As an adopted child raised by a Mexican mother and a Jewish father, Marc Yaffee found out in his 20s that he’s of Navajo, Mexican and Irish descent. Now, he makes his living as a stand-up comedian who focuses largely on his Native American roots.
By his own estimate, there are only “10 (full-time Native American comedians), maybe a dozen on a good day.”
Yaffee makes up one-third of the Pow Wow Comedy Jam, the other two thirds being fellow comics Vaughn Eaglebear and Howie Miller. All three will perform Friday at Scottsdale’s Casino Arizona.
Each member performed on the 2009 Showtime special “Goin’ Native: The American Indian Comedy Slam,” and the group was named the National Indian Gaming Association’s 2010 Entertainers of the Year.
Here, Yaffee tells more.
Q: You’ve performed for a wide range of audiences, from children to soldiers serving overseas. Do you have to adjust your act?
A: Somewhat. It can be pretty schizophrenic. I always have to be like the crossover SUV of comedy. You’ve got to be able to go two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, young crowds, old crowds. ... At a casino, you might do a little bit more of an adult show and talk about gambling, and when you’re doing a youth show, you’re joking more about kids and school and life. It keeps you on your toes.
Q: Were you ever worried about backlash from the communities you poke fun at in your act?
A: Not really. I try to make sure I make fun of everyone in a lighthearted way that is not too mean-spirited. It’s kind of poking fun at sacred cows, and I certainly try to include myself without taking myself too seriously. That really helps defuse the audience. It hasn’t really been an issue. We’ve got really good crossover success. ... We were all raised in comedy clubs, so we like to be universal and still have enough point of view.
Q: You have Native American roots, but you were raised by a Mexican mother and a Jewish father. Has this diverse upbringing, mixed with your diverse genetics, broadened the range of subjects you feel you can explore in your act?
A: People give you a lot of leeway. You’re not pigeon-holed as much. On the flipside, in comedy now, it’s so distinct. People want that certain brand, like ‘Oh yeah, it’s that fat comedian, that’s that skinny black comedian or that’s that Latino comedian.’ And then, when they’re like ‘Oh wow, what are you?’ I’m kind of Mexican, I’m kind of grey. It dilutes my brand in a way. People, they want that real sharp image. That’s the one thing that works against me. The flipside is it does gives me a little more freedom. I can say, ‘Well hey, I’m part this, part this. So, hey, I’m having fun with everybody.’
Q; You get gasps along with laughs when people react to your jokes. Are you going for that response?
A: I think: Always take people to the edge and bring them back — where they think about it for a second, and then it hits them like, ‘Whoa! Wow, wait, hold on, that’s funny!’ You can slip a message in there and then get some laughs out of it. I always feel that a successful bill for me (is) when you can get a two-for-one.
Q: Why start a Native American comedy group?
A: It was basically a fluke. I met a Native comic, Vaughn; he was watching me perform at a club in Spokane, and then we connected and stayed in touch. ... He had just started, and we said ‘Hey, we should do a native comedy tour.’ It was about the time the Kings of Comedy and the Blue Collar (Comedy) was just starting to blow up. And we’re like ‘Well, those folks are represented. There’s nothing in Indian country.’ It kind of languished for a few years, and then we started pushing a little harder and got some bookings. We’ve been going ever since.
• Preston, a junior studying journalism at Arizona State University, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org