Pop Goes The News – Paul Rabliauskas is all too often described as a First Nations or Indigenous comedian. It’s an accurate label but one that seems too easy and a little unfair.
“I mean, I understand that sometimes being an Indigenous comedian will take me to different places, which is nice so I’m not going to be mad at that,” Rabliauskas told Pop Goes The News. “But, I think I’m really funny. I think I’m just as funny as the next guy regardless of skin colour or where I’m from.
“Obviously, I think people in Canada really want to hear our stories now more than ever so I’m okay… I’ll be the Indigenous guy if I have to be. I’ll win you over with my comedy regardless, so I’m okay with it.”
Rabliauskas is part of the line-up of Just For The Culture (formerly The Ethnic Show) at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival. Described as “a celebration of diversity, inclusion and funny people,” the show is hosted by JFL regular Alonzo Bodden and also features Dave Merheje, Jessica Kirson, Sheng Wang, Yannis Pappas and Zainab Johnson.
“It’s like a who’s who of people that I look up to in comedy,” said Rabliauskas, “and just to be able to sort of be in the same breath as them is so big for me and it’s probably one of the biggest things I’ve done in my career.
“I’m not even nervous I’m just excited to share my energy with all these people.”
(He’ll also perform at the Jo Koy gala on July 28 at Place des Arts.)
Rabliauskas, 37, hails from Poplar River First Nation, a fly-in community of about 1,500 people hundreds of kilometres north of Winnipeg. Growing up, his only exposure to stand-up comedy were the Just For Laughs specials that aired on his reserve’s lone TV channel, CBC.
“There’s funny people and there’s lots of funny stories being told [on the reserve] but the act of stand-up comedy just wasn’t in our world,” Rabliauskas recalled. “I remember watching comedy and being enthralled by it – these dudes are just being funny and people are paying them to do that?! So that was always a curious thing but growing up on the rez it was never like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’
“I don’t think I wanted to be a comedian until I had moved to Winnipeg to come to school and saw it live for the first time and I was like, ‘Yeah, this is definitely something I really want to do.’”
Rabliauskas said his family didn’t necessarily share his excitement. After his first show, his mother sent him an application for a course on welding.
“I get it. I understand completely, mom,” he said. “I don’t think she thought this was something that would turn into a career. I’m a momma’s boy so she just wanted me to do good and go to school.”
Rabliauskas said his family eventually came around. “Now that I can afford to stay at the Marriott for a week I think she’s changed her mind,” he joked.
About 15 years after paying his dues on the stand-up circuit, Rabliauskas recently wrapped production on Acting Good, a 10-part series he co-created for the CTV Comedy Channel.
“Growing up I used to look in the mirror and pretend to have my show so to go from that to actually being on set and having a trailer and having all these amazing people look after you and having all these people work on your show… it’s just been an incredible experience,” said Rabliauskas. “I think the show is going to do amazing things in terms of putting our humour out there to the public to see.
“It’s been a dream. It doesn’t seem real. I don’t think it will seem real until it’s out.”
Rabliauskas is enthusiastic about the talent he sees coming from reserves and he’s proud to be an aspirational figure. In the last couple of years, he said, young comedians have reached out wanting to know how they, too, can get from the rez to JFL?
“I’m like, ‘It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of jokes, it’s a lot of shows, it’s a lot of weird bars where there’s drunk white people laughing at your material,’” he explained. “It’s a lot of that to get to this point. I love telling that story to young comics and getting them excited for what they can do possibly.”
Rabliauskas said that at a recent open mic show he attended in Winnipeg, four of the eight comics were First Nations. “It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t a special ‘Native night.’ It was just a regular comic night and half the comics were Native so to me that’s absolutely beautiful.”
But, he said, it shouldn’t be surprising.
“Our people are really naturally funny. I don’t want to get into, you know, tragedy-equals-comedy and all this stuff but you talk about a people who have suffered a lot…” said Rabliauskas. “We’ve been able to turn that into comedy and it’s a dark comedy and it’s really clever.”
Rabliauskas said he honed his craft in northern communities (“They were the ones that booked me and paid me before the clubs did”) and from collaborating with comics who worked in big cities. This has allowed him to have a foot in both worlds.
“I can go in the middle of the North and I think I’ll do well and I can go to Toronto in a club and do well,” he said. “It’s taken awhile to get a grasp of both worlds but I think I’m getting it now.”
Just as he’s figured out how to tailor his act to different audiences, Rabliauskas said he’s figured out what he doesn’t want to say on stage.
“When I was younger, nothing for me was off limits. But then obviously the climate changed a little bit and I got a little older and I don’t want to hurt people anymore. I don’t need my comedy to upset people for jokes,” he explained. “I definitely calmed down in terms of sort of the edgy things I would talk about on stage. Especially when it comes to our people. Sometimes I feel like we need to protect our people on stage, and I tell young comics, ‘Just be careful what you talk about.’”
An example of something that’s no longer funny?
“I used to do jokes about residential schools,” said Rabliauskas. “I would never do that today. Never… not in a million years would I do that today.”
Paul Rabliauskas is part of the Just For The Culture show July 13 to 17 and 20 to 23 at Club Soda and July 26-28 at MTelus. Click here for tickets. JFL runs July 13-31 in Montreal. Follow @JRK_Media on Twitter for more coverage of the festival.