Indian Country Today
The first season of “Reservation Dogs” continues to gain attention in and out of Indian Country after the Sept. 20 season finale with an impressive cast of top-notch actors.
Not all of the actors are Native, just as an accurate representation of life in Oklahoma reflects. And one of the most notable actors fitting this bill (pun intended) is the Irish comedian Bill Burr, also known as the Mvskoke namesake “Cukoce” (pronounced roughly Cho-ga-gee) and also known as “‘the great white warrior.’
Indian Country Today caught up with the actor and comedian to discuss his role on the show, Burr’s perception of Native stereotypes in the film industry and how he compares pancakes to Indian tacos.
Burr is well-known as a comedian with an abrasive edge and a biting and unapologetic style of humor. I have used the term unapologetic in my description of Sterlin Harjo’s ‘Reservation Dogs’ and admittedly, Burr is an excellent fit for the show.
Within the first few moments of the Zoom call, Burr was off and running with his in-your-face style of humor.
“Hey Bill, thanks for taking the time for the interview,” I said. Burr, like a starter pistol, shot out his first quip.
“How are you? Jesus I look like a bum. You look like a million bucks,” he said. Because I was wearing a tie. We both laughed, he attributed his casual attire to being part of the slacker generation, the generation that “makes it in their 50s … when nobody cares.” We laughed again.
It is not much of a secret that Burr has gotten into trouble at times for his abrasive humor. But I am hardly a shrinking violet, I found his candor refreshing, and though some might find fault, I found kindness and sincerity behind the jokes.
“So how did you get the role in the show?” I asked.
“T.J. Bernardy, my agent over at WME (William Morris Entertainment) sends me stuff ... I just try to find stuff where I feel like I not only can do something, I can do something a little different ... Fortunately I tell jokes for a living so I can wait for something good to come along before I just do 12 roles in a row playing the wise-ass from Boston. And then I have no career other than that, but it was the best day ever ... (So 'Reservation Dogs') came across my computer and it was just so well-written.”
In the show, Burr portrays a man whose daughter gets involved with another man on drugs, the interactions in the show involve gunfire, racing off from a hotel after a DMV driving test detour and a shot out taillight from Elora Danan’s rez car.
“I know two people have experienced what he (Coach Bobson) was going through ... trying to get their kids clean. It's a horrible thing to watch somebody go through, even if you don't have kids. And then once you have kids — to watch somebody go through that is just a nightmare.
The conversation with Burr went in many directions, he reflected on various human struggles, including a trip to India. He also said as a non-Native actor on a set with a majority of Native people, he asked a ton of questions.
“Knowing that we got it all wrong, I was just going, you guys did not go, woo woo woo woo. You didn't do that. Right?”
Burr said school taught him very little about Native history in the U.S.
“I grew up, I went to school. I learned we were oppressed by England. We got rid of the tyranny. And then for some reason, France sold us the middle of the country that they owed the Louisiana purchase for like 80 bucks. There was the French and Indian war. I still don't know what happened there.”
As an Irish man, he also recognizes a history of oppression. “Ireland? The stuff that went over there? Anytime you go up against England, that's sort of like the fountain of youth of evil white people. Although Germany kind of went after the belt twice last century. So I feel like England is sort of resting on a lot of its past glories.
I feel like England — their reign was the most evil of white people. They were killing it there. They were on it for a number of centuries — them and the French. And then the Germans came out of nowhere.”
“I don't know what I'm talking about. Help me out here,” said Burr, who jumped on my appearance again, to which we both laughed again. “Can I just say, you're dressed like Robert Stack on The Untouchables, all you need is the gun belt.”
Thanks, Bill, who added that he “felt like a bum and needed to step it up.” I was laughing so much, I lost track of my questions.
I asked if he had learned anything about Native culture outside of stereotypes. Burr talked about the end result of government commodities and the Native history of survival. We discussed the complexities as well as the history of something that is a huge part of Indian Country, the Indian taco.
Bill Burr: I forget what it was called, but I had some of their cuisine. The whole thing was just based on what white people gave them. And then they had to work with it, which is very similar to barbecue with African Americans, where they weren't getting the good cuts of meat. And then they did low and slow and came up with this delicacy. It's the same thing. So I forget what I ate, but I wasn't hungry for about three days.
Vincent Schilling: An Indian Taco?
Bill Burr: Yeah. You know, what's funny was I ate it on the last day, so I wouldn't be a fat bastard for the rest of the shoot, But I really related to the philosophy behind it. It's what you have and whatever you can afford. And then you just want to be filled up. It has nothing to do with nutrition. That's what I used to do on the road back in the day when I was trying to save money. I wasn't making any money. I would go out to these places and I would either go to Denny's or an IHOP and I'd get the five stack of pancakes. I loved the first two and a half pancakes. Those last two and a half. I was just sitting there like blah.
I also asked Burr a couple more things, the first was his nickname given to him in the show, the Mvskoke word “Cukoce” and whether he would be coming back to the show and his awesome Dr. Phil-esque half-bald wig reveal.
Vincent Schilling: Cukoce was your Native name, Bill?
Bill Burr: Cukoce, yeah. They had to say like 90 times in order to teach me how to say it, but then I was thinking like, well, if I say it wrong, that makes it a double funny. Not only am I saying toilet, but I’m also probably saying it wrong and in their language, he said.
Vincent Schilling: Are you coming back onto the show?
Bill Burr: I don't know. My character has always ended up just being left in the woods on another planet and it doesn't seem like they're going to come back. So I think Sterling and Taika were smart. They gave themselves an easy out if my guy doesn't come back. So hopefully they like me. If they didn't, then I don't know. I guess I move on to the next bald guy. By the way, did you like the bald Dr. Phil thing?
Vincent Schilling: What was that? Part of a rug?
Bill Burr: I wanted to have the hat on, so my fans would be like, ‘Oh my God, he's wearing a wig.’ There's just something funny about having a fake hairpiece and you take your hat off and you’re still bald. I just thought that was the funny thing. When we were shooting, I asked, ‘When are we going to reveal the bald head?’ We finally figured out in the junkyard. I was going to have my hat fly off when I came running out of the motel to add some comedy to that heavier scene. But in the end, that zombie kid shooting at us was so funny. I'm like, ‘Well, I don't want to step on his toes.’
In the end, Burr and I shared a ton of laughs and jokes over my tie. During the course of our interview, I continued to laugh and absent-mindedly ran my fingers through my hair.
To which Burr responded, “Never run your fingers through your hair. When you're talking to a bald man, it's disrespectful.”
Lesson learned and duly-noted Bill Burr.
Thanks for the laughs.
Reservation Dogs ‘California Dreamin’ first aired on Sept. 13 on HULU.
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