Contemporary Native American Stand-Up Comedy
Margaret R. Katzeek
May 10, 2011
American Indian Literature Seminar
Comedy and sense of humor are a part of our everyday lives, whether we are making the jokes or laughing at them. There are many people that have made comedy into their career. These comedians come in various shapes and sizes. There are also different mediums to express humor, through live stand-up shows, books, short stories, or poems. In the olden days there was only story telling. The Native American people no doubt, have a different sense of humor than that of the more dominant culture. Some comedians may use humor as a way of to dealing with situations or past situations in their lives, but there are also some who use humor just because. A few Native American comedians are JR Redwater, Charlie Ballard, and Vaughn Eaglebear, all focus on live shows through stand-up comedy. They come from different backgrounds, have different categories of sense of humor, and the generation they were brought up in has an impact on their sense of humor. Native Americans in today’s society still use and have a unique sense of humor. This humor is shown through in today’s Native American stand-up comedy.
Methods & Literature Review
These comedians are found throughout the Native American communities because they are a part of them. JR Redwater has become known as the “Reservation Sensation”, as he calls himself on his personal website. A lot of the sources used in this research are from Native American websites and news articles. A couple of them have been on tour together on the Powwow Comedy Jam tour. There are many Youtube videos of these comedians including one of their own profiles for Youtube, FunnyNative. There are a few radio broadcasts with interviews with some comedians. There is a conversation between Neyom Friday and Charlie Ballard on Blogtalkradio. Print sources of this research all articles from sites such as Indian Country News. Powwow Comedy Jam tour has DVD’s as well as this author was present at one of their shows. These three comedians are well developed in their careers and have many pages on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, or they have their very own web pages. Facebook and Twitter will be main resources of contacting and communicating with these comedians. It is amazing to think of being able to do a whole research paper with hardly any printed sources or books. That is where we are at in this day and age.
“Love and Happiness” and “Love, Life, and Laughter” (Ballard) are the quotes among Ballard’s social network and personal webpages under his “bio” section. One would only assume these are the important things in his life and that he is in a good place in his life of love and laughter. Charlie Ballard is what some Native Americans would refer to as a “two-spirited” (Friday), in other words a gay Native man. You can tell that he is very proud of who he is with being a gay Native man. He is an “Anishnabe/Sac/Fox and a little bit of Cherokee comedian who hails from San Francisco” (Levine). His mother is from Michigan, Anishnabe tribe, and his father is from Oklahoma, Sac-And-Fox Tribe. They ended up in California under the Indian Relocation Act, when the government was trying to get Indians off of the reservation and into city dwellings (Ballard). After graduating from Haskell Indian Nations University in 2003 he was watching Last Comic Standing looking for a clue or a sign as to what the next big step was going to be for his life, while it was right under his nose. He decided to pursue stand-up comedy. His biggest influences in going into stand-up comedy were Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison, and Margaret Cho. Margaret Cho is a definite idol because he “felt like she was talking to him” (Ballard). She is very popular among the gay community. Ballard says while it is a bumpy road to becoming a successful stand-up comedian, it is definitely worth it (“Bay Native Circle”). He has had many shows around the Bay Area and was even on the America’s Got Talent TV show but was dismissed when he started incorporating gay jokes. His humor is very dirty, vulgar, and speaks what he feels (“Bay Native Circle”).
It’s hard being American Indian and gay, it is. I worry about dating white men, not because of getting HIV but of getting smallpox. White boys are cute but don’t cough on me. I can tell when white men aren’t attracted to me because they start circling. They do they look like little wagons (LOGO Outlaugh Comedy Festival).
A lot of his jokes are about being American Indian and homosexual. He has one Youtube video of him at the YukYuks club where he has a man from the audience come on stage with him and he acts as if they are on a date and he starts choking on his food and the participant from the audience has to do the Heimlich maneuver on Ballard. Ballard then instructs him on the more “advance” Heimlich maneuver where they both end up on all fours in a very suggestive sexual position. While a lot of his material comes from his personal life, a lot of it is embellished (Ballard). While there were other articles claiming that Ballard did not use his stand up comedy as therapeutic outlet he has said differently to me in a personal electronic interview: “I've probably saved myself a huge therapy bill by telling jokes about my personal life on stage,” (Ballard). It was good to read that this was the case because comedy has always been seen as some sort of outlet of emotions.
Finding a niche, or “comedic voice” for any comedian is a big deal. Ballard wanted to be sure that he was being true to what he was portraying unlike some other comedians, that play a role in their stand-up comedy, “Whereas when people see me, they get the authentic me because I really am a Gay Native American,” (Ballard). This may be something that might not even be thought if you are not in this career. Charlie Ballard takes pride in his work and loves what he is doing.
