Veteran Native actor Jonathan Joss is arguably most known for his recurring voice-over role as animated Indian character John Redcorn on the Fox sitcom King of the Hill from 1997-2009. Joss worked hard to shape Redcorn's portrayals as he repeatedly challenged the dominant perception of Redcorn as just a New Age healer having an affair with the neighbor's wife. Through his off-screen lead vocals in the NAMMY-winning Red Corn Band, Joss influenced King of the Hill writers to introduce a new on-screen storyline for Redcorn, in which he fronts the band Big Mountain Fudgecake, then becomes a solo children's singer, and by the last season, a self-sufficient talent agent. Singing today under the stage name of The John Red Corn Experience, Joss has collaborated with the Graywolf Blues Band, a team-up that has been nominated for a 2013 Native American Music Award for Best Country Song for their version of the John Redcorn anthem "Still No Good." In addition to appearances in dozens of other productions, predominantly in Indian roles from Dead Man's Walk and Walker, Texas Ranger in the mid-1990s to recent roles in Comanche Moon and True Grit, Joss currently has a recurring role as Wamapoke chief Ken Hotate in the popular NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation.
On a recent visit to Southwestern University, Joss took some time to discuss his work with Graywolf, King of the Hill, and Parks and Recreation with ICTMN.
What's the latest news with the Red Corn Experience?
I've teamed up with the Graywolf Blues Band, and I just got the announcement that we've been nominated for the Best Country Recording for the song "Still No Good."
How did you and Graywolf come to start working together?
I've known Graywolf for a while. We hang out at the Malibu Powwow, which is a Chumash Powwow. He'd heard about Tim Sampson [Muscogee Creek], George Multine [Navajo], and me doing The Red Corn Band, and we began talking. He asked if I was interested in singing, so I stepped in there, and we've done two songs, "Still No Good" and "Boogey Man" [both of which are on Gray Wolf's new album Dancing in the Rain]. We want to make it entertaining, and the more we have to offer the Native population, the better. By adding The Redcorn Experience, it's just another way to make it more pleasing for audiences. Graywolf is such an elder, and it's such a pleasure to learn from him.
"Still No Good" begins, "Look at old Redcorn, he's king of the hill / a Hollywood Indian on a diet pill." Its songwriter Tim Sampson seems to suggest that the series star Hank Hill move over and let the marginalized Redcorn have a shot. Could you comment on Sampson's take on the John Redcorn character?
It would be easy to be intimidated by Tim Sampson's long list of acting and music credentials. When he saw that the music I was doing was coming from a true heart, he jumped in with his great songwriting. He's the one who made me rehearse everyday, told me to be creative, and to put the music out there. He's a true storyteller, and I look forward to one day reuniting with Tim and George again.
One could hear the Red Corn Band's albums The Red Corn Sessions and Still No Good as a soundtrack for the John Redcorn character and an extension of the series King of the Hill. What would you say is the role that music played in catapulting Redcorn toward becoming a fuller character and having his own band on the show?
It was all about changing the approach that King of the Hill had with John Redcorn. They liked the idea of him being a running joke, a good laugh of climbing in and out of the window. After a while of doing that, I felt they were wasting a good character that could have an arc and tell a story other than being a one-punch joke. I pitched ideas to the writers, such as Redcorn becoming a wrestler with a mask who finds a new fan in his son Joseph and becomes closer to him. It was all about coming from a good place and trying to make Redcorn a better character. When I approached Fox in a more mature and creative manner instead of complaining and refusing to do certain things, that got their ear. It wasn't until I discovered the music aspect of it and gave John Redcorn a voice through his music that the writers then had a picture to work with. They listened to the CD Golden Driplets that I did with musician Kris Kiser, and I got the call one day that they liked the aspect of Redcorn as a musician. Not everyone wants to hear the Indian talk about his land being stolen; but a lot of us will want to listen to music when we sing about it, which speaks to the power of music. I was able to communicate through John Redcorn to Fox, and they allowed him to have his band and to have an arc in a different place.
On the show, the music opens doors to other entrepreneurial avenues for Redcorn, eventually becoming a talent agent and his own boss—it was quite a journey for Redcorn, wasn't it?
