December 12, 2009

Cobell skit in Saturday Night Live

Taylor Lautner hosted Saturday Night Live this week (airdate: 12/12/09). Nobody mentioned the Quileute Indians, but the Weekend Update segment did cover the Cobell settlement:

I've never seen "Billy Smith" before, but apparently he's a recurring character:

Billy SmithBilly Smith (played by Fred Armisen) is a Native American comedian who has performed stand-up on three Weekend Update episodes and made a small appearance in Liam Neeson's monologue in 2004. His jokes usually begin as fairly average stand-up jokes (why did the chicken cross the road?), but his punchlines suddenly veer into obscure references to Native American culture. This of course only results in confusion and nervous titters from the audience, at which point Billy Smith patiently explains the cultural reference so that the audience can understand the joke.Some thoughts on this character and skit:

  • With the straw hat and glasses, Billy Smith's appearance is decent. Only the long braid reminds us he's supposed to be an Indian.

  • His name is decent too. It's not the usual "funny Indian name" such as Billy Running Mouth or Chief Gag-a-Lot.

  • Smith has a stylized, formal way of talking. It's not as bad as the solemn chief-style talk you hear in movies and TV shows, but it's a little strange. One person on Facebook called it an "accent from fantasy land."

    Maybe some Indians talked this way in the past, but nowadays an Indian accent is relatively rare. Indians pretty much talk just like everyone else.

  • The skit misstated the Cobell settlement, claiming every Indian will get a $1,000 check. No, only the Individual Indian Money account holders--maybe 1% of all Indians--will receive compensation.

  • Smith quickly veered from the Cobell settlement to tell his standard jokes. The punchlines were long, gobbledygook words from Smith's unidentified Indian culture. He translated them as a tree resin, a meal made of corn mash and rabbit, snowshoes made of porcupine quills, and an inflated skunk bladder. His final word supposedly meant "I'll be playing at the Mohegan Sun."

    As usual, I'm not crazy about made-up words from made-up cultures. But at least the words translated to something realistic and non-stereotypical. Smith could've been talking about an Eastern Woodlands culture like the ones in New York state. He didn't joke about peace pipes, rain dances, or totem poles.

  • What it tells us

    Saturday Night Live gave us a modern Indian character, which is still rare enough to deserve praise. But Billy Smith's quirks were enough to undercut any positive impact.

    In addition to his speaking style, Smith's comedy routines are offputting. He comes across as a yokel who doesn't understand his urban audience. He uses odd Native words and cultural references and is surprised when listeners don't get them.

    Apparently he's lived a sheltered reservation life and has little inkling of the wider world. Which is strange for a comedian who presumably plays the club circuit around the country. It's as if a Jed Clampett or Gomer Pyle left the boondocks to make his mark in comedy.

    Even though this Indian looks and acts modern, he's woefully out of date. A 1960s Indian who left the rez might try these incomprehensible jokes, but today's Native comedians are as hip as anybody else. Which isn't surprising since they live in cities, drive SUVs or mini-vans, and run their own websites.

    SNL left the impression that Indians are getting another government handout, which is bad enough. It also implied they're living rural, traditional lives that are out of touch with reality. I.e., they're stuck in some primitive backwater where things like computers, cellphones, and iPods don't exist.

    On Facebook, Natives called this skit "lame," "stupid," "offensive," and "insulting." To me it's more lame than anything else. Note that you're not supposed to laugh at the comical Indian's jokes; you're supposed to laugh at the comical joke of an Indian. A skit making fun of an Indian's lack of lame is that?

    This skit is better than nothing, I suppose, but not a whole lot better. Shows like SNL can do much better. Put Charlie Hill or JR Redwater on the show and you'll see what a real Native comedian is like.

    The rest of the show

    In the opening skit, Jason Sudeikis as Mark Sanford mentioned Tiger Woods's multiracial heritage: Asian, black, and Cherokee.

    In his opening monologue, Lautner mentioned playing a werewolf in New Moon but didn't say it was a Quileute Indian werewolf.

    In the inevitable Twilight skit, Lautner played a teenage girl on "Team Edward" who argued with another girl on "Team Jacob." Again they didn't mention that the werewolf characters were Indians. Lautner looked suitably girlish in a long black wig, which viewers noted when he played an Indian boy in Twilight.

    Anyway, Lautner showed a lot of charisma as well as some impressive martial arts moves. He probably deserves to be a budding star. In a few years he could be a leading man and action hero a la Tom Cruise. I could easily see him playing a Jackie Chan kind of role.

    Good for him...but as I said before, a Native actor could've and should've been in this position. Hosting SNL, headlining the Tonight Show, getting starring roles such as the upcoming Max Steel. In other words, taking Hollywood by storm.

    Just imagine if a Native actor were one of the hottest properties in the world. It could've triggered a paradigm shift in our perception of Indians. From isolated and out-of-date (Billy Smith) to cool and sexy (a Native in Lautner's place).

    For more on the subject, see Quileute Werewolves in Twilight and TV Shows Featuring Indians.

    Below:  Taylor Lautner as a cute Indian boy or girl.

    1 comment:

    Rob said...

    Correspondent DMarks wrote:

    "Maybe some Indians talked this way in the past, but nowadays an Indian accent is rare. Indians pretty much talk just like everyone else."

    I'm sure it's rare, but I have noticed quite a few Indians speaking what I call to myself a "Native American Accent." It's nothing like Tonto-speak, or Smith's accent. But I've only ever heard Native Americans using it.

    Trying to think of an example of it in a movie anyone has seen, the Native character in "Legends of the Fall" (played by Gordon Tootoosis) might have spoken it, but I'm not sure and it is a long time since I've seen the movie. I'm rather sure I detected this accent with Kenny Pheasant, an Odawa actor and educator who was in a movie none of you have ever seen.