To Don Burnstick, laughter is a sacred act and he’s been helping people with this medicine for the past 20 years. For a comedian, Burnstick has followed an unconventional path to stardom. He didn’t work the bar or club circuit like so many comedians do. When he started out, his Elders told him that he should avoid the bars and take his humour to the people in the communities.
After 20 years on the road, the Cree comic from Alexander First Nation, Alberta, has built a loyal base of fans that appreciate his humour. Comedy started as a way to survive the chaos that surrounded him. Growing up with the effects of residential school including alcoholism and violence, he made people laugh as a way to ease the tensions. He now hosts comedy workshops in the communities he visits to heal people who have buried but never healed their pain. I sat down with him for a chat recently when he stopped by Chisasibi for a show.
I’m still doing the Native humour thing. It has a life of its own. When I first started doing it there were only four or five of us, but now it’s really taken off. My show is very grassroots. I’d rather do a show in the community than go to a festival like Just For Laughs. I’d rather have my own Just For Laughs in Chisasibi and places like that. That’s where I’m most comfortable and feel where I’m most needed. It’s been 16 wonderful years and I’ve traveled all over North America and I’m still going.
Do you find a difference between the Native and non-Native audiences?
There’s a big difference. When you do a non-Native audience, you’ve got to prep them and tell them that it’s okay to laugh at some of the things. There’s uncomfortable laughter. When you see the Black comedians, most of their audience is Black with the odd white person, who squirms a little bit. It’s the same with us. With Native humour, it’s a bit different. I get up there and just tease.
When I got into comedy in 1990s, I talked to my Elders and they said it was time. You see the 1980s were about sobering up and the 1990s were about healing, wellness and empowering ourselves. They said, “It’s time, when you do your shows, don’t do them in clubs or bars and don’t swear.” I said, “I’m trying to be a comedian and you say I can’t do shows in bars or clubs or lounges. Where do I do my shows?” They said go to the communities. Our people need to laugh.” That’s how it started.
My first show was in The Pas, Manitoba. There were 100 chairs set up and though only four people showed up, I did it anyway. Word quickly spread via the Moccasin Telegraph and now it’s off the hook.
Besides the rule of not swearing, do you have any other rules you stand by? Is there something you won’t touch?
The residential school… it’s still too new. I remember a TV network coming to me and saying, “If you do a residential school show, we’ll do a special on you.” I said, “Nah, it’s too soon.” Other things are pretty much free rein, but there are some things I won’t touch and one of them is residential school. I can adjust to different audiences. I went to a comedy festival and everyone was looking over their notes, jokes and material in their notepads. I was asked where my notepad was. I said, “I don’t have one.” I’ve never written a joke in my life. I just get up there and do it because I trust the process. I’ve never written a joke, which is pretty weird, but it’s done well for me. I know where the bubble is, I know the place where not to go.
When you look at situations, how does the comedy happen? Like when you do the different types of laughs the ladies do. Is it when you’re sitting next to them or do you sit across the room and watch people interact?
That’s one of the most popular bits and people ask for that. How that happened was I was at a Native women’s conference and I saw the women laughing and I said to myself, “We got something here.” There are women from different tribes and nations, but they all laughed the same. So I mocked them and it killed them, it brought the house down. There’s another bit I do about a prostate exam and people are self-conscious about that. Native men won’t go to the doctor unless we’re absolutely sick. So at the end I say, “Brothers get your prostates checked.” I lost my brother to prostate cancer. When he was dying he said, “I know you’ll stop doing this bit, but don’t. We need awareness.”
How has your act evolved over time? What have you honed over the years?
My timing has gotten really good. Like I said, I know our people. I know the people living in the cities and the people in the remote communities, people who don’t even speak English. I know that demographic and I’m very comfortable with it. So I know how to adjust my timing. I know where to pull them into the show. You take them on this journey and you let them go, right? When the lights come back on, the people are feeling good and they’re like, “Wow! That’s awesome.” I know the responsibility that comes with that. You want to rattle them and you want to create awareness. You almost want to shock them a little bit.
I notice the difference between Canadian audiences, First Nations people and Native Americans. When I do my thing in the States they’re shocked and then they laugh. They’re shocked and gasp at some of the stuff I say. However, Canadians laugh and go along with it. They’re not as shocked.
Do you think your career would have been possible 20 years ago?
No. Like I said a lot of it was timing. When I first heard of Charlie Hill and of Winston Wuttunee, I went and saw them and I was blown away! I seemed so far away from what they were doing. I thought these men were just amazing. My style of humour… the community, the people weren’t ready for that yet.
No, but I’ve always been funny. I’ve always been the entertainer. A lot of it was survival mode. Living in a dysfunctional home there was a lot of tension and being a child with ADD and FAS issues. I also had dyslexia. But those weren’t diagnosed yet. I used humour to cope. I wanted to be a cop or an athlete. I knew I wanted to be around our people. I was talking to my family, who all went to boarding school. They said my first show was when I was four years old. I went to the boarding school for a show and I got up and did a dance and sang a song. After talking with them, I remembered doing that. I remembered running to my dad afterwards. I remembered the clapping and cheering. I remembered the feeling.
Who gets more out of your performances – you or the audience?
The thing with me is I’m like a conductor. The people who come to my show are fans. I’m not going to some random place with a bunch of strangers and trying to win them over. So I come in and conduct this laughing orchestra. I can slow it down or make it intense and loud. I’m very conscious about what I’m doing. It’s taken a lot of years and a lot of work and miles to establish that fan base. I might be selfish but I stay in my comfort zone. That’s where I do my best work.
When people come to my shows they know I’m a traditional man. They know I’m a married man. They know I’m a sober man. And they know that based on my show. They know the essence of who I am. It’s not just getting up there and doing jokes, I’m sharing my life with them and in essence sharing their lives with them and laughing about it. After a show, I’m drained and exhausted because I put so much into it. When I see people wiping their eyes from laughter that’s the gravy. That’s what keeps me going.