10 years of laughs

James and Ernie, fans and peers, celebrate 10th anniversary

By Sunnie Clahchischiligi
Special to the Times

June 14, 2012

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TOP: James Junes, left, and Ernest David Tsosie III are still going strong in this image from January of 2010. (Courtesy photo)

SECOND FROM TOP: James and Ernie mug for the camera March 12, 2009, when they performed at St. Michael Indian School. (Times photo - Stacey Thacker)



I

t was 2002. Sept. 11 had just happened, the Navajo people were hurting and James Junes and Ernest Tsosie III were looking for their big break.

Junes was looking to break into the stand-up comedy industry while Tsosie looked for his chance to become an actor.

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Who they are

They met at a comedy competition and wandered the bumpy road of entertainment as solo acts for a year. But one night the comedy duo was born.

"When we decided to do it together we knew we were onto something," Junes said. "We didn't know what was going to happen, (but we said) all right, let's try it, let's do it, what do we got to lose?"

They had nothing to lose. They were at the bottom of the barrel and were used to it. They started small but eventually got big, so big that on April 13 they celebrated their 10-year anniversary as James and Ernie Comedy with a sold-out crowd at the Farmington Civic Center.

Artists and entertainers they had helped along the way, such as The Plateros, James Bilagody, Natasha Kaye Johnson, Pax Harvey and more, toasted the duo that evening.

During the past 10 years, they've traveled nationally, produced DVDs, starred in a handful of movies and are known in almost every Native American community in the U.S.

They started out with their own goals. Junes was looking to expound on his talent to make people laugh and Tsosie wanted to become a better performer.

Both were entertainers but they also had an agenda. They wanted to use their talent to help those who were struggling with drugs and alcohol.

Tsosie said they always wanted their comedy to be clean and to have a message, and after 10 years getting their message out continues to be the foundation of their comedy.

Junes said he also hopes that fans realize that both he and Tsosie are just like them, despite their success.

"We wanted to let people know that the second chance that you have in life is always going to be better than anything that you've failed at," Junes said.

"That was always what we wanted to do was to help put that thought into people's minds - 'Hey, I'm just like them,'" he said. "We're just like them too, we're just two rez guys"

It's that message that keeps fans like Farmington resident Carmelita Lee, who attended the 10-year anniversary show, coming back for more.


Lee said she enjoys the duo's acts and how they appeal to both a younger and older crowd.

"Being that it's the 10th anniversary, I wanted to see how far they've come with their comedy and to promote a good turn out," Lee said. "When they progressed through the years I think that they're promoting a lot of positive for the youth and that's what's good about it.

"We need these kinds of people," she said, "our own Diné, like this, to promote things like that for the children so we can focus on our language, our culture, our tradition."

Like most beginnings, Tsosie's and Junes' was rocky.

They didn't know how to promote themselves, how to book gigs, or what material to use. Everything was learned along the way.

But somehow their work became well known by Native Americans everywhere, and along with their success came great sacrifice.

Both are married with children and still find it hard to balance their work and family. They also continue to look for respect from mainstream society as entertainers.

But when times get tough there's always something there to pick them up.

"I call it our - for me - it's fuel to keep on going because sometimes we get burned out," Tsosie said. "And then I'll hear someone saying, 'Hey man, love your comedy, keep up the good work,' and that's all it takes. It's as simple as that, a pat on the back from a community member. For me it's my fuel."

The fans aren't the only ones who get help from the two. Some local talent praise them for helping ignite their careers. While Tsosie and Junes don't take credit for the careers of others, they are more than happy to help.

The two said after 10 years they remain grateful to their fans, family and peers.

"It hasn't been gravy for us, there's been pitfalls, trials and tribulations," Junes said. "There's been blood and sweat and tears that we've put into these past 10 years.

"There's times that we felt like quitting," he said. "There's times that we've dealt with our own personal demons in the past 10 years."

But even that's not enough to stop them. They might not move as quickly or as easily as they once did 10 years ago but they're going to keep trying.

Tsosie said with suicide rates soaring on reservations it's only right that they continue to make people laugh.

"I appreciate our fan base, the people that are after 10 years are still dedicated, still coming up to us saying, 'Man, I loved you guys, I still love you guys,'" he said. "I still find that pretty amazing when people are that dedicated to stick with you for so long.

"I think they need it now," he added. "Our youth, they're hurting, emotionally, mentally. My heart goes out to the teenagers of the world and Native America. I really have a place in my heart for the young ones."