Growing up, Joey Clift loved comedy. The Simpsons, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Family Guy were a few favorites. But there was a gap Clift had to bridge to become part of the comedy world.
“I didn’t see anybody like me on TV,” he says.
Clift (’09 Comm.), an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe who grew up on the Tulalip Reservation, is bridging that gap. He recently wrapped his role as a writer on Spirit Rangers. The animated Netflix series features Native American siblings Kodi, Summer, and Eddy, who serve as park rangers and protect a national park.
“I had never worked with that audience age range,” says Clift, noting the show is aimed at 4- to 7-year-olds. “We were able discuss subjects such as Native stereotypes and broken treaties. We were able to do all of the bigger topics. You can’t beat that as a writer.”
Clift also worked as a consulting producer on the series, which was written by an all-Native team. The show’s characters are raised by parents of two tribes—a Chumash mom and a Cowlitz dad. “It was a major blessing to work on this kids’ show and work with members of my tribe,” says Clift, calling the show not only a career milestone but “a life highlight.”
Clift earned an associate degree at Everett Community College and volunteered at and hosted events for a local radio station before transferring to Washington State University. He learned on-camera skills at Cable 8 and from classes with now-retired broadcast professor Glenn Johnson. “I considered Glenn Johnson a mentor, along with Marvin Marcelo, Richard Taflinger, Kenji Kitatani, and Barbara Aston,” he says.
Although TV news and weather were both on Clift’s radar as potential career tracks, professors told Clift comedy seemed to be his true passion. In 2008, Clift won the College Broadcasters Incorporated National Student Production Award for best comedy. And, shortly after completing his degree, he pursued comedy via a study abroad program in London to work with Baby Cow Productions.
He began taking improv and sketch comedy classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade shortly after he moved to Los Angeles in 2010, performing and writing for live shows throughout the city. Those experiences paved the way for his sketches and other work to be featured on Funny or Die, The Nerdist, and UCB Comedy.
But he noticed there weren’t many Native American comedians landing mainstream opportunities. After honing his craft and forming relationships for several years, Clift helped organize and host the “First Ever Upright Citizens Brigade Native American Talent Showcase” in 2018.
“To work in this environment, you have to learn to love uncertainty,” Clift says. “My career is eclectic. It’s hard to make 5-year plans or 10-year plans. Opportunities present themselves if you work hard.”
Hard work translated to Clift’s award-winning animated short film Telling People You’re Native American When You’re Not Native Is a Lot Like Telling a Bear You’re a Bear When You’re Not a Bear. It completed a long festival run and was listed on the Comedy Bureau’s “Top 100 Things in Comedy” in 2019. The same year, Clift appeared on the podcast How Did This Get Played? to speak about the tokenization of Native people in the media. The episode was named among the top podcast episodes of the year by IndieWire, Vulture, and Uproxx.
Around the same time, Spirit Rangers series creator Karissa Valencia was looking for Native writers with kids’ animation experience. After hearing about Clift through a mutual friend, she checked out his work. “We met in person in late February 2020 a few weeks before the pandemic shut everything down,” Clift says. “We hit it off really well, she offered me a job, and I started working on the show in May of 2020.”
Netflix and the writers’ room nurtured a flexible and creative environment. “Netflix allowed us to make the show we wanted to make,” says Clift, who wrapped up his role on the show last December. “That is a high I will be chasing my entire career.”