Hosting a comedy show at the Portland Art Museum in conjunction with the Contemporary Native Photographers exhibition may not sound like a recipe for success. Words like "irreverent" in the description are dog whistles to warn old people who don't like jokes.
But the 1491s—a Native American comedy group that made a name for itself with YouTube videos and a funny but incredibly awkward Daily Show segment about the Washington football team's mascot—is used to performing under uncomfortable conditions.
Before the show at PAM, WW talked to 1491s members Bobby Wilson, Sterlin Harjo and Migizi Pensoneau about uncircumcised penises, their origin story and being pigeonholed as Native comedians.
WW: Bobby's not answering. Is it OK if I get started with just the two of you?
Sterlin Harjo: That's OK. We're like limbs of the same body.
Migizi Pensoneau: And obviously Bobby's the penis.
Harjo: Yep. The uncircumcised penis limb, that's Bobby.
So what's the origin story of the 1491s?
Harjo: We all come from…
Bobby Wilson: Sorry, I'm here.
Harjo: Oh, good. We were just telling this guy that you're the penis limb.
Wilson: Sounds right.
Harjo: OK, our origin is, we all come from these varied backgrounds: filmmaker, screenwriter, street artist. We knew of each other. I was going to show a film in Minneapolis, and I got in touch with these guys and said, "Hey, let's make a video." And it was right around the time of Twilight: New Moon, with all those sexy Native Americans. So we decided to shoot something making fun of that, imagining what it would be like if we auditioned.
Pensoneau: And the reaction was great. It spread like wildfire.
What was it about that video that people responded to most?
Harjo: There's really the lack of Native humor out there. We made this to make our friends laugh; it was a video by Indians for Indians. I remember at one point, a friend of ours sent us a photo from a conference, and there were these elders sitting around a laptop laughing at that video.
Were you surprised it took off like that?
Wilson: I was. But I shouldn't have been, in hindsight. Because Native communities always say that humor is a big part of our culture, but you wouldn't know that from mainstream media. The content wasn't there. And there were Native people seeking it out.
Harjo: At that point, I had shown my second feature film at Sundance. There's this built-in racism in the film industry. The idea of a Native American in a contemporary role—nobody's looking for that. No distributor is like: "That'll make money, bring that kid in!" But when we put it on YouTube, we got rid of that middle step [the distributor] and nobody said, "We don't want to see Indians on the screen." People did want to see it. Sure, we're not as big as a cat in front of a mirror making a funny face, but we have a consistent fan base.
Nobody will ever be that big. How has the response been outside the Native community? Have you run into those same walls you did in the film world?
Harjo: White people hate us. [Everybody laughs.] I'm kidding. It's been slower than our adoption in the Native community, but my theory is that it's like watching the British The Office. It's a different rhythm, different accent, so you're confused at first. But after a couple episodes you get the rhythm and it's your favorite show.
That's good, because you're going to be performing at the Portland Art Museum, and that's probably the whitest audience ever.
Pensoneau: Actually, the hardest show we ever did was at an art museum for a group of curators of Native American Art. They're so earnest about the art that they just didn't want to laugh.
Wilson: Sometimes people aren't sure if they're allowed to laugh. Those people look at us through the lens of Natives of the past or they're talking about identity and what it means to be a Native, but we aren't dealing with that stuff at all. When we come out taking our clothes off and jumping around, they're like, "Oh, this really is just comedy?"
Harjo: We're just trying to make ourselves laugh. Occasionally we say some profound things by accident, but really we're just making jokes.
So what kind of show is it? Is it sketch, standup, videos? What's the format?
Pensoneau: It'll be like a Chippendales show if you went to KFC to see it.
Harjo: And it's also like Gallagher. There are lots of fluids flying.
Pensoneau: Yeah, a lot of smashing.
So white people might like it? It's not profound? It's got stripping and fluids?
Wilson: We told the Albuquerque paper that and the show sold out, so put that in your little book you're writing there.
Sure, I'll do that.
GO: The 1491s are at Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 503-226-2811. 7 pm, Friday, April 22. $19.99. 13+.