Rating: a generous 3 out of 5 stars
CW: occasional strong language and crude humor
I’m truly torn on a rating for this one . . . The first 1/3 was truly gripping and interesting. I flew right through it. The last 2/3 was a bit of a slog, and if I was not reading it for a book club, in all honesty I might have DNF’d it.
This is a work of what I’d call journalistic history. Written in the style of a Ken Burns documentary, it draws largely upon primary sources and interviews, each chapter a vignette focusing on a particular indigenous person(s) in comedy, with some overlaps in media at large. Overall, I found the topic extremely fascinating. From my limited perspective, the book does a fairly good job of navigating the balance between two very different topics: the terrible atrocities suffered by the indigenous peoples of the US and Canada, versus their desire to negate stereotypes and amplify their perspectives through the medium of comedy.
There were a couple of things that bothered me. First . . . this book will not age well. Unfortunately it demonstrates one of the issues it critiques—namely, being geared towards an old-school white audience. If you have never heard of Andy Griffith, Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson, or any of those older-generation personalities, then you’re going to be greatly confused by many of the references. (I have heard of most of them, and even I was struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of names mentioned!)
Another problem is that due to its highly focused style, this book doesn’t serve an ignorant reader (such as myself) well in contextualizing Native American comedy within their own cultures. We do get a good understanding of how it is contextualized within Hollywood culture and media . . . much is covered about various comedians’ stints in Nevada and LA. But apart from a bit about powwow emcees, I felt there was a great deal lacking in explaining their personal history of comedy or even storytelling. I was disappointed not to have come away with a bit more knowledge. Rather, most of the book is quite repetitive, talking about how each comedian found their career path, who inspired them, etc. Good info for sure, but a bit limited in scope.
One thing I highly recommend is looking up these artists and comedians on YouTube as you go along. It makes the book much more enjoyable, getting to see the comedy style of the 1491s and Charlie Hill, or listening to a protest song by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Take your time with these sections, and you’ll be glad you did.