When Howie Miller first started performing stand-up comedy more than 20 years ago, plenty of his jokes were at his own expense.
“There used to be a huge amount of not only self-deprecation but also Indigenous deprecation,” the Cree comic said. “I wasn’t doing it 100 per cent the way I wanted to because I didn’t know how to do it.”
Miller’s stand-up routine, and daily conversations, still have moments of self-deprecation, but he picks his spots and is more measured.
It’s one of the many things Miller said his sons have taught him. One of them, Todd Houseman, is half the sketch comedy duo Folk Lordz, where the comedy intersects with politics, culture and being Indigenous in today’s Canada.
The comedy in Folk Lordz punches up and not down, Houseman said — a critical focus for him and his sketch comedy partner, Ben Gorodetsky.
“When you’re talking about punching down, you’re making jokes at the expense of a community that’s already disempowered,” Houseman said. “Whereas punching up is making jokes at communities that already have more power or more social influence in today’s climate.”
While Houseman has been teaching his dad about how to navigate the political comedy waters more effectively, it was Miller who taught his sons a lot of what they know today.
Earning stripes in sketch
Miller hadn’t planned on being a stand-up comedian, but as a young father, he needed to make money quickly. “I had this ability to keep people’s attention and do it in a humourous nature, so comedy just sort of fell into my lap,” he said.
From a young age, Houseman and his brothers were exposed to all sorts of comedy. Miller was the jokester in the house, and when he wasn’t trying to make his sons laugh, he sat and watched shows like Monty Python with them.
As his sons got older and his career a little more seasoned, Miller had his own sketch comedy show on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network called Caution: May Contain Nuts.
I think [Folk Lordz is] coming from a place of feeling frustrated and angry but as opposed to swinging my fists I’m swinging my jokes.– Todd Houseman
The sketch show was tame, Miller said, but it allowed everyone in their family to try their hands at sketch — both in front of the camera and behind it.
It was the absurdist comedy of Monty Python and the experience from Caution that inspired Houseman to pursue comedy in his own right.
It’s one of Houseman’s inspirations with Folk Lordz. He and Gorodetsky mix topical and political humour with absurdist notes that throw you for a loop as soon as you’ve got a feel for the message they’re trying to convey.
Miller even starred in a sketch in the first season of Folk Lordz, which is available on YouTube in its entirety.
“I removed a tooth for that bit,” Miller said.
That particular scene was one of a handful that didn’t have to do with Indigenous issues. Both Houseman and Miller have goals of being comics and performers who happen to be Cree, and not just Cree performers.
But a lot of comedy is derived from lived experiences, and they’re both more than happy to work with what they’ve got, knowing it’s not all that defines them.
“It’s more of a pride thing, where it’s like, ‘Damn right I’m Indigenous and I’m proud of it. Here’s what we’re going through and I’m going to put a funny spin on it and you’re going to laugh and hopefully I’ll educate you a little bit,'” Miller said.
“I think most Indigenous people will say — especially Cree people — the thing that makes you Cree is that you like to laugh,” Houseman said.
“I think it’s coming from a place of feeling frustrated and angry but as opposed to swinging my fists I’m swinging my jokes.”