He has his own business. Native characters and guest characters in general aren't allowed to arc like that. People have hit me over the head, saying I was that character sleeping with the white lady and having a kid I don't care about; but I tell him you didn't see King of the Hill after the first few seasons. Redcorn changed.
But that's the dominant perception—that he was always with Nancy, even though he wasn't.
Right, and now the younger kids are discovering the show through AdultSwim and Netflix. They've seen that arc in three nights instead of watching it over the course of twelve seasons. The majority of the time, I hear, "Hey, man do the song [from season nine's "Redcorn Gambles with his Future"]: [starts singing] 'There's a hole in my pocket where the money go / There's a hole, there's a big old hole!" Kids love it. People tell me their favorite stuff is when Redcorn sings with his band. That's nice to be remembered as a Native character for something so simple like nutty music instead of just, "Oh, we took your land."
And there's also a life today for Redcorn with your off-screen singing as the John Redcorn Experience.
There really is. That's my tribute to [season one's voice of Redcorn, the late] Victor Aaron. That's my tribute to Native People everywhere. Also, while I was doing King of the Hill, I very seldom did a full-out John Redcorn voice in other roles. Since King of the Hill got cancelled, I like merging the characters now. When I appeared in True Grit in that brief hanging scene and said, "Before I am hanged, I would like to say …," people recognized that voice as the voice of John Redcorn, saying they knew they'd heard that voice before. My IMDB star meter just soared through the roof from a three-second part in an award-winning movie. So, when I do Ken Hotate in Parks and Rec, I can go into a registry that's familiar to the ear. That familiarity, I like to call almost the Jonathan Joss brand. That's what the world is all about now, is accepting and delivering your message with a brand that's recognizable. If you can deliver a message with a recognizable brand, people are more attuned to listen to your message. And that's where I'm at now with Ken Hotate, who is an affluent Native running a casino. He dresses nice. He's not running around behind someone's back. He's a man, an Indian man, and a lot of fun. The show is very funny and edgy, and I'm really excited to see the path they'll take for Hotate.
Parks and Rec has been so nice. For example, during the bogus blessing ceremony [in season three's "Harvest Festival"], they made sure not to hand me anything traditional like tobacco and sage. Instead, they gave me sugar and spice and everything nice to do a mock comedic bit. For a long time in this industry, no one would look into that. They wouldn't hand you a real bible, but they'd try to hand you real eagle feathers and ask us to do mock stuff, which for us, we really can't do. It's nice to see that change and respect. Since Ken Hotate is a more above-the boards character, I think you'll see him getting a bit more respect, whereas John Redcorn was tarnished from the start.
Right. Ken Hotate doesn't let himself become the butt of the joke.
If there is a joke with Ken, the joke involves him and is not about him. And you know, it's a hoot for me just to be able to wear pants! I wish my Dad had been alive to see this because a lot of the times he'd say to me, "You look good there on horseback, son. It's a damn shame they don't ever put you in clothes." My Mom loves it, sees Ken in a suit and says, "You look nice! You oughta wear those things more often." So far, Ken has only worn two suits. If everything works out for a third episode, I want to see if he has another new suit. Hopefully, the show continues, and hopefully, they're happy with how I'm delivering stuff to them to where it can create an avenue for Native people. Not everything has to be preaching or a prayer. We just want to tell a good story. [Parks and Recreation creator] Greg Daniels and [series star] Amy Poehler have blessed me with a chance to be a part of creating a cool character.
It's also suggestive evidence of respect for you, the actor, because of all the behind-the-scenes work you did on King of the Hill. If you hadn't spoken up and started The Red Corn Band, the Redcorn character most likely would not have developed as he did into a self-sufficient character, and that by the time we get to 2011 with your debut in Parks and Rec, it's like there is that respect for you to step into a character who is, as far as we know, already self-sufficient.
Thank you. That means a lot to me. There's such a strong ensemble cast and great characters. When I'm doing Parks and Rec, I've really got to put my chops on. It's a learning experience to sit back and watch these seasoned veterans be funny. Again, it's so great to be a part of the joke instead of the joke.
Dustin Tahmahkera is a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma and an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.