So far, the 21st century has been pretty good to Canadian situation comedies. Witness the international success of Corner Gas, Schitt’s Creek, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Kim’s Convenience. The same could be said for the continued development of Indigenous representation in the media and arts. Once known as the “vanishing Indian,” we’ve become the “ubiquitous Indian.” That’s why it’s so unfortunate the first round in the Indigenous sitcom battles has gone to the Americans.
With the demise of Trickster, word on the dirt road says the major Canadian networks are eager to produce something appropriately diverse. So are production houses. Obviously not every show or concept on Canadian TV needs to have a First Nation face, but this seems like such an obvious concept.
So why the United States? Canada has long prided itself on claiming a healthy, “We honour and love our Native brothers and sisters” kind of attitude. Hey, two of our people won The Amazing Race Canada. Whereas in the U.S., a tragic percentage of people aren’t even aware Indigenous people still exist. Who do they think are running their casinos?
I think this sudden interest has to do with “overfishing.” There have been reboots of Rosanne, Mad About You and Will And Grace to name a few. Quirky buddies, wacky neighbours, lonely but lovable people and strange workplaces have been done to death. I am sure somewhere in the dingy halls of comedy development, a producer or several are saying, “Let’s take the audience someplace has never been before.” What they might not know is we have our own share of quirky buddies, wacky neighbours, lonely but lovable people and strange workplaces, too.
Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls are two television comedies featuring Indigenous people, places and issues in the U.S. that are set to go into production soon. Both are on fairly important networks. And they are being developed by some pretty impressive heavyweights.
Reservation Dogs, a half-hour series exploring teenage life in Oklahoma, is executive produced by Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi of Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows fame. That makes my mouth water.
Rutherford Falls centres around the dilemma of what to do with a historical statue in a New York State town bordering on a reservation. Ed Helms of The Office is one of the stars and is also producing it. Both shows have incorporated Indigenous participation in the writing rooms, production offices and, logically, the cast. They appear to have the credentials to be authentic and funny.
In Canada, Indigenous representation in the sitcom world has been sporadic and occasional of late. Corner Gas’s Constable Davis Quinton superbly played by Lorne Cardinal, was referred to only once as being First Nations. The period comedy Blackfly featured Cheri Maracle in the supporting role of Misty Moon, owner of a local bar. Letterkenny occasionally dealt with issues that developed between a small Ontario town and a nearby First Nation community.
Still, it’s better than the preceding decades. I don’t remember King of Kensington, Check It Out! or The Trouble with Tracy ever realizing or acknowledging they were set on stolen land. And let’s face it, as fun as The Beachcombers was, it wasn’t technically a sitcom.
Thirty years ago I wrote a comedy pilot for the CBC, based on one of my plays. It was called The Bootlegger Blues, and it was about a 58-year-old good, Christian Ojibway woman who through a series of circumstances finds herself in possession of 143 cases of beer that she ends up bootlegging to buy an organ for the church. It was loosely based on a true story (but you didn’t hear it from me). For many, that’s just another day on the rez. Alas, the pilot did not sell but the original story lives on in infamy.
For decades, Tom King has been trying to get his fondly remembered radio show Dead Dog Café produced as a television series. Metaphorically speaking, there have been nibbles on his project but the big one has always gotten away.
Others, however, have had a life. Moose TV was a Showcase production primarily written by Paul Quarrington. Lasting one season, I believe it lacked the proper Indigenous chops but I saw several episodes and they were quite funny. Early on in its development, Quarrington, as a fellow alpha-humorist, teasingly threatened to use my book on Indigenous humour, Me Funny, as the show’s bible. I accused him of cultural appropriation and after some verbal sparring, he gave me some beads and I gave him a Tupperware container of earth. It was all good.
More recently there have been two series that have embraced the style of sitcom, one urban and one rural. Mixed Blessings, on APTN, was sort of Ukranian/Cree Brady Bunch show … Uk-creenian, if you may. I was the head writer and, while it had potential, I’m not sure it was as funny as it could have been.
Mohawk Girls, which aired on Omni and APTN, was described as a Sex and the City but on the rez where everybody is your cousin. Get the dilemma? With large dollops of drama stirred in, it became an underground hit, lasting five seasons.
As a person who regularly enjoys and laughs at the foibles of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, I am excited about the prospect of the two American shows. Anybody familiar with First Nations knows the humour that exists in the people, and the frequent absurdities that tend to find a home in our communities. I have been to more than 150 First Nation communities and at each one, I have been greeted with a smile, a laugh and a joke.
It’s both amazing and a shame it’s being explored more in-depth in the U.S. first. I read somewhere that one of the best ways to understand a people is through what makes them laugh.
With a Native sitcom, you could laugh until your face is red. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.