NDN LOL: The Insights of Comedian Ryan McMahon
If there’s anything that helps people emerge from a shared struggle, it’s shared laughter.
Despite the hardships many Aboriginal people across Turtle Island have endured, they’ve been able to maintain an infallible sense of humour: one that’s evolved from timeless trickster stories into standup comedy and television shows, among other methods and media.
Ryan McMahon is one of those contemporary storytellers who’s made it his life’s mission to make our people laugh, and to teach those from other backgrounds about us (and make them laugh too). McMahon grew up in Fort Frances, ON, and broke into the contemporary comedy and theatre scene in Toronto in the late 1990s. His home base is now Winnipeg. He tours across the continent and is widely respected as one of the funniest contemporary comedians/writers/actors, and he’s deeply proud of his Ojibway/Metis background. Oh yeah, and then there’s that Clarence guy.
We caught up with McMahon on a recent tour date in Minnesota.
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Why is comedy so important to Aboriginal people?
I think it’s inter-woven into our world view and cultural identities. A lot of our teachings, stories, legends have a trickster character “acting a fool” to show us what not to do, and we learn from them. Rather than approach teaching right from wrong with a fear-based notion — like most organized religions do (like, “You’re going to hell!”) — we take a lighter approach to say the things we need to say.
Good comedy — and there’s tons of shit out there — should be a “mirror in the face of society” to show us all just how ridiculous we, or our lives, can be. Good comedy offers teachings, ideas, laughter, and fart jokes.
What does it take to make people laugh?
I like to think it takes a certain kind of person and a certain level of intelligence to be able to deconstruct ideas and parlay them into comedy. Most people think of comedians as miserable misanthropes who can’t get along in the world so they turn to biting words and harsh criticisms. I tend to reject that though. Some of the smartest/wisest people on the planet are/were comedians (George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Monty Python). Comedy should tell you something about our current state — and I think it takes something special to be able to do that in a meaningful way.
Why are you so passionate about comedy?
I think it’s going to be the most important way we can communicate who we are as Aboriginal Peoples living in the 21st century. I think the movies/television don’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to telling our stories.
Too often, non-Native peoples are funding our projects and we’re told what we can/can’t say through this process. Onstage, or on the internet — in self-produced, self-created projects such as the ones I’ve been doing — no one can tell me what to do. We (Native Comedians) have the most unique opportunity in the world — we can stand up and fight for our people through laughter. It’s militant. It’s political. It’s personal. My kookum once said every time I get onstage I’m making a political statement. These words, I will never forget.
You’ve taken your show on the road for years to different Native people across Turtle Island. Why do you think people from such diverse Aboriginal experiences laugh at what you have to say?
I think people really enjoy what I’m doing right now because it is so brutally honest. I don’t do “Bingo and Bannock” jokes like most every other working Native comedian. I have a show/act and that’s what I perform. I’m getting to a place now where I don’t have to change my show around when someone hires me. Back a few years ago, I’d take out my racier stuff and insert a whole lot of fluff. My content isn’t for everyone.
But it’s because of my content now that I’ve been selling out venues and packing little indie-clubs, and I’m finding more and more that people want to hear the truth — it’s what they connect with. With all of that said, my stuff is accessible to everyone. Often, there will be four or five tables of Elders sitting in the front row, and I’m always aware of who my audience is. I don’t do shock comedy, I do honest comedy.
We’ve always been funny as a people. What can you tell the kids on the rez who aspire to be comedians?
I always tell young people that want to do anything that they need to go to school first. Get your degree. There is no fast track out there for anything anymore.
Further to that idea, no one owes us (our generation) a damn thing. The days of the handout are long gone. Let’s honour our ancestors’ struggle, pain and perserverance by walking with our heads held high in the most prestigious schools in the country. Let’s go out and get degrees and doctorates. Let’s live this life to the fullest. Our ancestors gave everything for us to be here — how dare we waste that.
And… don’t become a comic — there’s only so much work to go around and I’m lazy. I don’t want to do anything else after being pushed out of the business by some “funny little rez kid” with cheek bones and braids. So, please, don’t aspire to comedy. I’m comfortable over here.
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For more info on the long list of projects McMahon’s involved with, his upcoming tour-dates or to book him, visit his website. Oh yeah, there are some pretty hilarious videos there too.