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Adrianne Chalepah finds comfort, fun in all-Native company

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FARMINGTON — Adrianne Chalepah had only been performing comedy professionally for approximately six months in 2011 as member of the group 49 Laughs when she opted to quit her day job and transition into the field full time.

The timing of that decision, she noted, probably could have been better.

"I was working at a bank, and I was pregnant," she said. "It was not ideal, as far as financial stability."

Even so, it was the only decision that made sense to her, though she acknowledged it required a leap of faith.

"It was one of those things where I just couldn't see myself doing anything else in order to remain happy and stress free," she said. "Especially since I'm the type of person who believes in having a work ethic, and I knew I wasn't giving my company everything. So I jumped in and became self-employed, which is very scary."

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Initially, Chalepah had plenty of reason to doubt the wisdom of that decision. Even though 49 Laughs — which will perform a return engagement this weekend in Farmington — already was a well-established and successful company by the time Chalepah signed on as a member in 2010, stand-up comedy is a notoriously difficult and unpredictable gig, one in which fortunes can ebb and flow with little warning.

"My mind was telling me this is the dumbest thing I've ever done," Chalepah said, recalling the self-doubt she experienced early on. "But my heart was telling me to go for it — you only live once."

It took only a few months for Chalepah — who grew up in southwest Oklahoma, and is Kiowa and Apache — to realize she had made the right decision. Over the course of the last decade, professional comedy has allowed her to make a living, and be exposed to people and places she never would have encountered otherwise. It also has put her in a position in which she has become a bit of a trailblazer for the Native community, which is underrepresented in the entertainment field.

"I feel like I'm making a difference in my community," she said.

Chalepah's all-Native group also includes Tatanka Means, James Junes, Pax Harvey and Ernest David Tsosie, all of whom founded 49 Laughs in 2009. She had opened for the group during performances in Durango, Colorado, while she was a student at Fort Lewis College. She was thrilled when they issued an invitation to her to join them in 2010.

"I love stand-up comedy," she said. "I love it so much, and these guys were kind enough to give me a chance to express myself through humor. They took me under their wings, mentored me and shaped me into the professional comedian I am today."

Chalepah is the only female member of the troupe, but she said she never feels isolated.

"It actually feels very comfortable," she said. "I grew up as the only girl in my family. And now I have four sons and a husband. I've always been surrounded by men and boys. It feels very natural to me. Is it a boys club? Probably, but I wouldn't know the difference. I'm a tomboy, so it suits me."

The members of 49 Laughs live all around New Mexico and Arizona, convening for three or four shows a year. During its early years, the group would tour for several weeks at a time, but Chalepah, an Albuquerque resident, said each member has built her or his own comedy career now, so 49 Laughs isn't as busy as it once was.

But the members of the troupe have an easy rapport with each other, and they quickly slide back into that whenever they perform together. Chalepah said each comic performs a stand-up routine of approximately 20 to 25 minutes, and they literally draw straws to determine the order.

"What's great is everyone in the group has a very unique style of comedy," she said. "So there's definitely something for everyone because we're all so unique in our own ways."

Chalepah described her style as very self-deprecating and observational.

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"I like to make fun of myself and my family and friends and community," she said. "I like to think of myself as a mirror for society."

She also said she employs a narrative style.

"Sometimes, I see myself as a storyteller — a very funny storyteller," she said.

Even though the members of 49 Laughs represent Indian nations ranging from Navajo, Hopi and Oglala Lakota to Omaha, Kiowa and Apache, Chalepah said the company's brand of humor doesn't appeal just to indigenous people.

"I like to think our comedy is crossover material," she said. "We gear it toward anybody. … It's relatable across any culture. There are some unique aspects of our performance, and some members do bits in their own language and then translate it. But it's hilarious, even if you don't understand the language. It's multicultural."

Farmington is one of the group's favorite destinations, Chalepah said, explaining that 49 Laughs always receives a warm reception here.

"The people there love to laugh, and we always draw large crowds," she said. "It's a predominately Native audience, but that's just because Farmington has such a large (indigenous) population."

As 49 Laughs enters its second decade together, Chalepah said the group's camaraderie is stronger than ever.

"It's kind of like being in a band, except most bands break up," she said. "We've managed to stay together by respecting each other's personality and loving comedy and bonding with each other like family members."

Like the other members of 49 Laughs, Chalepah has other comic endeavors outside the group that she uses to supplement her career. But the comedy troupe she joined nearly 10 years ago remains home to her.

"This is where I started," she said. "I hope I can perform with them for the rest of my life. It's an insane amount of fun."

49 Laughs performs at 7 p.m. Nov. 30 at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St. Tickets are $18 and $25. Call 505-599-1148.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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