Changing the world with comedy
In Me Funny, Anishinaabe author and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor argues that humour has always been an integral aspect of indigenous cultures. Moreover, he suggests that in colonial contexts such as Canada, comedy can be a disarming yet effective way for people to draw attention to important social issues and to challenge things like racist stereotyping. in light of this issue’s special focus on racism, I recently had the chance to talk with accomplished Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon about the power of comedy and how it can be used to change the world.
Sean Carleton: How did you get into comedy, and what does it mean, to you, to be an Anishinaabe comedian?
Ryan McMahon: I stumbled into comedy after finishing my Theatre degree at the university of Minnesota. I moved to Toronto to chase my dreams of becoming an actor and while there happened across an audition notice for the Second City Conservatory. I auditioned, got in and was lucky enough to have been granted a full scholarship to study at the conservatory by the Toronto Theatre Alliance. I completed the conservatory after two years of study and while there did hundreds of shows, travelled to festivals and really learned what was funny to me. Most people don’t even know that I started as an improv and sketch comedian, but those are my roots.
I started putting my playwriting and theatre experience to work in 2006 and started writing long monologues and was working toward a full show. I was really burned out at that time and was taking time off to teach and focus on my family. in 2008, I got the standup comedy bug and by 2010 I recorded my first national comedy special for CBC TV (Welcome To Turtle Island Too).
As an indigenous comic, I know I have a responsibility that most comics don’t have. I chose to honour this responsibility through my comedy and my point of view onstage. It’s not that I speak for ALL indigenous Peoples, but every time there are 400 people in a dark room, I know I have a chance to invite people through a doorway they’ve never experienced before. Comedy is my chance to fight back, to make space and to create pride and strength by investigating our truth. I choose not to exploit weakness in our community; most indigenous comics take on the easy stuff, I go straight for the hard stuff, the ugly conversations we’re all scared to have. To me, that’s where the laughs are.
Finally, nanaboozho, the trickster, the coyote, the raven, these are all characters we have in our teachings and found in our historical stories and deep in our worldviews across Turtle island. Laughter is medicine, sure. But it’s also one of our greatest teachers. The Trickster shows the people the humanity of this experience we call life and in that humanity there is good and bad. Trickster shows us balance and pokes holes in dogma, politics and other oppressive systems. I think this should be the goal of indigenous comedy, find that trickster and speak through it.
SC: How do you see humour as strategy for confronting racism today?
RM: I don’t think comedy can truly confront racism. Racists don’t attend my shows. However, we do get to unite in a shared experience of a live show to tell the world there is no place for racism.
SC: A lot of your work focuses on youth. How, through your experience of doing shows and leading workshops, do you see comedy as giving a voice to marginalized and racialized youth?
RM: For me, it’s just about showing them anything is possible. I’m a kid from the bush in Treaty 3. I grew up hunting and fishing for food. My family has overcome a lot, from addictions to residential schools to violence, etc. By being the first Indigenous comic to record a mainstream stand-up special for CBC TV, performing at Just For Laughs, recording five comedy specials in five years, it’s just proof that hard work can pay off and when you have passion and drive you can achieve the greatness that awaits you. I’m not so great, I just have experiences they don’t have yet. It’s my job to clear space, to help and to guide. I have 15 years of best practices and failures to share, that’s my role.
SC: Season five of your podcast, Red Man Laughing, focuses on the theme of reconciliation. What role can laughter play in reconciliation, in decolonization?
RM: I think laughter can shine a light on the paradoxes, the trade-offs and the hypocrisies found therein. My job is to have conversations about the things no one wants to talk about. Sometimes I say things that I’m not even sure are true or are helpful to the conversation, but I will not shy away from topics or themes because I think they’ll hurt people’s feelings. The farther we push the boundaries, the more space we make for learning.
There are some great comics (W. Kamau Bell, Hari Kondabolu, Aamer Rahmen, Cristela Alonzo) that take on politics, decolonization, racism, etc., and they all acknowledge that they wish they didn’t have to. It’s tiring. It’s heavy. It’s hard. At the end of the day, we all just want to be funny. We want to take our power back. We want to reach our people using laughter. We want to be represented and heard, that’s the path I’m on.
Ryan McMahon’s path is an important one and, by sharing his experiences through his work, he is clearing the way for others interested in using humour to be heard and change the world with comedy. For more on McMahon’s hard-hitting and hilarious work, including his comedy specials and Red Man Laughing podcasts, check out his website at rmcomedy.com.
Sean Carleton is a coordinating editor with Canadian Dimension.