Grassroots Comedy hits the deep rez
By Alistair Mountz
Special to the Times
PINON, Ariz., October 25, 2012
D oing stand up comedy for a living can mean a thin existence.
How fitting that the mission of Grassroots Comedy, and their cast of James Bilagody, Pax Harvey and Ernie Tsosie, is to go where existence is thinnest, and laughs could be seemingly in short supply.
"Our show is designed for the rural reservation," explained Tsosie to the Navajo Times before hitting the stage at the Pinon High auditorium on Oct.16, "We go to places where normally a lot of entertainment doesn't get to as far as Native entertainment goes. Most Native acts go to Farmington or Window Rock, but Grassroots we're hitting these small communities."
"It is designed for a more intimate setting," added Harvey, "and it includes a lot of positive message. That's what Grassroots is really about. Taking it down to the grandmas and to kids. It's a family show."
Bilagody, the elder statesman of the group who did his first gig in 1969, said that Grassroots is also a business collaboration between three companies.
The goal of Grassroots, as each entertainer admitted, is actually bigger than simply making people laugh and turning a buck. In fact, a lot of times they only get the laughs.
Tsosie said, "I want to stress that point that it's not about the money. Our first couple of gigs we made like 30 each. One gig we didn't make nothing, we actually paid."
The team recalled with laughter their first show in a small Flagstaff coffee shop where Tsosie and Harvey gave their percentages to Bilagody for gas money to get home. At a later show Bilagody returned the favor to his partners who were literally running on empty.
"We're not in it for high dollars to get paid," said Harvey. "We negotiate with the community. Like here today in Pinon we came in and talked to the kids from the high school for free. In order for us to pay travel back we set up a show in the evening. Whatever money we make there just goes back into our business.
"It's a risk," he added. "We don't know how many people are going to show up."
Of course as Bilagody admits with a smile, "We're not shy of taking big bucks – if it comes along."
But paydays can take a while for an entertainer.
"Sometimes we're rolling in the dough and sometimes we're not," said Tsosie, "It's up and down. Sometimes we get a check and then we don't get a check for three or four weeks, people who have regular jobs get a check every two weeks. We might get just one check a month."
Each of the team agrees however, the risk is worth it.
"All in all the main thing is we are doing what we love, we have a passion for being on stage," said Harvey. "That's why we try to work with the people in the community and give them an opportunity to enjoy themselves and us too. It's a win-win situation for everybody involved."
The true mission of Grassroots was best articulated by Bilagody who talked intimately about the responsibility he feels as a performer when asked about the risks of the job and fears of being on stage.
"I have a responsibility of culture and language," he said. "Part of that is reaching young people and elders. There is a fear there but it feeds being on the stage.
"There are pitfalls to being a comedian, an actor or a recording artist, there is fear of failure, but overriding all that is a responsibility that you have these gifts and you can deliver it to the people to make it a better situation for the people," he added.
The responsibility the group has to the community is most obvious when no one is looking.
Prior to the Navajo Times interview, the three spent over an hour with a representatives from Indian Health Service who tried to enlist their help with a conference for men's mental health.
Not only did each man open up about their own personal experiences and past difficulties, they provided ideas and strategies for making the event as powerful and successful as possible. The IHS rep just wanted to know if they were interested.
By the end of their conversation, Grassroots were pitching a four-town, eight-day mental health rez tour.
The responsibility could also be seen backstage as the three mingled with the student emcee and his entourage, requesting whatever opening music they had as long as "it's not dirty", and especially how they encouraged the nearly petrified first-time student performers who went on stage before them.
Bilagody continued, "No matter which hat I have on there's that underlying responsibility to make it a better situation for the people. Whether I'm doing comedy, or in a movie, or a board member for Diné College, or running a paralegal training program…that underlying responsibility is there.So when I'm on stage I gotta be the best that I can be so that whoever is watching and experiencing it can say they can do that too."
For information on bringing Grassroots Comedy to your neck of the boonies: visit www.ennestdavidtsosie.com.