“You got this,” comedian Murf Meyer said as he drummed his hands on stand-up comic Joey Clift’s back. It was June 2019, and Clift was grasping a curtain, preparing to sprint onto the stage of a small New York comedy club. Sweat gathered in the armpits of Clift’s form-fitting blue button-down; he had been so anxious, he’d been racing back and forth to the bathroom, thinking he was going to throw up.
The Native American comedian was there to sell his animated comedy series “Going Native.” In the audience were executives from Comedy Central and leaders of social advocacy groups, brought together through an American University program called the Laughter Lab. If his performance went as planned, it could change his life.
He’d practiced it hundreds of times, intoning it in the backs of cabs, whispering it to himself in elevators, honing it in L.A. comedy clubs. Every second was choreographed, perfected, polished.
Then he heard his name called over the loudspeaker. Once onstage, something switched in him — maybe it was his experience as a stand-up comedian and incessant practice — and he exuded confidence. That is, until he saw the mic was in the wrong place.
Clift was performing that day because, two years earlier, AU assistant communications professor Caty Borum Chattoo had presented her comedy research at an Open Society Foundations event. A former TV producer who has worked with sitcom great Norman Lear, Borum Chattoo began a sociological humor project when she noticed a gap: “There was a lot of research about the very narrow confines of comedy and civic engagement. Like, does [comedy] make us vote?” she said. She thought it was better to go bigger and ask, “How does comedy and activism come together?” And how do you persuade social justice groups to work with comedians? An idea had also been percolating in her mind about creating a program at AU, where she is executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, to bring comedians and social justice groups together.
As she spoke at the Open Society event in Chicago, the producer and talent agency head Mik Moore looked on. He too had been contemplating such a program, since working with comedian Aasif Mandvi to help turn his “Daily Show” bit on a Muslim “Cosby Show” into a series. “(Mandvi) was trying to shine a spotlight on the lack of Muslim representation in Hollywood,” Moore said. After a year-and-a-half of working with Mandvi to create “Halal in the Family,” Moore said he realized “there are probably lots and lots of comedians who feel like their stories aren’t well represented in Hollywood, but they don’t feel like they have a good pathway to doing it.” (“Halal” became a show on Funny or Die.) Moore wanted to create that pathway. He just wasn’t exactly sure how. Then he met Borum Chattoo.
About a year later, in 2018, they began talking about making the idea a reality. Both were familiar with a nonprofit pitching forum for documentary filmmakers called Good Pitch. “How great it would be if there were something for comedians similar to Good Pitch,” Moore said. The Laughter Lab — formally titled the Yes, And ... Laughter Lab (named for the improv comedy mantra “Yes, and ...”) — was born on AU’s campus in January 2019. It would be an incubator for marginalized comedians — such as those from the LGBT, Indigenous, Black and Latino communities.
Starting a Hollywood comedy pipeline on a university campus, particularly one in Washington, D.C., is a wild idea, considering how slowly the bureaucracy of colleges usually works. “I have not been socialized in academia,” said Borum Chattoo, who joined the university 10 years ago. “So when I arrived in academic life as somebody who is a producer, a strategist and an activist, I thought, ‘Well, I’d like to do all of those things at American University.’” AU supported the Laughter Lab in the School of Communication.
But Borum Chattoo and Moore needed more than AU on board; they needed industry people too. So Moore had a drink with Erika Soto Lamb, vice president for social impact strategy at Comedy Central, to share their idea. “I was like, ‘Whoa, it’s great,’ because my job is to find opportunities for how we can use comedy to create change on the most pressing social issues,” Soto Lamb told me. Comedy Central signed on as a partner.
Borum Chattoo and Moore then reached out to social justice organizations, including Color of Change, where Kristen Marston, director of culture and entertainment advocacy, agreed to partner as well. “This program is such a powerful tool to help fill the gap in (representation),” Marston said. “The entertainment industry has historically mostly been white men, and people mentor people who look like them.”
They sent out a call for pitches in January 2019, expecting to get 75 applications. Instead, 500 arrived. Soto Lamb, Marston and others on the board helped select six winners, who received help shaping their pitches and projects for the June pitch day at the Caveat club in New York.
Onstage in New York, Clift knew he had to work fast to move the mic. “Dead air is like ... death to a crowd’s energy,” Clift said. He was forced to improvise, a skill he had honed from years of working at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Los Angeles, where he created its first all-Indigenous comedy show. “Chant my name,” he ordered the crowd. And shouts of “Joey!” rang out, as he rearranged the stage.
“I’m a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe,” he declared proudly, as a large screen behind him projected his tribal identification card. “Grown adults in their 30s and 40s who went to college asked me things like if I was born in a tepee,” Clift said, launching into his bit. It was a far cry from when he started in comedy in Los Angeles in 2010, afraid to joke about being native, instead riffing about Batman and Donald Duck.
After his performance, Clift, then 35, left the stage exhilarated, and he was thrilled to sit down with executives afterward. That network execs would be interested in a native comedian is a huge deal, considering that no native comedian has been on late-night TV since Charlie Hill appeared on David Letterman’s and Jay Leno’s shows in the mid-2000s. (Hill, a member of the Oneida Nation, died in 2013.) And seeing yourself represented on screen can make a huge difference: “There are literally dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of native kids in Canada and the United States who got into comedy because they saw Charlie Hill,” said comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff.
Nobody picked up “Going Native,” but Clift said the program changed him. “I took over Comedy Central’s Instagram stories on Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020, doing jokes about Native American microaggression,” he said. He’s already begun creating social change at IllumiNative, an advocacy group, where he worked on a campaign to change the name of Washington’s football team. “For the longest time I kept my comedy writing and my native culture separate,” Clift told me. “It probably wasn’t until I won the Laughter Lab that I felt fully confident in my ability to write jokes about native issues.”
Currently in its third year, the Laughter Lab continues to grow. About 350 people have applied for the latest iteration (winners will be selected this month). Although mentorship will be online, organizers hope the pitches will be in person.
Borum Chattoo thinks Laughter Lab winners like Clift can make a difference in the entertainment industry. “Hollywood tends to copy itself. If somebody creates a successful show with a focus on native stories, and that show does really well, there’s this replication effect,” she told me. “And then you start to get change.”