One of the funniest men in Indian Country is Ojibwe/Métis comedian, actor and writer Ryan McMahon. You heard him as Clarence Two Toes in our our debut podcast - and Clarence will be back at RPM in the near future.
Hailing from Couchiching First Nation, Ryan sat down with us to talk about Charlie Hill, the importance of the audience, and tying tarps with shoelaces.
RPM: Who were your major comedic influences growing up?
Ryan: Like most young kids when you first see Saturday Night Live that’s a pretty cool thing. But my parents are recovered alcoholics, and as a young kid I’d go on and off the reserve with my Grandma and other people who would just take care of us as my parents were in recovery. During one of those times, I remember being seven or eight years old, I saw Eddie Murphy Delirious. That for me was the first time I ever saw something that powerful, where somebody is talking and everybody listens. I don’t know if it was because of the environment that I grew up in or because of the attention that performers got, but I always felt like that was something that I wanted to do. So growing up it was SNL, it was Eddie Murphy, it was Adam Sandler, and it grew from there. Charlie Hill for sure in terms of Native comedians. He didn’t do the Indian Conference Trail and the cushy jobs after dinner at the hotel conferences and what not, he went straight to the mainstream and the comedy clubs and he slugged it out and made his way as high as you can go. For me Charlie Hill is somebody that I look up to and honour every time and any chance I get.
RPM: He was groundbreaking.
Ryan: He was the head writer of the Roseanne show, arguably one of the best sitcoms ever on TV, in terms of it being progressive. I’m working on a TV project with him actually. He’s going to be editing my book this summer, and he and I are going to link up and do a lot of stuff. There’s so much that people don’t know about him because he never toots his own horn. Nobody’s ever tooted his horn for him and I’m just going to be a champion of him because we see these other Native comics out there and nobody’s paying homage to those that really deserve it. Charlie’s just such a good guy, and a funny guy, and it’s unfortunate but he’s judged by that old Indian Time special and all these other things, but the dude is wild, he’s political. He was one of Richard Pryor’s favourite comedians, which you can’t even measure, and George Carlin called him one of the top five comics ever. It’s time for us in Indian country to embrace our own.
RPM: Do you have any advice for upcoming comedians, artists, writers, actors?
Ryan: Everyone wants to throw around this idea of celebrity and it’s a bull shit concept to me. We’ve all got stories, we’ve all got ideas, it’s how we harness them and challenge them and what media we use to tell them - there’s no secret out there to this stuff, it’s whether you do it or not. It’s how well you do it, how well you learn it – your work ethic. I don’t really believe in talent, it only takes you so far. It’s getting up every day and answering your phone on time and returning emails on time and being professional at shows and treating bookers with respect, and demanding that respect back. And having a website and business cards. Every handshake is important and there’s a lot that goes into this that people have to learn. But there’s no secret to it.
Everybody talks about how hard it is, but I’m trying to see it the other way. I’m trying to say how easy it is. We can distribute our music by ourselves. We can build our own websites. We can book our own shows and our own tours.
RPM: Related to that, what’s one thing an artist should never do on stage?
Ryan: I don’t know if there just one thing – there’s a whole bunch of things you should never do and I’ve seen most of them done. But I think one of the worst things you can do is blame an audience. I’ve seen a lot of live performers blow up on their audiences and you know when it comes right down to it, I can’t feed my kids unless there is an audience. So I’m grateful to the people that support me, that repost my stupid videos, that want to see me live, that send me encouraging messages - the audience is the most important thing. Do I think about them when I’m writing? Absolutely not. Do I think about them when I’m on stage? Absolutely. Every audience in important. People that come out and support you you have to be grateful for – never take that for granted. If you take an audience for granted they’ll stop coming.
RPM: What’s your favorite Indigenous McGiver story? Something you had to fix when all you had was your Indigenous ingenuity.
Ryan: I was at a Pow Wow in Eagle Lake Ontario, near Dryden Ontario, and a storm came in so fast you could see the sheet of rain coming across the lake. The MC was trying to get everyone to return to their camps and this old mentor of mine, Doug Fairbanks, gets up like the wind and runs - and he’s a big guy - over to the elders section and he just starts tying down these tarps. He had both of his shoelaces off and his belt. He had my shoelaces and the shoelaces of every singer that was around, just tying them together because we were trying to keep these old people dry in their campground. When it was happening it was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen because those elders were so appreciative and laughing and joking and it was just an example of how people come together when you really need them to. We were all soaking wet . When we got back, two of the tents in our campground were blown over and windows were left rolled down and everything inside the vehicles was soaked, but in that moment it was so perfect.
RPM: When the movie comes out, which actor will play you?
Ryan: Me! I need the work. I’ve been told that I’m like a better looking John Candy, or a fatter Jack Tripper, from Three’s Company. So I don’t know who looks like me out there to play me, so it would probably be me.
RPM: Yeah you! Do it yourself Bro! Is there anything else out there you want to share with the world of Indigenous Music Culture?
Ryan: Let’s just support each other. If we can rise up together good things will happen. I support a lot of young Native comedians who have never been on stage before, but I’ll put them on stage because to me the more successful we are as a comedy movement, the better I’ll be. I’ll have to work harder when I’m being challenged in that way in my own community. So the higher we all rise up the better.