Beverley O’Neil, midway through her career as a consultant to Indigenous communities, decided to also become a stand-up comic.
It’s no joke.
Most days, Ms. O’Neil, a member of the Ktunaxa First Nation in eastern British Columbia, is owner of two Vancouver-based companies with mostly Indigenous clients, O’Neil Marketing and Consulting and Numa Communications Ltd.
She also performs stand-up regularly, for both Indigenous and general audiences.
“I am at the stage where I do anywhere from 13 to 20 minutes, which is a lot. I started with three minutes — and there are times when I now get paid,” Ms. O’Neil says.
On July 10, Ms. O’Neil appears at Bubbas Comedy Show at the annual B.C. Elders Gathering in Duncan, B.C. Keith “Bubbas” Nahanee, from the Squamish Nation, is the headliner.
She’s an entry into a growing cadre of Indigenous comedians — Vince Banzo, Howie Miller, Dawn Dumont, Don Kelly and others.
Indigenous comedians often seek to walk a fine line between bringing up important issues and entertaining.
Here is how Mr. Kelly describes Thanksgiving: “The European guy who lives next door came over, claimed he’s discovered my apartment, now he’s living in the place.”
The routine Ms. O’Neil has been building for herself is gentler. It consists mainly of self-deprecating one-liners.
“I get my last name from my dad, and my mom is from a First Nation. That makes me a watermelon — green on the outside, red on the inside,” she says of her Irish/Indigenous heritage.
A lot of her current routine is about women coping with approaching middle age.
“Those women with the muffin-tops are underachievers — I’m going for the full Dairy Queen,” Ms. O’Neil says.
But can anything really be funny about comedy that’s rooted in a heritage that has endured 400 years of colonial oppression, residential schools and, as former Chief Justice Beverley McLaughlin put it, “cultural genocide”?
Absolutely, Ms. O’Neil says. “First Nations comedians have amazing senses of humour. It’s lifestyle humour.”
For example, Ms. O’Neil tells jokes about how her brother’s “Indian name” translates into “Useless,” while her own … after a long pause … means “Cougar.”
Other Indigenous comedians she performs alongside in British Columbia have routines about getting their front teeth replaced (“How about just one big one? It’s cheaper and I could paint a line”), or about being so poor that their mom bathed them in a bucket (“after the dog, of course.”)
“I think part of it is simply a survival strategy,” said Thomas King, award-winning writer and scholar and author of The Inconvenient Indian.
“I think that things have been, in some places for many of our people, so bad for so long that all you can do is joke about it and try to do the best you can,” he told the CBC.
“I think humour is a way to keep ourselves from going absolutely crazy.”
Indeed, there’s a long history of downtrodden people fighting back with humour. The Irish, Italians, African Americans and Jews have all produced some of the funniest comedians.
Ms. O’Neil says she got interested in telling jokes when a friend, Michael Izen, faced even worse adversity — a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer. He has been told he has only months to live.
“Michael and I co-moderated a session on how to get people to listen to people who have cancer. We spiced it up with some comedy, he in his way and me in my own way,” she says.
Ms. O’Neil first took to the stage herself six years ago. She began honing her craft as a hobby, taking a two-day comedy workshop and then following this with an eight-week community college course.
Her favourite comedian is the deadpan American comedian Steven Wright (“I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize.”)
Ms. O’Neil says, so far, she has not had to contend much with the nemesis of most stand-up comedians, hecklers.
“The worst I’ve had are audiences that are bad to everyone, not just me. Perhaps I’m comfortable because of my experience as a business person, panellist and keynote speaker, where everyone is ignoring me. Or maybe I’m tough because I come from a family of five,” she says.
She likes it that people now expect her to be funny.
“How could you not love finishing your day by making people laugh?” Ms. O’Neil says.