Anishinaabe comedian and Second City Conservatory graduate Ryan McMahon’s material has been described as “irreverent and boundary pushing.” The Unreserved Tour is occurring across Canada this month, stopping in Peterborough on October 15 at the Gordon Best Theatre on Hunter St.
Arthur caught up with Ryan for a quick chat about stereotypes, heckling, and Clarence Two-Toes.
How did your current tour come about?
RM: The tour was booked in celebration of my comedy special that airs on CBC this fall. The tour was booked to celebrate that comedy special, it was CBC that said I am the first Native comic to have a mainstream comedy special, so they said you should tour to celebrate and we are going to pump it up. That was the seed that started everything.
What is the response you get from some of the elders in the community? Is it positive? Or a times do they think that it is not appropriate because sometimes you are pushing the boundaries.
RM: Yes, it is called the “Unreserved” tour. Non-native people get surprised by some the material, native people get surprised by some of the material. The thing about comedy is that it is not always going to agree with your politics, religion or how you live your life. In context, the words are crafted to convey ideas. Some of the ideas and some of the things I want to do is to create space for dialogue that hasn’t happened yet. And as pretentious as that is, I think that is what Richard Pryor does, what Chris Rock does, what George Carlin does. And for me Charlie Hill was the first one that did that and he is my hero. Taking that idea of creating space for these new ideas instead of exploiting the problem or feeding stereotypes, I want to look through a different lens and that is what this tour has been about.
Do you feel that through your comedy you are participating in an active decolonization?
RM: For sure. I think that’s what it is. That’s why you can go the bingo and bannock route and you can feed those stereotypes and make those really easy jokes. Or you can put some ideas on paper and craft words to make it funny. That is what I personally focus on, is taking the power away from those things that hold it down and reestablishing, redefining, re-imagining who we are and taking that place and making that space—that is what comedy is. It disarms people, it allows people to see themselves in a way they haven’t before or see themselves in a way where they can put some thought into life. If people do that during the show then mission accomplished.
I am Chapleau Cree. I have been learning Cree from someone you might know: Neal McLeod. He always says to us that if you are not pushing the boundaries and pissing people off then you’re not doing a good job.
RM: It’s all about making faith, and that’s what it has to be about. At this point, people are dying everyday. Our elders and our stories are leaving us. All of this is happening under our watch and if we are not pushing back then we are wasting time.
Is that something that’s important to you, spending time with the elders and listening to the stories?
RM: Yeah, I am guided by my teachers, I am guided by my community, my principles and all of those things I keep in mind when I go out.
Where are you from?
RM: I am from Couchiching First Nation. It is Northwestern Ontario, on the border of Manitoba, Minnesota and Ontario.
How big of an influence did growing up there have on you?
RM: It’s who I am. I grew up on the land, hunting and fishing, which is the obvious influence. In terms of how it influences me today, I am who I am because I was raised there. I learned important things there about life, but also about being Anishinaabe. Those are things I continue to work with today.
Where did you come up with the Clarence Two Toes character? Where did it come from and how did you come up with it?
RM: Through a podcast. I was a stay-at-home dad and was going crazy not being on stage. I couldn’t tour so I created a character and started recording a fake radio show and put it on iTunes and the internet responded. I think they liked it because he was really trying to speak from a position of power. I used the character to convey ideas and because people hadn’t heard some of these things before they liked it because it gave us power. So I think that people liked the character because he took power back. People saw an angry guy who spoke his mind and people maybe wished they did that in their life. I think that is the reason why.
It plays into some stereotypes. It reminds me a bit of Dave Chappelle in that way.
RM: Stereotypes exist because we feed them. So stereotypes come from the truth, but whether you live that truth and feed that truth is something different. So I absolutely look at those stereotypes and try to deconstruct them to take the power back and I think Dave Chappelle does that brilliantly. In terms of walking that line, we have to figure out the rules for ourselves. I never want people to laugh at us, I want them to laugh with us. So, I don’t go into exploitation, I don’t give over our business to anybody.
Do you ever get heckled?
RM: I do get heckled and if anyone fucks with me I tear them apart. Don’t come to prove a point because I do this for a living and you will lose everytime. Period. End of story.
Is there a place on this tour that you are looking forward to traveling to the most?
RM: Yes, Peterborough. And I am not just saying that because I am talking to you. Leanne Simpson and Neal, and when I heard about people looking at my work at Trent and everything it was great, I am really looking forward to it. Somebody from Trent was writing a paper and asked me if they could source something that I had done and I kind of went, “Well … if you want” [laughs]. But then it made me realize there was a responsibility with the work and I started to look at the video and podcasts differently. I started looking at the responsibility of having the voice that I do and take it more seriously in terms of trying to craft those ideas a little more carefully. I am not proud of everything I have done, but I want to be. I want to look back on my work and think “this is good work” but I am not there because I wasn’t in that space before, I just wanted to stay funny. Now I am much more aware of where I want to go artistically. It was that first email from a student at Trent that made me realize that people are paying attention and the responsibility that comes with that. That is why I am looking forward to Peterborough, I look up to a lot of people over at Trent and it is in Anishinaabe territory so it doesn’t get much better than that.
Ryan McMahon’s standup set from CBC Television & Radio’s taping of “Welcome To Turtle Island Too – A Celebration of Aboriginal Comedy.”