Stand-up Trish Cook spent a recent Sunday night telling jokes about her cranky mother into a seven-person dead mic. The performance, which was part of a comedy workshop at the Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis, was anything but an ordinary gig. But it was a natural pit stop in Cook’s ongoing mission to both educate and entertain.
Lesson #1: Indigenous people like you can be hilarious.
That may come as a surprise to those whose only sightings of Native Americans in pop culture are limited to John Ford westerns and “Lone Ranger” reruns. But a new wave of Indigenous comics is determined to shatter persistent stereotypes.
“Our elders can get dirty,” said Cook, who is part of Tuesday’s NDN Way showcase at the Mall of America’s House of Comedy, which features three local Native American comics and headliner Tatanka Means, the 2018 Entertainer of the Year Indian Gaming Association. “There’s nothing funnier than a tiny local woman killing you with a grin on her face while talking about how she used to be boisterous.”
New TV shows like Hulu’s Reservation Dogs and Peacock’s Rutherford Falls are doing a great job of getting laughs on the reservation. But there’s nothing quite like listening to a standup get personal in an intimate comedy club.
“It’s good representation,” said William Spottedbear, who was a fixture at Twin Cities Open Mics before moving to North Carolina in 2020. “It’s good to show that every culture has something funny and true to say about itself. It’s powerful.”
Those who head out this week to enjoy Cook and her partners Jon Roberts and Rob Fairbanks are in for an enlightening evening.
“If you’ve never been on a reservation, maybe you’ve only heard about the negative things, like drugs, alcohol and our suicide rate,” said Fairbanks, who uses the name “Rez Reporter” on stage and social media. “I’m not saying it’s not here. We are high in all of these areas. But it’s not all bad. There are many positive things.”
One thing that may surprise non-locals is the amount of self-deprecating humor and gentle put-downs they’ll hear.
“If a Native American doesn’t tease you, then they don’t like you,” said Fairbanks, whose routines make fun of shrieking among tribes and Native Americans trying in vain to grow facial hair. “If a cousin in the family is dressed, you say, ‘Why are you all dressed? It’s lovingly made.”
Fairbanks and his colleagues didn’t have many role models growing up.
One exception was Charlie Hill, who made multiple appearances on The Tonight Show and Late Night With David Letterman before his death in 2013.
Fairbanks recalls his grandfather beckoning him over to watch one of Hill’s final television appearances.
“I thought it was so cool to see a Native American comedy comedy on national television. It blew me away,” Fairbanks said. “It gave me a whole lot of hope.”
Another influential force was Williams and Ree, a duo who have billed themselves as “The Indian and the White Guy” since they began performing together in the early ’70s. They’ve performed everywhere from “Hee Haw” to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
“We’re like a bad marriage,” said Bruce Williams, who will be performing with his longtime partner at Treasure Island Casino on Friday. “Although our relationship was never consummated.”
Their act — two old friends smashing each other’s punches in song and banter — hasn’t changed much over the decades. That may result in some seat warping in these more politically correct times. Williams said they need to start adding a disclaimer at the beginning of their shows to prepare viewers who might interpret their brand of humor as insensitive or even racist.
“We have to be mindful of our language when we’re doing shows for younger people,” said Terry Ree, who prefers to call himself Indian than Indigenous. “I use old-school locker room slang — even though people don’t speak that way in locker rooms anymore.”
Fairbanks and his colleagues have great respect for pioneers like Williams and Ree.
“When they came up, they didn’t have internet,” he said. “They had to drive physically, go where they could perform and weren’t always greeted by crowds. They stayed and opened doors. If I hadn’t seen guys like this, I might have given up. Now I want to spark that flame in someone else who’s holding on to dreams of performing stand-up.”
Events like NDN Way can be special, even for those who don’t dare to go on stage themselves. Cook has noted at past shows that many Indigenous visitors dress as if they are going to a fancy restaurant.
She adapts her performance to both her and mainstream audiences, who believe that Native American humor began and ended with Tonto.
During her routine at the Phoenix Theater, Cook mostly spoke about her childhood, complaining about how her mother once accidentally burned her with a cigarette and how she had to cut her hair at her father’s hair salon.
One of her all time favorite stories is a story about her father putting a quarter in her shoe when she was 8, handing her a hose and sending her down the drain for a whole day.
“Everyone has a crazy mom or dad,” she said. “It’s a universal issue that anyone can understand.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue
Where: Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy, Mall of America, Bloomington.
Tickets: $20. moa.houseofcomedy.net
Williams and Ree
When: 8 p.m. Fri.
Where: Treasure Island Casino, 5734 Sturgeon Lake Road, Red Wing.
Tickets: $19-$39. ticasino.com