An enrolled of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe JR Redwater comes from a dysfunctional home in South Dakota. To get away from the reservation life he joined the Navy to travel the world (ReservationSensation). After serving overseas in the Navy he unfortunately ended up back on the reservation to live another phase in the alcoholic dysfunction he tried to escape from in the first place. He then moved to Southern California only to find himself digging a deeper hole. Life on the road as a Long Haul truck driver did an alcoholic no good, finding him with three charges of DUI’s in one year (ReservationSensation). Hitting that rock bottom after serving time in jail he straightened up and found another occupation, only to find it wasn’t what was in his heart. He decided to do what his heart desired, Stand-up comedy. This is a form of therapy for him, venting his anger through his shows. He has endured so much pain and to help him cope with that he does stand-up. One day he might be burying a family member the next he is back on stage. As a performer you have to know that you are performing at all times, “when you leave your hotel room, you are performing” (Redwater). He is now clean and sober for eight and a half years and following his heart (Redwater). Not only is he a stand-up comedian, but he does good through his motivational speaking to people around the world and also trying to pursue an acting career (ReservationSensation). He is a Christian man, maybe not the cleanest Christian but he does have faith and gives thanks to God for everything he has and where he is at in life today. In a conversation with Redwater in the beginning it was about his career, by the end of it it was a motivational speech, which definitely explains why he does motivational speaking, he is great at it. It may sound cheesy to say “follow your heart” but that’s what he truly believes. “If you have a talent, don’t waste it because it’s a sin” (Redwater). One of his inspirations comes from his best friend, Jim Rule. Rule has a degree in engineering from Stanford and he is doing stand-up comedy (Redwater).
A lot of his jokes or bits come from living off the reservation and reservation life. His jokes for his stand-up, like many other comedians are about story-telling and life experiences. He’s not afraid, one advice he gave in a personal interview with is that you must commit to what you are saying. When an audience gasps or has a bad reaction to a joke, you can’t back away from the joke, you’ve already said it and you have to commit to your word, because that is all you have (Redwater). He doesn’t hold back, he doesn’t care if he offends people, sure if there are little kids running around in the audience then he will try to clean it up but for the most part he says what he wants and that’s it (Redwater). In one of his jokes he talks about domestic violence, alcohol and Indians: “Actually, I don’t drink, I’m six and a half years clean and sober. I didn’t wanna quit though. I was allergic to alcohol ya know, every time I drank it I broke out in handcuffs“ (Skabewis). This is a great example of him lightening up a situation of his real life experiences and making it into comedy and humor. You probably wouldn’t think of it as something to make light of but it works. In this next quote is another joke about alcohol but not just for his personal life but for Native Americans as a whole:
The white man introduced alcohol to the Indians so they could steal our land. Some people call us one of the worst genocides of history, but I like to call it one of the longest happy hours ever… I was thinking about it man, I was thinking only if us Indians had an honest bartender. Then he could have been like “excuse me chief, you’re losing your continent.” (Skabewis)
This is another great example of making light of a very serious situation, a whole nation losing their land because of alcohol. He also has sexually provocative jokes. One in a show he was talking about how he went to the club once and he asked a girl to dance, she said yes and she immediately turned her back on him and bent over shoving her butt into his crotch. The joke then turned into a gay joke about a gay guy eyeballing him (Redwater). Another instance of his sexual jokes was at a school talent show he referred to an act done by three girls that were doing a dance and he indirectly called them strippers and was basically hitting on them (Redwater). Some may consider this crossing the line, especially if you are not Native American. It only makes sense to talk about what you know. You would not really assume that he is angry like his biography states. He does talk about alcohol quite a bit in his shows, which only makes sense because like any writer or entertainer you usually incorporate some part of your life experiences. Especially in stand-up comedy you talk about what you know and what you’ve experienced. This is a great example of the arts in many aspects. Although there are hardships in everybody’s lives it is how you deal with them and learn from them that make it count. Redwater is a fine example of how to do this, he takes what he knows about from hands on incidents and applies it to his career. It would not be good for his career if he tried to make jokes about something he really has no experience in, it would be fake and not as funny. People like things that they can relate to, stuff that they know about. For example if he were making all these jokes about alcohol abuse or living on the reservation and he never actually did any of those things than people that actually know what he’s talking about wouldn’t take him seriously because they know he were just trying to get a reaction. You stick to what you know.
