Josh Emerson Reflects on Native American Heritage Through Comedy | Westword

Josh Emerson Reflects on Native American Heritage Through Comedy

He performs at hi-dive's Native American Comedy Showcase.
Josh Emerson
Josh Emerson Nick Holmby
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Josh Emerson walks toward the microphone at a comedy show at Bierstadt Lagerhaus after being introduced as Denver’s funniest Native. He’s carrying a sword while smiling and yelling as he approaches the mic. You can hear him from the parking lot.

To celebrate Native American Heritage Month in Denver, the Navajo Native is bringing this same energy to the hi-dive on Sunday, November 13, for the venue's Native American Comedy Showcase.

Emerson, who grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation, began performing at open mics in Durango, where he moved with his mom at age 26. His mom was his biggest fan, laughing during his shows with a high-pitched and infectious “witch’s cackle” that filled the room. “She was so proud of me when I told her I wanted to do comedy,” he says.

After a show in 2019, Emerson and his mom went out with some friends to get a beer. “Gentlemen, if you want to succeed in comedy,” she told the group, “you have to write, write, write.”

A week later, she was having trouble breathing and fell into a medically induced coma; she wasn’t eligible for a lung transplant. Emerson explored all her options, but doctors told him there were no long-term treatments available. As she lay there unconscious in the ICU, Emerson sat beside her and played all her favorite songs. Sobbing, halfway through "Dancing Queen" by ABBA, he decided to pull the plug.
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Preparing to take the stage at Comedy Works in Denver.
Jeff Stonic
At the time, Emerson was 27 years old, had recently earned an economics degree from Fort Lewis College and worked in a finance job he didn’t enjoy. And after losing his mom, he cut his hair. To Navajos, hair represents knowledge. It’s traditional to keep your hair in a bun so it stays close to your head. “When my mom passed, I felt like I lost my Native connection,” he says. “I had to cut my hair and regrow it to figure out what Navajo means to me now.”

Emerson moved to Denver and doubled down on hilarity. “I had a whole lot of emotion,” he says. “It was therapeutic to create comedy around the things I was feeling.” Her passing woke him up. “If you want to do this, do this,” he told himself.

Unfortunately for Emerson and other Native comics in the city, the audience knows little about his experience growing up on a reservation. “What we talk about on stage hasn’t been explored before,” Emerson explains. This presents a problem when new comics only get five minutes on stage, and they have to spend time explaining their premise. They can’t fit in as many jokes, which means less laughs. Then they get less stage time, and the cycle repeats.

To eliminate these cultural barriers, Emerson spends as much time organizing in his community as he does his next set list. He views himself as a bridge between Denver comedy club culture and Native comics from reservations who come to the city to share their stories. “Creating opportunities for your friends, building momentum — I don’t think I’ll ever stop dedicating the rest of my life to that,” he says.

He admits it’s a long process to find opportunities for Natives to build community in Denver. Emerson carries conflicted feelings, speaking positively about the city he now calls home, while acknowledging it can do much more to support the 13,000 Natives that live here.

“Culture shock sucks," Emerson says. "It’s alienating." The isolation many Natives feel is shown in college graduation rates: Only 23 percent of Native American students attending a four-year college graduate within four years, and many of those students end up back on the reservation.

For his part, Emerson co-chairs the Denver American Indian Commission, a human-rights group that formed in 2007 to improve communications between the Native community and the City and County of Denver. The Commission created an inaugural summit for Native-serving organizations in the metro area; they will meet at the Denver Art Museum on Friday, November 11, to share their work with the Indigenous population. “I’m trying to find my community and to foster community overall,” Emerson. “I like to effect change — it’s good to be around other people to help eliminate barriers.”
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Emerson at his graduation with his mother and sister.
Sabrina Quazza
For non-Natives to understand Native culture, Emerson stresses immersion. “Museums are great, but you have to actively engage Indigenous culture,” he says. “Go to the res. Go to a pow wow.”

On stage, Emerson wants to pair his energy with his writing, dissecting not only his Native heritage but also topics such as his bipolar disorder and his experience in the Marines. His humor is mostly autobiographical, branding himself a “loveable asshole.” His dad and stepmom, both lawyers, have influenced his stage persona, as well. "They’re pedantic,” he says, “and that’s rubbed off on me.”

When asked if he tries to reverse negative Indigenous stereotypes in his comedy, he answers, “It’s less about reversing, more about challenging. Because what do I reverse it to?”

If there’s more to comedy than figuring out what’s funny, Emerson wants to educate his audience. But he doesn’t confuse his priorities on stage: “My job is to make the audience laugh, whether I’m talking about Native issues or Lauren Boebert."

If he says something controversial, the goal is to make it funny or true enough for the audience to think about the issue instead of getting offended. “It might sound pretentious,” he says, “but when it’s true, when it’s honest, it’s not pretentious, it’s profound.”

Emerson performs every weekend in Denver, and while comedy isn’t currently paying as well as his previous finance job, he has no doubts about where his efforts will lead in the future. “I’m going to buy a house with 'ha-ha’s,'” he says.

For the Native American Heritage Month showcase, Emerson will share the hi-dive stage with Shanae Ross, an Afro-Indigenous local headliner; Josh Fournier, a Seminole Native; and Sam Tallent, whom Emerson refers to as the "token white."

In Tallent’s defense, this is only 75 percent true. “My grandma has Indigenous blood. Her people were in northern New Mexico before there were borders,” Tallent says. “She didn’t know they were in America until the Census guy came around in the 1930s riding a donkey.”

Emerson says there’s no other show like this in Denver, where everyone’s exploring racial identity through storytelling. “Regardless of whether they have similar histories," Emerson says, “storytelling leads to empathy, which leads to community.”

Emerson has found his calling, which he feels lucky to have. He uses humor to defuse the things that make him mad. “Comedy got me through the hardest time in my life,” he says. “Grief is a funny thing.”

Native American Comedy Showcase, 7 p.m. Sunday, November 13, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door.
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