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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
  Nov. 3

Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
  Nov. 3 (Saskatoon, SK)

Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds
  Nov. 5 (Mississauga, ON)

How the Mi'kmaq profit from fear
  Nov. 6 (Cape Breton, NS)

The healing power of hockey
  Nov. 7 (The Pas, MB)

Norma Rae of the Okanagan
  Nov. 8 (Westbank, BC)

Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?
  Nov. 9 (Regina, SK)

Praying for a miracle
  Nov. 10 (Lac Ste. Anne, AB)

To have and to have not
  Nov. 12 (Moosonee, ON)

Trouble in paradise
  Nov. 19 (Tofino, BC)

A cut of the action
  Nov. 26 (Wabigoon, ON)

The young and the restless
  Dec. 3 (Ashern, MB)

The wireless warrior's digital dream
  Dec. 10 (Ottawa,ON)

'Everyone thought we were stupid'
  Dec. 14 (Salluit, QC)

First step: End the segregation
  Dec. 15 (Last in the series)


Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?

Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by John Lehmann.
The Globe and Mail, November 9, 2001

Part 3 of 7: Appealing to the audience

Dead Dog Cafe At first, CBC management found the scripts too slow, and in 1995 relegated six episodes to a regional program. Only when it drew a flood of mail did the show go national. Satirical songwriter Nancy White, artist Robert Bateman and aboriginal leader Ovide Mercredi joined a long list of fans.

And then something remarkable, at least in Canadian broadcasting, happened. The racier the humour got, the more fan mail came in, from across Canada and around the world. An informal fan club was started in Berlin. And the cautious CBC management in Toronto grew nervous.

“If this is written by whites it's offensive. If it's written by natives, it's funny as hell.”
one letter to CBC Radio

Flaherty admits that her largely left-of-centre bosses always had a soft spot for King's anti-corporate humour, which blends native concerns with socialist leanings. Taking on white society has long been another CBC hallmark. But when the show started to ridicule native habits and foibles, nerves became frayed.

Weekly features soon included native trinkets, such as the carving of a drunk Indian around a totem pole and an Indian-head Pez dispenser. In the wake of scandals about government-funded cruises taken by native leaders, another regular spot was launched to teach listeners conversational Cree phrases for such things as, "Is there a charge for the deck chair?" and "How long will we be in port?"

And then there were the Top 10 Reasons Why It is Good to Have Indians in Canada, posted on the program's Web site. No. 4: cheap cigarettes.

"If this is written by whites," one letter writer said, "it's offensive. If it's written by natives, it's funny as hell."

The humour, of course, lampoons Canada's treatment of aboriginal peoples. King believes it also offers the mass audience a window on aboriginal culture, while "native people get to have a bit of a laugh at white people."

After 85 shows, despite the high ratings, the grind has taken its toll on King so the program is no longer a regular on CBC Radio and now appears only for special performances such as the Victoria Day special in Regina.

But King also is working on bringing an animated version of Dead Dog to television - think The Simpsons meets The Rez. Canadians need the accessible view of aboriginal issues that animated TV would provide, he says. And natives need the laughs.

"I think it's survival strategy," he says while walking to dinner after a rehearsal for the Regina show. "If life is so bad, you either kill yourself or you laugh. Colonized people can see humour as a strength, as a medicine."

THIS STORY AT A GLANCE (Parts 1 to 7 plus a related story):

Photo Essay
Backstage pass

1. 'I think people in Canada didn't know Indians were funny'
Using humour to force the two societies to re-examine each other, and themselves

2. 'Socially relevant' humour
Using comedy to tell ironic truths, however painful

3. Appealing to the audience
The racier the humour got, the more fan mail came in

4. Forbidden zones
'As long as you don't let the lions and tigers out of the cage, it's okay.'

5. Laughter "is the great leveller" in native society
Finding his way on the stage

6. 'I was tired of being poor'
Edna Rain takes up acting after decades of abuse

7. The curtain falls
The three performers leave the way they arrived - in different directions

Related: Dead Dog Café Listeners react



photo essays
Two worlds - photo essay

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