Vaughn Eaglebear did not really see himself as a comedian until after he wrote the song “John Wayne’s Teeth” for the movie Smoke Signals. A “comedic aura” (Eaglebear RezStyle) surrounded Vaughn Eaglebear after his part in the movie Smoke Signals. He is a Lakota/Colville Native American from Spokane, Washington (Pow Wow Comedy Jam). Although his story changes when asked how he came about becoming a comedian. He didn’t really know he was a comedian until someone labeled him as a “comedian”. He picked up on that little label and went with it. He is now a very successful Native American comedian. Vaughn Eaglebear didn’t even really know what that “John Wayne’s Teeth” really meant. Sherman Alexie explained what it was about:
John Wayne got in a lot of fights and if you were fighting with a lot of Indians, on the rez if you get in a lot of fights, you’re missing teeth. And John Wayne was never missing teeth, so either he had plastic teeth and he took them out or they were steel. (Acosta, Kakkak, DeMain, Barber, Bowker, Vander Puy)
John Wayne was a constant actor in many cowboy versus Indian movies and he was always portrayed as this great hero, which was not the case for the American Indian’s side. This song was just a way of making fun of the fake hero he was because his teeth were always perfect, yet you know if you’re in so many fights than you would not have such great teeth. Not only was it a way of making fun of John Wayne but also of the majority society that held John Wayne in such esteem.
Vaughn Eaglebear’s humor is different from these other two comedians in the sense that he does not really have bits or jokes throughout a story. Most of his jokes are more like one liners:
I’ve never seen an Indian in the cupboard. But I seen one digging around in a fridge. I think they should combine a port-a-potty with a teepee and call it a peepee. I saw this guy driving down the street the other day and he had a dream catcher hanging from his rearview mirror and I was like “dude, sleeping at the wheel is dangerous”.(Acosta, Kakkak, DeMain, Barber, Bowker, Vander Puy).
A lot of his jokes come from just everyday living and observing the world and how there are Native American items or stereotypes in the world. The one liners are on the subject of Native American items becoming fashion or decorations. The Indian in the Cupboard was about a toy Indian becoming alive and was in a cupboard, that’s ridiculous so he made spun off of that and made it into a funny. The dreamcatcher in the rearview mirror while that may have been something traditional to a tribe white people have turned it into something to decorate their car with. His one liner jokes are basically poking fun at the western society that use Native Americans as objects. In his comedy a lot of it can be seen as bringing up issues that have to deal with Native Americans. A difficult thing about this kind of comedy is filling up 45 minutes worth of one liners. This is pretty different because when you think of stand-up comedy the more common form is of the storytelling way but with his it is like he is reading a book of simple little jokes.
As any kind of arts, the art of stand-up comedy grows and grows as time goes by. You can definitely argue that in the case of Native American stand-up comedy. Throughout the years there has always been a different outlook on Native Americans so you can assume that when Native American stand-up comedians burst into the ray of light of performing and entertainment it was a lot different than the Native American stand-up comedians of today’s world. If you look back on some of the older Native American comedians their jokes are somewhat similar in the sense of the same issues that Native Americans are facing today. But they differ in other ways of life. Jonathan Winters is a great example of the difference between the generations. Jonathan Winters comes from the time of the Great Depression and he also makes some jokes about being married and of his wife. These are a few of the differences that our generation would not be able to understand. His comedy was based on improvisization (Improv part 1 on the Dean Martin Variety Show). Reviewing some of the videos they have of Charlie Hill or Jonathan Winters although they are trying to debunk some of the stereotypes it really was a lot more about the racism and relocations of American Indians (Charlie Hill on the Richard Pryor Show, 1977). You can tell there is still a little bit of bitterness or anger against white people because of the mistreatment especially because within that time they’re were still going through a lot of mistreatment. That is not to say there is not any mistreatment today but while Hill and Winters were talking about it it was going on at the same time, now talking about it it is somewhat in the past. Winters and Hill talk a lot about the then President Reagan. You also notice that they talk about Native American issues such as having Indians as a sports mascot: “Then they make you mascots at ball games… I watched the SuperBowl I was for the Washington team but the Redskins. ..Mascots, Redskins, Braves, Bucks, The Chiefs, I’d like to see the Kansas City Caucasians.” (Comedian: Charlie Hill).
In today’s society it is all about the sex, lust, the stereotypes of Native Americans. You can tell just from the few sample jokes of this generations comedians it is very provocative and they do not mention as many issues. There are hardly any politics mentioned. A lot of it has to do with today’s generations of urban Indians and even if there are Indians from the reservation does not really mean they are living traditionally they still are partaking in the mainstream media contents of sex, rap and hip hop music. One critique of stand-up comedians in general was that sometimes when comedians get dirty and inappropriate they aren’t actually funny, they have shock value, a good comedian is someone that can still get laughs without being vulgar (Scott). And if you do think about it or look at a lot of the comedians today they are very vulgar and dirty.
