A Radio Serialist’s Next Episode: Running for Canada’s Parliament
By IAN AUSTEN Published: October 10, 2008
"I really thought with 'Dead Dog' that I was helping to save the world in some small way." Thomas King.
AS a writer, Thomas King has twice been nominated for Canada’s main literary prize, the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and his work as an academic has brought him acclaim and honors. But Mr. King’s popularity comes mainly from his performances as Tom King, an often frustrated, somewhat assimilated Canadian Indian who is the straight man in “The Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour,” a popular and long-running series of 15-minute radio programs he created and wrote.
Now Mr. King, 65, has set aside the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s microphones to make his first foray into electoral politics. His decision to run for a seat in the House of Commons in a campaign that ends Tuesday is, in an American context, about as predictable as Garrison Keillor abandoning Lake Wobegon for a shot at Congress.
But as he stretched out his tall, fit frame in the living room of his still incomplete, environmentally friendly house, Mr. King said it was finally time to leave “night shift politics” for a more conventional political platform.
“One of the things that I most regret is that I had to give up ‘Dead Dog’ in order to run for office,” Mr. King said. “I really thought with ‘Dead Dog’ that I was helping to save the world in some small way. But you’re never sure how much good you’re doing.
“I always tell my Liberal friends they need to vote for me because I’m a lot less dangerous in Ottawa with a partial muzzle than I am free on the Canadian airwaves with absolutely no restraints.”
Whether Mr. King, who is a professor of English at the University of Guelph, will succeed in persuading Liberals and members of other parties to elect him under the banner of the left-leaning, labor-backed New Democratic Party is unclear.
Although most Canadian politicians have to endure a campaign of only 38 days, Mr. King has been seeking votes for almost a year after the sitting member of Parliament for Guelph, a Liberal, retired. Last month, the much-delayed special election to replace her was swept into the national vote. Adding to the mix, Guelph has attracted an array of 10 candidates, including representatives of the Marijuana Party and the Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party of Canada.
But whatever the outcome, Mr. King’s move has highlighted some surprising facts about Canada’s most celebrated academic-cum-humorist since Stephen Leacock was known internationally during the first half of the 20th century. Not least of which is that Mr. King was born, reared and educated in the United States.
Mr. King’s father, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, met his mother, whose parents were from Greece and upstate New York, at a U.S.O. party in California during World War II. When Mr. King was 3, his father abandoned the family. Mr. King’s mother, a hair stylist at the time, ran a makeshift salon, where a windowless room at the back served as home.
DURING the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. King bounced among several colleges (he flunked out of one after devoting his attention to card games), a two-month stint in the United States Navy (a knee injury led to a premature, honorable discharge) and a variety of jobs from blackjack dealer to bank teller. He also became active in college Indian groups that were, he said, “on the fringes” of the American Indian Movement.
Leroy Little Bear, a fellow student at the University of Utah, where Mr. King earned a doctorate in English and American studies, lured Mr. King to Canada in 1980 to teach native studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, a relatively remote and definitely cold campus.
His plan was to stay just a year. But Canada, even Lethbridge, grew on Mr. King, who developed ties with the Blood Indian tribe, of which Mr. Little Bear was a member.
“I watched Canada closely and came to know that this is a much better place than the U.S.,” Mr. King said. “While natives weren’t doing all that well in Canada, the history of the country had not put as much pressure on the tribes as it had in the U.S. It was like coming up out of deep water and taking a deep breath.”
The move to Canada also made Mr. King a writer. He first began writing short stories to impress Helen Hoy, another new faculty member at Lethbridge. Ms. Hoy remains Mr. King’s partner, and the first stories, tales of a pair of Indians, became his first book.
In 1995, Kathleen Flaherty, a CBC producer in Edmonton, Alberta, who had turned some of Mr. King’s fiction into radio drama, called him, she said, to ask, “What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?”
The answer was a radio serial like those he preferred to television as a child, with sound effects and a limited number of characters. But it would be one that combined sketch comedy with a highly political, and Indian-focused, bent.
