry, and our voices are starting to get boosted up a little bit, it's going to show funny Native American kids on reservations that they can work in comedy too. They can work in entertainment.”
“People want to hear our jokes.”
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