Compare and contrast: Ballard, Redwater, Eaglebear
These three Native American Stand-up comedians come from all walks of life, but one constant remains the same within all of them, that is that they all are heavily influenced by their Native American heritage. That is not to be confused with that they are active in their Native American traditions but rather that they refer to and use Native American issuse or experiences that particuliarly pertain to Native Americans. Although they’re materials all differ with one being an outted gay man, another known recovering alcoholic, and another just goofy goofy man they all have used humor as an outlet and art of some sort. If you watch their stand up you can tell they all care for this career deeply and they don’t plan on going anywhere that doesn’t involve being funny. They love what they are doing and don’t plan on stopping. There is not very much information on them giving back to the community directly necessarily but in general they are becoming part of the world and are making it known that they are Native American and that Native Americans are still here and that in itself is a great accomplishment. They’re comedy could be described as a Panindianism culture. While they do have some history within their comedy it is mostly mixed with the modern society and mainstream materialism. One article even saying that Ballard celebrates his “Indianness” as if it something that is a characteristic or personality trait (Levine). This Panindianism has erupted among this generation.
This research project was very fun and easy to research as for writing about it was difficult in trying not to make it a complete reaction or critique of the comedians. I like to think of myself as a humorous person. I know that in a lot of my jokes I make are often about serious subjects or of sad events in my life that I make light of and although I laugh about it I know that there was obvious some kind of pain or hurt that is either was there or is still present. So it was nice to read and find that that is usually the case for a lot of comedians or “humorous people”. It was also interesting to think of how limited Native American comedians, writers, artists, are limited in the audience that they grab. In actual art that pertains to painting and sculptures may not be that limited but in the fact of comedians that are writing jokes that usually pertain to that of Native American life on reservations then you are very limited because you only have so many people that will “get” your jokes or understand where you’re coming from. I also do not think I have ever had a research paper that I did where I got to laugh hysterically while doing research. It has crossed my mind of how fun it might be to do stand-up comedy but I am not sure of making it my job to be funny.I also learned of a lot more Native American comedians like Charlie Hill and Jonathan Winters. It is also interesting to think of it from the Alaska Native perspective where it is completely different from “lower 48” Indians lives. Not that it is completely different but if I had done this research paper when I first came to Haskell I probably wouldn’t understand a lot of the jokes done by these comedians. Although some of their experiences can be universal among a lot of minority groups it still differs a lot. You find that a lot of my friends or people can relate to other ethnic comedians such as African American comedians or Mexican comedians because they have endured similar situations with being oppressed and controlled by the western society. I also liked seeing that there was a gay Native American, because even in the American Indian community it is looked down upon to be homosexual. It is just a great reminder of how we as a people are stepping into the mainstream society and being proud.
Giving Back to the Community
Giving back to the community among this subject is hard to comprehend. I think I will do what I can to post the videos of not just these comedians but of the good comedians and do what I can to promote them. It is important that it be known that there are successful Native American actors, comedians, artists. But as mentioned before it could be hard to try and promote them because like Redwater said if you choose to make Native American jokes or bits then you are limiting yourself to only so many people of the population. I also think it is good that a lot of these comedians let it be known that they are Native American and that they can be proud and that if they can come from a reservation and make it into Hollywood then so can the next Indian.
Acosta, Kimberlie, D.Kakkak, Paul DeMain, Lonnie Barber, Ed Bowker, Nick Vander Puy. RezStyle: Vaughn Eaglebear. Indian TV. 12 Mar. 2010. Webpage. 20 Mar. 2011.
“The Biography.” The Reservation Sensation. Webpage. 20 Mar. 2011.
“Bay Native Circle”. Bay Area Native Community Calendar. KPFA & Pacifica. 25 Aug. 2010. Radio.
“Charlie Hill on the Richard Pryor Show, 1977”. Youtube.18 Jan. 2008. 20 Apr. 2011. Electronic.
“Comedian: Charlie Hill”. Youtube. 7 Jul. 2009. 20 Apr. 2011.
Friday, Neyom. A Conversation with Charlie Ballard. Blog Talk Radio. 27 Jan. 2010. Web Broadcast. 28 Mar. 2011.
“Improv part 1 on the Dean Martin Variety Show”. Youtube.4 Jul. 2009. Electronic. 1 May 2011.
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Levine, Carol. “Charlie Ballard: Not Sad, Not Mad, Just Funny.” Native Vue. 6 Aug. 2007. Webpage. 17 Feb. 2011.
“LOGO Outlaugh Comedy Festival 2006”. Youtube. 11 Feb. 2008. Electronic. 27 Mar. 2011.
Pow Wow Comedy Jam. Adam Lamas. Webpage. 17 Feb. 2011.
Redwater, JR. Personal interview. 13 April 2011.
Redwater, JR. “Powwow Comedy Jam”. Coffin Complex, Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, KS. Sep 2008. Oral Presentation.
Redwater, JR. “Talent Show”. Auditorium, Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, KS. 13 Apr. 2011. Oral Presentation.
Roye, Steve. “Native American Comedians Simply Outstanding on Showtime Special.” Comedy Pro Membership Program. 2 Jan. 2010. Electronic. 17 Feb. 2011.
Scott, Curtis. Personal interview. 15 Apr. 2011.