The Dead Dog Cafe was a venue in Mr. King’s “Green Grass, Running Water,” his most popular novel. In addition to Tom, the program featured just two other characters: Gracie Heavy Hand, the level-headed proprietor of the coffee shop, and Jasper Friendly Bear, the ostensible host of the radio show and a source of endless, usually harebrained, schemes.
Floyd Favel and Edna Rain, the two Indian actors who played the other roles, delivered their lines in the laconic style that is the hallmark of many Native Canadians’ speech. While the delivery was low-key, the scripts adopted the free association that marked the wildest of the Marx Brothers’ films.
“HUMOR is best when you’ve got the person who is listening one or two steps behind and they’re hustling to stay up with you,” Mr. King said. “And in that hustle it’s as if they almost have to snap their heads around to see what just hit them.”
Drollness and quietness are, for Mr. King, essential elements of Native humor. “But it also can be a cutting humor sometimes,” he said. “The most serious stuff many times we’ll handle with humor, just to cut the sorrow out of it. At the same time, it raises the sorrow. It’s a funny business, humor.”
To Mr. King’s astonishment, the government-owned CBC never censored “The Dead Dog Cafe,” even when it made what he called “scurrilous” jokes about politicians and political parties. The program could be just as cutting about Native Canadians. Ms. Flaherty said the biggest source of listener complaints was an online variation of a regular item in the program: a wheel spun to generate “authentic Indian names” for listeners. (Ms. Flaherty’s is Cassandra Tranquil Mouth.) “We were criticized mostly by American Indians who came across it on the Internet without context and thought it was racist,” Ms. Flaherty said. Some Canadian listeners, she added, attacked the show for being “racist towards white people.”
Mr. King said he has found electoral politics to be much more narrow than satirical politics. “I hadn’t expected that,” he said. “But when you’re in formal politics, there are a series of events that occur at a given time and you have to deal with those and only those.” Mr. King said he had no regrets about his latest change in direction, given the history of many of his Native associates. “Most of the people that I knew 30 years ago are dead or in jail,” he said. “I’m one of the few that just sort of made it through all that, and it was just pure dumb luck.”
11 ottobre 2008
Il Cherokee della radio cerca un posto in Parlamento
Che bella storia di radici aggrovigliate quella di Thomas King, "radio personality" canadese che ha deciso di farsi eleggere in Parlamento per il New Democratic Party. La racconta il New York Times di ieri per la penna Ian Austen, un cronista dal cognome estremamente impegnativo. Thomas King è uno scrittore americano che vive in Canada da quasi 30 anni. In realtà Tom è il figlio di un indiano Cherokee dell'Oklahoma e di una figlia di genitori greci di "upstate" New York, come dire la radice dell'Europa che emigra e si fonde con la radice dell'America del Nord. Avviato a una carriera universitaria e letteraria, viene convinto a trasferirsi in Canada nel 1980, per insegnare "native studies". Deve rimanerci un anno e invece non si muove più, il Canada "gli cresce intorno". Nel 1995 la CBC lo convince a serializzare per la radio i suoi romanzi e nasce la Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, che a dispetto del nome dura solamente un quarto d'ora ma che per l'efficacia della sua ironia e dei suoi personaggi (King al microfono interpreta se stesso e per quanto in punta di fioretto il programma non lesinava sulle stoccate al potere) diventa rapidamente un programma culto. Durerà solo cinque anni ma questo basta per trasformare King in una icona. E martedì vedremo se questa icona riuscirà a sedersi sui banchi parlamentari della sua ennesima nazione adottiva.
Austen osserva che è come se l'autore americano Garrison Keillor abbandonasse la sua trasmissione Prairie Home Companion per sbarcare a Capitol Hill. O, nel nostro caso, se Fiorello si presentasse a Montecitorio. A volte mi chiedo se non sarebbe proprio il caso di farci rappresentare da personaggi così lontani dai letali stereotipi della nostra arrogante e inamovibile casta.