Rob Fairbanks grew up in the Little Earth of United Tribes in Minneapolis, then moved to Cass Lake as a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe several years ago. He was well aware of the impression people had of reservations: poverty, drug abuse and alcoholism. Fairbanks admits there were times when he was younger “that I didn’t think I was going to see outside the front door.”
Ever since he was a kid, though, he learned he could make people laugh.
“Humor was a way to cope,” said Fairbanks, who always dreamed of being a comedian. “To me, it was beautiful, a gift. Humor is what we call good medicine.”
Fairbanks hopes he’ll be able to share that medicine in the near future, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $10,000 this week for a documentary movie about two Indian comedians and their quest for fame. The movie will track him and his friend and fellow comedian, Jon Roberts of Red Lake, as they drive across country to try to make it in Hollywood.
For years, Fairbanks had a fear of performing, but a friend eventually pushed him onto the stage. He loved it. At the first all Ojibwe Comedy Jam at Palace Casino in Cass Lake in 2014, he met Roberts, who had been doing shows across the country and appearing at open mic opportunities in the Twin Cities.
Together they cooked up the road trip adventure to show people that Indians “are not dead, and that we’re funny,” Fairbanks said.
“We want to shed a new light on rez life,” said Fairbanks. “People mostly hear the negative about life on the reservation, that’s what sticks with them. There is so much positive, so much good coming from the reservation. I always wanted to represent my rez.”
Fairbanks is known in Indian Country and beyond for his social media bits on YouTube. As the “Rez Reporter,” he often is seen around Cass Lake taking selfie videos (https://www.facebook.com/rezreporter). The comical reports, done in an exaggerated Minnesota/“rezzy” accent, show Fairbanks shivering in 40-below weather making obvious observations about the cold. His “traffic report” from Cass Lake once showed “bumper to bumper” traffic snarls that turned out to be a line of cars waiting for a train.
He’s also done cooking segments, featuring such delicacies as “wiener water soup” and Spam. He’s hosted local events, dubbing himself “The Darker Bob Barker.” Many of his videos have gone viral, reaching tens of thousands of viewers.
Roberts grew up watching Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. When he finally got the courage to perform at age 33, “I got addicted to that feeling of being on stage and getting the reaction from the crowd.
“Humor is like a comfort to me,” Roberts said. “It was natural to me to make light of a serious situation.” One of his first jokes, for example, hints at poverty: “My mom invented the 12-hour Pamper.”
Neither wants to be seen as Indian comedians, but rather as comedians who happen to be Indian. “So my humor is not about powwows and fry bread,” said Roberts. “I grew up on ‘Saved by the Bell’ and ‘Scooby Doo.’ ”
The duo has not set a date for the trip, but when they go they hope to show a behind-the-scenes look at a couple of interesting Indian guys having fun, revealing stories from their lives and glimpses of what it’s like to grow up on a reservation. “It will be all real-life stuff, you know, like Real Housewives of the Jersey Shore,” Fairbanks deadpanned.
Roberts and Fairbanks will visit other Indian comedians and stop in reservations and other communities along the way, visiting old friends who have become successful. They will also do some free comedy performances in order to “lift each other up in the worst possible moments,” Fairbanks said. Musician Charlie Parr plans to do the soundtrack for the documentary.
In a trailer for the film, Fairbanks talks about being in a gang because he didn’t see any other way. After serving time in jail, “I realized there were choices.” Now, “us little rez boys from Leech Lake” are going to Hollywood to “kick down some doors.”
Roberts said people like to think of Indians as stoic and serious, but humor in the face of adversity goes way back in his family. “My Uncle Joe was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, and there are stories about my Grandma Mary; humor is all over the place on the rez.”
Yet, there is also a sense of hopelessness he sees in the youth on his reservation, and he’d like to change that. It starts with his own family. He has been married for 15 years and has four children and four foster children. “We want to inspire the people,” said Roberts. “We want them to wake up every day fired up about life.”
Fairbanks wants to tell his story about a disenfranchised young man who changed his attitude and the direction of his life. “Now, look at me, I’m up on stage, following my dreams. Look at your own surroundings and see how beautiful it is here.”
He and Roberts wouldn’t mind breaking into the mainstream of comedy and receiving all the perks that come with it. If that happens, Fairbanks promised in a video that he won’t change, he won’t become commercial.
“But if I do go commercial, make sure you buy some Fairbanks Wiener Water Soup,” he said, reaching for a can in his cupboard. “It’s good, it’s good for you.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin