Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by John Lehmann.
The Globe and Mail, November 9, 2001
Part 2 of 7: 'socially relevant' humour
The program that became a weekly ritual in kitchens, cars and native band offices across the country almost did not make on the air - because of its style, not its substance.
The humour is rooted in King's troubled upbringing in northern California, where his Cherokee father abandoned his Greek mother when he and his only sibling, a younger brother, were just kids. Growing up poor in Roseville, a railway town near Sacramento, King knew little of his native heritage. At high school, he was nicknamed "Chink" because of his features.
The family had no TV, so he and his brother became hooked on radio, and acted out episodes of The Green Hornet, The Shadow and The Lone Ranger, although his favourite was Who's on First.
The effect can be heard in Dead Dog Café, with its reliance on traditional three-part American style of humour - setup, setup, punchline. But he also casts a sharp, satirical eye for social and political contradictions, which he developed as a newcomer to the often dreary and apologetic landscape of Canadian native politics.
“Ottawa has no interest in maintaining Indian people as a culture. They're interested in Indians as an artifact.”
Dead Dog Cafe creator
When King came of age in the 1960s and a knee injury kept him out of Vietnam, he immersed himself in the militant American Indian movement of the day. Finally disenchanted with the U.S. apathy toward native issues - overshadowed as they were by the black race wars of the day - he earned a doctorate in literature from the University of Utah, and moved to Alberta in 1980 to teach at the University of Lethbridge.
Before launching Dead Dog, he also emerged as an important writer. His first novel, 1990's Medicine River, won him a keen following, which included Flaherty. In 1994, when she returned to her home province of Alberta from a decade in Toronto to launch a new radio drama series, one of her first calls was to King, to measure his interest.
Having grown up on the Prairies, the daughter of a railway official, Flaherty was fascinated with all things native. As a child, living in small towns, she had been told to be cautious around Indians, so much so that once, when she found herself alone in a railway station waiting room with a native family, she was terrified.
King told her he had been thirsting from childhood to produce a native take on the old George Burns and Gracie Allen shows, something featuring verbal repartée but very political too. The setting he had in mind was one he had concocted for a piece of fiction, a place called the Dead Dog Café where cunning Alberta natives fed bits of black lab to unsuspecting tourists.
He saw the scene as a sort of metaphor for the tricks the Canadian government has played on natives. "Ottawa has no interest in maintaining Indian people as a culture," he says in a serious moment. "They're interested in Indians as an artifact."
What King calls "socially relevant" humour became his weapon in a war on the government of his adoptive country. From California, he had brought an American sense of sarcasm, as well as the timing of radio humour. Moreover, he had an outsider's eye for ironic truths, however painful.
In one regular sketch, his characters are the Band Councillor, Ottawa Bob and the band's administrative assistant Wilma Trueblue - caricatures of countless reserves, where everything seems to revolve around a bumbling bureaucrat, duplicitous local politicians and an administrator (usually a woman) who somehow keeps the place going.